When is Soap not Soap?

What an odd question. Surely all the stuff in those little blocks that you buy in supermarkets in the bathroom section is soap, of various brands.

This is not the case actually.

Soaps, detergents, emulsifiers and similar products belong to a class of chemical called surfactants. This word is a homologation of the three words that describe their function – surface active agent.

In broad terms there are 4 classes of surfactant:

  • negatively charged (anionic)
  • positively charged (cationic)
  • uncharged (nonionic)
  • doubly charged (amphoteric).

By far the most common and cheapest are those in the first category – anionic. And that’s because they are so easy to make – even Granny from the Beverley Hillbillies can make it. All you do is mix any natural oil or fat with caustic soda (lye) and the result is soap.

In other words, a soap is nothing more than the (generally sodium or potassium) salt of a fatty acid. Sodium salts tend to be solids, whereas potassium salts tend to be liquid.

But the problem is that when you use them on your skin they react with the fats in your skin, thus having a drying effect. In fact this is where we get the term “squeaky clean.” If your skin has been cleaned with soap, and had its fat removed, when you run it over a hard surface the natural lubrication caused by these fats is removed, and it thus squeaks on the surface.

Products like Dove, on the other hand, do not use soap. This means that they are not alkaline, and are close to your skin’s natural pH of 5.5. Many years ago I used to get bad dandruff under my beard, and the problem wasn’t fixed until I started using a pH-controlled brand of shampoo called Seba Med.

But now Dove is not Robinson Crusoe. There are now many non-soap products on the market. You pick them simply by looking for the terms “non-soap” or “pH-controlled” on the label somewhere. They are a far better option for the long-term health of your skin than soap.

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