Hand Soap Investigations

By now you may have guessed that I like to cut down on waste. One way to reduce packaging and waste is buying bulk, right? You also save money!

About ten years ago I  cleverly bought a big jug o’ generic hand soap.

Big Jug o' Hand Soap plus Turtle
Big Jug o’ Hand Soap plus Turtle

I probably saved a  lot of money, well at least…several dollars. I have been packing it around from home to home as we rented, then bought, then moved to Hammond. The only trouble is I soon developed a sneaking suspicion that there are toxic chemicals in this stuff.

It has been a classic dilemma.

If I think it is so toxic my wife, kids and I should not be using it then I should pour it down the drain, but pouring it down the drain would poison the water and sea life on the other end of the drain. That would also mean that all those resources that went into creating the product would have been wasted.

If, however, I think it is only a little toxic then I should use it up and make it last and then buy something local and organic next time. Without doing any research on the true toxicology of the soap, that’s what I decided to do.

Since then I have been looking forward to the day it is all gone as if I were waiting for Christmas.

Filling a hand soap dispenser from the Body Shop with cheap stuff may seem like a trick, but really I just want to re-use the dispenser. Really!
Filling a hand soap dispenser from the Body Shop with cheap stuff may seem like a trick to fool our house guests into thinking we run a high class establishment, but really I just want to re-use the dispenser. Really!

Today, I did two things I should have done long ago. I looked up my soap’s ingredients and I de-bunked the myth of kids foaming hand soap.

There are always new studies telling us what hazardous chemicals we are exposed to in our daily lives. A great example of this is the one Anne Leonard talks about in The Story Of Stuff (it’s a great film–you should check it out). You know, the one about how they douse pillows in fire retardants which also happen to be neuro-toxins. Yikes!

It turns out, with the power of the interwebs, you can find out about any of the chemicals in our home environment. The trick is knowing what is a credible source and what isn’t.

Hand soap ingredients look pretty scary
Hand soap ingredients look pretty scary

It is remarkable how quickly Google guessed that I meant sodium laureth sulphate when I started typing. Try it!

Being the main ingredient after water, I assume there is a lot of sodium laureth sulphate in there. Is it safe? Well, it can irritate your skin and eyes, but we knew that right? It’s not a “no tears” soap. More seriously, according to Wikipedia and the David Suzuki Foundation is

Depending on manufacturing processes, sodium laureth sulfate may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane.

Those chemicals are known carcinogens and I take “measurable amounts” to be not good.

I went on in this way and found the first two chemicalswere the most concerning. The second is cocamide DEA. Again, the David Suzuki Foundation seems to provide the most trust-worthy summary.

 In laboratory experiments, exposure to high doses of these chemicals [DEA compounds] has been shown to cause liver cancers and precancerous changes in skin and thyroid.

Finally, at the bottom of the ingredients list is DMDM Hydantoin which can release formaldehyde. Oops!

All of these ingredients are legal in Canada. Similar to building codes, however, “minimum” standards often does not necessarily mean “adequate” standards.

This more in depth information confirmed my decision to use up the last of my Exact hand soap and look for something organic, local and sustainable next time. It is not EXTREMELY toxic, but it is, you know, toxic. When I consider how much of these chemicals we are exposed to throughout our day, the sooner one source is out of our lives, the better.

It took me ten years to look into this, so I thought I would share it with you and save you the time. Comments?

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James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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