Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


July 1995
The Dirt on Soap

By Jean Thaler


You rub it on your face and all over your body every day; millions are spent advertising its scent and its purity. Yet, you might not know what went into your bar of soap. Intrepid (and very clean) investigator Jean Thaler rolled up her sleeves to find the dirt on soap.

A Tale of Tallow
In by-product lingo, the fats from the kidney and other organs are called “killing fats” since they are obtained during the slaughter of the hogs, cattle and sheep. The “cutting fats” are the ones removed when the carcasses are parcelled up. Pork lard comes mostly from the fatty layers in the back and in the belly muscles. Pieces of fat are rendered into oil by heating them.

Since we are going to put this grease into our food or candles or onto our faces, we’ll call it tallow. Be assured that the fats in food come from fresh and clean animals, and in any case these fats have been deodorized by steaming. In this country, the fats from downed or otherwise disqualified animals are banned from human consumption. In food, that is.

If you bought your bar of soap at your grocery, notice that the first ingredient is sodium tallowate. The soap was produced from a mixture of mostly inedible tallows with coconut oils, the tallows comprising 75-85% of the fat.

I asked a customer service rep at Proctor & Gamble: “Why do ads for Ivory Soap call it ‘pure’?”

“Ivory Soap has no colorants or other additives. It’s just soap.” 

“What do you mean by ‘just soap’?”

“Ivory Soap is made just from animal fat and vegetable oil.”

“Can’t it be made from vegetable oil alone?”

“Ivory Soap wouldn’t work, wouldn’t serve any purpose, without the animal fat.”

Wrong. Soap is sodium salts of fat, which are produced, along with glycerol, when fat reacts with caustic soda or lye. This chemical reaction is called saponification. Cattle, whales, vegetables, seaweed, synthetic compounds and Holocaust martyrs all have been turned into soap.

Today’s soap factories look like petroleum refineries, on a smaller scale. Fatty gravies are boiled then dried in awesome arrays of vats and tubes. To produce opaque soaps, glycerol and other by-products of saponification are pulled out. To produce transparent soaps, nothing is pulled out, and sugar solutions may be added to increase the clarity. In the transparent process, if potash replaces the caustic soda, the result is liquid soap. Nothing about the modern process requires that the fat come from animals.

From the manufacturer’s point of view, the advantage of tallow is its much lower cost. Arguably, some consumers could notice that soaps from tallow tend to be harder, due to tallow’s higher boiling point.

Tradition is another reason soap production depends so heavily on tallow. Fats from animals were almost always the most easily extracted. Soaps made out of tallow and of lye from wood ashes are believed to date back 5000 years. Tallow soaps were consumed by Romans, documented by Pliny and Galen, revived in the cities of medieval Europe.

Tallow soaps have been popular in America since the colonial period. They became well-known in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but taxes kept the prices high despite falling costs of production. In fact, the English tax was not repealed until 1853.

Proctor and Gamble has set the tone for the soap industry since 1938, when it introduced a technology that could produce bars of soap in a matter of hours. Now P&G spearheads campaigns to convince the public that product-testing on animals is necessary and humane.

According to In Defense of Animals, Proctor & Gamble kills over 50,000 animals a year in product testing. Toxic chemicals are force-fed to dogs, dripped into the eyes of rabbits, and applied to the shaved skin of guinea pigs. Without sedation or painkillers. It is only the fear of liability litigation which perpetuates these tests — they are not required by law or regulation.

On a personal note, I urge my fellow Jewish vegetarians to wash cruelty-free, to be truly kosher inside and out. In the Kosher laws of Judaism, any prolongation of the animal’s death agony makes meat unclean. Technically, these laws do not apply to soap, except for dishwashing detergent. To me, all meat and meat-based soap is unclean. To persons of all persuasions, I leave you with this line from a hard-core band, Dead Silence: “I want this to sink into your head/The face you wear is leaving animals dead.”

Please use clean soap.

A Guide to Cruelty-Free Soaps

Prices per 4.2 oz bar of soap:
I (inexpensive — $1 and under)
M (moderate — $2.50 and under)
E (expensive — over $2.50)

Opaque Soaps
Most opaque soaps contain tallow. Vegan ones are white if they derive from coconut and palm oils. For an Ivory look-alike with an exposition on the All-One-God-Faith, try Dr. Bronner’s Almond Soap (M). This soap even smells much the same as Ivory, and it is quite mild. Marseilles Soap (I) is incredibly huge, inexpensive and long-lasting, but it is difficult to find. Aubrey Organics Skin Care Bars (E) have a wonderful perfume and are very mild.

Kiss My Face (I) and the less available Olivea (I) have a wonderful personality. Manufactured in Greece from olive oil, these green soaps are pretty enough, fragrant enough, and I think they are the moistest. I always have a bar of this stuff at home.

Transparent Soaps
Most vegan soaps are transparent. The converse often is not true. Neutrogena, for example, contains tallow. And glycerin, a moisturizer, which is added to many transparent soaps, is a by-product of glycerol. As mentioned above, glycerol can result from the saponification of either tallow or non-animal oils. If ingredients are not shown, do not buy a transparent soap unless its label states that there are no animal by-products.

(M), manufactured in the UK since 1979, is the oldest and best-known transparent soap. Check the label: these soaps can be produced from either tallow or non-animal oils. Pears soaps are among the least mushy and longest lasting. They are hardened by prolonged maturing in stoves. During this process, alcohol and water evaporate, and the bars develop their trademark concavity.

Clearly Natural (I) assured me by letter that its soaps are vegan, although the ingredients are not listed on the wrapper. The colorants come from beta-carotene and chlorophyll; the fragrances also come from plant sources. The coconut and unscented bars have no color added. Glycerin is added for moistness. I have seen prices ranging from 89 cents to $1.29 for 4 ounces.

The German glycerin soaps are also very mild. San Francisco Soap Company (M) imports beautifully colored and fragrant soaps, which would make elegant gifts. Ingredients are not listed, and I suspect artificial colorants. Kappus (M) indicates that color is added; I do not know whether the source is artificial.

The Body Shop (M) sells vegan transparent soaps and milk-based opaque soaps. The best buy is the gift package of three transparent soaps for $5. None of the Body Shop’s products are tested on animals.

Liquid Soaps
Good News! Many liquid soaps dispensed in public bathrooms or sold at groceries are vegan. Liquid soaps are potassium salts of coconut or olive oil which have been diluted with water and alcohol.

I recommend soaps produced by companies that do not test on animals. Buy Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap (I) to clean body-mind-soul-spirit instantly uniting All-One! Because absolute cleanliness is Godliness! And it’s a fabulous buy at $8 for 32 fluid ounces.

Liquid soaps by Kiss My Face (I) and Nature’s Gate (I) are slightly more expensive, probably because they are packaged in smaller, nicer containers for sink-top display.

A Word to the Dry-Skinned
There is a trade-off between cleanliness and moistness. Soaps are slightly alkaline, especially those made from coconut and palm oils. In other words, you might want to apply lotion after you wash. Unsaponified oils are added to some tallow soaps, such as Dove, to reduce the drying effect. To my knowledge, “super-fatted” soaps are not available in vegan brands. However, many vegan soaps do contain moisturizing glycerin. In my experience, the moistest vegan soaps are the humble ones made from olive oil. Castille liquid soap too is made from olive oil.

Note that the moister soaps tend to get mushy on flat surfaces. Keep them in a small straw basket, and they’ll stay handsome. To people blessed with oily skin: according to one book I read, tallow has been implicated in blackheads. In my wildest dreams, I become convinced of this fun fact.

Jean Thaler is founder of Big Apple Vegetarians. She is an animal and human rights activist who lives in Brooklyn.



All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.