Are all soaps biodegradable? (7 examples) 

In this article, it shall be explored whether all soaps are biodegradable or not. Other topics covered would be: 

  • What is biodegradability?
  • Why is the biodegradability of soaps important?
  • Why should soaps be biodegradable?
  • What are the effects of non-biodegradable soaps?
  • What factors decide the biodegradability of soaps?
  • Are all soaps biodegradable?
  • What are the examples of biodegradable and non-biodegradable soaps?
  • FAQs

Are all soaps biodegradable?

Soaps can be both biodegradable and non-biodegradable based on the materials they are made with. Biodegradable soaps will have more than 90% of biodegradable materials like lye, glycerol, water et cetera. Non-biodegradable soaps will contain synthetic chemicals like formaldehyde or triclosan. 

These chemicals other than being non-biodegradable will also cause negative impacts on the health and environment. 

What is biodegradability? 

In order to fully understand if all soaps are biodegradable or not, it is important to know what biodegradability is and why it is important. 

Biodegradability is a process through which complex materials are broken down into simple materials by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and even yeast. 

The process of biodegradability can be called a natural dustbin because it is nature’s way to ensure that there is no waste accumulation in the environment. It is coded in the profile of nature that waste has harmful impacts on the environment. 

The harmful impacts of waste are not just restricted to the environment but also the life that resides within it. If there is no biodegradation, there will be waste and deterioration of life and our atmosphere, in short, a global catastrophe. 

Regarding biodegradability, it is generally thought that there are two types of waste. These are biodegradable and non-biodegradable. 

As the name suggests, biodegradable waste can be broken down by the action of microbes. This waste can be plant-based or animal-based wastes. Other examples of this waste will include: 

  • Food waste
  • Animal waste
  • Human waste
  • Paper waste
  • Manure
  • Sewage
  • Hospital waste
  • Dead plants
  • Biopolymers 

On the other hand, non-biodegradable waste is a type of waste which can not be degraded by the action of microbes. Such a type of waste is usually not found in nature. This means that non-biodegradable waste is mostly made or synthesised in the lab. Examples of non-biodegradable waste may be: 

  • Electronic waste
  • Plastics 
  • Polyvinyl Chloride
  • Nuclear waste
  • Hazardous waste
  • Chemical waste
  • Hospital waste 
  • Synthetic resins
  • Synthetic fibres
  • Dyneema 
  • PHA 
  • EVA 

Why is biodegradability important? 

The world’s population stands at around 7.8 billion and is expected to cross the threshold of 11 billion in the years to come. As far as waste production is concerned, it is estimated that an average person makes more than 4-5 kgs of waste per day. 

If you do the maths, the results are beyond staggering. The global waste production stands at a whopping 2 billion tons which may reach up to 3 billion tons in the coming time. Out of these 2 billion tons, around 1 billion tons of waste are not discarded properly. 

To further exacerbate the situation, if more non-biodegradable waste is generated as compared to biodegradable waste, then this simply implies our doomsday. There will be no space left to keep and treat the waste products and this will affect every life that is out there in the world, not to mention the effects on our future. 

This approach is bluntly opposite to what the principles of sustainability are. Sustainability preaches to be useful in the present in a way that the future generations’ needs are not sacrificed. 

That is why biodegradability is an urgent matter. We need to shift toward biodegradable waste both as a consumer and as a human because otherwise, there is no way out. 

Further, given the current context of science and technology, it is easily possible to shift to biodegradable waste. As the environmental concern rises, more and more people and producers are shifting towards sustainability and eco-friendliness. 

As a result, biodegradability and sustainability have become easy options to opt for without going the extra mile. Popular examples can be bio-based plastics, bio-polymers, natural fertilisers, renewable sources of energy et cetera. 

Why should soaps be biodegradable?

The biodegradability of soaps is important because almost every person uses soaps in the world. It is the basic instinct to feel clean and tidy. That is why everyone uses soaps; be it a billionaire or a lower-class person. 

As per the statistical findings, the soap consumer market stood at a whopping 132 billion US dollars in 2020 and is expected to rise up to 150 billion dollars. Global soap production is flabbergasting. 

As per the research, the global soap production in 2020 stood at 100 million tons. China was the biggest consumer of soap standing at 22 million tons. 

These figures speak out for themselves why the need for biodegradable soaps is so important. If non-biodegradable soaps are consumed and preferred, it implies that an infinite amount of waste is generated which is toxic and hazardous for the environment and eventually humans. 

Therefore, the right consumer inclinations and sustainable production approaches are adopted and maintained lest clean soaps may contaminate the earth. 

What are the effects of non-biodegradable soaps?

There are a number of negative and destructive effects of soaps on the environment and human health. This is because these soaps are made from materials that are harmful to both humans and the environment. Some of these impacts may be: 

  • Pollution
  • Deterioration of water bodies
  • Loss of aquatic life
  • Soil pollution
  • Depletion of oxygen in water bodies
  • Algal blooms
  • Skin damage
  • Eye damage
  • Cancer 
  • Neurological issues
  • Reproductive complications 

What factors decide the biodegradability of soaps?

After exploring the science and urgency of biodegradability, let us explore and discuss some of the determinants that play a role in those soaps being either biodegradable or non-biodegradable.

As you may have guessed, the biodegradability of soaps is dependent on the materials that are used to make soaps. There is a variety when it comes to this reality. 

Some commercial soaps are made from chemicals which are mostly synthetic. These soaps may offer good use and interesting utilitarian value, but when it comes to the environment then these soaps are not that well off. 

This is because these soaps contain such chemicals and materials that make them non-biodegradable and hence, harmful to the environment. Other than that, the effects of these chemicals and human skin are also under debate because some studies claim that these chemicals may also have mutagenic or carcinogenic effects on the skin.

These chemicals may be: 

  • Phthalates
  • Bisphenols
  • Halogenated phenols
  • Parabens
  • Benzophenone-3, Perfluoro (PFAS) compounds

The presence of these chemicals makes the soaps unfit from the context of sustainability and environmental consideration. Because these chemicals do not readily degrade in the environment they are termed non-biodegradable. 

However, some soaps are made from natural products. These natural products usually include tallow or lye, water, glycerol, fragrance source, and oils. The specific ingredients may vary but the bottom line is that they are made from naturally occurring ingredients. 

Are all soaps biodegradable?

Based on the current deliberations, it is now possible to answer whether all soaps are biodegradable or not. 

Before we move to our answer, let us explore and summarise some main points: 

  • For a substance to be biodegradable, it must be made of natural materials
  • Non-natural materials (like synthetic chemicals) are not biodegradable 
  • Soaps can be made from both natural and non-natural materials 

Therefore, in the light of these points, it can be asserted that soaps that are made from natural materials like glycerol, lye et cetera are biodegradable. 

Whereas, soaps that are made from synthetic chemicals like parabens et cetera are not biodegradable. 

Regarding biodegradability, the general understanding is that if soap is made from 90% or more biodegradable material, then it will be biodegradable. Otherwise not. Some common materials that may be used to make biodegradable soaps are: 

  • Water
  • Olive or coconut oil 
  • Lye 
  • Essential oils 
  • Colourants (to give your soup desired colour) 
  • Herbs or flowers (to add a scent of your preference to your soap

What are examples of biodegradable and non-biodegradable soaps? (7 examples of biodegradable soaps) 

Let us explore some examples of biodegradable and non-biodegradable soaps in the marketplace. These examples will help us understand the level of environmental awareness that is present in the consumer marketplace and how far we need to go. 

Examples of biodegradable soaps may be: 

  • Dr Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap.
  • Sea to Summit Pocket Hand Wash.
  • Coleman Camp Soap Sheets.
  • Campsuds.
  • Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash.
  • Duke Cannon Soap
  • Ecostore soap 

When it comes to harmful soaps, sadly there are a lot in the marketplace. When buying soaps, it is essential to make sure that soaps should not contain these ingredients:

  • Parabens
  • Triclosan
  • Dioxane
  • Formaldehyde
  • Phthalates
  • PEG (polyethylene glycol) 
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate 
  • Synthetic flavours 

Conclusion

It is concluded that soaps can be both biodegradable and non-biodegradable based on the materials they are made with.

Biodegradable soaps will have more than 90% of biodegradable materials like lye, glycerol, water et cetera. Non-biodegradable soaps will contain synthetic chemicals like formaldehyde or triclosan. 

These chemicals other than being non-biodegradable will also cause negative impacts on the health and environment. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Are all soaps biodegradable?

Can soaps cause cancer?

Yes, some soaps may contain formaldehyde which may cause skin cancer and mutations. 

Are biodegradable soaps more expensive?

There is not much price difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable soaps because the former is made from natural materials with the minimum amount of preservatives. 

References

  •  Aiello, A. E., Larson, E. L., & Levy, S. B. (2007). Consumer antibacterial soaps: effective or just risky? Clinical Infectious Diseases, 45(Supplement_2), S137-S147.
  • Kirsner, R. S., & Froelich, C. W. (1998). Soaps and detergents: understanding their composition and effect. Ostomy/wound management, 44(3A Suppl), 62S-69S.
  • Chirani, M. R., Kowsari, E., Teymourian, T., & Ramakrishna, S. (2021). Environmental impact of increased soap consumption during COVID-19 pandemic: Biodegradable soap production and sustainable packaging. Science of The Total Environment, 796, 149013.
  • Bulkeley, H., & Askins, K. (2009). Waste interfaces: biodegradable waste, municipal policy and everyday practice. Geographical Journal, 175(4), 251-260.
  • Reingruber, H., & Pontel, L. B. (2018). Formaldehyde metabolism and its impact on human health. Current opinion in toxicology, 9, 28-34.

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