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Most people probably wouldn’t want to wash themselves with a petrochemical-fragranced bar of animal fats, but these ingredients may be contained in even the simplest bar of soap – and they might not be easy to identify on the label. Fortunately, some smaller manufacturers make their soaps to vegetarian or vegan standard, using natural essential oils for scent, dried flowers for colour and herbs for exfoliation. Hand-made and cruelty-free, these are an ideal alternative.

Keyword-ResearchLook out for our new sector-specific Ethical Accreditation certification marks which now cover over 15 different consumer product sectors. These are additional to our original Ethical Company mark that features on the packaging of over 100 million consumer products every year.


Soap is made from animal or vegetable fats, oils or grease, and forms when the fats interact with an alkali. Preservatives, salts, colours, perfumes, moisturisers and emulsifiers may then be added, with the more adventurous brands including fruits, spices and essential oils. Traditionally, soaps were produced from animal fats such as fish oils or tallow, listed in the ingredients as ‘sodium tallowate’. The Vegan Society describes tallow as ‘hard animal fat, especially that obtained from the parts about the kidneys of ruminating animals’. Although there are vegetable alternatives, many of the major soap brands still contain animal fats and consequently are not suitable for vegetarians or vegans.

ethical soap

Vegetable soaps may also contain added ingredients such as honey, lanolin and milk, preventing them from being suitable for vegans. The Body Shop, Caurnie, Living Naturally, Lush and Suma soaps are all suitable for vegetarians. Caurnie and Living Naturally soaps are all vegan, while all except Suma’s honey soaps are also suitable for vegans.

The Good Shopping Guide can recommend Caurnie, Honesty, Living Naturally, Neal’s Yard Remedies, Odylique and PHB Ethical Beauty – all of which received particularly good marks in the research and have attained independent Ethical Accreditation from The Ethical Company Organisation.

Making soap cleanly

Most of the bigger brand soaps are made from a common soap bar, manufactured by large commercial producers who sell it on in the form of dried soap nodules to individual soap makers for reprocessing. Soaps made by the ‘alternative’ producers, such as Caurnie, Faith and Suma are hand-made, promoting traditional soap-making techniques. According to information from Suma, the cold saponification process used by Suma and Caurnie is more energy efficient, as ‘all the ingredients remain in the mix, with only such heat input as is required to raise the temperature of the mix to body heat’.

A commercial processor may use a boiling process which could consume up to 65kw hours of electricity and 15 tonnes of water in producing one tonne of soap. The alternative soap makers claim that commercial products extract the glycerine, selling it as a byproduct, instead of leaving it in the soap. Since glycerine is a natural moisturiser, this explains why many soaps can dry the skin.

Synthetics and packaging

Most of the major soaps contain synthetic (petrochemical-based) ingredients, but many of the smaller producers use natural ingredients, such as essential oils, rather than artificial fragrances to scent their soaps. The synthetic ingredients used by the larger companies are often irritants for sensitive skin.

The packaging used by the major brands is often excessive, with Imperial Leather (the UK’s best-selling soap) using three wrappers, including a box. In comparison, Suma’s ethical soap is sold completely loose and just wrapped in a brown envelope, and other sellers such as Caurnie have made a commitment to using only minimal packaging.

Bits of soap that are too small to be used for washing can be kept in a soap jar, and dissolved in hot water to make a soft jelly for washing-up.

Ethical Comparison – Soap Rankings Detailed Table

Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Living Naturally, Neal’s Yard Remedies, Dr Bronner’s Pure Castile, Odylique, Honesty, Lush, PHB Ethical Beauty, Caurnie Soaps, Suma, the Body Shop, L’Occitane, Bentley Organic, Carex, Crabtree & Evelyn, Imperial Leather, Yardley, Dettol, Nivea, Palmolive, Dove, Ecover, Pears and Radox

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