The Lack of Truth in Soap Marketing - Natural or Organic?

Posted by Rob Cosgrove on Nov 24th 2016

It’s unfortunate that most of us believe anything we see in ads. Use the right type font, marketing integration and a proper campaign, and you can make 9 out of 10 people believe anything you say, and buy whatever you are selling. Unfortunately some soap makers misuse the terms “natural” and “organic” to try to sell products that are neither.

There are very strict regulations on the use of the term “organic” on soap labels and websites. It is straight out illegal to print “organic” on products that are not truly organic. It is illegal to claim a product is organic (when it isn’t) on websites, labeling and all other advertising.

There are fewer limits on the use of the word “natural”, however, and some soap companies use the term liberally (and mostly misleadingly) when they can’t use the word “organic”.

Perhaps out of just plain ignorance (and hopefully not out of malice or fraud) some soap companies use these holistic-sounding terms in an attempt to lure customers.

Misuse of the word “Natural”

The Natural Ingredient Resource Center (NIRC) , of which C&L is a member, defines “natural” this way:

The NIRC guidelines are that in order for products to be labeled as “Natural,” 95% of the ingredients must fit the NIRC criteria for natural ingredients. The remaining 5% may come from ingredients that do not meet the NIRC Criteria for natural, and which DO NOT include synthetic fragrances, artificial colors or ingredients from petrochemicals. The toxicity of each ingredient must be minimal. All percentages are based upon weight.

The NIRC further defines guidelines for the use of the term “natural” in advertising “True Soap”.

  • “True Soap” may be labeled as “natural soap” ONLY if the ingredients that go into the soap are lye plus 100% natural ingredients, according to the NIRC Criteria for natural ingredients.
  • “True Soap” may be labeled as “natural soap” ONLY if all of the ingredients are listed. We require that “True Soap”, labeled as “natural soap”, have ingredient labeling in order to help prevent the misuse of the “natural soap” label.
  • Soap labeled as “natural soap” may not contain the addition of any synthetic or artificial ingredients including but not limited to artificial colors, synthetic fragrances, man-made vitamins, solvent extracted oils or additional glycerin.
  • Please see: “Is there such a thing as “Natural Soap”?”

There are two common ways to add scent to soap. One uses truly all natural essential oils, pressed or steamed directly from the plant they smell like. Some examples are lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, and tea tree. Essential oils are generally more expensive to use than fragrance oils, and many are certified organic. Essential oils have a real therapeutic effect, containing sometimes hundreds of natural compounds from plants, and can be used holistically.

The fragrance oils commonly used in soap making are NOT natural or organic. They are mixtures of chemicals concocted in a lab. Some resemble natural essential oil scents, but many have no counterpart in nature at all. These include copycats of many popular commercial perfumes.

Some soap companies mislead customers by using fragrance oils to scent their products, and then claim that their soaps are all made with essential oils, or that they are “natural”.

The inexpensive fragrance oils used in soap making (if you want to sell your soaps at a reasonable price) are unnatural and fake. [read more here] . Essential oils are real, natural oils extracted from plant material.

There are some expensive fragrance oils actually made from plant extracts called “natural isolates” – chemicals isolated from plant materials. These types of fragrance oils can be considered “natural”, sort-of, but they are far too expensive to be used in soap making.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using fragrance oils in soap making, as long as you identify them as fragrance oils, and you don’t use the word “natural”. For some scents, there’s just no reasonable alternative. For example, if you want a soap to smell like almond and sell for a reasonably affordable price, you MUST use almond fragrance oil. There is no affordable almond essential oil for soap making. Same with apple, pear, and many other scents.

Sometimes it is actually environmentally responsible to use a fragrance oil instead of the real natural essential oil. For example, Indian sandalwood. Sandalwood is a very popular scent used by itself and mixed with other scents. Natural sandalwood essential oil is available. However, the high demand for the scent is damaging the environment where Indian sandalwood tree grows, and the tree is now endangered. Since most people cannot tell the difference between the all-natural (but environmentally unsound) sandalwood essential oil and its fragrance oil counterpart, most soap makers use sandalwood fragrance oil out of a sense of responsibility for the environment.

Responsible soap makers will label their products accordingly. If they use a fragrance oil, they will list it as “fragrance oil” on the label.

At C&L we clearly label our products with “FO” or “EO” to indicate that they are scented with a fragrance oil or an essential oil.

There are many companies who sell fragrance oils that have been formulated to smell exactly like their more expensive (and legally trademarked) models. Sometimes they’re even named the same as the product they are ripping off. Soap makers can buy rippoffs of most popular commercial fragrances at prices that make them cost effective choices for soap making, if you don’t mind the questionable morals of doing so.

Check out the following link for “Hickory Grove Aromatics”. They sell ripoff fragrance oils that can be used in soaps.

You can see that one of these fragrance oils is described as “ A fresh citrus aroma with a warm musky subtleness and a seductive attitude. Fresh Citrus, Sheer Floral, Warm Musk, Cedarwood and Vetiver ”.

They use words that sound natural and organic to describe this completely fake, produced-in-a-laboratory concoction, and often soap makers will directly copy descriptions like this from their vendors to use on their own websites. There’s nothing “organic” or “natural” about it.

Sometimes soap companies who use these fake scents will name their soaps exactly the same as the fragrance oil they are using.

Ask your soap maker if he uses fragrance oils or essential oils. Look at the label. Know the difference.

Misuse of “Organic”

It is fraudulent and illegal to misuse the term “organic”, but because there are no “organic labeling police” for the soap business, these companies go unchecked. The use of the word “organic” in personal care products, especially for small local companies, is hardly ever held to the same standards as its use on food products.

According to regulations, products can be labeled “organic” only if they contain 95% to 99% organically grown and processed ingredients (except for water and salt) and only if the products (soap) are produced by a certified organic company. The remaining 1% to 5% of ingredients MUST be listed on the USDA’s approved ingredients list for non-agricultural substances.

The lie about lye

All handmade hard soaps are made with sodium hydroxide (lye) PERIOD. There is no other way to hand make hard soaps.

The basic chemistry used to make hard soap requires about 8.5% to 12% sodium hydroxide lye by weight. Otherwise it won’t make hard soap. This is much greater than the 5% of “non-agricultural substances” allowed by the USDA. So, there are no 100% organic hard soaps. Period.

Believe me, I’ve tried it. There is absolutely no way to make a hard bar of soap by using only 5% lye. If you’re buying hard bar soap, it WAS made with somewhere around 10% lye. Of course after soap cures there is no lye left, however, the law still requires us to consider the percentage of lye as part of the test for organic products.

Here’s the law: Among other requirements, a personal care product can be labeled “organic” only if the company selling it uses all certified organic raw materials, from companies that hold organic certification, and only if the company manufacturing the product ITSELF holds an organic certification from the National Organic Program (NOP) of the USDA, and its complete manufacturing process is inspected on-site regularly and recertified by a USDA inspector.

Organic certification is a very expensive and time consuming process. It costs thousands of dollars and requires exhaustive bookkeeping and reporting, and very special procedures for handling raw materials and finished products. It is completely out of reach of any local soap company that I know of.

If a company uses SOME organic materials in its soap it may legally say something like “Made with Organic Coconut Oil and Cocoa Butter” but it MAY NOT call a soap, “Rosemary Mint Essential Oil Organic Soap”.

In fact, the USDA pays special attention to companies who misuse the word “organic” in an actual product name or company name.

Claims of “organic” are also made on some websites, independent of specific products. You can find statements like this one:

“All of our ingredients are organic, natural, and come from the earth and not the lab.”

As I have noted above, sodium hydroxide lye (which is not organic) is ALWAYS used to make hard soap.

There are basically two types of lye. Hard bar soap is made with sodium hydroxide. Soft soaps and liquid soaps are made with potassium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide can be produced organically by leaching wood ashes with a high potash content, and this is how primitive soap was made a long time ago before sodium hydroxide was common. Potassium hydroxide is still used to make liquid soaps, but hard bar soaps MUST be made with sodium hydroxide. ALL handmade hard bar soaps are made with sodium hydroxide lye.

There is no such thing as organic sodium hydroxide lye . It simply does not exist. Sodium hydroxide is created as a byproduct of the industrial process of chlorine production . It is DEFINITELY not “from the earth.”

So, if a company is making hard bar soap, then they are using sodium hydroxide, and therefore all of their ingredients are definitely not organic.

In an attempt to sound holistic and natural, one website claimed that lye is “a fancy word for water filtered through wood ash” . While technically true, this company sells hard bar soaps, and so they MUST be using the non-organic sodium hydroxide form of lye.

(The fancy word for water filtered through wood ash is actually “ potassium hydroxide” which is not used to make hard bar soap.)

At Cosgrove & Lewis all of our products and advertising are honest. We never use the terms “organic” or “natural” for products that are not. I would really like to be able to tell you to simply ask your soap vendor if his products are truly natural or organic, but I doubt they’ll tell you the truth if they’ve already lied to you with their advertising and labeling. The best I can tell you is to use your gut feelings and buy from someone you trust.

UPDATE: (28 November 2016) The following two class actions have been filed against soap companies misusing the term "natural".