The Rise, Fall, and Reincarnation of Soap

Portraying Saponified Oil as Something New

By Dave Campanella

In the over saturated pet shampoo category, companies are challenged to differentiate their products in order to stand out from their competition. Some will seemingly stop at nothing just to be first to cash in on the latest fad or trend.

As a marketing manager, what surprises me is the notable recent spike in good ole soap sales. Much of this momentum I believe is attributed to the push for natural ingredients crossing over from the human shampoo and food industries. This intrigues me.

“More natural” and “ingredient disclosure” are very good for our industry in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a soap hater. I am admittedly biased to favoring modern detergents. Needless to say my inner nerd compels me to share my thoughts based on what I know. Let’s explore some history, facts, and science concerning Soaps vs. Detergents so you may draw a reasonable conclusion.


Soaps were initially produced with natural ingredients derived from various plant oils and animal fats. “Saponification” is the chemical reaction that produces saponified oil, what we call soap. One must mix an oil or fat (an acid) with “Lye” (a base) to form soap (a salt). Lye was originally produced from “potash” which refers to plant ashes soaked in water in a pot. The word “potassium” gets its name from potash.

Historians can date soap making back to the Babylonians some 5000 years ago. Did you know soap was the very first “cleaning surfactant” commonly used? Surfactants (surface-active-agents) aid cleaning by reducing surface tension and improving water’s ability to spread evenly. This produces more sustainable wetness and enables dirt and soil to wipe away and remove much easier. Soap was a chemical marvel back in time.

All cleansing surfactants share the following attribute. One end of their molecular chain is hydrophilic (attracted to water), while it’s other end is hydrophobic (repelled by water) and attracted to oils. Soap cleans as its hydrophobic ends secure to oily debris and sebum. As a lathered area is rinsed with warm water, soiled oils wash away. Soap is a basic detergent.

Soap crafting progressed slowly up through the ages followed by shampoo. The earliest of shampoos were merely liquids prepared from water, soap and sodium carbonate (soda). In the distant past only those in high society could enjoy the luxury of soap and shampoo. It took until the 1800’s before bar soap became widespread due to consumers associating its usage to health and hygiene, thanks in part to advertising.

Shampoos rise in popularity was also attributed to advertising. For what it’s worth, shampoo cannot to this day actually feed or resuscitate hair, because hair is not alive. It’s nothing more than dead protein, mainly keratin. However that never stopped the quackery professed by companies selling their shampoo concoctions back in the ole days. 


Synthetic detergents (“Syndets” as I’ll hereby refer to them) were introduced in 1916 to fulfill demand due to soap ingredient shortages brought on by World War I and its devastation. Scientists could now isolate Laurel alcohol from coconut fat or palm kernel oil (not petrochemicals as some fear mongers proclaim) leading to the development of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).

By the 1950’s syndets had overtaken traditional soap products in America driven by ever present print, radio and TV advertising. A variety of other domestic detergents had emerged with multiple properties and usages including laundering, dishwashing, hygiene and of course grooming.

The first alternative to SLS was ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS), which utilized ammonium rather than sodium in its base. ALS by contrast is larger in molecular size and mass, higher in solubility, and milder in detergency. This means it is more difficult for ALS to penetrate the outer layers of the skin and reach any delicate underlying cell layers.

Next scientists added “Ethylene Oxide” to ALS and SLS, further increasing molecular size, solubility and gentleness. This “ethoxylation process” produced both ammonium laureth sulfate (ALES) as well as sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). Less surfactant could now be used in a shampoo formulation resulting in much milder cleaning. Grouping combinations of these surfactants together netted even greater cleansing effect and lower skin irritability.


There are many more variations of cleaning surfactants now in use; too many to mention here. However you should know the top three by far are still SLES, ALES, and SLS. Social media continually maligns and demonizes SLS more than any other ingredient. Unsubstantiated assumptions about the dangers of SLS are sometimes employed by companies as a marketing tactic only to differentiate their brand. This furthers the negative image of the ingredient. The scrutiny of SLS has in fact set the benchmark for which all other cleaning surfactants effectiveness and safety are measured.

Syndets have been refined, scrubbed, and perfected since their introduction over a century ago. That’s why one still finds SLS used for household cleaning, bathing, oral hygiene, and (believe it or not) medicine. 12 to 24 hour allergy pills, pain relief caplets, along with some prescription drugs use precise tiny dosages of SLS for their intricate time-release formulations. Pharmacology refers to this use as an “excipient” rather than a detergent. This revelation should squash lingering fears suggesting SLS was ever toxic or a carcinogen. Whether you like it or not, SLS is here to stay.

More notably the words “soap” and “detergent” are being cunningly used interchangeably by marketers, when in reality they are significantly different. This further adds to the confusion when sifting through social media and the internet for facts. We may be witnessing the “de-evolution” of science as soaps are being thrust back into the spotlight today. I’ll get back to this point.

Please bear in mind most cleaning products today are detergents. Did you know most commercial bar soaps use syndets rather than actual soap? The biggest reason is that “hard water” is soap’s evil nemesis. Soap reacts with hard water to form scum. While syndets are free-rinsing (won’t leave residue), soap requires clear warm water every application to avoid a film. Soap scum effects more than just cleanliness; it can ruin clothing; fade fabrics and other surfaces, wreak havoc on plumbing, not to mention hair and skin complications. 

By contrast syndets will perform at any water temperature. Think about that, cleaning in cold water without scum or film. Such versatility enables these detergents to be used in far more bathing applications offering more options.

I’ll just concede right here and now that soaps can be produced with 100% natural ingredients. This should explain the surge in “USDA Certified”, “Natural”, and “Organic” shampoo claims. There is no doubt soap conveniently fits the “All Natural” narrative being pushed better than syndets ever will. 

Furthermore the passage of the FD&C Act of 1938 exempted soaps from cosmetic labeling requirements. This allows soaps to list their ingredients in descriptive terms rather than using INCI chemical names as syndets are required. While this gives soap a somewhat unfair marketing advantage, reality will always deem soap performance inferior to syndets due the aforementioned limitations with hard water and cold temperatures.


Is there a rationale for preference of Soaps or Synthetic Detergents? One can be more natural, and the other more technological. Both are manmade and chemical products. With any chemical there are tradeoffs, upsides, and downsides. Fortunately the trickle down from both the human cosmetics and grooming industries continues to fuel further advancements in their development for humans and pets.

There’s something to be said for soap’s simplicity. However I err on the side of syndets because of their many innovations and future potential.

As for the clever reincarnation of soap products today in the pet grooming industry, I welcome it. As long as soaps continue to be acknowledged as chemical products made with “Lye”, rather than falsely portrayed by “lies”, I’m good. We should be more mindful at distinguishing soap from synthetic detergent in the products we retail and use. Remember that science and mindful practice work hand-in-hand.

Sometimes it is easier to understand a little bit of basic science than it is to decipher the clever (sometimes cunning) marketing behind soap and detergent. I encourage both aspiring and serious grooming professionals to delve into learning more about the science of soap online. This knowledge is pertinent to our profession. It will make you a more savvy soap shopper.