cleansing bars, soaps, & other scum of the earth


Here we go again.

I’ve had a fair few self-cleaning issues over the years. Here’s what a cleanser should do:

  • ONE: clean. You might think this is obvious. Many makers of skincare products seems not to.
  • not contain common irritants, such as most scented ingredients
  • or any of the others on my own lovely personal list
  • TWO: leave my skin in at least a good condition as it was before
  • not over moistened and clogged up
  • or dried out
  • or irritated or otherwise buggered up
  • THREE: not wreck my skin barrier, which is already not of the best, given thin and more acidic (ginger) skin etc. etc.
  • so: with a lower pH (usually around 5.5-6, in the broad range of 4-7)

I also prefer to avoid some things, for ethical reasons:

  • animal-tested products
  • products from brands that still test on animals
  • animal-derived ingredients that involve cruelty: so, for example, emu oil and sodium tallowate. Yes, even though they’re a by-product of the meat industry; and even though this is economical, frugal, and arguably sustainable to use every part of an animal that’s already been killed for another purpose. I don’t want to pay any money towards supporting an industry that breeds sentient beings for use and slaughter.
  • Though I’m cool with honey. Usually. Bees need to be encouraged.
  • And cool with goat milk, but quibbling. I joke that I’m OK with it only if it’s so ethically obtained that I know the goat personally. We should have been introduced, and I should be sure of having been personally approved by her. She should also have clearly given approval for her milk to be used, at least in the form of awareness of there being a contractual agreement with her humans in exchange for food, shelter, and protection. Goats are smart, after all–especially compared to cows and most sheep–so this is not an unreasonable demand.
    On the other hand: PORTLANDIA
  • palm oil that is either silent as to its origins, or known to be from sources that are non-sustainable, rainforest-stripping, and abusive of human, animal, and ecosystem rights. Ignorance is no defence: not knowing and not questioning is irresponsible. Would be criminally negligent in a just world.

Things that work, in general:

  • unscented very gentle shampoos
  • a small number of syndet cleansing bars / bar cleansers

Things that don’t work but that I persist in trying out again and again anyway:

  • “true” a.k.a. traditional, cold method soaps
  • including castile soap
  • and various kinds of olive oil soap: the Greek ones, savon d’Alepp
  • super-fatted soaps
  • “French” triple-milled etc. soaps

I happen to like a solid bar of cleanser, and I very much like them when traveling. Which I will be doing very soon.

So yes, of course, I messed around with some soaps recently. You know, what the hell, everything seems to be tickety-boo with my skin so why not. Also, all that pre-travel excitement can mess with what few brains are still left. I am in need of a vacation, you see. Desperately. Especially the old brain.


Got dried out with the following:

  • Dr Bronner’s fragrance-free soap bar
  • Druide “pure” soap
  • Kirk’s castile soap
  • Kiss My Face olive oil soap, the fragrance-free one
  • Weleda soap bar

Also bonus irritation around the nose, on cheeks, between eyebrows, behind ears, on neck and upper arms.

I tried something new, or rather, something I hadn’t used in a while: glycerin soaps. Interesting idea. Two of the three choices below suggest that I may be going through a midlife crisis, revisiting and nostalgically re-imagining my long-lost youth.


The current generation of one of the 19th-century classic traditional transparent soaps. In some drugstores here in Vancouver, widely distributed here in Canada, cheap as chips. Mostly in fruity and flowery scents, but there’s also an oatmeal one, a goat milk one (no idea about the goat milk’s provenance), and a plain unscented one. They have others too, some of which use tallow rather than vegetable oils in the saponification process. The Chamomile and Sandalwood ones in boxes sometimes lurk on the bottom shelf in Whole Foods (why them and not others, who knows. WF moves in mysterious ways when it comes to stocking decisions.) The company overall appears to adhere to some standards; the EU and German ones anyway (they’re legally obliged to), plus some more eco stuff.

Version used: the fragrance-free “pure” one in the cellophane-wrapped “Martina” collection of transparent bars. They look a lot like the old transparent bars The Body Shop used to sell in the 1980s; similarly brightly-coloured and full of fruity bubbly fun. If you’re a pre-teen girl in the “squee” developmental phase. I know this because I had friends who were, and we hung out together. An early exercise in tolerance: each member of a shopping party was granted equal time in an equal number of shops as the others (though two could band together for double time in TBS, three for triple, etc.), and we all had to tag along and comment and help choose. It was actually fun. Those of you who missed out on the 1980s due to not being born yet: this wad the other side of the whole tutti-fruity fashion.


kappus soap

INGREDIENTS: Sodium palmate, aqua (water), sodium cocoate, sorbitol, glycerin, coconut acid, tetrasodium etidronate, tetrasodium EDTA, sodium chloride

RESULTS: dryness and irritation. Fail.


This is often recommended on MakeupAlley as a simple glycerin soap.

clearly natural soap

INGREDIENTS: Glycerine, sodium stearate and sodium oleate (saponified coconut, palm and/or palm kernel), decyl glucoside (vegetable-derived surfactants), propanediol and sorbital (humectants), and sodium citrate.


  • cleaned, sort of, eventually
  • didn’t dry my skin out
  • no irritation
  • BUT: a pain in the arse to use. It’s as though it’s composed of layers. The first time I used it, I thought I’d left some cellophane on: the bar was slippy, plasticky, and there was nothing moving from the bar to my hands. I tried it again (and yes, I was using water and rubbing the bar between hands in the usual way). Got soapiness. Continued experiment: same pattern. Nothingness, then soapiness.
  • and with all that desperate rubbing, what started out as a giant bar had reduced massively even on just one use.

Yes, I would buy it again, in a pinch. But not if there were anything else around that worked better as a usable cleansing bar.


Now, this is kind of a compromise.

sebamed soap


  • it’s a pH 5.5 syndet cleansing bar
  • not tested on animals
  • no animal ingredients
  • nostalgic reminiscence: I used this when a child and it was one of the things I used in early teens


  • does contain fragrance, in all versions. The baby one is mildest: mainly calendula and chamomile. Either it or a predecessor what was I used before. The smell is comforting and “home,” even though it’s over a quarter of a century since I last used the stuff
  • does contain palm oil and palm oil derivatives

INGREDIENTS (Baby Cleansing Bar): Triticum vulgare starch, Disodium Lauryl Sulfosuccinate, Palmitic Acid, Stearic Acid, Glyceryl Stearate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Talc, Aqua, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Lactate, Cera alba, Panthenol, Inulin, Lecithin, Glycine, Magnesium Aspartate, Alanine, Lysine, Leucine, Parfum, CI 77891


  • cleans skin
  • without drying it out or irritation
  • feel and finish: close to oatmeal-based syndet cleansing bars like A-Derma and Aveeno (both of which are off the menu for animal testing reasons)


This might not be the most popular “green” choice; and when at home, I’ll happily use my Free & Clear shampoo as a face and body wash. But the Sebamed Baby is coming on my travels. The choices were:

  • this
  • or Aveeno (approximately the same price but animal testers)
  • or A-Derma (twice the price and animal testing).

There are still, I regret to say, no “greener” options available that are equivalents to these three cleansers.

The other viable option is the Vanicream Cleansing Bar; cruelty-free and vegan, no palm oil (though some ingredients in some of the company’s products may be derived from it).

But it takes quite a while to order, can be expensive, and some greenies may disapprove of some of the ingredients as they’re man-made and petrochemically-derived. It feels very different from Sebamed, A-Derma, and Aveeno; skinfeel more like Dove or the old Olay Sensitive.

vanicream soap

Some other Sebamed comparisons:

sebamed soap

I’ve used this before. It and the Baby one are the most commonly available Sebamed bars. It smells stronger. When I was shopping, the place at hand only had the two versions; I picked the one I remembered using, and that smelled less.

INGREDIENTS (Cleansing Bar): Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, Triticum vulgare starch, Palmitic Acid, Stearic Acid, Glyceryl Stearate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Talc, Sodium Lactate, Cera alba, Aqua, Lecithin, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Panthenol, Inulin, Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Glycine, Magnesium Aspartate, Alanine, Lysine, Leucine, Benzophenone-4, Parfum, CI 47005, CI 61570, CI 77891

sebamed soapNot seen or used.

INGREDIENTS (Clear Face Cleansing Bar): Disodium Lauryl Sulfosuccinate, Palmitic Acid, Stearic Acid, Triticum vulgare starch, Glyceryl Stearate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Talc, Aqua, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Parfum, Inulin, Lecithin, Cera alba, Tocopheryl Acetate, Glycine, Magnesium Aspartate, Alanine, Lysine, Leucine, CI 77891

sebamed soapNot seen or used: aimed at drier skin, could be a winner if it combines the best attributes of a syndet bar at the right pH + an olive oil soap.

INGREDIENTS (Olive Cleansing Bar): Disodium Lauryl Sulfosuccinate, Triticum vulgare starch, Glyceryl Stearate, Stearic Acid, Aloe barbadensis leaf juice, Cetearyl Alcohol, Palmitic Acid, Sodium Lactate, Talc, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Aqua, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Olea europaea fruit oil, Panthenol, Inulin, Lecithin, Parfum, Brassica campestris Sterols, Hydrolyzed Silk, CI 77891


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