While revamping my handmade soap labels, I realized that the ones I was making were different in more ways I expected than the ones I'm used to seeing in the grocery store so I looked up more about my all time favorite bathroom item. Here's the scrub down!
There's a legal definition of soap (honestly, what isn't there a legal definition for) that recognizes the historical roots of soapmaking, starting as far back as the Sumerians (a quick Google check says that means as early as 5000 BCE - 1750 BCE ). There are several ways a soap can be categorized: true, cosmetic, drug, or a combination of cosmetic and drug. Each one has their own label requirements from their respective governing regulatory body.
The brief history of what is now known as "true soap"
What we now call "true soap" has recipes on tablets from the Sumerian time period - the only ingredients? Animal fat and ashes. Cheap and otherwise unusable animal fat bits. Any ol' ashes. For the medieval commoners, (castile, or olive oil based soap, was extremely expensive) it was this life-saving concoction that was produced down in the industrial part of the civilization that started it all.
There's a fabulous YouTube video I came across recently that gives a great breakdown of soap in ancient and medieval times. Basically, laborors all through history have dealt with greasy hands (animal or other oil). Being of the working class, they couldn't afford or really have access to castile (olive oil based) soap, so they had another means of cleaning off on the cheap. When their greasy hands were given a seconds-quick rubbing with wet ashes, and rinsed, their hands became quite clean. Everyone had ashes about, so it was readily available and portable too. That ever-so-basic alkali (ashes) mixed with fat (grease on hands) sparked the chemical reaction that creates soap - ie, saponification.
The reaction between the grease and the ash (now we use lye/sodium hydroxide instead of ashes) that takes place is extremely caustic, and is actually the crucial part of soap making! Today, this hands-on application is absolutely not recommended however effective it is because of how quick and dangerous that reaction is. I can attest to how quickly and how strong this reaction is against naked skin - it starts to itch, then actually burn within 30 seconds - it is a serious situation to get it on bare skin. Modern soapmakers use are taught to always wear gloves (and long sleeves, ideally) and protective eyewear to minimize risk, but splashes do happen and plenty have experienced it first hand.
How can soap even be a considered a cosmetic and not true?
There are two conditions a product must meet in order to be considered a "true soap": it must be made of primarily oils and lye, and make no claims other than to clean or cleanse. The very instant a soap claims to be "moisturizing"or "exfoliating" or "deodorizing" etc.,or contain ingredients with those stated claims, it is tossed over into the "cosmetic" category and falls under further FDA regulations. My understanding is that "true soap" does not fall too much under the jurisdiction of the FDA because it doesn't do anything to your body, but it does remove grime from whatever surface applied to and is otherwise inert, which can be bodies; Anything with claims to have an intended effect on bodies, like moisturizers, exfoliants, deodorants etc., soap or otherwise, does.
An example of a drug soap would be if it claimed to cure or treat a condition or disease such as acne, eczema, or fungus, etc. Pretty easy to tell if that's the case.
True soap is still subject to the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act which is governed by the FDA but that act does not require ingredients to be listed out. When I started this whole revamp of my labels, this is exactly the information I was hoping to find that All The Way Handmade needed to follow.
This isn't to say that "true soap" can't have ingredients that are commonly believed or even proven to have certain beneficial properties, but those perceived properties cannot be called out on the packaging or label.
My pure speculation about this is because those ingredients themselves have their own regulatory bodies that control the claims that can be made - so by transitive property, if that ingredient is included in your item, whatever current claims those ingredients have from that body hold. By putting a claim on your packaging that may no longer be valid according to a regulatory body can be disheartening to a consumer, or even worse, dangerous.
How to identify non-"true soap" soaps
With what the FDA allows for labeling guidelines on "true soaps", labels that are complicated and start listing dye numbers, long lists of ~10 or more ingredients or lots of non-oil ingredients, it's a sign that the product needed a little more doctoring up than it actually needed to be to get the job done. I have a pretty complicated soap recipe as is in terms of how many oils I use so I can't really imagine someone using even more! True soap labels are incredibly easy to read and understand since there isn't much happening in the soap.
Cosmetic soaps are an entirely different and huge beast. Aside from "true soaps" that try and make claims because they contain ingredients with known FDA approved properties, I think they should be avoided. When I think about all the store bought soaps that left me dry, itchy, and even splotchy, and trying to decipher what the ingredients meant, that should have been a sign that it just wasn't right at all. My ever-dreaded melt-and-pour microwave snot mostly falls under cosmetic soap, as do many mass produced, detergent based soaps (detergent means it's not oil and lye based!). What particularly horrifies me is when many well-meaning DIYers or naive makers (I'm not trying to be derogatory here - people can't help what they don't know!) misuse colorants, essential oils/ "essential oils", and other "natural ingredients" ("natural" doesn't mean "safe"!), which is specifically the purpose of requiring labels on cosmetic soaps. Ever hear of blogs recommending food coloring to be used in melt and pour soaps and selling soaps with food coloring in them? Food coloring is specifically not skin safe, therefore not approved to use on skin. Nor are many, MANY essential oils out there that are also in soaps - not to mention the recent swathe of faux essential oils that are completely of unknown makings! That's a big no-go from FDA, with good reason. WebMD shares a story from a few months back that should have everyone taking a more critical eye to what they're putting on their bodies.
Back to our label update
All of this fascinated me and I spent several hours researching, leading me to what I needed to know. My labels will now have a different information panel and take on a simpler look to make them easier to read!
Happy (true) soaping!