Who Gave Soap a Bad Name?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

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.
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