jabon o detergente

Soap or detergent?

Nowadays, it is quite commonplace to talk about “soap” when referring to any clothes cleaning product, regardless of it being liquid, gel or powder. However, being aware of the main differences between soap and detergent is important. Handcraft-made soap is an ancient cleaning agent whose main ingredients come from plant materials after saponification based on an alkali, which is usually sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) or potassium hydroxide (caustic potash), which generates 100% biodegradable soap with excellent properties to clean clothes. Depending on the alkali employed, solid soaps can be obtained that are widely used for cleaning hands (bars of soap) or are more of a liquid kind. Liquid-type soaps can be used as liquid stain removers, and also as an ingredient in new natural detergents based on the cleaning power of such plant soap as an active reference material.

Despite many people’s beliefs, using caustic soda or caustic potash in soap compositions does not make soap dangerous or “unnatural”, the exact opposite is true. It is an essential compound used in conventional soap without which soap cannot be produced. Plant fatty acids and alkalis (caustic soda and/or caustic potash) are completely transformed and are no longer present in the end product to give way to the salt of plant fatty acids (soap), along with plant glycerine, with great moisturising power that prevents fabrics from being degraded, among others. The composition of the so-called “caustic potash-less” soaps is made from synthetic ingredients, which remain in the manufactured product (e.g., sodium laureth sulphate, disodium laureth sulphosuccinate, ammonium laureth sulphate, cocamide MEA, methylparaben, propylparaben, benzyl alcohol, etc.).

Detergent as we know it today began to become popular during World War II when the fats and oils needed to produce soaps became scarce. New chemical ingredients, the so-called surfactants, started to replace conventional soaps. What this change managed to do was to obtain similar cleaning results with much more economical products that were easy to produce. These were the reasons why detergents appeared, and they still remain despite the subsequent recovery.

These new chemical components of a petro-chemical origin (present in the first detergents, and also in those produced today) generate a bigger environmental footprint in ecosystems. Conventional detergents are neither compatible with respect for the natural environment, nor associated with healthy environments. In line with EC Regulation No. 1272/2008, which came into effect in June 2015 on the classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures, the chemical sectors’ implication in reducing certain contaminating substances in the formulae of its products, including detergents, has been notable. Notwithstanding, many brand names usually add ingredients and additives to their formulae which, despite helping to improve the efficacy of their products, are still incompatible with 100% natural healthy lifestyle and environmental habits. These include enzymes with synthetic co-formulants that derive from boron, among others, whose presence is increasing. However, some petro-chemical-based ingredients also remain that come as surfactants, optical whiteners, additives, synthetic preservatives, etc.

A hopeful advance has been made in recent years with the appearance of new eco-detergents on the market, whose main difference versus conventional ones lies in the origin of their ingredients. Eco-detergents opt for “green chemistry” ingredients whose origin is not petro-chemical, and even the most advanced ones, are obtained from plant or natural resources not used for food production; e.g., inedible parts like rice and cereal husks, nut skins, etc.

As part of the large offer of cleaning products now available, it is worthwhile opting for those alternatives that respect public health and the natural environment that are also efficient, like products based on natural soap-making and/or eco-detergents. To identify these characteristics, it is necessary to read their labels and to verify: 1/ the guarantee offered by the eco-certification; 2/ a transparent composition that indicates the % of natural ingredients and/or them being of 100% natural plant origin; 3/ lack of pictograms of the risks associated with effects on health and/or the natural environment.

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