If you haven’t read last week’s distinction between soap and detergent, you might want to do that first  as this will make more sense! Before I get started explaining the ingredients, here are three important but not related things.

  1. I’m not a chemist or a doctor. I’m a romance novelist who runs a Pagan blog on the side for fun. I’m pretty good at research and critical thinking, but no court on the planet would call me in as an expert. I’m giving this information as accurately as I can. I do not claim infallibility.

  2. When a label says something is naturally derived, it doesn’t mean much. Everything is derived from nature because nature is all we’ve got to start with. It’s the derivation that takes it down the path from natural to synthetic. The more I read about chemistry, the more I think of natural to synthetic as a spectrum, not a polarity. Vitamins are extracted from food, so Vitamin C is a natural substance separated from the whole it came from. Is it still natural post-separation? People would argue that. The lye I use to make soap could be naturally created when wood ashes, like from a forest fire, have water filter through them. But the lye I purchase is made in a factory, not collected by people scouring the woods. It’s a manmade version of a naturally occurring substance, so it is by definition synthetic, but at the same time it’s not what I would call unnatural. The concept of natural vs. whole foods vs. synthetic is a lot more complicated than I realized when I started this detoxing journey!

  3. Eco-friendly is an unregulated term that’s in the eye (or lie) of the beholder. Greenwashing, calling something “environmentally friendly” when it’s nothing of the sort or at least not as friendly as the claims, has become common practice.  That’s why if you care about being environmentally friendly (and most Pagans–and non-Pagans–I hang out with are!), understanding your ingredients is important so you can make educated decisions for yourself.

Onto the list!

These are divvied up by category. Anything that’s in the Cosmetic Dirty Dozen (the top 12 cosmetic ingredients to avoid, according to Well and Good) I’ve marked with a #.

A “hydrolyzed triglyceride combined with alkali” by any other name is still a real SOAP

Chemically speaking, soap is a salt, hence the names start with sodium. You can tell what fat your soap is made from by the name, and I’ve put these in parentheses. Assume lye and water also went into the creation. (A water substitute like goat milk or beer can be used, but due to the extra expense, water is the default. The manufacturer would be crazy not to tout the soap as specially crafted if they went to the expense of an H20 substitute.) Soap, though chemically created for home use, is a naturally occurring substance. If you’re in for some bizarre reading, check out the Soap Lady, **GRUESOME/DISTURBING ALERT!** a corpse whose body fat saponified in her coffin, mummifying it. I’m guessing water soaked through the wooden coffin, creating lye which then mixed with the body fat to make something I really don’t want to wash anything with. This isn’t the only time this has happened, and the more body fat a corpse has the more likely it is.**END GRUESOME**

**Back to far more pleasant, synthetically crafted soap**

  • Sodium cocoate (coconut oil)

  • Sodium olivate / Castile soap (olive oil) – Castile is the traditional name for pure olive oil soap, but it’s now used for anything that’s at least majority olive oil and probably vegetarian

  • Sodium palmitate (palm oil) – If you care about rainforests, avoid this sucker. I wrote a bit about it here and may write more later. I had no idea how environmentally devastating (as well as human rights violating) the acquisition of this common ingredient is!

  • Sodium palm kernelate (palm kernel oil) – Same as above.

  • Sodium stearate (stearic acid) – Stearic acid is a nutritional component that can be extracted from plant or animal fat through hydrolysis (a means of breaking chemical bonds using water). It’s found most abundantly in animal fat, so typically it’s hydrolyzed from tallow. It’s farther down the “natural⇢synthetic” chain than the other soaps, but sodium stearate is biodegradable and stearic acid is safe to eat in small quantities.*

  • Sodium tallowate (tallow or other animal fat) – This is the first type of soap ever made and still one of the most popular for quality as well as economic and environmental reasons. I usually make soap with animal fat in the mixture, and this article from Humblebee and Me explains why. 


  • Glycerin (also called glycerol) is a byproduct of saponification that keeps your skin from drying out. Some soap companies remove this from their soap and sell it separately or use it in other products. Soaps that still contain it are considered of higher quality. 


Because these are entirely synthetic, the same end product can often be made from a variety of base products. If the chemical name specifies a base ingredient, I’ll mention it. Otherwise assume the detergent could be petroleum based, coconut based, palm oil based–anything containing hydrocarbons (i.e. anything that was once alive. Crude oil formed from ancient animal and plant remains, hence it’s got hydrocarbons). There are zillions of different detergents (I counted), so I’m just listing a few common ones.

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)# and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)# – These big daddies of detergent can be found in shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and all kinds of things. It’s used as a degreaser, thickener, and lathering agent. It’s typically made from palm oil or coconut oil. While generally regarded as safe, SLS and SLES can irritate some people. Many people claim dryer skin after using them. Also there is concern that the sheer amount we put on ourselves due to their ubiquitousness could be harmful in the long run. That’s why you’ll see “SLS/SLES free” as a product claim on some bottle fronts. But SLS free doesn’t necessarily mean detergent free, just that it’s free of these two most commonly used ones.

  • Sodium coco-sulfate – SLS made from unrefined coconut oil. I’ve seen arguments that this one is better/safer than normal SLS. Regardless of safety, substituting coconut for palm oil is an environmental bonus.

  • Coco glucoside – this seems to be a pretty good detergent. Made from coconut oil and plant sugar, the result is fully biodegradable and one of the most gentle surfactants out there.

  • Cocamide DEA#/ Lauramide DEA# – totally different than coco glucoside. These are carcinogenic and can cause skin allergies in many people.

  • Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate – the main ingredient in Dove bar “soap.” I can’t find much information on this. From childhood up I’ve used Dove almost exclusively until I started making my own soap, under the assumption that Dove products were natural and safe. I was unpleasantly surprised when I finally bothered to read the label while writing this article.


I got so confused when I first saw these terms, because I thought they were crazy chemicals. They’re not. They’re fancy terms for vitamins and provitamins. (Provitamins are converted within the body to a vitamin. This works when taken orally or absorbed topically.) Granted, vitamins can be derived from all kinds of sources, and I’m not getting into that, but if you’re willing to take a vitamin (I am!) then this is no different. There are a lot more vitamins than this, but here are a sampling. I’ve bolded the ones I’ve seen most often in beauty products.

  • Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)

  • Beta carotene (proVitamin A)

  • Biotin (Vitamin B7)

  • Calciferol (Vitamin D)

  • Folic acid (Vitamin B9)

  • Niacin (Vitamin B3)

  • Panthenol (proVitamin B5)

  • Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5)

  • Phytonadione (Vitamin K)

  • Retinol (Vitamin A)

  • Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)

  • Thiamin (Vitamin B1)

  • Tocopherol (Vitamin E)

Essential Oils, Concretes, Absolutes, and Hydrosols

The plants used to create these extracts are often listed by their botanical names (like Lavandula angustifolia is lavender), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a label in which they don’t put the common name in parentheses. Just in case, you can find a list here. Basically if the ingredient list has a Latin flower-y sounding name followed by the word “oil,” you probably have an essential oil or absolute. If the Latin flower name is followed by “flower water” or “water,” you probably have a hydrosol.

  • Essential oils are not technically oils as they contain no fat. They are plant extractions (called volatile oils–again, not chemically an oil, just called one) that are either pressed from fruit rind (citrus oils) or collected by steaming leaves and stems and using a distiller to separate the steamed VOs from the steamed water. The collected VOs are the essential oil.

  • Absolutes are VOs retrieved from flowers with either too little VO to steam out or with VOs that will be damaged by heat–such as rose or jasmine. To make an absolute, the plant matter is mixed with a solvent that pulls out the VOs along with waxes and resins. This mix is called a concrete. Another process separates the VO from the other material, creating the absolute. The multistep process along with the amount of raw material needed to create an ounce of absolute is why these are so much more expensive than their EO counterparts.

  • Hydrosols, such as rose water, are made by simmering flower petals and collecting the steam. The steam contains both distilled water and the plant’s VOs. The water/VO combo is called a hydrosol. As it’s basically a diluted EO or absolute, this produces far more product with far less material than essential oils or absolutes, hence it being the cheapest of the four. 

Fragrance (Parfum)

Okay, this term? Could mean pretty much anything. This started because companies complained that their signature scents could be copied if they listed the ingredients. So the government in its infinite wisdom said something to the effect of, “Okay, if the ingredient is used for scenting, you don’t have to list it separately.” This is why some fragrances can drive your skin crazy and some are fine. All “fragrance” means is that they mixed some stuff together and made something smelly (hopefully in a good way). It doesn’t necessarily mean “chemical sh##storm”, but it’s an easy label to abuse by slipping in ingredients that a company doesn’t want to list under the guise of fragrance.

“Fragrance-free” or “Unscented” though, isn’t always a guarantee that you’re in the clear. These aren’t regulated terms, and companies can call their product “fragrance free” if they’re using scent masking chemicals instead of chemical fragrances. A lot of so-called “unscented” products are called that not because they lack fragrance, but because they have additional chemicals in them to nullify the scent of the main chemicals in the product! Not to bang a drum here, but you’re safest if you read the ingredients, not just the marketing claims on the front. (Boom, boom, boom.)

Leaf Extract

I found this on one my hand washes and assumed it was the same as an essential oil. It isn’t. It seems to be another one of those catch-all terms that means it’s from a plant, but that’s about all it means. While it could be exactly what it sound like, the term can be used to hide dyes, sweeteners, or alcohol.

So…there you have it!

My first list of ingredient interpretation. Questions? More ingredients you want me to research? I’ve got another post I’m working on regarding preservatives, and then I may take a break from label reading for awhile. Is this helpful? Should I keep going after the preservatives post?

* We’re trying to ween ourselves off of footnotes, but I felt I had to for this one. Any time you’re consuming a food component–like a vitamin, mineral, or acid, “small quantities” are necessary. You’d never sit down at a meal and spoon Vitamin A into your mouth like you do spinach. A little Vitamin A goes a long way! So the fact that stearic acid is safe for consumption in small quantities isn’t referring to toxicity. It’s because stearic acid is a food component designed to be eaten as part of a nutritional cornucopia and not as a main course.

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