These days, we see many products labelled as "natural." Products labelled this way are often seen as better, and may command higher prices than their comparable "unnatural" counterparts.
But what exactly is natural?
The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines "natural" as:
- existing in nature and not made or caused by people : coming from nature
- not having any extra substances or chemicals added : not containing anything artificial
- usual or expected
For the purposes of this blog post, we will use these definitions as our standard.
The primary ingredients of soap are water, various oils, and sodium hydroxide (lye). Let's look at each individually.
Water - this one is easy. Water is readily available in many different forms in nature. We can easily classify water as a natural substance.
Oils - here is where things start to get a little murky. Many oils do naturally occur within the particular fruits/plants, however to extract the oil, the plant must be processed in some way. This can be as simple as pressing the seed/fruit so that the oils are released, or something much more complex. If we wish to strictly adhere to the above definition, then we may need to say that some oils are not actually natural, according to the first bullet point. By and large, I disagree with such a narrow interpretation of natural as applied to oils, preferring instead of classify them as natural ingredients.
Sodium Hydroxide (Lye) - typically sodium hydroxide is created in a laboratory. Even in ancient times, the precursor to our modern-day lye was not something that occurred naturally, but was rather created from ashes. That's right folks, there is no magical lye plant/tree/flower out there. Instead, today's sodium hydroxide is produced by the electrolysis of NaCl, or salt. This reaction also produces chlorine. Please do not attempt to make your own lye at home. It is a dangerous process and should not be attempted by anyone outside of a laboratory. Lye is available from many different suppliers (both online and in some hardware stores) and fairly inexpensive.
So if we classify lye as not natural, what does that mean for our soap? Well, in my opinion, this means that soap is not truly a natural product. We can certainly use natural oils or other additives (that's a different topic for another day!), but as a whole, I don't feel that I can call my soap "natural." Some soap makers chose to do this, and their definition of natural may be different than the ones I referenced above. Keep in mind that none of us are necessarily right or wrong!
In addition, I enjoy using synthetic fragrances in my soaps. This is yet another strike against my soaps being labeled as natural. However, I believe handmade soap is much better for your skin than the soaps readily available in stores.