SUSTAINABLE SHOWERS: BODY SOAP & LOOFAHS
Today I’m starting a series about a category that several friends have asked me to write about: sustainable personal care products. This is one that I have been hesitant to research as it is an area I know I will have trouble with. However, research is my way of checking out new ideas, so I figured it was time to take the plunge!
The topic today: sustainable bath products, specifically body soaps and loofahs. When I started out writing this post, I planned to cover all shower products, lotion, and a few other personal care products. I then paired it down to only shower products, and after spending over a week working on that piece, I decided to split it further and pair it down (trust me- there is a lot on just loofahs and body soap!).
The goal of this piece is to help readers (and myself) explore options that are more sustainable, which generally means moving away from single use plastic products and products that have potentially contain environmentally damaging chemicals.
1. FIRST STEP
FIRST, before switching to any new products, make sure you finish any products you have before you switch (unless the products you use are toxic or causing detrimental effects, such as breakouts or negative skin effects). The most sustainable step you can take is to finish any product you have completely before buying more, as otherwise this is excessive waste. It is so tempting to go out and buy all new things when starting a new journey, but (as I continually remind myself) living a sustainable life is about consuming less and using what you do consume to the fullest.
Also, when thinking about sustainable products, it is important to consider the whole product (the lifecycle of the item), from the packaging to the contents to the production.
2. Body Soap
There are always several nuances when it comes to sustainable swaps, but fortunately with body soap and body wash, there is a clear answer: bar soap is the best sustainable alternative. This is likely one of the easier swaps, as bar soap is readily available and widely accepted alternative to liquid soap.
But why is bar soap so much better?
First, body soap and body wash are actually different things, technically. Soap is made from a combination of the following ingredients: fats or oils, water, and an alkali ingredient such as lye. Body wash is a detergent, which like soap, but actually contains extra chemicals called surfactants to make the skin extra clean. Soaps and washes can be in either liquid or bar form. Apparently if the label doesn’t say soap, it's likely a detergent.
Body soap is pretty definitively a better choice for several reasons.
Energy: Producing liquid soap detergent/wash takes about five times more energy.
Packaging: Further, many body washes are packaged in single use plastic.
Shipping: The very fact that the body wash is liquid also means that it contains a significant amount of water, adding extra weight, making the shipping more expensive and with a greater carbon footprint.
Behavior & Usage: Studies have shown that individuals use about SEVEN times more liquid wash than bar soap.
Chemicals: Some additive chemicals contained in commercial brands can affect our water supply or induce genetic mutations in animals (this applies also to shampoo and conditioner).
Petroleum: They are petroleum-based, which is not inherently bad, but many people care about moving off of petroleum products.
Bar soaps do have some drawbacks.
Researchers have shown that we use more warm water with a bar than a liquid (though as the article I learned from points out, this was in a study regarding handwashing).
Bar soap contains plant or animal fats, which have a big land impact use. The palm oil industry, for example, is widely criticized for devastating land use impacts.
As for recommendations on what to buy, I suggest checking out the Environmental Working Group’s rating list on the best products (or look at certified B Corps list), buying locally, or attempting to make your own soap!
Loofahs seem fairly harmless- colorful, netted, hanging out in your shower. However, plastic loofahs common in drugstores are full of plastic netting (which can trap ocean wildlife if improperly disposed of) and are difficult to recycle. Further, plastic nettings send microplastics into the shower drain, adding to plastic pollution in the ocean as well.
There are several studies cited that show loofahs as bacterial breeding grounds, but it is important to note that this study was performed on natural sponge loofahs (from cucumbers), not the plastic mesh (though it would seem likely that plastic ones aren’t much better). Both plastic and natural loofahs need to be replaced every 2-3 months, as showers (wet places where items aren’t washed regularly) are havens for bacteria.
Alternatives to mesh net loofahs
There are some great alternatives to plastic mesh loofahs out there, and you may even have a few already at home!
Washcloths: First (and the swap I made as soon as I started researching this), you can try using a washcloth, which you may already have at home! These are likely to be washed regularly, so will stay more clean, and they have a longer life span. Further, to ensure no microplastics, ensure your washcloth is made of a natural fiber (such as bamboo or cotton).
Silicone scrubbers: There are silicone alternative scrubbers, which are similar to the plastic loofahs but are antibacterial, do not produce microplastics, and are easy to clean.
Alternative loofahs: There are environmentally friendly alternatives, made out of cotton and plant fibers, or recycled plastic. These may produce microplastics (if recycled), and still need to be regularly cleaned and replaced for hygienic purposes.
Bamboo scrub brush: Scrub brushes can help get to hard to reach areas, and are more easily disposed of due to the all natural ingredients (compostable!). However, like the other products, they do need to be regularly replaced and cleaned to prevent bacterial growth.
Natural loofahs: These include Egyptian loofahs and Konjac sponges. Egyptian loofahs are made of dried Egyptian gourds, which can be cut into even smaller pieces to extend usage. They are widely available in health stores and online! However, these do need to be replaced regularly and require some maintenance (weekly soaking). Konjac sponges are made from the root of a vegetable made in Asia.
For several options, check out these sites here and here.
I have only swapped from my old plastic net loofah to a washcloth, so have not tried out any of the products mentioned here (I tend to buy in bulk when it comes to body products and use them slowly). However, I will definitely be swapping to bar soap when my old products have been used up! I’d love to hear from you all if you have any recommendations I may have missed here as this is a huge topic with a lot of exciting innovation. I plan on writing updates as I try out some of these products, though at my current rate of use, that may be a while.
Lately I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with this sustainability journey, and question if my choices really make a difference. Is there a huge impact to one person swapping out products? Well, no, one person in isolation swapping only makes a difference on the margin. HOWEVER, the more aware we all become, the more a societal shift will begin to occur. The small changes will add up, and the more we talk about these often forgotten subjects, the bigger the difference.
Thanks for reading!
Katie @ Sustainably Yours, LA