Soap vs. Detergent – Is There A Difference?

What is soap? What is detergent? Normally, soap is used for personal use; in the shower or in the kitchen – mostly when it comes in direct contact with human skin or even with our four legged furry friends. The word detergent brings to mind different cleaning situations like doing the laundry, using the dishwasher or washing the car. So you would use detergent for personal use, would you? It seems okay to use soap for those other types of cleaning situations, doesn’t it? Let’s break it down and figure it out!

Soap was first made by Babylonians around 2800 B.C. and got its name from the ancient Roman legend about Mount Sapo – sapo is the Latin word for soap. Rain would wash down the mountain, mixing with fat from dead animals and volcanic ash, resulting in a clay mixture found to make cleaning easier.

The word detergent is borrowed from the Latin verb ‘detergere’ and was used as an adjective in the English language in the 17th century. It’s a combination of the words ‘de’, meaning “away from” and ‘tergere’, meaning “to wipe”.

Soap and detergent are very similar in the fact they are both surfactants, making it easier to disperse dirt and wash it away but that’s where the similarities end. Soap is a cleaning product primarily made from natural ingredients that may include both plant and animal products. These items include animal fat like tallow or plant oils, such as vegetable, palm, pine, castor, olive, or coconut oil. Detergents are man-made cleaning products and made from synthetic materials like propene and can have complex hydrocarbon structures.

Soap is generally used in shampoos, body washes, and hand washes because they are made with a huge excess of water, so soap scum or film is just washed away. Detergents used for commercial washing products, like powders and liquids, were developed to reduce soap scum. This film can accumulate and have adverse effects, like the greying clothes and buildup in washing machines and dishwashers.

Sounds like detergents would be more effective when it came to personal use but there’s a reason why we don’t. Synthetic detergents, most definitely earlier iterations of ones, had a tendency to cause contact skin irritation or dermatitis when they came into contact with sensitive skin. There are also concerns about detergents biodegradability and toxicity levels, which just isn’t good for us or the planet.

We’ve come to a place where soap is becoming even more friendly to humans and to the Earth and the same can be said about detergents. While there will always be a place for synthetic cleaners, there is also a place for natural ones as well.

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