As part of a recent assignment I was asked to look into the effect of soap on the environment. What I found was a freaky subculture of soap activists and an opposing subculture of people who think soap is practically Agent Orange. I knew I had to post on this because the viewpoints on the internet are far and few between, and a poor soul like myself would get uber-confused just trying to determine what kind of chemicals are in soap!
There are tons of different types of hand soaps available today. There are the usual commercial grade soaps, special antibacterial soaps, and handmade soaps. All soap contains lye (sodium hydroxide) and other chemicals, like triclocarban and triclosan for antibacterial soap. Although they sound scary, they are common chemicals.
Some people dislike soap because it contains particles detrimental to the environment such as lard, wax, or other crude oil derivatives used to help soap maintain its shape. To be clear, oil itself should definitely never be poured down the drain because of the damage it causes in pipes. In comparison, pumice-based soaps can cause particle buildup in pipes in large quantities. However, an article I found on ScienceDaily helped reassert my assumption that wastewater treatment plants can handle soap that gets washed down the drain.
Soap supporters like soap because soap is a surfactant, meaning it is both hydrophilic and hydrophobic. Translation: Although soap does consist of oily substances, it will break down when it goes through the pipes and eventually, back out into the environment. Detergent, however, used to cause a myriad of problems for the environment because the phosphate in it caused algal blooms once it was released into rivers and lakes. At present, people are more aware of the effects of such products on the environment and it is more common to see environmentally friendly soaps and detergents. In some places phosphorus based detergents are banned. In conclusion, while soap isn’t necessarily good for the environment, it isn’t as toxic as some people believe. Whether you are a soap lover or a soap hater, please please please continue to wash your hands, clothes, and body on occasion!
Here are some websites I used to gain perspective: