6 Worst Ingredients In Soap
And What To Look For Instead

You'll find them in nearly every bar of soap on the market.

Here’s how to protect yourself.

In a perfect world, soap shopping would be easy: Pick the one that
smells best and move on with your day. Alas, as with so much in
this modern world, it’s not so simple. We've rounded up the six
worst ingredients found in soap—they all show up repeatedly on lists
of problematic ingredients put out by the EWG and other environmental
safety groups. And yet, nearly every bar of soap on your drug store's
shelves contains at least one of them, if not several.

If you’re concerned about your health or the health of the planet,
avoid these sketchy ingredients in your next bar of soap.


Parabens (butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, and anything
else ending in -paraben) are a class of preservatives that prevent
bacteria from growing in soap. The problem is, they’re xenoestrogens
(they mimic estrogen in the body) and can be absorbed through the
skin. No significant link between parabens and breast cancer has been
found, but parabens have been found in breast tumors, so some cancer
research and advocacy groups consider them a substance worth studying

A better alternative

Parabens are only used in soaps with significant water content. Opt for
soaps made with a traditional formula of fat plus lye without water—these
soaps don’t require parabens and likely won’t contain them.


Phthalates are found in consumer products as wide-ranging as toys, vinyl
floors, and aftershave. The specific phthalate that you’re most likely
to find in soap is diethylphthalate (or DEP), which is used as a fixative
in fragrances. Phthalates are associated with a number of issues, including
male infertility, breast cancer, and asthma, and can trigger both skin and
systemic allergic reactions. The tricky part? They’re not always labeled.

If a soap includes “fragrance,” it probably includes DEP, but there’s no
real way to know.

A better alternative

Since the label doesn't reveal the presence of DEP, try to use soaps that
are unscented or get their scents from essential oils.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Sodium Laureth Sulfate

SLS and SLES are surfactants that increase the foaming and emulsifying
qualities of soap. They were long a concern of health and safety watch
groups, but there’s a good bit of scientific data saying that, beyond
occasional skin allergies, they’re not a health concern.

There is, however, an environmental concern: These lathering agents are
often made from petroleum, and avoiding petroleum-based products whenever
possible is good eco-sense. (While SLS and SLES can also be made from more
environmentally friendly vegetable oils, there's no labeling to help you
determine the their origins when you're browsing the soap aisle.)

A better alternative

If you like a thick lather, choose soaps made with coconut or palm kernel
oil. Sugar can also help support a thick lather, so soaps with sugar content
are a good choice. (You can also go the DIY route with this homemade coconut
oil soap.)

Propylene Glycol

Propylene glycol helps the skin absorb moisture and is therefore a standard
ingredient in soaps labeled as “moisturizing.” It’s safe for the body, but
like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, propylene glycol is
made from petroleum, so it’s not great for the planet.

A better alternative

If you need moisturizing, pick soaps that are made with a milk base or which
contain apricot kernel, jojoba, avocado, or olive oil—ultra-moisturizers,
all—or simply follow up your shower with a good lotion or oil rub-down!


As of September of 2016, you won’t find this powerful antibacterial in commercial
soaps anymore (although it’s still in soaps used for medical purposes). Triclosan
(and the related triclocarbon) have been used in antibacterial soaps for years,
but have officially been banned by the FDA as a danger to both the body (it has
hormonal effects in people) and the environment (it’s indicated as a potential
creator of “superbugs” and other antibiotic-resistant bacteria). Though triclosan’s
out, it’s likely that new antibacterial substances will find their way into soaps
soon enough, and those are also best avoided.

A better alternative

The best way to get your hands and body clean is just to scrub, scrub, scrub with
antibacterial-free soap under running water. Good washing habits are far more
effective than antibacterial products.

Triclosan Microbeads/Polyethylene

Tiny plastic microbeads were a popular exfoliating ingredient in body wash for over
a decade, but were banned in late 2015 in the United States as an environmental
nuisance: After scrubbing in the shower, the beads ran down the drain and made their
way to lakes and rivers. They still haven’t entirely found their way out of the
cosmetic industry, though, so it’s best to keep your eyes out for them just in case.
There’s no good reason to use products containing them with so many natural exfoliants

A better alternative

If you want a scrubbing ingredient, look for brown sugar, crushed apricot seeds, and
even coffee grounds, among other natural abrasives, the likes of which you can almost
certainly find in your own kitchen.

6 Worst Ingredients In Soap—And What To Look For Instead



Coming Clean
About Soap

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