What Is Biodegradable Soap?

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on October 06, 2022
5 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic brought on a drastic increase in handwashing practices. Soaps and sanitizers became more important than ever. Handwashing and other sanitation measures ensured our safety from the coronavirus, but can we say the same for the environment? 

Research shows that the improper disposal of soap remnants can contaminate the surrounding soil and groundwater. 

The soap and detergent production industries are also great contributors to air pollution. The petroleum compounds used for making household cleaning products like detergents are volatile. These compounds easily spread into the air and dust, polluting the environment and endangering our health.

Not just the pandemic but even regular outdoor activities like using soaps for camping can lead to environmental pollution. Looking for sustainable, eco-friendly alternatives is the need of the hour. Read on to learn more about biodegradable soaps, their uses, benefits, and how to choose them.

Biodegradable soaps have fewer chemical additives and synthetic components. So, they decompose quickly and break down naturally without harming the environment.

Regular soaps have synthetic surfactants of petrochemical origin, whereas biodegradable soaps contain surfactants of natural origin like vegetable and animal fats. Surfactants lower the surface tension of the water and act as foaming agents. Once the soap suds of regular soaps enter water bodies, they can damage the mucus layer of aquatic animals. 

The phosphates, antibacterial and antifungal agents, fragrances, and preservatives in regular soaps can harm naturally occurring bacteria and algae, damaging the ecosystem.

In contrast, herbal soaps are made from natural materials without any harmful ingredients. However, all-natural products can only be considered biodegradable if they break down to 90% water, carbon dioxide, and biomass within six months. Yet, some materials may take years to biodegrade.

Biodegradable soap bars can be made from a host of ingredients in nature. While commercial herbal soap products are available, you can take this opportunity to get creative by making your own biodegradable soap.

You could use naturally occurring soap nuts (or soapberries), which are the fruit of the Sapindus tree. They're organic, scent-free, biodegradable, gentle, and free of toxins. Soap nut shells contain a large quantity of surfactants called saponins. They can be used as biodegradable dish soaps and detergents. The remnant shells can be used for composting, resulting in zero wastage.

Other ingredients you can use to make biodegradable soaps include lye (sodium hydroxide) and natural oils like palm oil and coconut oil. You can also add dried flowers or berries for natural scents and colors.

Biodegradable soaps are sustainable and inexpensive since they’re made from naturally available materials using simple production techniques. Here are some of the key benefits of using biodegradable soaps:

1. Improved water quality

Soap surfactants consisting of harmful chemicals contaminate the water through soap suds. High concentrations of these detergents can reduce oxygen penetration into the water, affecting aquatic life. They also alter the chemical properties of water. Using biodegradable soaps can keep this from happening since they don’t contain any chemical additives, so the soap suds aren’t as harmful.

2. Minimal exposure to harmful chemicals

Regular soaps contain harmful ingredients like triclosan and sulfates (SLS and SLES), which can cause skin irritation. They also contain parabens, which animal studies have shown to have harmful effects.

3. Enhanced skin and hair quality

Many natural soaps contain phytonutrients, including vitamins, proteins, and other bioactive ingredients, which nourish the skin and hair and help protect against health problems. 

4. Rich in antioxidants

Organic soaps are rich in antioxidants, which act as preservatives and can potentially improve their shelf life. This is better for your health than exposure to hazardous chemicals used as preservatives in soaps made from synthetic compounds.

5. Prevent animal cruelty

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration consistently advises animal testing for domestic products like cosmetics. With eco-friendly products, you can protect animals, as most of these manufacturers have humane and cruelty-free approaches. Natural products generally don’t require any testing, but even if tested, they’re unlikely to have any harmful effects.

6. Decreased environmental pollution

The use of biodegradable ingredients minimizes the pollution caused by the extensive mixing of large quantities of soap suds into the environment. The production process of natural soaps is also considerably environment-friendly.

Here’s everything you need to know before selecting the right biodegradable soap for you.

Opt for SLS-free and SLES-free products because these ingredients are associated with skin irritation, allergies, and rashes.

Avoid products with added artificial fragrances and dyes, as these can be an additional source of chemicals, slowing down the decomposition and contributing to environmental pollution.

Choose products that don’t contain parabens because these preservatives and the associated compounds can act like the hormone estrogen, resulting in many potential health hazards.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you need to check the duration and what conditions are required for your selected product to break down as this period may range from days to years. You also need to make sure that the breakdown products are not toxic or harmful in any way.

Natural soaps are usually used as biodegradable body soaps or hand soaps. They might not be strong cleansers and as effective as regular detergents. They also require more stamina to wash off because they don’t contain any synthetic surfactants, which make it easy to foam and detach from the surface.

Biodegradable soaps have a relatively short life, as they don’t contain any artificial preservatives. This is generally a good thing, as it ensures rapid breakdown, but it also means that you can't buy them in bulk or store them for too long.

Just because a soap is biodegradable, you shouldn't put it directly into the water, especially near public water sources. It can still affect the chemistry of water bodies and harm aquatic organisms. When outdoors, use any soap at least 30 meters away from the main water body. Dispose of your soap suds and bath water into a 6-inch-deep hole so that the organisms in the soil can quickly biodegrade it and prevent contamination of drinking water sources.

Biodegradable soaps give us an opportunity to minimize our carbon footprint simply and effectively. Not only is this good for the environment, but it’s also great for your health and well-being.