Posted on September 30, 2010 by
Before my local Target stores started carrying the now-famous bottles of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps (complete with their dizzying labels jam-packed with scripture, philosophies, and instructions for both life and soap), I am pretty sure I’d never actually heard of castile soap. Since I started making efforts to green my cleaning routine, however, I see it mentioned all the time. I have to admit, though, that even after I bought my first bottle of the stuff, I couldn’t have told you just what castile soap is. It occurs to me that perhaps some of the rest of you couldn’t either. Let’s remedy that, shall we?
In simplest terms, castile soap is soap made from vegetable oil, rather than from animal fat or synthetic detergents. It originates from the Castile region of Spain (hence the name), where it was made from pure, local olive oil. Modern castile soap is still primarily olive-oil based, but it can also contain other plant oils, such as coconut, palm, soybean, hemp, and jojoba.
Castile soap comes in both solid and liquid forms; the difference between the two is simply the chemical used to saponify (a fancy word for “convert”) the vegetable oils into soap. (The liquid soaps use potassium hydroxide, and the solid soaps use sodium hydroxide, i.e., lye.) [Sidenote: Don't ask me why I go all Bill Nye the Science Guy on you every time I do any sort of ingredient research. Don't put the English major in a box is the lesson here, I guess.]
So that’s what castile soap is. Now, what’s so great about it? Well, a few things. First off, because it’s made from simple, natural ingredients, it breaks down in the environment much more easily than other soaps and detergents, and the waste stream from its manufacturing is less significant as well. In the case of Dr. Bronner’s specifically, the ingredients are organic and fair trade certified, and the packaging itself is 100% post-consumer recycled. Many other brands of pure castile soap are available too, of course (rumor has it that Trader Joe’s has a good one), but since I haven’t actually used them, I’ll admit I didn’t research them as closely.
One of the biggest benefits, however, is castile soap’s versatility. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a product whore, but I definitely have enough unnecessary impulse purchases stacked under both my kitchen and my bathroom sink to recognize the value and beauty of simplicity and to strive not to collect three different bottles of something when one will do. Dr. Bronner (yes, he was a real person) said there were 18 uses for his Magic Soap; the Internets assure me there are actually far more than that.
Of the many castile soap suggestions I have heard of, here are a few I can personally recommend:
Body wash: Either lather the bar version up just like any soap or splash a few drops of the liquid onto a washcloth or bath pouf. Since liquid castile soap is concentrated, a little bit goes a lot further than traditional shower gel would. I like Dr. Bronner’s peppermint variety for this purpose. It’s fresh and invigorating, and in the morning, I can use all the help waking up I can get.
Shave gel: Likely because of the natural oil and high glycerin content in castile soap, it works pretty well as a shave gel, without making my skin dry or irritated. (I can wash my face with it too, without feeling any more tight-skinned pre-moisturizer than I do with facial cleansers.) Incidentally, did you know that most traditional soaps on the market have much or all of their glycerin removed, which is why so many soaps dry out the skin? And a lot of the same companies that remove the glycerin from soap sell it back to us separately in products like lotions and moisturizers. There’s some interesting (and mildly maddening) soap trivia for you. Moving on…
Hand soap: Fill an empty hand soap dispenser not quite to the top with water; then fill the rest with liquid castile soap. It’ll lather up like regular liquid hand soap, without the added plastic waste or chemicals. If you want extra anti-bacterial protection, you can add some tea tree oil as well.
Laundry soap: Someday, I will remember to look for washing soda at a store that might actually sell it, and I will then finally try the homemade laundry detergent recipe that Greenists reader Jess has posted in our comments more than once (1 cup borax, 1 cup washing soda, 1 bar grated castile soap — mix up and use two tablespoons per load). Meanwhile, plain liquid castile soap makes a good detergent, too, and the Dr. Bronner’s lavender scent smells just as lovely as the less environmentally friendly lavender vanilla Tide detergent I was so sad to see discontinued last year. Use about a quarter cup for a regular load; add baking soda or borax for extra brightening and whitening power.
General household cleaning: Dilute a tablespoon or two in a bucket of water and use it to clean a multitude of surfaces in your house. You can also use it in place of dish soap, but for that I prefer more suds than castile soap diluted in a sinkful of water provides. If you’re of the “suds don’t equal clean” mindset, however, you may like it just fine.
In addition to all of the above uses, many people swear by castile soap for plenty of things I wouldn’t personally recommend. In my opinion, it makes a terrible shampoo, for example (although people with short or differently textured hair seem to have better luck), and the automatic dishwasher liquid recipe I found online (involving liquid castile soap, water, vinegar, and lemon juice) left my dishes coated with an unappealing white dusty film.
I’m almost equally hesitant to recommend using liquid castile soap to brush your teeth, despite Dr. Bronner’s insistence that it’s a valid option. In the name of thorough research, however, I decided I had to try it, and you know what? With the peppermint variety at least, it wasn’t nearly the horrifying experience I feared it might be. So if you feel so inclined, dab just a drop or two on a wet toothbrush and go to town, but I think I’ll stick with traditional toothpaste for regular use and rely on castile soap only in an unlikely pinch.
I’m sure many of you have a bottle or two of castile soap as a key tool in your household arsenal as well. What are your favorite uses for this magical stuff?