Bath Soaps—Basic information for consumers

Dr N K Srinivasan Dear friends, Bath soaps are the most common health product used throughout the world and used by almost all people,, that is, about 6 billion people on Earth…leave out some Australian and African aborigines. Among mass produced commercial items , soaps come first. Billions of cakes are made every year, either in modern factories or in small scale rural industries.. Such a common commercial item needs critical study which has been lacking in the modern ad-driven market society. This brief article is meant to provide you with basic information so that you, as a consumer, may buy soaps with better discretion. The soap market, in any country is heavily advertised in newspapers,magazines [print media] and radio and ,of course TV. The soap commercials dominate afternoon TV programs when housewives watch drama-serials---no wonder they are called ‘soap operas’—mostly family oriented stories of joy and sorrow, friendship and jealousy and so on.Introduce soap products then and they are bound to sell well! What is more, these soaps are endorsed in TV commercials by movie stars , top sportsmen and cricketers in India…. Indeed a good source of income for aging stars and former players. Now we get into the main topics. A bit of chemistry first.


1 What is a soap? Soap is actually a salt.You know from school chemistry that when an acid and alkali or base react, we get salt and water. For instance: hydrochloric acid reacted with sodium hydroxide produces sodium chloride or common salt and water: HCl + NaOH -> NaCl + H-H-O A soap is produced in the same way using a fatty [organic] acid: Fatty acid + base  soap + water The base is also called alkali by some chemists and also called ‘lye’ by old-time soap makers. The soap may be made reacting a fatty acid at room temperature [called ‘cold process’] or at elevated temperatures [called ‘hot process’] with alkali--sodium hydroxide. The fatty acid is usually a vegetable oil [coconut oil, olive oil, palm oil] or animal fat ,called tallow. While tallow [from slaughter houses] ,is cheap, veg oils are costly. Again you can choose a cheaper veg oil .If you are a vegan, not touching meat products, check the label of the soap you buy. If it includes tallow, avoid that brand of soap. In India , almost all soaps are made from cheap vegetable oils. 2 What is TFM? TFM means “total fatty matter” in the soap. It is the ratio of mass of fatty matter to the total mass of the soap. In India , manufacturers must print the value of TFM on the wrapper or carton.


TFM is the one single important factor affecting the quality of the soap .It should be greater that 60% to qualify for being labeled ‘soap’.Higher the TFM% ,better the quality. Grade 2 soaps contain 65 % to 80% TFM, whether they are called ‘poor man’s soap’ or luxury /beauty soap Grade 1 soaps have TFM greater than 76%, without any fillers. Note that there are very few soaps that have more than 80% TFM in the market---check the label. Most soaps have around 70% TFM. A quick guess is the type of packaging used. if the soap has a wrapper, it is low cost soap with TFM <70% in most cases. A slightly better quality soap comes in a carton,with special paper wrapper inside….Again check the label for TFM marking. While there may not be much difference in quality between two soaps with 72% and 75% TFM, you will perceive that there is a big difference in quality between two soaps with say 65% and 75% TFM….. Note that some makers call their soaps “bathing bars”--then they need not display the TFM! --- a clever method indeed.!! A short table of soaps with their TFM available in India is shown here: Brand name TFM % Savlon-glycerine 61 [grade 3] Lifebuoy care Margo Lux International Liril 2000 Fa-aqua Dettol Cool 65 71 72 73 73 74

Himalaya 76 Godrej-No 1 76 Nirma Lemon-fresh 80

3 Medicinal Soaps: These are special soaps which may contain some chemicals for particular skin condition or disease. Use them under the advice of a doctor and stop using after the skin condition is improved. Some may contain mercury compounds and must be used with care. Germicidal and anti-bacterial /antiseptic/deodorant soaps: There are several soaps flooding the market with tall claims ---‘protecting your family from terrible diseases’— to frighten you first and then suggesting the use of their soaps in ads. The most common ingredient that was added was carbolic acid….during and after world war II .It is a coal-tar phenol-derivative with pungent odor or hospital smell. It is a good disinfectant…. It is good to use such soaps for hand washing , especially after doing some dirty work or after gardening.These soaps almost always had bright red color.!

The common ingredients used nowadays are: triclosan, sorbic acid, zinc oxide, chlorhexidine or other chlorine containing compounds,such as trichlorocarbanilide.[TCC]; [The wide use of triclosan for anti-microbial action is not carefully studied for use in soaps.There are claims and counter-claims.Some consider the use of triclosan as harmful since it can degrade into other harmful substances in water or on exposure to UV rays]


TCC is widely used in many soaps. Chlorhexidine is found in mouth washes and in some soaps. Some soaps claim deodorant value by adding some chemicals which would kill odor-causing bacterias on our skins…Check the formula or ingredients most cases it will be phenol-based coal tar compounds or compounds with chlorine in their structure like TCC---TCC may be added from 0.1 to 1% in soaps. 5 Soaps with moisturizers Soaps invariably contain some moisturizers. This is to avoid a dry skin after using the soap—to put moisture back , so to say. Moisturizers may help to reduce eczema problems. They may also prevent allergins entering the skin. There are three classes of moisturizers in Soaps: 1 Paraffin based material or petroleum jelly[Vaseline] type; this class also includes lanolin or wool fat, coconut oil and waxes. [Lanolin is a kind of wax ,from the secretion of the sebaceous glands of sheep, extracted from wool.If you are animal lover, you may avoid soap with lanolin.] 2 Many soaps contain as moisturizer some form of glycerin, lactic acid ,milk product [including casein which is a milk protein] olive oil, jejoba oil,vitamin E as Wheat – germ oil or synthetic compound, almond oil,shea butter and urea.This may help very dry skins. [Shea butter soaps may help to remove wrinkles and stretch marks for women after child birth.] This class of moisturizers also includes glycolic acid, a common substance for skin care ---used for treating sun burn, premature aging of skin,acne and so on.


3 The third class of moisturizers may include keratolytics---they break down the skin protein called keratin. These are urea,lactic acid,glycolic acid.. [You will notice that some chemicals come under more than one class.] Depending on the cost and quality level of soaps, chemists add different ingredients from this list of moisturizers. Some soaps contain Dead Sea minerals which have many beneficial effects on the skin, including reducing acne. But some form of paraffin or some amount of glycolic acid/waxes is almost always added.! Check the listing carefully in the label. You may be allergic to some of them. 6 Herbal and Ayurvedic soaps In India , you find a variety of herbal soaps, also called natural soaps, based on the concepts of Ayurveda---the Indian system of medicine. Many of these soaps may have only marginal effect ,since the quantity of ingredients added is very small, while some are of outstanding value. Over a few months of use, some tangible benefit may be derived. The common herbal ingredients and their effects are as follows: 1 Neem—anti-bacterial,anti fungal 2Turmeric---anti-bacterial,anti fungal [good for removing pimples] 3 Sandal wood oil --moisturizer 4 Tulasi or basil---anti-microbial 5 Coconut oil –skin smoothener,moisturizer 6 cucumber products –contains folic acid 7 almonds,walnut,other nuts—to provide protein


Among these, the addition of neem, turmeric and tulasi are most common and they are less expensive too. Some soaps contain only either neem or turmeric, while some have both.Some soaps contain only tulasi . There are a few brands of soaps which contain 6 to 20 herbal ingredients in minute quantities. How far they will improve your skin is a moot point since the quantities of ingredients are very small. Some soaps may help remove pimples and reduce acne.…check the ingredients. Check always the ingredients added and their amounts. You may also compare their prices.calculate the prices for 100 gms as a standard reference,factor in the TFM also. To derive benefit from these soaps , use one particular soap for 2 to 3 months ,before switching over to another.! 7 Fillers in soaps Almost all soaps contain many fillers or other ingredients—also called extenders.The list is long: ---salt, water, talc, titaniumdioxide [ to give white color —a sort of pigment used in paints], gums, sodium carbonate, alkyl sulfate,lauryl sulfate [foaming agent,emulsifier],chalk, pumice [abrasive],clay, flower petals, fruit,oat meal,wheat-germ oil [vitamin E source],sea weed, vegetables like cucumber,fruit extracts, EDTA, ………[Sodium lauryl sulphte is added to remove grease with lathering quality.] A special form of clay,’multani mitti’ have been used in some soaps. We do not know how some of the fillers interact among themselves , causing irritants in soap.. [Imagine all these fillers slowly going in to wash water and then into agricultural farms and our rivers. You have a regular source of pollutants.!]


Less fillers better quality soap….check for the label. If you are worried about the damage to your skin by these fillers, go for hand-made soap or make your own soap at home ---a profitable hobby for many in the West.You can start a cottage industry in Indian conditions,since labor costs are low.

Weight and price of soaps Except small sample soaps given in hotels/lodges, most soaps come in weights of 70 grams, 75 grams, 100 grams,120 grams or 150 grams. Use this information for price comparison of similar soaps. Always calculate the price for 100 gms as reference. You must note that large manufacturers like Hindustan Lever , Godrej and Wipro have a great advantage of mass production which reduces their cost of production and also lowers distiribution costs. But small soap makers may use cheaper local raw materials like oils and have lower overheads to compete with the giants.Thier labor costs are also very low. Note that larger manufacturers spend a huge money for advertisements in TV and print media. Therefore the prices get adjusted to stay in the market such that both large and small manufacturers are able to survive in the huge Indian markets and also export lot of soaps. [The pricing of soaps can be a useful study for students of economics and business schools.] You may buy bigger packets of two or more cakes to reduce the cost for your family.

9 Shape of soaps You have definitely used soaps of different shapes in your life..One factor to be considered is the ease of holding it in your hand---this is important for senior citizens like me.!

10 Transparent and glycerin soaps Transparent soap with glycerin is quite soft and may dissolve faster. I t confers , according to me, no special properties to soaps. 11Color of soaps You may like soaps with white color…somehow we associate whiteness with purity..if you look a the ingredients, including urea, titanium dioxide and sodium lauryl sulphate [an emulsifier], you can conclude that any soap is a concoction of different chemicals ---some are bad for the environment as well.[Many of the ingredients are used in cloth detergents in larger quantities..] Some may have mild colors, like cream, orange, light blue, even green or red….Color hardly affects the quality of soap except adding some additional ingredients and appealing to your eyes.
12 Perfume in the soap

Mild perfume may be added to counteract the offensive oil smell in most soaps. Further some soaps contain fruit essences, []flower essences [rose,jasmine,jejoba],even aloe vera, to increase market appeal.How far they help your skin is a moot point. Unfortunately,in most cases, the soap makers add only synthetic chemicals which may be harmful for the skin.! They also add preservatives like sorbic acid for longer shelf life. Handmade soaps These are soaps made at home or in small cottage industries. They may use better quality raw materials and usually contain no fillers;this is the advantage.They may also add expensive oils or herbal ingredients.They may be custom –made too.They are generally more expensive than commercial soaps.


It is difficult for small producers of ‘home-made soaps ‘ to control the quality from one batch to the next. Khadi soaps Check out local makers of such soaps, especially through Khadi and Gram Udyog Bhavan [KVIC] sources/shops in all major cities in India.You may find good quality soaps at reasonable prices and indirectly you may help these village folks. I often buy such soaps in Khadi & Cottage industry fairs. Khadi soaps ,made by different Khadi Sanghas in small towns, have come a long way…they produce a variety of soaps with neem, turmeric, sandal, basil [tulasi],glycerine, aloe-vera etc, at low prices…I found one such soap: ‘Kissan’ sandal soap ,made by Kozhikode Sarvodaya Sangh,Khadigram, Calicut 1,Kerala ---75gms bar,Rs 8/= only…the surprise is: the wrapper says that TFM is 76%! I also learn that many such soaps are exported and available through in USA. 14 Soap making process The process of reacting fatty acids [oils] with base or alkali or lye is called by chemists: ‘saponification’. It can be done in two ways: cold process and hot process. In cold process , there is no heating and the reaction takes place at room temperature which can be 20 to 30 deg centigrade. Therefore it is pretty slow…the cold – process soap is ‘cured’ for nearly one month, before packaging. Hand-made soaps are always made by cold-process.The major advantage is that many natural ingredients are retained in the process,from fatty acids, glycerin and vitamins.These soaps are very gentle on the skin.


All commercial soaps are made by hot process—heating the brew to 80 to 100 deg centigrade.The soap, is ,of ,course, just market soap. The makers add nearly 10 other ingredients to make them useful and appealing, including essential oils, perfume , moisturizers and, of course, preservatives like methyl paraben and other parabens….all these ingredients react on your skin. There is yet another process for home-made soaps--called ‘melt and pour method.” This is semi-processed soap. Buy the soap base [from craft stores] ,usually of glycerine soap. Melt the required quantity over low heat in water bath or double boiler ;when it melts add ingredients like essential oils, moisturizers, herbs and stir well; pour the molten soap into a mold.You can customize the ingredients, coloring agents and even the shape. This way you can make a variety of soaps easily at home and sell as gift items too. 15 General comments In general , use a soap with very few chemicals added. If you are using a herbal or hand-made soap, try for a few months to get results; if they are caustic or irritant ,stop using them. Soaps tend to harden with time. Soaps also tend to develop blisters due to moisture ingress. The unreacted oil may deteriorate chemically ,become rancid..then the soap may develop bad smell. Do not use a soap six months after manufacture, whatever may the suggestion given by the maker. My general opinion is that soap makers add too many ingredients and fillers and spoil the quality of high quality of simple soaps. Enjoy your soap with good lather and fine smell.!! One home-made soap maker wrote and I echo that:

“May you never lose the sense of harmony obtainable through rituals as simply as bathing.” { The author graduated in chemistry from Univ of Madras,followed by engineering degrees from Indian Institute of Science,Bangalore and doctorate in engineering from Columbia University,Nw York. He can be contacted thru}