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The Soap Conspiracy: Good Soaps Gone Bad

By Guan Tan

Felicia Yap

The decision to leave their jobs came easy for Karen Gan and Jason Tay. They were previously a lawyer and teacher respectively. Later, both moved into the charity sector before leaving it all to start a natural soap business. 

There were many reasons involved in their departure, simultaneously a new beginning. One of them was Gan's personal condition – dry, itchy, and scaly skin. Likewise, her daughter faced the same issue. She reckons it might be genetic. 

When she started The Soap Haven, Gan was merely looking for a remedy to her skin condition. Yet, along the way, it was a bonus when she tracked down the root of her problems. "The moment I stopped liquid soaps and liquid hand washes," Gan curls her fingers into an 'okay' sign. "I didn't even have to use the moisturiser!"

It's been four years since she started her natural soap line. Through the years of research, study and experiments, Gan has come to understand how the soap industry functions. Soaps are deliberately made drying on the skin, in a bid to encourage lotion and moisturiser sales. 

The problem is found in drugstore soaps, be it in liquid and bar forms. "The chemicals and all causes dryness," she stresses. On the back of what she dubs commercial soaps, or the common household brands, there is often a list of ingredients on the back. And there's a way to read them. "The main ingredients are listed right at the top. Right towards the end, the least [of] ingredients." Consumers should often find sodium laureth sulfate and Cocamidopropyl betaine, otherwise infamously known as SLS and CAPB amongst skincare aficionados, right at the top of the list.

The former is commonly used as a de-greasing agent, while the later, a foaming agent. Gan pauses to stress that sodium laureth sulfate is commonly used in industrial -scale cleaning, especially for machinery and engines. It then makes sense, that where a de-greasing agent is present, there won't be oily content. From what Gan has observed in these drugstore products, there is none or minimal glycerin, fat or oil content present. It then means that these soaps do not have natural moisturising behaviours. Together, SLS and CAPB give us the rich, luxurious lather that results in an astringent, 'clean' feeling – an act that we now associate with cleanliness and hygiene. 

The problem is made worse when it comes to liquid soaps. Due to the presence of water, more preservatives are injected to keep bacteria and mould at bay. Gan notes that 60 percent of what goes on our skin is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Now, dry, irritated, and eczema-prone skin aside, there are potential health risks lurking in the soaps.

"And these molecules are small enough to be absorbed by the skin?", I asked her sceptically. 

"Definitely!", she cuts in before adding, "You are not supposed to feel so clean and 'tight'. It means the chemicals [are] doing the work." 
Gan reaches back to the history of soap making. It's an ancient craft. "Soaps have been used for centuries upon centuries before we had the big conglomerates [and] before we had liquid stuff in bottles – sold at a much higher price. People have been making soaps for a long time."

In ancient civilisations, people made soaps with ashes, animal fats, and oils. Later in the 1900s, soaps were made of olive oil. Then when conglomerates came into the picture, glycerin, a compound derived from fat and oils, was removed from the soap-making process. The molecules bind to water molecules, essentially what we understand as 'moisturising'.

"Natural soaps will [have] glycerin. Glycerin is removed from all mass-produced soaps, so that's a separate commodity." Gan continues, "it is a marketing gimmick. It's huge profits [for the companies] when they have the glycerin extracted... They use the glycerin to make moisturisers." 

In fact, with the commercial soaps drying out and irritating the skin, scaly and inflamed skin and eczema is a common problem in Singapore. Gan recalls a recent dermatology seminar that she attended in a local hospital. The statistics were startling, "one in five persons or 21 percent of Singaporeans have eczema. That is very high. And you wonder why. That was not the trend in the earlier years! It's a growing problem." 

With much incredulity in her eyes, Gan adds, "It's funny. It's common in Singapore, a humid country, and it's not even dry. Why in the world do people have dry skin when we don't have winter? It's obviously linked to the products that we use!"

In the four years since Gan started producing and selling natural soaps, she's observed a 2,500 percent increase in sales. Most of the transactions are made online, from eczema or dry skin sufferers searching for remedies online. She also notes that a bulk of her customers are regulars who often come back for more natural soaps once they've exhausted the products. 

The consumers are well aware that natural soaps is a remedy that works for them and alleviates their skin conditions. Consumers are focussed on immediate solutions. Yet, they are not aware of the root of their problems – commercial soaps. To Gan, it boils down to education. "Generally, I say this, whatever you can put in your mouth, you can put on your skin. If you can't put it in your mouth and eat it, don't put it on your skin. You just don't know what these chemicals do to your body. There are not enough studies that they help our bodies. These are synthetic chemicals." She pauses for a moment before adding, "If you can put something natural, why not. If you can eat natural foods, why eat processed foods?"