If you’re here, you’re likely more conscious of the impact of your daily life choices than most others. One of those choices is soap. Seemingly innocent, its life cycle, from production to disposal, can have profound implications on various types of sustainability:
- Environmental: Liquid hand soap bottles are typically made of either PET or HDPE plastic, and 99% of plastic is made of chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. In the U.S., 27.1% of PET and 29.3% of HDPE get recycled, and the rest ends up in landfills or, even worse, our oceans.
- Social: Around 90% of the ingredients in a conventional bar of soap are palm oil derivatives, which, if sourced unethically, are tied to deforestation, the displacement of indigenous communities, and labor exploitation. Some soaps also contain mica, a mineral linked to child labor.
- Economic: Generating over $8 billion annually, soap production’s economic impact is significant. Through circular economy or fair trade approaches, sustainable practices in the soap industry offer more equity for workers and help the economically underprivileged.
Many will wash their hands (excuse the pun) of any responsibility. However, we can be the changemakers by reserving our support only for sustainable soapmakers that address the issues most important to us.
Dr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Liquid Soap
- Certifications | B Corp (206.7 Score); USDA Organic; Fair for Life (457 Score); Leaping Bunny; EWG Verified; Vegan Society
- Pros | Cruelty-free; organic; no synthetic ingredients; vegan; equitable pay; inexpensive; made in USA; annual sustainability reports (2023)
- Cons | No soap bottles sold
- Shop At | Dr. Bronner / Amazon
USA-based Dr. Bronner’s is a family-owned soapmaking business with its roots stretching all the way back to 1858. An exemplary company in both environmental and social sustainability, it was among the first to use 100% PCR plastic bottles (and, more recently, FSC-certified paper carton refills), implement an equitable 5-to-1 salary program, and source most of its raw materials from Fair Trade certified sources. If that’s not enough, consider their efforts towards regenerative farming and their fully renewable-powered factories located in the United States.
The only small gripe we have with Dr. Bronner’s is the lack of refillable glass or aluminum soap bottles sold on their site. You may also want to consider that their products contain palm oil (sustainable sourcing details) and that the original Dr. Bronner was, in fact, not a doctor… make of that what you will.
Dr. Bronner’s castile soaps are highly concentrated, made with vegetables, and devoid of any synthetics or animal products. Dr. Bronner’s also incorporates hemp seed oil in its soaps, a nod to CEO David Bronner’s advocacy for legalizing hemp farming in the U.S. The brand has donated nearly $100 million in the past twenty years and is among the four founders of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. There’s more to cover here, but let’s end it with one takeaway: Dr. Bronner’s takes its sustainability very seriously and sets the benchmark for the entire industry.
Wild's Bar Soap
- Certifications | B Corp (110.8 Score); Vegan Society
- Pros | Cruelty-free; vegan; zero-waste; carbon-neutral; FSC-certified packaging; annual sustainability reports (2022)
- Cons | Contains synthetic ingredients
- Shop At | WeAreWild.com (use code “ECOLIFE” for 20% off) / Amazon
We first came across the UK-based Wild when researching deodorants and quickly fell in love with the brand for its many sustainability measures, including it being a certified B Corp and a carbon-negative company. They achieved a carbon-negative status by partnering with On A Mission, planting enough trees to offset their carbon emissions 1.5 times.
Wild’s soaps are cruelty-free, vegan, and zero-waste. Each bar of soap weighs 100g (3.5 ounces) and is about the size of the palm of your hand. Speaking of palm, the soap’s ingredient list contains sodium palm kernelate, derived from palm kernel oil. It is, however, sourced responsibly, as Wild only uses RSPO-certified palm oil sources. The list of ingredients also includes some synthetic ones, such as CI 77007, CI 73360, CI 77491, and benzyl salicylate, although none of them are considered highly hazardous. Wild’s soaps are manufactured in France and sold worldwide.
Blueland's Foaming Hand Soap
- Certifications | B Corp (94.7 Score); Cradle to Cradle (Gold Score); USDA BioPreferred (81% Score); Leaping Bunny; Climate Neutral; EWG Verified; EPA Safer Choice; MADE SAFE
- Pros | Cruelty-free; vegan; zero-waste; plastic-free; refillable
- Cons | Contains some synthetic ingredients; no annual sustainability reports
- Shop At | Blueland / Amazon
USA-based Blueland, founded in 2018, is a brand dedicated to plastic-free body care and cleaning products. The brand’s products have garnered countless sustainability certifications, including Cradle to Cradle, which makes this soap verifiably zero-waste. The brand was also one of EPA’s Safer Choice 2023 Partners of the Year and its fragrance-free hand soap was verified by the EWG for its safety.
Their fragranced soaps, however received a lower health rating rating by the EWG. And, although no palm oil derivatives are in the soap’s ingredient list, Blueland reserves the right to use RSPO-certified palm oil if it is unable to source alternatives such as coconut oil. Plus, this soap cannot be classified as fully natural or organic as it contains some synthetic ingredients such as polyethylene glycol (PEG).
As for how Blueland’s soap works, it arrives in the form of a concentrated tablet. Fill one of their reusable glass “Forever Bottles” with water, throw the tablet inside, wait a bit, and you’re done. The environmental benefits of the product design here cannot be overstated. No plastic is used, no waste is generated (except for the paper packaging), and the shipping-related carbon emissions are reduced significantly due to the small size of the tablets. Especially if you buy the refill tablets in bulk (1 year supply costs $50).
Method's Foaming Hand Wash
- Certifications | B Corp; Cradle to Cradle (Bronze Score – Expired); Leaping Bunny; PETA
- Pros | Cruelty-free; refillable; low-waste; recycled plastic containers; made in USA
- Cons | Certificates may be expired; contains synthetic ingredients; no annual sustainability reports
- Shop At | Method / Amazon
UK-based Method, founded in 2001, is a brand that is no stranger to environmental innovation. It was the first to introduce packaging made from recycled ocean plastic back in 2012 and the first to build a LEED-platinum-certified soap factory in the United States. Method was acquired by SC Johnson in 2017, but SC Johnson’s sustainability efforts are transparent, and they appear to have a clean track record for 25+ years.
Besides the formulation containing some synthetic ingredients, such as cocamidopropyl betaine, the only problem we faced was that we could not find some of Method’s certificates, namely the Cradle-to-Cradle certificate, as the only one we found expired in 2020. We also could not find their B Impact Score, although B Corp seems to have featured them in their environmental honors list back in 2015.
Now, going back to soap, the refills are concentrated liquids, similar to Dr. Bronner’s 18-to-1 liquid soap concentrate. You get a reusable aluminum bottle, fill that with water, pour the refill in, and you’re set. Additionally, Method also offers liquid hand soaps with containers made 100% from recycled plastic, and their refill bottles made from 50% recycled plastic. However, if you plan to use any kind of refills, make sure to get the aluminum bottle (unless you already have one at home). Otherwise, you may run into issues with plastic leaching, as recycled plastic tends to leach more than its non-recycled counterpart.
Ethique's Soap Bar
- Certifications | B Corp (117.8 Score); Leaping Bunny; Vegan Action
- Pros | Palm oil free; cruelty-free; vegan, zero-waste; climate neutral
- Cons | Contains mica (more details); not enough information on ingredients; no annual sustainability reports
- Shop At | Ethique / Amazon
When it comes to sustainable hair and body products, Ethique is another name to remember. Founded by New Zealander Brianne West in 2012, Ethique started with a mission to remove unnecessary packaging from hair and skin care products. By producing concentrated products packaged into biodegradable containers, the brand quickly found a following, and thanks to its growth, the brand also attracted investors, and was sold to private investment firm Bansk Group in 2020. All of Ethique’s products, including their soaps, are cruelty-free, vegan, regenerative, and palm oil-free. Plus, the brand as a whole is climate-neutral.
Now, what could be improved? We’d appreciate more transparency on what types of fragrances are used in the product beyond the ambiguous “natural fragrances”. As fragrances can be some of the most hazardous ingredients in a soap, we felt it was worth a mention. The product also contains mica, although Ethique has procedures in place to ensure it’s sustainably sourced. If you prefer liquid soaps, make sure to check out their handwash concentrates as well, although the amount of synthetic ingredients in those is considerably higher than the bar soap. As for sustainability reports, we could only find information on a single 2020 report and they do not appear to have annual reporting practices in place.
BeautyCounter's Charcoal Cleansing Bar
- Certifications | B Corp (97.7 Score); EWG Verified
- Pros | Vegan; palm oil free; FSC-certified packaging; natural ingredients; annual sustainability reports (2022)
- Cons | High emissions at present; expensive
- Shop At | BeautyCounter / Amazon
It’s black! That’s right, we’re getting fancy now. USA-based BeautyCounter’s “Counter+ Charcoal Cleansing Bar” contains charcoal powder and is meant for washing both your body and face daily. While the benefits of activated charcoal are not well supported by evidence, you can at least be calm about its safety as this product has been EWG Verified.
While this particular bar of soap is free of palm oil, it’s worth noting that as of its 2021 disclosure report, 90% of the brand’s products contain mica, palm, or vanilla, all of which are high-risk ingredients for labor rights issues. However, 100% of their mica and 75%+ of their palm oil is responsibly sourced, and when it comes to mica, the brand is even a frontrunner in ethical sourcing with its “Mica toolkit.”
As for brand-level goals, we commend BeautyCounter for its ambitious net-zero by 2050 target, reducing emissions by 90% in less than 30 years. This goal is registered with the SBTI and, if successfully met, is a massive accomplishment. However, at present, the brand still falls short of others on this list that are already carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative. Still, we commend their ambitious goal, and the list of ingredients in this soap is also among the most natural and eco-friendly on this list.
KORA Organics Renewing Hand and Body Wash
- Certifications | PETA; EWG Verified; COSMOS Organic; Climate Neutral
- Pros | Cruelty-free; organic ingredients; vegan
- Cons | No refills; contains palm oil; plastic container; expensive; no annual sustainability reports
- Shop At | KORA Organics / Amazon
KORA Organics is an Australian organic beauty brand founded by model Miranda Kerr back in 2009. The brand has taken various steps to mitigate its environmental impact, with all of its products being certified organic, vegan (except for one product containing beeswax), and cruelty-free. The brand also pledges to switch all products to recycled plastic or glass containers by 2026 and has achieved climate neutrality through afforestation and other offsetting projects.
Now, let’s move on to what could be improved. For one, the soap’s ingredients include hydrogenated palm glycerides, which are derivatives of palm oil, and we could not find any information on whether their palm oil is responsibly sourced. We’d also prefer refill options, combined with reusable, non-plastic containers from glass or aluminum to avoid leaching issues. What’s great, however, is that this soap is EWG Verified: one of only a few on this list and a testament to its safety.