Just What Is Soap, Anyway?


All information in this blog post comes from Marie Gale’s excellent book “Soap & Cosmetic Labeling.

Bubbly bar of soap.

What do you call that bar you use at the sink to wash your hands? What about the one in your shower? Is it soap?

The answer to that question in the U.S. comes down to two things: First, how is the product made? And second, how is the product labeled?

How Is It Made?

Let’s talk about the method of creating soap. The federal Food & Drug Administration defines true soap as “A product in which the non-volatile portion consists principally of an alkali salt of fatty acids.”

This just means soap is the result of mixing sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide (the alkali) with fatty acids such as animal or vegetable fats or even straight fatty acids like stearic acid.

Can there be any other additions to true soap? Sure! Color, fragrance, foam enhancers, and even fillers can be added to soap and it would still be true soap – provided it is still mainly soap.

Soap Labeling Flowchart from “Soap & Cosmetic Labeling” by Marie Gale

How Is It Labeled?

This is where things can get trickier. In order to be true soap, the product must be labeled as soap. It can’t be called a beauty bar or disinfectant. It can’t make a claim like anti-bacterial or moisturizing. True soap’s only purpose is to cleanse or clean.

That brings us to the descriptive words and phrases on a soap label or in promotional verbiage that indicate any intended use beyond getting clean. Bottom line, it’s best to avoid adjectives that describe the soap to avoid being regulated as a cosmetic.

Simply Soap

Even when soap is exempt from being a cosmetic, it is still regulated as a consumer commodity. That means the labeling must comply with the Fair Packaging & Labeling Act at the federal level and possibly some state-level packaging and labeling regulation.

Marie Gale gives this advise:

In most cases, it is the intended use of the product and how it is presented to the consumer that determines what type of product is it. In fact, teh exact same product could be promoted in different ways, making it fall under different regulations.

“When you package, label, and market your product, be aware of what you are communicating as the intended use of the product and thus the regulations that apply.

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About Denise

I'm a crazy goat lady who got into making my own soap with goat milk, found MMS to order supplies, and now I get to combine my love of creating skin care products with a job to pay the feed bill. I live in Alaska and greatly enjoy the unique aspects of my northern home - summer days when it never gets dark and the Northern Lights dancing above in winter. Favorite scents include Wild Mint and Ivy, Rhubarb & Sugar Cane, and Eucalyptus Spearmint.

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