Soap, the hard way

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We spend an awful lot of time looking for shortcuts in our lives, don’t we? Work faster. Eat faster. Live faster. We buy products and services that shorten our time to get more done, to be more productive, and to be cheaper. That haste comes at a price, sometimes a steep one. Recall this classic sign:

Fast Cheap Good

Over the long weekend, I decided to apply this question of whether faster and cheaper is better to a product that most of us take for granted: soap. Plain, boring old soap. Soap is pretty simple, cheap stuff, isn’t it? Except when it isn’t. Take a look at the ingredients on the average bar of soap. You’ll find:

  • Lye, of course
  • One or more oils (typically a blend)
  • Thickeners
  • Detergents and surfactants like sodium laureth sulfate that create suds (most soaps don’t make suds even though they’re cleaning you)
  • Preservatives like butylated hydroxytoluene
  • Antimicrobials like triclocarban
  • Emollients (artificial moisturizers)
  • Sequestering agents (water softeners)
  • Dyes and colors
  • Fragrances and perfumes
  • Emulsifiers

It shouldn’t be any surprise that many of these ingredients aren’t all that good for you. If you go Google the ingredients in your soap, a whole bunch of them have MSDS toxicology data listed about them. That’s not something you want to be rubbing all over your body every day if you don’t have to. You can get cheap soap really fast by going to the store and buying some, but it isn’t necessarily good for you. You can get good soap really fast by going to other stores that have more natural soaps, but they’re not cheap. Or you can do what I did and take a crack at making your own.

Fundamentally, the soap-making process is about applying an alkaline to an oil, typically lye (sodium hydroxide) to the oil of your choice. It’s a process that requires a little bit of chemistry knowledge, since you have to calculate just how much oil and lye to use.

Sodium hydroxide solution heating to nearly 200F

Miscalculate, and you’ll make a bar of soap that still has raw lye in it, which can cause chemical burns, or you’ll end up with a bar of soap that disintegrates because there’s still too much oil in it. Get it right and you get a bar of soap.

The point isn’t necessarily to say that you should rewind the clock back to colonial times and be playing with hazardous chemicals like lye in your backyard. The point is that one of the most healthy habits we can develop is to question the marketing claims being made by companies and see if it syncs up with the reality that you can only choose two out of fast, cheap, and good. Do you just blindly believe what’s on the label, or do you go the inquisitive route and see what it would take to make it yourself?

Once you do, once you start down that road, you realize a couple of things: first, that many of the basics in life are significantly cheaper at the cost of your time and effort (like roasting your own coffee or making your own soap) and second, that marketing gets people to gloss over the actual data that says a “healthy” product isn’t all that healthy.

What are you currently glossing over in your life?

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