Well, they smell good, at least. But take a look at the label of your favorite hand soap, shampoo or body wash. The first listed ingredient is likely water — followed by sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) or some closely related compound.

Sodium laureth sulfate does the heavy lifting in most of the personal cleaning products on your shelf, right down to toothpaste. It's a cheap and powerful foaming agent, and the foam's ability to suspend dirt before being washed away is what gets things clean. While concerns have been raised from time to time about sodium laureth sulfate's long-term safety, nothing has really stuck. SLES is an entrenched part of our daily lives.

It's also a detergent. While detergents are sometimes called "soaps," there's a difference. Soaps are derived from fats; detergents are synthetic.

Detergents and your skin

As a detergent, sodium laureth sulfate is gangbusters. It may actually be too effective for some people, stripping the skin of necessary moisture. If you have dermatitis or certain other skin conditions, SLES may make things worse. And then there are all the other chemicals present in modern hand soaps and body washes.

Switching to real soap may provide relief to some people with sensitive skin. But it's more than that — soap making is an art, and good soap can be an eco-friendly and relatively inexpensive luxury.

Soaps are different from detergents in that they're derived from fats and oils. The Egyptians made crude forms of soaps — though they were used for things like wool making, not washing. Modern soaps are primarily fashioned from vegetable oils, and owe their basic formulations to Arab recipes dating from the 7th century.

Being kinder to yourself

Commercial soaps are comparatively poor in glycerin content and may dry the skin. But handmade soaps are rich in moisturizers and replenish the body's oils as they wash away dirt. This is the sort of balance many people find refreshing after years of exposure to harsh, detergent-based personal care products.

There are as many varieties of handmade soaps as the oils which are used to make them. But the classic base is olive oil, which has been used therapeutically for centuries. Olive oil contains oleic acid, linolenic and alpha-lenolenic — which assist skin in the natural production of prostaglandin — along with a variety of antioxidants. Other common soap making oils include palm, jojoba, almond and coconut.

While many natural soaps are unscented — a good thing for people with sensitive skin — they're often scented with combinations of aromatic oils and colored by natural dyes and clays. These ingredients can sometimes produce allergic reactions, so pay attention to what's in your soap and how you react to it. But it's the variety of traditional soaps which lends them so much charm: their colors, scents and textures.

Where to find natural soaps

Switching from detergents to natural soaps also provides an opportunity to support local artisans. In addition to well-known national brands such as Kiss My Face, your neighborhood natural foods store or gift shop probably stocks soaps made in your own region. Craft shows are another place to meet area soap makers. And a quick Google search for natural soaps will yield plenty of online options.

So get the chemical detergents off your shelf — and enjoy the eco-friendly world of natural soaps.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2007