More on My Charlie's Soap Internal Debate

>> Friday, January 29, 2010

I received a response from Taylor Sutherland, president of Charlie's Soap, earlier this week (as I've said before, their terrific customer service is one of the reasons I've always liked this company). Here's what he had to say:


I've attached a note from Charlie that goes to the heart of why we're really hesitant to fully disclose all the workings of Charlie's Soap. Long story short, no one makes detergent this way. It was a breakthrough that has never occurred to the Big Boys so we just don't tell them. If they found out, we'd be out of business because they'd copy it and we wouldn't be able to compete. Butyl celosolve has been the subject of misinformation for years now. It rhymes with methyl and ethyl celosolve and those two are horrible to be around. The amount of Butyl that we use breaks down in the earth completely in a month (97.3% in 28 days) and is non-toxic based on a the recommendation by Duke University. The scale they use is that 50 parts per million in the air (a dense fog of pure Butyl celosolve) is the limit for being non-toxic. We use a tiny percentage in water. If you smell the product you're smelling a microscopic fraction of the 50 parts per million which is the non-toxic level.

On a personal note, we made Charlie's Soap to be safe not only on paper or for a government regulation, but because when it was created, we knew personally all the workers at the textile plant that were going to be using it. Being sued is bad enough, but being made a pariah because you made Mrs. Collins from down the street sick is MUCH worse. We made Charlie's Soap to such exacting standards of efficacy and safety for just that purpose. And 16 years (1976 to 1992) in industry work with no recordable safety incidents speaks volumes. These people were using it 25% strength all day long, hosing down machinery, scrubbing and rinsing. The were soaked head to toe all day long in Charlie's Soap. I personally was bathed in it as a young baby. My brother has MCS and actually makes the product getting raw ingredients all over himself and he's fine.

I hope this helps give you a better understanding just how safe Charlie's Soap is but also give you an idea of just how secretive we have to be, within the law, of course.
According to the document he had attached, here's what's in Charlie's Soap:
  • The powdered laundry detergent (what I use) contains coconut oil based surfactants, sodium carbonate, sodium silicate, and soda ash.
  • The liquid laundry detergent contains coconut oil based surfactants, sodium carbonate, soda ash, and water.
  • The all-purpose cleaner contains coconut oil based surfactants, a natural solvent (this must be the butyl celosolve), sodium carbonate, soda ash, and water.
It also says that their products have been tested for toxicity by Duke University, for biodegradability by Japan Food Research Labs, and for effectiveness by SGS U.S. Testing Labs.

What I Think

I can totally see their point - as a small company, they're worried about losing market share to bigger companies if their formula is revealed. But from a consumer standpoint, how can I decide if a product is safe if I don't know what's in it? Because Duke University says it's safe? There are so many ingredients that companies claim are safe that independent researchers say are not. Think BPA. So how do I know who to trust?

The other problem is with the generic label "coconut based surfactants," which I see on all sorts of "all natural" products. I learned today from Jennifer the Smart Mama that sodium lauryl sulfate is a coconut based surfactant, and that's one of those ingredients that we're supposed to be avoiding. So it almost seems like companies are using the term "coconut based surfactant" to avoid admitting that they're using ingredients their customers might not be happy about.

What Now?

I'm always coming back to the same old questions about non-toxic cleaning products and beauty supplies. For now, there just don't seem to be products in those categories that meet all of my qualifications: non-toxic, affordable, and get the job done.

It's like with my whole shampoo dilemma: the non-toxic products that I tried left my hair a greasy mess, and I'm sorry but I'm no dirty hippy. But the Lush shampoo bar with sodium lauryl sulfate leaves my hair looking normal. And it's affordable and comes with zero packaging.

Or the makeup dilemma: the makeup brands that score really well on Skin Deep are way out of my price range. But I can find organic makeup in recycled paper packaging from my corner drugstore.

For now, does the answer have to be less toxic is good enough?

I'm interested to hear your opinions both on the Charlie's Soap issue and the wider non-toxic/less toxic dilemma!


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Kasi S. January 29, 2010 at 9:29 AM  

The answer may be "less toxic is good enough until I find something better."
I like Dr. Bronner's soaps ( which I can buy in bulk at my local coop. It's not local, but buying in bulk means less packaging.
For my hair, I sometimes use Nature's Gate ( shampoo and conditioner, which is better than some but not the greatest. Often/most of the time I use baking soda solution and a home-made nicely-scented vinegar solution. It took a little getting used to... it feels like my hair's not getting clean when I am in the shower, but after my hair dries it is clean and actually much softer!

Check out this extensive post and see if you find some helpful info - both makeup and body care products, of the animal- and earth-friendly variety, are listed:

Green Me Alison January 29, 2010 at 12:38 PM  

I think one of the tricky things with cleaning and beauty products is the "why" behind avoiding them. Sometimes it is because it is toxic, sometimes it is bad for the planet, sometimes the manufacturing process is bad, sometimes it is ethical and sometimes its because it is allergenic. Other times it is all of the above. What made me think of this is your reference to sodium lauryl sulfate. I believe the issue with this ingredient is that many people have an allergic reaction to it, not that the ingredient itself is toxic. Along these lines, just because a product has the same base chemical structure/ingredient does not make it good or bad. Hydrogenated oil as we know is made from the same base ingredients as regular oil, but when you modify an oil's chemical structure to make it hydrogenated it is no longer the same thing. In other words, there is no way you can legitimately compare "coconut based surfactant" to "sodium lauryl sulfate" if you don't know the precise chemical structure of each (of course I realize the lack of preciseness is your big concern). Good questions.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper January 29, 2010 at 1:12 PM  

@Kasi - I use Dr Bronners for cleaning, but it made my hair nasty. I've been interested to try the baking soda/vinegar method but haven't worked up the courage for the transition period yet.

@Alison -Another issue with the sodium lauryl sulfate is that it can be ethoxylated to produce sodium laureth sulfate which results in 1,4-dioxane contamination. The contaminant can be stripped out but unless the manufacturer says they do, a consumer has no way of knowing. And "coconut derived surfactant" could also mean sodium laureth sulfate. Again, I'm just repeating info I learned from Jennifer the Smart Mama. I don't know any of this on my own or really understand it all. And that's my biggest frustration. I can either trust that companies are looking out for my safety when history has shown that they rarely do, or I can research things to death and trust the info on the Internet (and chemistry was always my worst subject in school)

Debra January 29, 2010 at 4:15 PM  

I'm a no 'pooer. In the beginning,I figured I would give it a 8 week trail run, but it worked so well for me that my hair hasn't been touched with shampoo or conditioner for almost a year, now. 2 cups of water to 1 tablespoon of baking soda as a wash, and 2 cups of water to 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (and a drop of sage essential oil) as a rinse. I had no transition period, though I did experiment around with ratios, water temperature, hair brushes, and frequency. Now I wash about once every six to eight days and use a boar bristle brush. I have bra strap length, thick hair with a touch of graying. Get the courage and give it a try, if it doesn't work for you after a set time period, you haven't lost anything but have gained some education.

I make my own laundry detergent with homemade soap, borax, and washing soda. It is disappointing when a company you trust gives you a reason to start questioning them.

Eco Yogini January 30, 2010 at 10:22 AM  

i actually like their response, but i see your point. personally, I'd be MORE likely to support them just because they're the 'little guy'.

about the mascara- suncoat has an affordable mascara, made from sugar and stuff (in Canada, so not made in China etc). My issue with it was that it easily rubbed off with water, which was great for washing my face, but not so much when it was raining-snowing.

anyhoo, other than the easily wiped off part with water, suncoat's mascara is cheaper than others and rates UBER eco friendly on skin deep :)

Erin aka Conscious Shopper January 30, 2010 at 10:47 AM  

@Debra - Do you get your hair wet between washings?

@Eco Yogini - Thanks for the makeup tip. I'm definitely going to check it out!

Lisa Sharp January 30, 2010 at 3:24 PM  

The makeup I use comes in plastic but I believe it's recycled plastic and they are always looking for new ways to reduce waste. It's a small mom owned company in Texas. The makeup is very natural, never tested on animals, works wonderfully, etc... I have gotten many of my non-eco friends to use it just because it works so well, they don't care about the safety.

It's They do a good job with packaging to and it's so affordable. I have super light skin and I can even find the perfect shade.

mudnessa February 2, 2010 at 12:12 AM  

I am a 'pooer for about a year now and I will never go back to traditional shampoo. It is the SLS's in shampoo and even the coconut based alternatives that I will not use on my hair again and it is not because of health concersn and all that, it's the amount of frizz and craziness it does to my hair. After my first baking soda wash it was so smooth and practically frizz free. I only wash once a week and only get it wet once or twice a week in addition to that, unless I get really dirty/sweaty, ie summertime.

I use Seventh Generation laundry detergent and Ecover all purpose cleaner and honestly have no idea what's really in them, I'm sure I looked once but I am happy with the way they work and am working on other areas at the moment but will probably deal with those eventually.

mudnessa February 2, 2010 at 12:16 AM  

Oy, NO 'pooer. I'm a no 'pooer. Just came to your site through Retro Housewife Goes Green, looking through the site, will probably comment some more and will TRY my hardest to see my typos first, I'm pretty bad at it.

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vertigo March 20, 2017 at 4:14 PM  

I hate to post to such an old topic, but here goes:

First, pay close attention to the wording. It's not just what a label says, but how it says it. In this case, the container says "Contains" vs "Ingredients." That's like saying cereal contains wheat and sugar, but what about everything else it contains, i.e. the ingredients list. And when they do use the word "ingredients," it's cleverly qualified by prefacing it with "natural mineral" or "biodegradable," so they can simply state the ingredients in those categories without having to say the other ingredients. Obviously, I don't know their motivation for doing these things, but to me it seems intended to mislead consumers.

Furthermore, they state they can't release their ingredients because it would reveal their formula and the mysterious, wonderful process they've developed that has somehow eluded all the big companies with their vast financial resources for years and years. Is that possible? Sure, but it's more likely they just don't want consumers knowing what's really in there. After all, even with a list of ingredients, other companies still wouldn't know the proportions or the process. And if it truly is so unique, why can't they just patent it?

As for C12-15 Pareth-2, it is an ethoxylated compound, meaning that without a guarantee from the manufacturer (and there isn't one in this case) that all the ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, both carcinogens, have been removed, you just don't know. They claim it has been, but as has been shown over and over again, companies can claim just about anything. Where's the proof, i.e. lab results or at the very least a statement on the container?

Finally, as has been pointed out here and elsewhere, terms like "vegetable-based" and "derived from coconuts" means nothing and is all too often used as a way of making toxic ingredients sound natural and healthy. In fact, from my experience, attempts at "green-washing" a product with the use of such terms is more often than not an indication they're hiding something. If a company is truly confident in their product, they're typically all too eager to share what's in it.

I'm not saying Charlie's soap is bad, and I have no personal experience with it, but I'm sick of all the deception in the food and personal care / cosmetics industries. We need more transparency, and companies claiming they have a great, safe product who refuse to be transparent are ones I tend to stay away from. They're not much better, and possibly worse, than companies like Poofy Organics, Organic Excellence, Babyganics, Branch Basics, and Honest, to name a few, that claim to be better than the rest and are found to be lying or just plain ignorant about what's in their products.

I'd suggest checking out the Chemical of the Day and Bubble and Bee blogs (I'm not affiliated in any way). Her information is mostly spot on as well as being easy to understand for most people, she actually has good references and doesn't rely much on EWG (I could go on for another couple paragraphs about why they're not a reliable source), and she's very helpful. Unfortunately, she doesn't sell laundry soap.

Anonymous,  April 12, 2017 at 11:09 AM  

I don't know if anyone's reading this blog post anymore, but I was also under the impression that SLS was bad, so I wanted to find a scientific explanation on the subject. Below is very detailed info regarding SLS and previous studies:

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