Is This Natural Or Made With Chemicals?

Is This Natural Or Made With Chemicals?



(Image taken from James Kennedy)  James Kennedy is a chemistry teacher in Victoria  who has compiled an awesome analysis of what constitutes different foods, to help educate not only his students, but the general public about how the natural world is constructed. 

I have always loved chemistry – it could have begun with the dreamy Year 11 Chemistry teacher who made alchemy come alive for me;  unfortunately he was replaced by the curmudgeon in Year 12 who used to say “6thForm;  I detect a carnival atmosphere down the back ” 

Anyway, I digress. Discovering that we could change substances by adding together or breaking down other substances was probably the beginning of my love for soap making, but that is a story for another day. Today I wanted to talk about our ideas of natural vs artificial and our subsequent perception of good vs bad.

In our interactions with the public at our shops, festivals and via emails, we hear over and over ‘are these soaps natural’?  I know the subtext of what we are being asked; are there any nasty chemicals in these soaps and other products?    

As responsible consumers we want to buy the best product our money can buy; we want to protect our families and the environment. To complicate matters, with so many products out there in the market place, and so little regulation surrounding the words and descriptions used for products, it is little wonder we get confused.    

The word ‘natural’ can be used in numerous contexts, in the above example it is an adjective used to describe the origin of a product. According to the Webster dictionary, the word natural in this context means:  

                   “existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind.”

Clearly any soap or bottled body wash or other product does not meet this description.  So, how do we decide if a soap or body product is as close to natural as possible?  At The Soap Bar, we choose to use the highest quality food grade vegetable oils; coconut, rice bran, olive oil and cocoa butter.  We then add an aqueous solution of sodium hydroxide which results in an exothermic reaction (called saponification) converting the fatty acids in the oil to the sodium salts of the oils (known as soap).  

In today’s society, we have information at our fingertips.  We can quickly ‘google’ something and come up with answers to any question we may choose to ask.  But, how accurate are the answers we find?  How do we read the ingredient labels of products and decide if they are OK to use?  Do you look at the long list on unpronounceable words and pop the bottle back on the shelf?  Some of the ingredients may be harmful on their own, but when mixed with another ingredient it forms another; for example there is no sodium hydroxide left at the end of the saponification process, but is added in the beginning.

So don’t be scared off by big words, they are not all bad. And let’s not forget that water – plain, simple water – is technically called dihydrogen monoxide!