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Sustainability

Solid body wash comes without packaging. But does that make it eco-friendly?

Cosmetics firms appeal to plastic-free consumers with the hybrid of bar soap and liquid body wash

by Carmen Drahl
May 9, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 20

 

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Credit: Lush USA/Shuttertstock
Solid body washes are designed to behave like the familiar liquid varieties, sans packaging.

When Beth Terry takes a shower, she doesn’t reach for a plastic bottle of body wash. She’s still troubled by an article she read 11 years ago with graphic imagery of plastic trash in a dead seabird’s belly. The author of the popular My Plastic-Free Life blog has been tracking her personal plastic footprint ever since—with spreadsheets because she’s an accountant by trade—and finding ways to minimize it.

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Sodium stearate is an ingredient that solidifies liquid body wash.

Governments are responding to demands from consumers like Terry. The U.S. in 2015 banned plastic microbeads used as exfoliators in cosmetics and personal care products. Shopping bag fees and restrictions on plastic straws and utensils have taken effect in multiple cities. And a couple of enterprising companies are creating products for consumers who want to swear off plastic packaging altogether. These trends set the stage for solid body wash.

Counterintuitive though it may seem, it’s relatively straightforward to transform a liquid product like body wash into a solid that consumers can pick up off the shelf, sans packaging. But is this newfangled stuff any different from a paper-wrapped bar of soap, which has been around for millennia? And is solid body wash really the environmentally conscious choice?

Bath-product powerhouse Lush has offered solid, packageless versions of shampoo and other toiletries for years. “When Lush began, our founders took a look at products and thought, ‘Do we really need a package for this?’ and found that most often the answer was no,” senior brand and product trainer Erica Vega says. Lush estimates that in 2017, solid shampoo bars prevented 100 metric tons of plastic waste. The firm launched solid body washes for the 2017 holiday season, an additional estimated 4-metric-ton plastic savings. “Most people just think it’s soap, but as soon as you get it wet and wash with it, you can feel the difference,” Vega says. “It’s instantly recognizable as shower gel as it lathers up in your hands.”

I’ve reached the point where I’ve realized that every product that’s created has some environmental impact.
Beth Terry, author, My Plastic-Free Life

Regardless of whether they’re solid or liquid, soap and body wash feel different because they’re chemically distinct, according to Society of Cosmetic Chemists President Perry Romanowski. Every cleanser contains surfactants to help water dissolve and wash away oily filth. The surfactants in soap come from saponification, which is the reaction between a strong base, such as sodium hydroxide, and a fatty acid or triglycerides from vegetable oils or animal fats. Shower gels and body washes, in contrast, contain different surfactants derived from petroleum or plant sources, such as sodium laureth sulfate or sodium cocoamphoacetate. The feel of a given product has a lot to do with its pH, Romanowski explains. The pH of the thin layer of sweat and sebum that sits atop skin is slightly acidic at approximately 5.5, and body washes operate right around there, at pHs between 4 and 6. Traditional soaps can clock in at around pH 9, which Romanowski says can feel drying.

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Lush and U.K. firm Bomb Cosmetics use sodium stearate, a saponified fatty acid and common soap ingredient, to thicken and harden solid body wash products. Other compounds would also work, Romanowski says, but sodium stearate is the best option because it’s inexpensive and it’s already used to solidify mainstream personal care products. “If you look at a package of Speed Stick deodorant, you’ll see this is pretty standard technology,” he says. Major multinational brands don’t yet offer solid body wash, and Romanowski fears that a package-free product might droop and deform when exposed to the heat and humidity that can creep into a big-box store’s supply chain. But he points out that big companies have been known to eventually embrace breakout products originating with smaller firms, as happened in the case of sulfate-free shampoo. “It’s not unreasonable to think that packageless products might catch on in the mainstream.”

That’s the kind of trend Terry hopes for, but the blogger’s views have grown more nuanced with time. “When I started, it was really only about cutting back on plastic,” she says. But then she’d go to the supermarket and find herself torn because the organic produce she prefers would be in plastic packaging and the conventional produce would not. It led, she says, to some difficult decisions.

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We asked readers ...
"How do you get squeaky clean in the tub?" This is how they responded via Facebook and Twitter. If you missed the poll but want to weigh in, go to cenm.ag/soappoll .
Sources: Twitter, Facebook

Evaluating which products are most environmentally friendly is not as straightforward as people may think, says Margarida Gama, an expert in cosmetics life-cycle assessment at the international consulting and software firm Thinkstep. And solid body wash is relatively new, so studies are still lacking for this kind of product. Liquid body washes certainly can have their drawbacks. Plastic packaging is indeed a major contributor to toiletries’ environmental impacts, but the formulation, including whether ingredients were made from fossil-fuel-derived feedstocks, has to be considered to perform any comparisons. One study found that liquid soaps for hand washing need about five times as much energy for formulation and roughly 20 times as much energy for packaging production than bar soaps do (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2009, DOI: 10.1021/es901236f). Compared with solid cleansers, liquids usually take up more volume in the trucks that transport them to points of sale, potentially costing more in fuel and emissions.

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Washed up?
Body wash overtook bar soap in the U.S. market more than 10 years ago.

Source: Euromonitor International

Bar soaps are not without environmental costs, however. The animal and plant fats in bar soaps must be sourced from somewhere, and frequently, that involves resource-intensive agricultural practices. Biobased surfactants are one of the current cosmetic industry trends, Gama points out, but the fact that the surfactants are biobased does not necessarily mean that they are more sustainable than petroleum-based ones.

It is also important to consider how a person uses the product, Gama says. Does the bottle or pump for a liquid body wash dispense more product than is needed? Which product—bar soap or body wash—takes more water to rinse off? The study comparing liquid hand soap with bar soap suggests that people use more warm water when washing with bar soap, but Gama thinks it’s too big a leap to extrapolate that data to a shower and that further research on consumer behavior patterns is needed.

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Credit: Lush USA
Like a soap, solid body wash lathers when wet, but the product feels like liquid cleansers do on skin.
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Credit: Bomb Cosmetics

With so many factors involved in determining an environmental footprint, it’s understandable for consumers to feel overwhelmed when choosing among body cleansers. Gama advises concerned shoppers to get informed. Websites such as Rank a Brand provide information about ingredients that brands use, packaging-reduction initiatives, and more so that people can decide what’s most important to them. Many cosmetic products today are marketed with stories rather than the quantitative figures that can guide decision-making, she says. “Industry should focus both on providing consumers the information they need to make an informed decision and on grounding that information in evidence-based methodologies, such as life-cycle assessment.”

As for Terry, she’s at peace with her product choices, even if they include plastic on rare occasions. She prefers all-natural soaps to body washes, anyway. “I’ve reached the point where I’ve realized that every product that’s created has some environmental impact,” she says. For body wash diehards, she thinks a package-free version might be the greener option. Personal choices matter, she says, and people should make the most informed choices they can. But agonizing over what cleanser to buy probably isn’t as important as taking action that can lead to change on a bigger level, such as contacting local legislators about environmental issues, she adds. “It’s about setting your priorities, making a decision, and letting it go.”

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Comments
Luigi Panza (Wed May 09 14:54:36 EDT 2018)
Mi only doubt regards the pH of the solid bar soap as sodium stearate is quite basic and does not respect the skin pH
Carmen Drahl (Fri May 11 08:10:50 EDT 2018)
Thanks for the comment, Luigi. There can be quite a range of bar soap pH-- watch for a companion graphic from Compound Interest on Monday which will have more information!
Aruna Utukuri (Wed May 09 17:03:38 EDT 2018)
Great article and does make you think about how many of your everyday activities will impact the environment. I did learn about the differences between liquid and solid body soaps and the surfactants ability and chemistry. I can only suggest that to increase the awareness of reducing the plastics use, such articles should be brought to the common consumer's attention and just not in the scientific magazines. Probably a more toned down version can be posted onto magazines like Reader's Digest, Better Homes etc.
Reply »
K. N. Krishna Prasad (Thu May 10 01:53:56 EDT 2018)
When the material is meant for common use, say, in a school, it is essential that only a liquid soap is made available. This is to avoid contamination. Other things should be only secondary.
Arwyn Smalley (Thu May 10 12:31:25 EDT 2018)
Bar soaps have not been found to spread contamination. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3402545
Megan (Fri May 11 13:29:48 EDT 2018)
In fact, bar soap may be less contaminated than the dispenser or pump of liquid soap. Bar soap has germ-killing properties and gets regularly run under water by each user, whereas the plastic pumps and dispensers are touched by contaminated hands and not cleaned between each user (if ever).

http://aem.asm.org/content/77/9/2898.full
Bill Marmer (Thu May 10 19:02:15 EDT 2018)
I was surprised that one of the main deficiencies of sodium stearate and other soaps was not addressed, i.e., the formation of lime soaps ("bathtub scum") when used with hard water. In the 1960's and 1970's, USDA/ARS and its industrial partners developed lime soap dispersing agents (LSDA's) to incorporate in soap-based formulations. If the new bars do not include LSDA's, users might end up "squeeky clean," but their tubs and shower stalls won't.
Carmen Drahl (Fri May 11 08:16:10 EDT 2018)
Bill- thanks for the feedback. Indeed, I didn't include the soap scum factoid in my article because there is a companion graphic (to be published shortly due to production timing) that goes into this. I am curious whether the solid body washes contain LSDA's. Scrubbing soap scum off one's shower is the pits.
Bill Marmer (Fri May 11 10:05:05 EDT 2018)
Thanks. I wouldn't be surprised if an LSDA is indeed incorporated into the formulations of the new bars. Soap-based body soaps were among the commercial products that resulted from the LSDA research at that time, though the main nfocus had been on laundry detergents. Perhaps the main difference between the old products and the new is that the old ones were mainly true soaps and the new ones mainly synthetic surfactants with small amounts of sodium stearate to solidify what typically would be a liquid or gel product. LSDA's were reviewed by (the late) Warner M. Linfield in 1978 (Linfield, W.M. J Am Oil Chem Soc (1978) 55: 87. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02673395); Linfield led the USDA/ARS program for many years, and he had come to USDA from Armour-Dial, where he had been instrumental in developing deodorant bar soaps.
Sara S (Thu May 10 23:05:03 EDT 2018)
I think it might be nice if there was some forcing of standardization of packaging. This would make it easier to recycle more products. Think about it, no matter who's brand, all milk that comes in a jug is type 2, and either opaque white or solid white. Not blue, yellow, green, red, white, etc etc.. which laundry soap is. I used to religiously use Body Shop shower gels, shampoo and conditioner when a teenager as I could take the bottles back to be refilled. Sadly that no longer happens. More limits on types and colors would at least make it easier / more likely the containers got recycled. Im not sure Im sold on these.. I tend to use soap (often from local makers) and a small mesh bag which foams it well and makes the soap last longer.
Susan K (Mon May 14 17:55:47 EDT 2018)
One thing that is concerning regarding solid forms is the potential for transmitting contamination from one person to another is increased. Although liquid soap dispensers also have a risk of this, it is much greater with bars. We have all seen bar soaps with short, dark, curly hairs stuck to them and where our imagination goes there.
Patrick Barber (Wed May 16 09:40:21 EDT 2018)
The recent article in C&ENews comparing the environmental impact of traditional soap and body wash was informative. I was glad to learn that the significantly lower pH of body wash products matches the pH of human skin better than the very alkaline soap. The article left a very important question unanswered. One reason one washes hands with soap is to kill cold and flu germs. Do body washes also kill these germs? Is there reason to use both body washes and traditional soaps?

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