With sustainability becoming a more mainstream topic, you may have already noticed an influx of zero-waste soap bars and eco-friendly soap brands becoming available.
How sustainable soap is varies per product, but generally, zero-waste soap bars and soap made from renewable, biodegradable ingredients are sustainable.
Here’s what you need to know about how sustainable soap is and how to make greener choices.
1. What Makes Soap Eco-Friendly?
Bar Soap Is Zero Waste
Bar soap does not contain plastic packaging. This makes it zero-waste as no empty bottle is left once it runs out.
These kinds of soaps are often sold without packaging in stores, but others may come in paper or cardboard boxes.
This packaging is usually recyclable or biodegradable.
It Is Not Single-Use
Generally speaking, soap – whether from a bottle or a bar – is not a single-use item.
So, although all kinds of soap need to be replaced eventually, they do not generate as much waste as single-use products.
Soap Is Commonly Made From Renewable Ingredients
Soap bars and biodegradable soaps are usually primarily made up of the following ingredients:
- Vegetable oil or animal fat
- Shea butter
- Essential oils
These are all renewable, biodegradable ingredients. How sustainable soap is largely depends on what other ingredients may be added.
2. Is Soap Biodegradable?
Not all soap is biodegradable, it depends on the ingredients.
Some soaps contain synthetic ingredients, some of which come from petroleum. These soaps are not biodegradable.
Lots of soap contains triclocarban which is an antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal compound.
It used to be common to find triclosan in soap, which is also antimicrobial, but this has since been banned in soap products in the US by the FDA and in the European Union.
Research found that both compounds take a long time to degrade in the environment.
Most soaps contain animal fat or vegetable oil, lye, and water which are all biodegradable ingredients.
Common soap ingredients also include coconut oil and shea butter, which are also biodegradable.
It’s also common to find dyed soaps and soaps scented with essential oils. Essential oils come from plants, so they are biodegradable.
Synthetic dyes are not biodegradable. However, some soap makers will use plants like alfalfa or alkanet root to naturally color their soap; these dyes are biodegradable.
So, while some soaps are biodegradable, anything containing synthetic dyes and fragrances, triclocarban, triclosan, or petroleum-based ingredients is not.
Remember that biodegradable items cannot degrade just anywhere.
When biodegradable items end up in landfills, they can release what’s known as landfill gas, which is largely made up of greenhouse gasses like methane.
So, even when soap is made sustainability, how you handle it is very important.
3. How Does Biodegradable Soap Work?
To be biodegradable, the soap must be made from ingredients that bacteria can break down in a relatively short period.
These kinds of soaps are intended to be broken down by bacteria in soil, not water.
This is because many soaps contain phosphorus, which can disrupt the water’s ecosystem.
These kinds of soap should degrade within weeks into water, organic matter, and carbon dioxide.
4. Is Bar Soap Eco-Friendly?
Although many plastic soap bottles are recyclable, plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely and is not renewable.
So eventually, the plastic soap bottles will end up landfilled or incinerated.
Bar soap also has a lower carbon footprint. Making the bottles for liquid soaps in the first place requires resources and energy.
Manufacturing the soap, sourcing or creating the bottles, and packaging it also takes up more energy than creating a bar of soap.
Refillable soap is becoming more accessible these days, which cuts down on waste.
This entails stores having a soap pump, which customers can use to refill empty soap bottles.
However, refillable soap is not as easy to find as regular liquid soap and bars of soap.
5. Is Plant-Based Soap Better for the Environment?
Plant-based soaps are typically better for the environment.
This is because they are usually made from natural, renewable ingredients, which are also typically biodegradable.
They are typically made from vegetable oils, lye, and water.
As mentioned earlier, some soap makers will dye their soap using plant-based materials and scent them with essential oils.
It’s also not uncommon to see shea butter in these kinds of soaps. Shea butter is also natural, renewable, and biodegradable.
6. Is Handmade Soap Eco-Friendly?
Handmade soap is usually more eco-friendly because it saves energy compared to soap made in a factory.
As mentioned earlier, most energy use does not come from renewable resources.
Plus, handmade soap typically comes from small businesses that do not mass produce items, so this also saves on waste and resources.
7. Is Organic Soap Eco-Friendly?
There are some advantages to organic soap. Organic ingredients for soap are grown without the use of pesticides.
Pesticides can leach into the surrounding environment and pollute the air and water.
Many kinds of pesticides may also harm or kill pollinators, like bees.
Fewer pollinators has a knock-on effect on biodiversity, as they pollinate plants which create habitats and supply food for other creatures – even humans.
Research has also suggested organic crops use less fossil fuels, and the soil growing these crops store more carbon.
Organic crops are also better for the soil as they retain more water and cause less soil erosion.
8. What Is the Most Eco-Friendly Soap?
The most eco-friendly soap will be bar soap.
Try to stick to brands that stick to basic natural, renewable, biodegradable ingredients like water, vegetable oil, and lye.
But, if you don’t want something too basic, try to find soap scented with essential oils and dyed with plant-based materials.
Remember that no matter how eco-friendly a soap product is, how you handle and dispose of it is important to negate any potential environmental harm.
Read about some of the best eco-friendly soap brands in our article here.
9. What Is Biodegradable Soap for Camping?
Biodegradable soap for camping is not much different than regular biodegradable soap.
It usually comes in smaller packaging to make it easier to pack and transport; it can either come in a bottle or as bar soap.
These soaps typically contain natural ingredients, however, they are still not always as green as you might think.
Although the ingredients are biodegradable, that does not mean they do not impact the environment.
Phosphorus is a common ingredient in soap. If you bathe in a lake with soap containing phosphorus, it can leach into the water.
From there, this can impact the ecosystem such as causing algae blooms. Algae blooms can be toxic to marine life and even humans.
So, these soaps are not intended to be biodegradable in water, and should be disposed of in compost bins or in soil far from waterways.
Some brands recommended their customers bathe on land with a bucket of water, instead of bathing in the water.