What is Castile soap?

I came across castile soap when searching for palm oil-free soap options. Castile soap is the name of a soap originating from Spain made from olive oil. I soon discovered that it is a lot easier to be an environmentally-friendly consumer by replacing the cleaners in my home with castile soap.

A bit about soap

A natural soap can be industrially manufactured or homemade using traditional soap-making methods with oil (or fat) and lye. Any oil can be used, such as olive oil, sunflower oil, or coconut oil, but also palm oil. Animal products such as tallow, butter and milk can also be used, for example in goats milk soaps. Different oils give the soap different characteristics such as hardness, lather and moisturisation. Soap made primarily with olive oil is often referred to as castile soap, however purists would insist that only 100% olive oil soaps, or pure castile soap, should be called so.

Palm oil is frequently used in soap because it is cheap and produces a hard soap with a bubbly lather (though harsher on skin). In contrast, soap made entirely from olive oil, while being very moisturising, is soft, doesn’t lather as much as modern consumers are used to and tends to go “slimy” … It dissolves and melts away easily. This property can be improved by curing the soap longer but this is not desirable to commercial producers.

Natural soap can be made in two forms: the solid bar we’re used to, but also a liquid form. When primarily made with olive oil the liquid soap is known as liquid castile soap. Solid soap is made by reacting oils and fats with sodium hydroxide, while liquid soap is produced by reacting the oils and fats with potassium hydroxide. This actually makes a “paste” which is further diluted in water to make a liquid. Both forms are useful to make alternatives for body soap, face soaps, shampoo, liquid hand and body washes, cleaners and laundry soap.

The difference between natural soap and commercial soap

Most commercial cleaners are detergents

Most of the cleaners that are in our house today, from liquid handwash, shampoo, laundry soap and even bar soaps are not “soap”, but rather synthetic detergents. The major advantage of detergents is that their effectiveness doesn’t deteriorate as much as soap does in hard water. The problem with detergents are that they are manufactured from hydrocarbons (benzene and alkanes) and unlike soap manufactured from botanical oils and animal fats, they are not readily biodegradable. Commercial cleaners also usually contain a host of other ingredients, which are either synthetic chemicals, like perfumes, or are derived from palm oil, like SLS, glycerine, cetyl alcohol, and steareth-20.

Most cleaners are manufactured with palm oil or palm-oil derived ingredients

Even if the cleaners do use soap rather than detergent, palm oil is usually the primary ingredient because it is very cheap (and no wonder, because producers don’t have to buy or maintain the land used, they just illegally decimate more jungle to grow it). Beware your “environmentally friendly” cleaners and beauty products, too! Even most “environmentally friendly” cleaners and toiletries contain palm oil either in the soap or in other ingredients. Unless they state that they are palm oil-free they are sure to be made with ingredients derived from palm oil and even then the consumer cannot be sure (there is a great blog on this by Mokosh). Being palm oil-free is not a requirement of any natural or environmentally friendly product standard. Being able to discern the raw ingredients that go into the product is the major advantage of castile and other natural soaps for consumers . The ingredients list of a natural soap should read like the ingredients list of a food product, specifying the exact oils, liquids, essential oils, botanical extracts, clays etc used in the soap making.

Most commercial soaps have the glycerine removed and are harsher on the skin

Another difference between natural and commercial soaps is that the glycerine is usually removed from the latter. Glycerine is a byproduct of the saponification reaction that remains embedded in the soap after the reaction. Glycerine left in the soap adds to its gentleness on skin; without it, soaps are much harsher. Manufacturers choose the separate the glycerine out and sell it separately because it is valuable in a variety of other beauty and cleaning products. A traditionally manufactured or handmade soap will still have the glycerine incorporated making them better for your skin.

Why castile soap?

At the end of the day, a palm oil-free natural soap is more sustainable than any hydrocarbon-based and palm oil-derived commercial detergent. While natural soaps can be made from many different oils, it makes sense to choose castile soap in olive-growing areas like Australia. Castile soap has the added advantage of being gentle on skin. I think that most people can learn to live with its faults. Storing soap a long time before using it, getting used to less lather and making sure the soap is kept on a rack to allow it to dry better between uses is all the effort required.

So while consumers need to be a little discerning about who they buy their castile soap from, it is relatively easy to select palm oil-free soap. Even better, users can actually make their own soap from scratch!

Where I buy castile soap

Willows Natural Products (local) http://willowsnaturalproducts.com/

Willows provides a range of household cleaning and body products including options to buy plain soaps in bulk that you can customise, especially liquid castile soaps. Made in Australia.

Red Gum Soaps (local) http://redgumsoaps.com.au/

Red Gum bar soaps are pure olive oil. You can buy 10 bar packs for $50. I recommend buying in bulk and allowing the soap to cure more. The first few soaps may dissolve more readily but after that the subsequent soaps will be longer lasting.

Dr Bronners http://www.drbronner.com.au/

Is a US brand of bar and liquid castille soap which is relatively easy to find in Australia now. Check out your local health food shop.

Making my own castile soap

I’ve only just started my soap making journey so I’m not going to write any how-to blogs on it. I highly recommend that you get a good book, read it thoroughly and then get someone to show you. I can recommend this one.

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