Being involved in food system work, not to mention making toiletries and soaps for close to 20 years, I’ve been part in a lot of online forums and groups over the years, learning and also teaching as my own knowledge grew.

A LOT of people start to garden or make their own toiletry products because they don’t trust what is in the store. They don’t feel that what’s in the stores is “safe”. And once they grow their own carrot or make their own soap, they start looking around at other stuff in their life and ask, “How can I make THIS product myself too” or “What can I buy that’s safer than what I’m using now”.

This includes things like deodorant, shampoo, laundry soap, dish soap, toothpaste, hand soap and food of all kinds. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a “I’m looking for something with NO CHEMICALS” comment.

I think, based on years of seeing these posts, that what most people mean by “natural” is ingredients that are unaltered or minimally processed and could be found in nature in its existing form. Things like essential oils that are simply distilled by pressing or steam, or an egg from a chicken that was running around outside on grass.

Citrus essential oils are usually made by simply pressing the rind of the fruit.

Of course, the business and marketing world has taken notice of consumer’s desire for “natural” products, and use the term frequently. They also watch fear trends and put things like, “No parabens!” on products like deodorant, when in reality, you’d be hard pressed to find parabens in ANY deodorant on the market, no matter how large or corporate the company making the product. (I’m not even going to get into the pro/con paraben debate, or how cherry picked the freak-out science is around this broad spectrum preservative. Suffice it to say that it’s WAY more complicated than the “parabens give you breast cancer” headlines would have you believe”).

The USDA and FDA are responsible for food labeling and regulation. Here’s how they define “natural” when it comes to your food:

  • USDA definition- “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).
  • ”FDA definition- “Nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food”.

Because the terms “natural”, “all natural” or “100% natural” do not carry a standard definition from both the FDA and USDA, food marketers can use the terms as they deem fit.

What about non food products? Nope. Nothing. Nada. There is no regulation or agreed upon standard for what constitutes a “natural” deodorant or soap or shampoo or laundry cleaner in the United States. So when people see this term and assume it means “made from ingredients that are minimally processed”, well, they are very often wrong, and the natural products industry is more than happy to take advantage of this lack of understanding.

A fun all essential oil soap from 2021

As many of you know, I’m a soap maker. I started making soap not so much because I wanted a more “natural” product, but because I thought the chemistry was cool. Soap is made from a chemical reaction between sodium hydroxide (lye) and fats/oils. And there’s this common belief that because you can make lye from wood ashes (like our great great grandmothers did, leaching lye out of wood ashes and making soap over a fire in big outdoor cauldrons), homemade soap is therefore an all natural product. But Kevin Dunn, who has a PhD in Chemical-Physics and uses soap making to teach chemistry at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, and is a frequent speaker at soap making conferences had this to say:

Can you find sodium hydroxide lying around without any human intervention in making it? No. The closest you can come is “trona,” the mineral from which baking soda and washing soda are made (by humans). The active ingredient in wood ashes is potassium carbonate. If you burn sea plants, you get sodium carbonate. Yes, you can make soap with either of these, but for a hard bar soap, you want sodium hydroxide. The traditional way to get the hydroxide is to react wood ashes with lime (calcium hydroxide). Reacting wood ash with calcium hydroxide produces potassium hydroxide. To get sodium soap from potassium hydroxide, you add salt once the cook is done. Sodium soaps are less soluble than potassium soaps, so they float to the top, where you can skim them off. 1,000 pounds of wood leaves about 5 pounds of ash, from which about 1 pound of potash (potassium carbonate) can be extracted.

So in short, it takes a whole lot of human chemistry to turn potassium carbonate into sodium hydroxide. So even hand crafted soap is not made from unaltered or minimally processed ingredients!

Soap itself is actually a “sodium salt”. And that salt is named for the oil the salt was made from. So coconut oil soap salts are called Sodium cocoate. Olive oil salts are Sodium olivate. Large manufacturers often label their soaps this way, while most hand crafters will just say something like “saponified oils of coconut and olive oil”. Bigger more confusing words, but its actually the SAME ingredients.

But but but, doesn’t that make it BAD? No. No it does not. I get it. Many a young teen was traumatized trying to muddle through a chemistry course in high school that was poorly taught and overwhelming. But chemistry is just “the branch of science that deals with the identification of the substances of which matter is composed; the investigation of their properties and the ways in which they interact, combine, and change; and the use of these processes to form new substances.” Chemical names are just scary because we don’t speak the language!

Here’s my favorite example of chemistry confusion (excuse the F’ bomb). The chemical name for table salt is sodium chloride. Sodium (Na) by itself is a metal that explodes when it comes into contact with water. Chloride (Cl) by itself is a toxic gas. Together they combine and change form and become something our bodies can not do without (but struggle to deal with if there’s too much).

And then there’s this meme (one of many) that pokes fun at a fear of chemicals, using the chemical name for water (H2O), dihydrogen monoxide, to play on the fears of the chemistry ignorant.

And then there’s the opposite approach. Cyanide is natural, and can be found in apple seeds and peach pits. But that doesn’t mean I want to consume it. Lead is a natural substance, but consuming it can have drastic consequences, especially in children. Hemlock is all natural, but you still shouldn’t use the stems as whistles or drinking straws. Black widows and rattle snakes are all natural, but that doesn’t mean I want them living in my basement!

Water Hemlock. A common nuisance weed in our area. Deadly poisonous.
Public Domain,

So, after all of that, what SHOULD you look for if you’re trying to simplify the products you use to lessen their impact on your body and the planet?

Well, to start, when it comes to toiletry and cleaning products, look for things with ingredients that are “plant derived”. I generally try and steer clear of petroleum derived products, as many are a byproduct of gasoline refinement, and the planet would probably be better off with less of that in general.

You aren’t going to find unaltered or minimally processed surfactants in a typical shampoo or cleaner, even if it is hand made (and I’m not a fan of using true soap on hair as explained here. If they work for you, you do you). They just don’t easily exist without some lab chemistry. But there are some truly fantastic coconut oil derived surfactants.

If it contains water or a water type substance (ie a milk or a tea or something like aloe vera) and its NOT a soap, it should also contain some kind of broad spectrum preservative. There’s a story (unfortunately the website it was on is no longer functional) about a nurse using her own homemade lotion at work, and spreading MRSA through the patients in her care, as her product had become contaminated, and every time she used it while working, she was reinfecting her hands because the product was not adequately preserved. Yikes!

As for safety checking ingredients, you can start with the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database, though I find them to be a bit too far on the left side of the freak-out meter for my own taste. They also have a Guide to Healthy Cleaning database.

EWG’s score for EDTA

Many issues people have with toiletries, cleaners, laundry soap/fabric softeners and candles are actually fragrance/air quality issues. Buying unfragranced or lightly fragranced products can go a long way to reduce irritation and increase indoor air quality. I personally really like most of the Method cleaners (their wood floor cleaner is awful). They have also won “best of” prizes for “natural” all purpose cleaners. Mostly, their scents don’t bother me, and traditional off the shelf cleaners will often leave me with a sore throat and sinus congestion just from the smell alone.

Side note. Yes, you can do a lot with baking soda and vinegar. I talked about that a long time ago in this blog post (some of the links in the post are no longer working – its been over 10 years!). But if you put the two together (vinegar is an acid and baking soda is a base), they react like that 5th grade volcano experiment and mostly cancel each other out. You get water, carbon dioxide and a bit of sodium acetate. And while water is “the universal solvent” its not gonna get that burnt oil off of that baking pan.

When I’m looking up an ingredient with a long complicated chemical name, I like to first know its purpose, so I’ll google something like “EDTA ethylene-diamine-tetra-acetic acid purpose” and learn that it’s a chelator (ie a binder) for minerals and metals (it’s in commercial bar soap to help prevent soap scum in hard water). Sometimes I then have to go look up words like chelator. But that’s OK.

I’ll then often look it up in several databases and compare. I like Personal Care Truth and Cosmetic Ingredient Review, and for more of a DIY slant, the ingredient encyclopedia put together by Humble Bee and Me (though you need to know the general purpose of the ingredient to look it up, as it’s by category). Comparing these with the EWG Skin Deep score is often enlightening.

In short, find what works for you and your family, don’t be afraid to learn new big words, and don’t take “all natural” claims at face value, especially when it’s not a food. And if the company seems to be marketing based on your fears first, that’s usually a big red flag for me.

© Miles Away Farm 2022, where I’m currently researching how to make a solid dish soap (no plastic bottle required) and am continually tinkering with my solid shampoo bar recipe, but am miles away from trying to make a DIY deodorant or laundry soap again. Want more content? Sign up for a monthly newsletter to your email inbox HERE.