We have received a few calls and emails over the last few months asking if we would make "natural" syndet soap and shampoo bars. At that point, I began to realize that people did not understand the definition of a "syndet." Why? There is no such thing as a "natural" syndet.
What is a Syndet?
Syndet is a blended word made by combining the words “synthetic” and “detergent.” Technically it is a cleansing product made by the binding of different synthetic detergents.
Although the word syndet may be new to many people, the first syndet bar, Dove, was introduced in 1955.
The word "syndet" bar sounds much better than "synthetic detergent" bar and is more attractive to consumers who tend to shy away from synthetic skin care.
Syndets vs Natural Soap?
Syndet bars cannot really call themselves "soap," because the word "Soap" actually has a legal definition provided by the FDA. Since syndets are detergents they do not meet the legal definition of soap.
There is a lot of buzz, basically a marketing ploy, about using pH balanced syndet bars to go "soap-free." The theory is that since they are less alkaline than natural soap they will not harm the acid mantle.
One of the major concerns with using real soap is its pH score. Real handmade soaps, made with natural ingredients, have a pH that varies from 8 to 10 depending on how they are made.
The problem -- you will be trading your natural soap for synthetic detergents. The synthetic detergents may have a pH that is more acidic than handmade natural soaps, but many people are not only sensitive to detergents but are also sensitive to the preservatives, synthetic colors, and fragrances used by mass marketers in their non-soap bars.
While Syndet bars may have a neutral or slightly acidic pH, they are still cleansing agents and are made with synthetic detergents that will dissolve the natural protective fat layer on our skin as they clean.
Why are people asking for syndet "soaps" and shampoos, because they are basically just like the liquid body washes and shampoos that so many people love without the extra water and plastic bottle. Since they are not soap, they rinse out more easily, which is especially helpful in hard water.
Are pH Balanced Syndets Better For Your Skin
A study published in the Dermatology 1997;195:258–262 concluded that all skin cleansing agents, even normal tap water (with a pH of 7), influence the acid mantle of the skin.
The purpose of any skin cleansing agent, whether it is pH balanced syndet or natural soap, is to get rid of the fatty sebum (oily) layer that holds the dirt and contaminants.
While removing this fatty layer makes us feel clean, these fats are an important part of our natural protection.
While commercial skin care companies like to place all of the blame on skin care products that are not pH balanced, their pH balanced syndets are not better.
Again, these pH balanced products contain synthetic detergents or syndets that dissolve the natural fat layer on our skin. All of these skin cleaning products actually remove what is protecting us.
I personally find that natural, superfatted handmade soap, that retains its natural glycerin, is much more gentle and less drying than syndet bars. (Yes, I did try some!)
OK, I know that I am a soapmaker and may be just a bit biased in favor of natural soap. But since the internet is teeming with articles that are anti-soap, I felt I needed to do some research.
My Research Questions
Most of the research I reviewed agreed that real soap did elevate skin pH slightly more than syndet bars, but I was looking to find some research that would answer a few more questions:
- How is the acid mantle affected by cleansing?
- How much of a change is there in pH when using real soap versus a synthetic detergent bar?
- Are there any long-term effects on skin pH from using real soap?
- Does real soap affect skin hydration more than a syndet bar?
- All soaps are not the same and likewise, all syndets are not the same. So is it only the pH that affects the acid mantle and skin irritation?
There is a lot of research on both sides, but here is what I discovered pertaining to my questions:
- Healthy skin will regain its acid mantle within 15 to 30 minutes and problems with the acid mantle are only of concern in if there is a compromised skin barrier. (Dr. Zoe Draelos: "Dermatology" April 1, 2011).
- Another study compared 6 different types of cleansers varying from very alkaline to very acidic. The study found the following
- (1) there was a slight increase in pH with the alkaline soaps
- (2) all products had a drying effect on stratum corneum (the outer layer of the skin), but soaps that were superfatted had less
- (3) TEWL (transepidermal water loss) measurements showed little change
- (4) all changes were completely reversible and all values returned to normal within 90 minutes after washing
- Source: Mirela Moldovan and Alina Nanu. “Influence Of Cleansing Product Type On Several Skin Parameters After Single Use.” Farmacia, 2010, Vol. 58, 1
- Skin pH rises 1.1 points following washing with water alone, 1.2 points after washing with alkaline soap and 0.98 points after washing with a synthetic detergent beauty bar. (Takagi, Y., et. al. , "The Long-Term Use of Soap Does Not Affect the pH-Maintenance Mechanism of Human Skin" in Skin Research and Technology)
- Some say that the long-term use of alkaline soaps causes irreversible damage to the acid mantle. A study was done on two groups of people; one group used regular soap (pH about 10) and the second group used an acidic cleanser--each for 5 years. The study concluded that long-term continuous use of real soap does not affect the ability of the acid mantle to maintain the normal mildly acidic pH of skin. (Takagi, Y., et. al. , "The Long-Term Use of Soap Does Not Affect the pH-Maintenance Mechanism of Human Skin" in Skin Research and Technology)
- Some believe that regular soap removes the natural oils from the surface of the skin and decreases skin hydration. To test this, a study compared the skin of babies washed with water, mild acidic cleanser and normal alkaline soap. All three cleansers, including water, decreased the natural skin oils and increased pH. However, there were no differences in the skin hydration. So basically, everything affects the acid mantle, even water. (Gfatter, R., P. Hackl, and F. Braun, 1997, Effects of soap and detergents on skin surface pH, stratum corneum hydration and fat content in infants: Dermatology, v. 195, p. 258-62.)
- Syndets, which are not all the same and vary widely in terms of their chemical structure and skin compatibility, are not necessarily less irritating than soaps. A study done testing the "irritation potential" of syndets and soaps with various pH numbers, seems to show that it is something more than simply a pH number that causes skin irritation. The study discovered the following:
- the least irritating syndet was Dove White, with a pH of 7.53
- the most irritating syndet was Avecycle, with a pH of 4.61
- the least irritating soap was Johnson’s Baby Oat, which had a pH of 12.35
- the most irritating soap was Camay Gala, with a pH of 9.36
- Source: Abbas, S., Goldberg, J.W. and Massaro, M. , Personal Cleanser Technology and Clinical Performance. Dermatologic Therapy, 17: 36-38
It is important to remember that . . . all soap bars are not created equal!
One question I was not able to answer was, "What 'soaps' were being studied in the research when comparing soap to syndets?"
I found so many articles about the evils of soap that began with the words, "Using a harsh bar soap with a high pH"..."So, what is the "harsh bar soap?"
The quality of a bar of handmade natural soap will vary based on:
- the technique or process used
- main ingredients
- curing time
- the amount of superfatting
Poorly quality handmade soaps and mass market commercial soaps often contain free Alkali which increases the pH and makes them harsh and drying. Allowing there to be some left over alkali in the soap increases the shelf life and hardness of the soap bars, which is important when a bar needs to sit on a store shelf for years.
Commercial companies often remove the natural glycerin and add synthetic ingredients not found in handmade soap, like chemical preservatives to increased shelf life and synthetic colors or scents.
From what I have read, I believe that the pH score does not cause skin changes that necessitate sacrificing natural soap for synthetic chemicals.
While a natural soap may temporarily increase the pH of the acid mantle, the synthetic detergents and other synthetic chemicals used in cleansing bars, shampoos, and other cosmetics to make them"pH balanced" – can be damaging to the skin.
The chemical composition of the new syndet "non-soap" bars and liquids varies from syndet to syndet. Many companies have touted how they have moved away from harsh synthetic detergents, like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), to milder synthetic detergents. That sounds great, but how long did it take to discover that SLS and other additives were harmful? How long will it take to discover that these newer, milder synthetic detergents are also harmful?
I just want to mention another type of cleanser called a combar or combination bar.
Although this word is not used much in the US, it is basically part soap and part syndet. When you see ingredients that contain words like sodium palmate (a soap surfactant) along with Sodium cocoyl isethionate (a synthetic surfactant) you are really looking at a combar! Many of the bars that are called syndets are really combars.