Is soap vegan?
It’s a good question. Cosmetics today have complicated recipes, and hidden animal ingredients seem to be everywhere. The truth is, there are plenty of commercial soaps that are not vegan. But there are also many that are.
And if you want to make your own vegan soap, well, you can do that too.
How is Soap Made?
It’s actually pretty interesting.
At the most essential level, soap is a salt. Yes, you read that correctly. Soap is a salt that’s produced by a chemical reaction between an alkali metal and a fatty acid.
The kind of soap that we use to wash ourselves also contains either sodium hydroxide (lye) or potassium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is used to make hard soap, while potassium hydroxide is used to make liquid soap.
To make the most basic soap, one combines fat with lye. The fats can be animal fats or vegetable fats, for example olive oil, coconut oil, castor oil, or similar. Many soaps also have ingredients like essential oils, that add scent or color.
The ensuing chemical reaction, saponification, releases the salt, that is, the soap.
There are two basic soapmaking methods: hot process and cold process.
Hot process soap making uses external heat to accelerate the process. Hot process soap bars can often be used the next day.
Cold process soap making relies on the heat from the chemical reaction itself. Cold process bars may take several weeks to harden.
How Soap Works
Have you ever noticed how water can wash away some types of dirt, but not others?
The chemical composition of soap allows it to cut through certain types of dirt, like oils, that aren’t soluble in water. The soap molecules encase the particles of dirt so that you can wash the dirt away.
Vegan Soaps vs. Animal Based Soaps
Many commercial soaps contain animal derived ingredients, particularly when it comes to the fat used. Vegan soap, on the other hand, uses only plant based ingredients. Also, vegan soaps are cruelty free. We’ll discuss both of these in depth in a bit.
Can You Make Your Own Vegan Soap?
Of course you can! The process can be a bit complicated, and it’s important to take the appropriate safety measures. However, many people make their own vegan soap, and you can too.
This video shows one method.
What Makes Many Soaps Non-Vegan?
There are two primary things that keep a soap from being vegan: animal derived ingredients and animal testing. Many vegans also object to the use of palm oil.
Traditional soap is often made using animal fats. Tallow, which is rendered fat from cows, pigs, or sheep, was once a common ingredient in soap.
There are other animal ingredients, particularly animal fat derivatives that appear in soaps and cosmetics, and we’ll discuss these more below.
Vegans also object to animal testing and medical experiments done on animals. The fact is, when it comes to soap and cosmetics, animal testing just isn’t necessary.
We won’t go into exactly how companies test their products on animals; you can investigate that for yourself. Suffice it to say that if most people knew exactly what went into the animal testing process, most people would choose vegan soap.
But how do you make sure that your vegan friendly soaps and cosmetics are also cruelty free?
A good place to start is with PETA’s list of brands that are certified cruelty free. (1)
You can also check the product packaging for cruelty free certification, like these.
The Leaping Bunny Program is the only internationally recognized cruelty free certification organization. Certified companies must provide evidence that their products are free of animal testing at every stage of production. Companies must recertify every year, and Leaping Bunny updates their list of companies once a week. (2)
PETA’s certifying organization is called Beauty Without Bunnies. Certification from Beauty Without Bunnies means that a product is free of both animal testing and the use of animal products. (3)
Choose Cruelty Free (CCF) is Australia’s cruelty free certification organization. Certified companies must enter into a legally binding contract stating that their products are not tested on animals, and that the suppliers of their ingredients also do not test on animals. In addition, they have very strict guidelines against animal ingredients. (4)
Palm oil isn’t an animal fat. It comes from the fruit of the oil palm plant. However, the production of this vegetable based oil is anything but vegan friendly. And for this reason, many producers will not use palm oil in a vegan soap recipe. (5)
In addition to the oil itself, palm oil has over 600 derivatives to watch out for. And sometimes palm oils simply appear as “vegetable oil” in the ingredients list. As you can see, it can be quite difficult to avoid, or even detect this ingredient. (6)
If you want to avoid palm oil and its derivatives, check your product’s packaging for certification by the International Palm Oil Free Certification Organization (POFCAP). (7)
Sustainable palm oil is another option. If a product is certified by RSPO (the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), it means that the palm oils and derivatives in the product were made:
- Without clearing forests
- With transparent procedures and supply chains
- While maintaining worker rights and protections
- With an eye toward minimizing the company’s carbon footprint
- While limiting planting on peat lands
In addition, certified companies pledge to create additional wildlife zones. (8)
Are Bar Soaps and Liquid Soaps Made With the Same Ingredients?
The alkali metal in bar soaps is called sodium hydroxide. The alkali metal in liquid soaps is potassium hydroxide.
This is the main difference, though individual raw materials can and do vary from recipe to recipe.
Non-Vegan Soap Ingredients to Look Out For
So you want to avoid animal based ingredients. The first thing to do is to know what they’re called, because often it’s not obvious from the name alone.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. But here are the major ones.
The clue is in the name: Caprylic. If you think it sounds like Capricorn, the goat, you’re right. Caprylic acid is found in goat’s milk, but also in cow’s milk.
There are vegan sources of Caprylic Acid, however, including coconut oil and, unfortunately, palm oil.
- Caprylic Triglyceride
- Caprylamine Oxide
- Capryl Betaine
- Capryl Glucoside
- Caprylic-capric triglycerides
- Caprylic-capric-stearic triglyceride
- Capryloyl glycine
- Caprylyl glycol
If the product packaging indicates that the caprylic acid in your soap comes from a non-animal source, this is a good start. Better yet that it comes from a palm-free source or sustainable palm source.
Stearic acid is another fatty acid used in soaps. It comes from the fat of cows, pigs, sheep, and other mammals. There are also vegetable sources of stearic acid, including coconut oil, and, yes, palm oils.
Stearic acid derivatives include:
- Stearic Hydrazide
- Stearoyl Lactylic Acid
- Stearyl Betaine
- Stearyl Imidazoline
To ensure that your soap is vegan friendly, check your label for sustainability and cruelty free certifications.
Fatty acids are one of the two raw ingredients used to make soap. Many commercial soap brands derive their fatty acids from animal products. However, vegan soap makers will take their fatty acids from vegetable sources.
Sodium stearate is the salt of stearic acid. It can come from either animal or vegetable sources. To be certain that your soap is using a plant based sodium stearate, look for Vegan or cruelty free certification.
Sodium tallowate is a salt derived specifically from tallow, which is rendered animal fat.
Bees secrete wax from glands in their abdomens. They then use this wax to create the honeycomb. Vegans object to both beeswax and honey because the harvest of both can harm bees.
Although many beekeepers love their bees and take good care of them, large-scale industrial production often relies on machinery to do the work, and bees can be injured or killed in the process.
Harvesting honey, like harvesting beeswax, can harm the bees that produced it.
First, honey is the food that bees need. Commercial honey producers often replace this food with lower-quality sugar water, which doesn’t provide the nutrition that the bees need for optimal health.
Also, many producers clip the wings of queen bees so that they can’t fly away and start a new hive.
Removing the honeycomb frames during harvest can also injure or kill bees.
Glycerol (aka Glycerin)
Glycerin (Glycerol) is a byproduct of soap manufacture, and can be an additional ingredient in soaps. Glycerin can either be animal derived or plant derived.
Palm oil is plant based. However, its production has been devastating for the environment and for the habitats of numerous species. For this reason, many vegans avoid it.
Palmitic acid is the fatty acid derived from palm oil.
Oleic acid is another fatty acid used in soap production. It can come from plant sources, such as olive oil and canola oil. It can also come from animal sources.
Lecithin (Choline Bitartrate)
Lecithin is the name of a group of chemicals called phospholipids. It can come from animal sources, but it can also come from soybeans and green vegetables.
A List of Popular Vegan Soap Brands
Here are some popular cruelty free vegan soaps that you can easily find online or at your favorite health food store. And if it’s handwash you’re after, check out our roundup of our favorite cruelty free handwash brands.
As you can see, soap is a lot more complicated than its recipe!
Not all soaps are vegan, but plenty are. To be sure that your soap is vegan friendly, look for the right certifications. Cruelty free certification is a good start, but also look for evidence that the product is free of animal products and palm oils.
What’s your favorite vegan soap brand? Tell us about it!
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About The Author:
Jess Faraday is a vegetarian from a family of vegetarians. A recent vegan, she wants to spread the word about the benefits of plant-based eating for health, for animals, and for the planet.
- PETA | Searchable Cruelty Free Database | https://crueltyfree.peta.org
- Leaping Bunny Program | Home Page | https://www.leapingbunny.org
- Beauty Without Bunnies | Home Page | https://www.peta.org/living/personal-care-fashion/beauty-without-bunnies/
- Cruelty Free International | Choose Cruelty Free Australia Joins Cruelty Free International Family | https://crueltyfreeinternational.org/latest-news-and-updates/choose-cruelty-free-australia-joins-cruelty-free-international-family
- BBC | What is Palm Oil and Why is it Thought to be Bad? | https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/39492207
- International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark | Alternate Names for Palm Oil | https://www.palmoilfreecertification.org/alternate-names-for-palm-oil
- International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark | Certification | https://www.palmoilfreecertification.org/certification-2
- RSPO | Certification | https://www.rspo.org/certification