Soap vs Detergent: How did Detergent become “Soap?”

Soap vs Detergent: How did Detergent become “Soap?” - Earth Mama Blog

Better living through chemistry! When margarine was invented, housewives huzzahed. Margarine didn’t spoil like butter, it didn’t burn like butter, and it was much less expensive than butter. That “miracle fabric” Polyester saved time and money, polyester pants came out of the dryer looking fine and dandy without hauling out the ironing board. And the magic of detergent left clothes and dishes spotless, free of grease and grime!

But margarine has hydrogenated oils, polyester pills and requires fossil fuels to produce, and detergents cause “dish-pan hands” – thus the invention of dish gloves to protect from detergents’ harsh, oil stripping properties. But somewhere along the line “detergent” became synonymous with “soap” and began to be used in shampoo and body wash – where that squeaky clean feeling meant your body oils were being stripped away along with the dirt. And “soap” was thought of as drying and harsh, when actually that bar or bottle on your sink was not pure soap, but cheaper-to-manufacture detergents.

So, as people are moving away from the better living through chemistry model – was spray cheese really such a good idea? – they are finding an appreciation for and understanding of whole foods, organic fabrics and simple products. Back to the basics! Detergents were originally manufactured to be effective cleaners for clothes, dishes and countertops. They are synthetic blends of surfactants (surface acting agents) intended to reduce the surface tension of water to penetrate the grease from your pork chops and leave your dishes sparkling clean. They cut through the mud on the knees of your kid’s jeans and wash it away in the laundry. Because they are a liquid, that means they also require an emulsifier to keep the ingredients evenly blended, and preservatives to keep them safe. Detergents also often contain artificial fragrances to keep your clothes and countertops smelling “clean and fresh”

True soaps, on the other hand, require none of these additives. True soap is naturally foamy so it doesn’t need an added surfactant. It is naturally preserved, so it needs no added emulsifiers or preservatives. Detergent masquerades as soap, but you can tell by the ingredient list that it is not pure soap. What is pure soap? Read “Soap vs. Detergent: What are YOU Soaking in?

Going back to the basics doesn’t mean all chemistry is bad, but some advancements in the name of science and industry are not necessarily improvements. Polyester doesn’t grow on trees. Your great-great grandma churned butter, and if she couldn’t grow a margarine, she didn’t use it. Soap didn’t contain worrisome chemicals, so mamas didn’t have to worry about toxins and harsh detergents and artificial fragrance. With knowledge comes responsibility, and mamas now need to know what’s in their family’s soap in order to make good, safe, basic choices.

Pesticides, preservatives, surfactants? Want to know more? Read “Soap vs. Detergent: What are YOU Soaking in?


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