Keeping Green: The sustainability of soap

The ecological superiority of bar soap is true for a number of reasons. Bar soap takes about five times less energy to produce than most liquid soaps. Bar soaps are made of very natural oils that can be absorbed or broken down very easily. (Kesha Phillips/Flickr Creative Commnons)

As strange as it seems to see how clean a cleaning tool actually is, all aspects of our daily lives must be explored, analyzed, and scrutinized in order to create habits and examples for a cleaner future. Upon some recent exploration and media attention to plastics within our environment and trash cycles, many aspects have seen room for revision. When it comes to nonrenewable petroleum based plastics that remain in the earth and damage it, I bet you wouldn’t imagine this type of product comes in liquid form. Unfortunately, it might be sitting by your sponge at the kitchen sink or maybe even your bathroom.

Many have asked which types of soap are more sustainable and if the trade off in performance of these products is negligible next to their environmental impact. This is a highly varied field of commercial products with a large number of producers, products, and purposes so there are some things we need to clear up. Soap by definition is made from natural oils and some kind of alkaline. Together when mixed with water they make a mild emulsifying substance that helps remove dirt and bacteria from our bodies, keeping us healthy.

Any products that are built for similar purposes but are not from natural oils are typically referred to as detergents. These are the guys you want to look out for when purchasing cleaning products. When shopping, simply the word soap on the product already tells you a lot about its composition and origins. Most real, plant based soap come in bar form but it should be said that there are some plant based liquid soaps out there, like vegetable based castile soap.

According to a study conducted by scientists at the Institute of Environmental Engineering in Zurich, Germany, in 2009 and published by the American Chemist Society, bar soap is undeniably more sustainable than liquid soap in almost every application. They reached this conclusion by conducting a life cycle assessment or LCA for short. LCAs take into account all the energy, materials, and time it takes for this product to do its intended job and where it goes afterwards.

The ecological superiority of bar soap is true for a number of reasons. Bar soap takes about five times less energy to produce than most liquid soaps. Bar soaps are made of very natural oils that can be absorbed or broken down very easily where as liquid soaps might contain petroleum elements making them harsh on the environment when given the chance to accumulate.

Liquid soap for all applications will almost certainly come in a plastic bottle which means that regardless of whether or not the plastic bottle is recycled, we are putting more plastic in our waste cycles and more responsibility at the individual consumer level and less responsibility at the corporate level. Most bar soaps come in cardboard boxes if any packaging at all. Many stores are transitioning into loose bars of soap to cut down on waste and to save money. Sounds familiar…

Liquid soap is also typically heavier than bar soap, which means more energy is required to ship and move the products around the country. So the bottom line is: always buy bar soap, locally if you can. This raises another question though. What about shampoo? Shampoo faces many of the same problems as other soaps. Look for bar shampoo or powdered shampoo as a greener alternative. The same goes for conditioner, but there are several natural alternatives to hair repair and maintenance like using natural oils, and there are plenty of natural DIY guides online for all of these types of products.

Simple, natural soaps are also a common item to be found at local farmers markets, flea markets, or bazaars. Buying locally produced soap strengthens your local economy and typically, the maker is the one selling you the soap so you can ask about what goes into the soap. Many producers ally with farmers and buy their herbs for soaps too! Locally, there are soap vendors at the Coventry farmers market as well as tons of other food vendors, food trucks, lives music and more. Take your friends on Sundays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., get some soap, get some food and buy local!


Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.wood@uconn.edu.