Who Gave Soap a Bad Name?


Somewhere along the way in recent years, we’ve accepted the idea that soap isn’t good enough. The myth persists that only potent, synthetic antibacterial agents are legitimate cleansers and soap simply isn’t effective.

This idea stems partially from the pursuit of efficiency, the desire for cleanliness, and the promotion from advertisers. Although it is true that products such as these do clear away soap scum faster and kill germs “on contact”, if you look at the long term costs and effects, little time or anything else is saved. Rarely does a product do only one thing, such as kill germs. One very common ingredient, Triclosan, which is in everything from toothpaste to bathroom cleaners to hand wash to socks and cutting boards, has also demonstrated in recent studies the ability to alter hormones and create antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Quite a multitasking product. So, down the road when our bodies get sick or start to malfunction, will the few minutes we saved cleaning the bathroom really matter?

Bronner's soap is strong enough for most around the house cleaning

Dr. Bronner\’s soap is strong enough for most around the house cleaning

The idea that soap doesn’t clean well is also unfounded. Terms such as “antibacterial” actually have carefully regulated definitions. “Antibacterial” means that the product must kill 99.9% of germs. The term “disinfectant” means that the product must kill a mere 99% of germs. Dr. Bronner’s soap is part of the “disinfectant” category. It’s not a term we readily spout out regarding the soap because it sounds so unnatural and not something we want to put on our bodies, but for the purpose of this debate, I’ll use it. Just so you know. So if you’re still really paranoid about germs and suspicious of simple soap, grab hold of a bottle of Tea Tree Castile soap or even a bottle of pure tea tree oil (undiluted this can burn, so use care). Although the US government doesn’t yet recognize it as such, tea tree oil is a naturally occurring antibacterial agent.

In comparing the cost of conventional bathroom cleaners versus a homemade soap solution, both the upfront and long term calculations favor the soap solutions. The recipe I use at the end of this post costs roughly $1.10, compared to an estimate of $2.99 for a bottle of conventional spray cleaner. (These numbers and the recipe are from Karen Logan’s fabulous book, Clean House, Clean Planet. I highly recommend this book for ways to replace toxic conventional products.)

To continue with the evils of conventional cleaners, let’s assume that you wear gloves when using them, so they don’t come into contact with your skin during application. (I rarely remember to wear my gloves, if I even know where I put them. Usually I’m cleaning the bathroom while my kids are in the tub, so I can’t leave the room to find my gloves anyways.) But consider what about the little residue that may be left on the tub, that ends up in the bathwater which the kids inevitably drink as they blow bubbles? What about what might remain on the toilet seat, and be absorbed through the skin of their bottoms? What about the little bit that ends up on the counter, which the kids touch and then eat their sandwiches? What if this happens every day – several times a day – for their entire childhood? How much ends up in their little, developing bodies?

Here’s a great recipe for an all-purpose household cleaner that Karen Logan calls “Merlin’s Magic”:

  • Fill a 16 oz. spray bottle nearly to the top with water. Add 3 Tablespoons of your favorite Dr. Bronner’s castile soap and 20-30 drops of tea tree oil. Shake it well and spray it on bathroom or kitchen surfaces, floors, even dirty little hands if they’re nearby. Wipe off with a damp cloth.

13 thoughts on “Who Gave Soap a Bad Name?

  1. Good to know that the tea tree soap is a natural antibacterial. I was keeping 2 bottles of soap in the kitchen… Dr. B’s for most things and a bottle of harsh antibacterial for when I handled raw meats. Now I can just use the one (by chance is the TT type). Thank you for the info.

  2. Thanks Lisa for all your tips. I have enjoyed watching your videos. Tell me something do u ever wash your face with the soap? I wish there was a line of products for your face.
    Loved all your green ideas.

  3. Carmen – I only use the pure castile soap on my face. I have been through the wringer with facial products – trying everything from conventional stuff to the stuff only available through dermatologists. Then I returned to Dr. B’s pure castile Tea Tree. It cleared up my acne and reduced redness. For the first couple months, my face did feel a little tight, so I followed up with our Lavender Coconut lotion. That worked great, too. Now, I guess my skin has gotten used to the soap because I don’t need the moisturizer anymore. If you want to start with the gentlest and work your way up, try the unscented Baby Mild first.

  4. I’ve been reading on tea tree oil and there’s concern that it too contributes to superbugs. I ended up returning the tea tree Dr. Bronners for baby-mild.

    Low concentrations are a major concern but I think in general, too, just as using alcohol, triclosan, etc.. Over-de-germing is becoming a serious problem and hazard to our health and environment.

    I didn’t save the articles, but here is one: http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/interactive/news/theme_news_detail.php?id=18065009&tab_id=106

  5. btw, just used it on my hair, first time using the product. Wow the lather! My hair is puffed. Seems to have dried my face a bit. I want to use it for housecleaning. Hear it degreases and cleans a tub like nothing else. “Real” soap.

  6. @Jill – Thanks for bringing up this issue. It looks like the research is targeting using tea tree oil alone for disinfecting. However, in our soap, which disinfect on their own already, there’s not going to be this cleansing gap. The tea tree oil adds to the cleaning ability that’s already there. There is a 2% concentration of the essential oil in our soap. If you go greater than that, there are a few other risks. First, tea tree oil can burn at a high concentration. Never touch the oil straight. Also, other concerns have been raised about the oil’s affect on hormone levels, especially in boys and pregnant women. There is no concern over the Dr. Bronner’s levels because our concentration is low, and our product washes off, unlike the oil in a lotion which remains on the skin and is more fully absorbed.

    It’s good to keep learning more about the products we’re using. Thanks for bringing this up!


    • Please help I have MRSA and am looking for natural product to kill the bacteria on my skin. the article warns against any concentration lower than 4% tee tree oil. you say there is only 2% tee tree oil in Dr Bronner’s soap. so does that mean that the Dr Bronner’s soap does not kill MRSA and other bacteria?

  7. Is the soap safe for nursing and pregnancy? I know some essential oils are unsafe during pregnancy?

  8. Hi Tamara – Yes, it is safe during pregnancy. There is some concern with essential oils when they are applied to the skin in higher concentrations and in “leave-on” products such as massage oils or lotions. HOwever, in our soaps, there is a 2% concentration, and it is rinsed off, so very little of the essential oils remain on your skin.

    All the best,

  9. Hi! Is the almond one safe to use to make baby wipes? With 1 3/4 c water boiled and 3 tbsp soap?

  10. Dear Lisa, thankyou for a such lovely blog you have here… ^_^
    anw, it is save using dr.bronners pure baby liquid with eczema skin during pregnancy?
    or do you have any advice for my very dry skin (getting terribly more dry while pregnancy) ?
    thanks a bunch for your reply 🙂

    • Hi Felcia – Thanks! The soap is fantastic and perfectly safe for use during pregnancy. During pregnancy, I remember itching all over, and it was Dr. Bronner’s coconut oil that came to my rescue. I rubbed this on my belly and had my husband do my back.

      Best wishes with your little one!

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