Ethical Soap

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 58 brands of soap bars, liquid soaps and handwash. 

We look at whether bars or liquids are more environmentally friendly, vegan and cruelty-free soaps, organic soaps, palm oil, plastics, which brands contain toxic chemicals, and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying soap:

  • Is it a solid bar? Bars of soap are less likely to contain petroleum, use less plastic packaging and have lower emissions from transportation than liquid soap. Opt for a bar over a bottle if you want a more environmentally-friendly choice.

  • Is it organic? This is a fail-safe way to avoid most of the nasty, artificial chemicals that are in so many products. And thereby also help to protect the environment.

  • Is it vegan? Soap sometimes use animal fats, as well as other animal products such as honey or milk. Look for a vegan brand.

Best Buys

Bars of soap, rather than liquid soaps, are Best Buys because of their environmental benefit:

Recommended buys

For bar soaps, we would also recommend Little Soap Company and Eco Warrior.

For liquid handwash, we recommend ALTER/NATIVE, Ecoleaf, Faith in Nature or Bio D which are refillable. At the moment, you will be able to get these in a wholefood or health food shop or from the companies’ online shops.

When bricks and mortar shops are open again, Lush is the most widely available because of its high-street shops.

Of the brands you might only be able to find in supermarkets, food shops and pharmacies, Baylis and Harding does relatively well.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying soap:

  • Does it contain palm oil? At its most unsustainable, palm oil is linked to mass deforestation and serious violations of human rights. Look for brands that commit to sourcing palm oil sustainably.

  • Is it  tested on animals? 80% of the world still permits animal testing for cosmetics, although it is banned in the UK. Look for the Cruelty-Free logo to guarantee that the company is not animal testing anywhere in the world.

  • Is it packaged in plastic? Soap doesn’t need to come in a plastic bottle: choosing a bar rather than liquid soap cuts down on packaging, as well as emissions from transportation.

Companies to avoid

Avoid Boots and Superdrug who score worst in most of our categories.

  • Boots
  • Superdrug

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Lucy Bee soap bars [F,O,Vg]

Company Profile: Lucy Bee Ltd
18

Neal's Yard bar & liquid soap [Vg][O]

Company Profile: Neal's Yard (Natural Remedies) Limited
16

Odylique bar soap [O, Vg]

Company Profile: Essential Care (Organics) Ltd
16

Bio-D soap bars & handwash [Vg]

Company Profile: Bio-D Company
15.5

Friendly Soap bar soap [Vg]

Company Profile: Friendly Soap Ltd
15.5

Green People handwash [Vg, O]

Company Profile: Green People Company Ltd
15.5

Little Soap Company soap bars & liquid soap [Vg,O]

Company Profile: Little Soap Company Limited
15.5

Bentley Organics soap bars & liquid [Vg, O]

Company Profile: Bentley Organic Trading Limited
15

Conscious Skincare handwash [Vg]

Company Profile: Conscious Skincare Ltd
15

Eco Warrior shampoo & soap bars [Vg]

Company Profile: Little Soap Company Limited
15

Caurnie bar & liquid soaps [Vg]

Company Profile: Caurnie Soap Co
14.5

Honesty handwash [Vg]

Company Profile: Honesty Cosmetics
14.5

Organii bar & liquid soaps [O, Vg]

Company Profile: ORGANii Ltd
14.5

ALTER/NATIVE liquid shampoo & soap [Vg]

Company Profile: Triangle Wholefoods Collective Ltd (t/a Suma Wholefoods)
14

ALTER/NATIVE shampoo & soap bar [Vg]

Company Profile: Triangle Wholefoods Collective Ltd (t/a Suma Wholefoods)
14

Faith in Nature soap & handwash [Vg]

Company Profile: Faith in Nature Ltd
14

Honesty soap bars [Vg]

Company Profile: Honesty Cosmetics
14

Pure Nuff Stuff bar & liquid soap [Vg]

Company Profile: Pure Nuff Stuff Ltd
14

ecoleaf liquid hand soap [Vg]

Company Profile: Triangle Wholefoods Collective Ltd (t/a Suma Wholefoods)
14

Weleda bar soap [Vg]

Company Profile: Weleda AG
13.5

Astonish handwash [Vg]

Company Profile: The London Oil Refining Co Ltd
12.5

Lavera Liquid Soap [Vg, O]

Company Profile: Laverana GmbH & Co KG
12.5

One Village Soap [Vg]

Company Profile: One Village Limited
12.5

ECOS liquid hand soap [Vg]

Company Profile: Earth Friendly Products
12

Lush bar soaps [Vg]

Company Profile: Lush Cosmetics Ltd
12

Urtekram bar soap & handwash [O, Vg]

Company Profile: Midsona
12

Baylis and Harding soap bars & handwash [Vg]

Company Profile: Baylis and Harding PLC
11

Lush soap bars

Company Profile: Lush Cosmetics Ltd
11

Traidcraft Clean & Fair bar soaps [F]

Company Profile: Traidcraft plc
11

Cuticura bar soap [Vg]

Company Profile: Karium
8.5

Bayley's of Bond Street hand wash

Company Profile: PZ Cussons PLC
8

Carex liquid soap

Company Profile: PZ Cussons PLC
8

Cuticura hand gel sanitiser

Company Profile: Karium
8

Imperial Leather bar soap & handwash

Company Profile: PZ Cussons PLC
8

Molton Brown soap bars and handwash

Company Profile: Molton Brown Limited
8

Nivea bar & liquid soap

Company Profile: Beiersdorf AG
8

L'Occitane bar & liquid soap

Company Profile: L'Occitane International SA
7.5

Avalon Organics liquid soap [Vg, O]

Company Profile: Avalon Organics
6

Bulldog soap bars [Vg]

Company Profile: Edgewell Personal Care
6

Avon liquid handwash

Company Profile: Avon Products Inc
5.5

Body Shop bar & liquid soap

Company Profile: Body Shop International Limited
5.5

JASÖN liquid soap and body wash [Vg]

Company Profile: JASÖN Natural Products
5.5

Cidal soap bars

Company Profile: Lornamead UK Ltd
4.5

Wright's soap bars

Company Profile: Lornamead UK Ltd
4.5

Dettol soap bars and handwash

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
4

Johnson's bar soap

Company Profile: Johnson & Johnson
3.5

Palmolive liquid hand wash

Company Profile: Colgate-Palmolive Co
3.5

Sanex bar & liquid soap

Company Profile: Colgate-Palmolive Co
3.5

Tom's of Maine Soap Bar [V]

Company Profile: Tom's of Maine
3.5

Camay soap bars

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
3

Sante liquid soap [Vg][O]

Company Profile: Sante Naturkosmetik
3

Simple soap bars

Company Profile: Lornamead UK Ltd
1.5

Superdrug bar & liquid soap

Company Profile: Superdrug Stores Plc
1

Boots handwash

Company Profile: Boots UK Ltd
0.5

Dove soap bars & lquid

Company Profile: Unilever Home & Personal Care Division
0.5

Pears Soap bars & liquid

Company Profile: Unilever Home & Personal Care Division
0.5

Radox handwash

Company Profile: Unilever Home & Personal Care Division
0.5

Simple hand wash

Company Profile: Simple Health & Beauty Group Limited
0.5

Soap & Glory soap bars

Company Profile: Boots UK Ltd
0.5

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

Which is the most ethical type and brand of soap to buy?

Should you buy a bar of soap, liquid soap or hand sanitiser?

This guide covers soaps in both bar and liquid form, including handwashes and hand sanitisers. As the score table above shows, there are many companies offering alternatives which are organic, made without the use of animal ingredients, or palm oil free.

There are hundreds of other small companies making soap which we could not cover here. Look out for your local supplier.

The soap market

The UK’s soap, bath and shower gel market is dominated by just three major brands – Carex, Dove, and Radox. Radox and Dove are owned by multinational Unilever whilst Carex is owned by PZ Cussons, which also owns other top selling brands.

With everyone buying more soap at the moment, these companies are doing particularly well during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Soap bars or liquids?

People generally tend to buy more liquid soap products for hand washing than solid soap bars, often driven by a fear of other people’s bacteria lurking on bar soap. Companies have encouraged the notion that using liquid soap was more hygienic with clever marketing as there is a higher profit margin from the more expensive product.

In terms of COVID-19, both liquid soap and bar soap have been shown to be equally as efficient in washing our hands. Although bacteria may stay on a bar of soap between washing, studies have consistently shown that this does not contaminate the next user. But most studies on bar soap are based on bacteria not viruses.

The NHS, World Health Organisation, and Centres for Disease Control do not stipulate whether to use a bar or liquid soap. A precaution with bar soap is to keep it dry and not let it lie in a puddle of germ-loving sludge.
 

The environmental impact of solid bars vs. liquid soap

From an environmental point of view, the bar of soap is the overall winner. It also tends to have a smaller list of simple ingredients.

The environmental impact of liquid soap is thought to be higher due to the fact it:

  • Is heavier: Containing lots of water, liquid soaps are likely to be heavier than bar soap, resulting in a higher carbon footprint for transportation.
  • Involves more packaging: Packaging for body washes and liquid soaps tend to be plastic bottles, that if not recycled can end up landfilled, littered, or incinerated.. Even if the bottle is made from recycled plastic, a thin paper wrapper or no wrapper for soap bars is better.
  • Contains petroleum: Many shower gels and body washes are made of petroleum-derived synthetic detergents and need emulsifying agents and stabilisers to maintain their consistency.
  • Damages aquatic life: What you use on your body ends up in the water system. Liquid detergents may contain harmful substances that can bioaccumulate in living organisms.

The score table indicates whether a brand is just a liquid or just a bar or both.

The following brands of bar soap are in either plastic-free packaging or no packaging: Caurnie, Friendly Soap, Faith in Nature, ALTER/NATIVE by Suma, Honesty, LUSH, Little Soap Company and Eco Warrior, Odylique, Pure Nuff Stuff, and Weleda.

If you would prefer a liquid hand soap, then go for these ethical companies that offer refills: ALTER/ NATIVE by Suma, Bio-D, and Faith in Nature.

Hand sanitisers, gels and rubs

Sales of hand sanitiser soared by 255% in February, which was good news for the handful of manufacturers, including Carex and Cuticura which dominate the market.

Soap and water is best but if you don’t have access to soap and water, the next best thing is alcohol-based hand sanitisers or hand rubs. The NHS and the Centers for Disease Control say if soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol.

It is more expensive than soap and it is does not kill as many kinds of bacteria and viruses as soap does. Furthermore, Dr Jenna Macciochi, an immunologist based at Sussex University, said that sanitisers may “damage your natural microbiome” with persistent use. It’s also possible that other microbes like bacteria may start to become resistant.

Of the brands on the table, Baylis and Harding, Boots, Carex, Cuticura and Dettol all make hand sanitisers. Public Health England is not recommending people make their own hand gels at home.
 

Is antibacterial soap any use?

The clue is in the name. Antibacterial soap is regular soap (detergent) with some additional ingredients which are targeted at killing bacteria. But for removing viruses, the detergent/soap element is actually the most effective part. So plain soap will do.

Plus, overuse of antibacterial soaps can potentially add to the problem of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, so it’s best avoided anyway.

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Vegan Soaps

A common ingredient in bars of soap is sodium tallowate, made from rendered animal fat. Stearic acid and glycerin in soap may also be animal derived, whilst honey, lanolin and milk can be added.

Brands which are suitable for vegans have been marked on the score table with [Vg].

Vegan soaps and shower gels are now offered by ALTER/NATIVE and Ecoleaf by Suma, Astonish, Avalon Organics, Baylis and Harding, Bentley Organics, Bio-D, Bulldog, Caurnie Soap, Conscious Skincare, Cuticura bar soap, ECOS, Faith in Nature, Friendly Soap, Honesty, Jason, Little Soap Company, Lucy Bee, Lush, Pure Nuff Stuff, Lavera, Organii, Green People, Weleda, Urtekram, Neal’s Yard.

If you are vegan you may also wish to buy soap from a totally vegan company: Bio-D, Caurnie, Friendly Soap, Honesty, Little Soap Company, Lucy Bee and Faith in Nature.

Cruelty Free Soaps

Although the testing of cosmetics on animals has been banned in the EU, this is not the case everywhere else in the world. But the REACH legislation has complicated the issue. See our feature on animal testing in cosmetics for more on this.

Ethical Consumer rates all companies selling cosmetics on their animal testing policy. Companies will score a best rating if they have a policy not to test on animals, have a fixed cut-off date (a date after which none of their products or ingredients will have been tested on animals), and are not selling to markets where animal testing of products is required by law. A clear rating in the Animal Testing column indicates this.

The following companies were certified by the Leaping Bunny standard, the gold standard for being a cruelty-free company: Astonish, Avalon Organics, Bio-D, Conscious Skincare, Lucy Bee, Faith in Nature, Friendly Soap, Jason, Neal’s Yard, Honesty, Little Soap, Natura (Body Shop).

Plastic in soaps and toiletries

More than 500 known microbeads or microplastic ingredients can be found in personal care products. These are tiny plastic particles that are added for their exfoliating properties, but sometimes purely for aesthetic purposes only. A recent report by CodeCheck found that non-biodegradable liquid plastics were also prevalent across a wide range of cosmetic products. See our feature on the hidden plastics in our toiletries for what’s wrong with microplastics and liquid plastics.

In 2018, the UK government banned the use of microbeads in ‘rinse-off’ products such as soaps. However, microbeads were not banned in products classified as ‘leave on’ (lotions, sun cream and make-up), nor were liquid plastics.

The following brands were made by companies that did not use microplastics or liquid plastics in any of their products: Bio D, Friendly Soap, Green People, Hain Celestial (Jason, Avalon), Honesty, Lavera, Little Soap Company, Lucy Bee, Neal’s Yard, Organii, Pure Nuff Stuff, ALTER/NATIVE by Suma, Traidcraft and Weleda.

Image: soap bars

Toxic chemicals in soap

We have rated all the brands for their toxic chemicals policies on three key chemicals. Those companies which received a best rating had a policy which has banned the use of parabens, phthalates and triclosan. We talk more about these chemicals in our feature 'Toxic Beauty'.

Parabens are often an ingredient of liquid soaps and are used as a preservative. You might see methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben on an ingredients list. Triclosan may be used in liquid soaps whilst you might see triclocarban as an ingredient in soap bars. For example, Dettol soap bars contain triclocarban. Phthalates may be used in synthetic fragrances.

However, as you can see from the table below, the majority of the brands are owned by companies that have either committed to not using any of the three toxics or have at least committed to banning one or two of them (a middle rating).

Best rating Middle rating Worst rating

Attitude

Baylis and Harding

Astonish,

Bentley Organics PZ Cussons Bulldog
Caurnie Soap Earth Friendly Baby Cuticura
ALTER/NATIVE and Ecoleaf Lush Molton Brown
Conscious Skincare Procter & Gamble Fung Group
  Avon Estée Lauder
Lucy Bee Body Shop Clarins
Bio D Urtekram Henkel AG
Friendly Soap Unilever L’Occitane International
Honesty Elizabeth Arden KKR
Little Soap Company Johnson & Johnson Pacifica
Pure Nuff Stuff Sante Reckitt Benckiser (Dettol)
Lavera Nivea Walgreens Boots Alliance
Hain Celestial Yaoh Superdrug
Odylique    
Organii    
PHB Ethical Beauty    
Green People    
Weleda    
Colgate-Palmolive    
Neal’s Yard    
Traidcraft    
Faith in Nature    

 

Palm oil and soap

Palm oil and palm oil derivatives have become an important component in many soap products. In particular, it is used because it is a fat that is hard at room temperature. Substitutes include cocoa butter and coconut oil.

Our Palm Oil column on the score table shows which companies receive our best, middle and worst ratings for their palm oil policies and practices. Palm-oil free brands: Caurnie Soap, Conscious Skincare, Friendly Soap, Lucy Bee, Pure Nuff Stuff.

Companies that source their palm oil more sustainably and get a best Ethical Consumer rating for their palm oil sourcing include: Triangle Wholefoods Collective Ltd. (ALTER/NATIVE and Ecoleaf), Little Soap Company, Lush, Nivea, Weleda, Odylique. Traidcraft used Fairtrade palm oil in its products.

See more about palm oil free soap, and palm oil in the cosmetics industry.

Organic soap brands

Brands which are organic have been marked on the ethical scoretable with [O].

The following brands made organic products only:

The following brands also had some organic products: Lavera, Conscious Skincare, Green People, Little Soap Company, Neal’s Yard, Organii, Sante, and Urtekram.

See our feature for more about organic certifications and natural beauty.

Making your own soap

There are loads of recipes and instructions on the web on how to do this.

Soap making is essentially a chemical reaction, known as saponification, between a lye, which is often sodium hydroxide (a salt), and oils like coconut or olive. Whilst lye is caustic, once the soap is made and cured, there is no lye left in the finished bar.

Making your own means you know exactly what is going into it and it is packaging free. Plus, it will cost less.

Permaculture News has a simple coconut oil recipe on its website.

Company Profile

PZ Cussons are a major toiletries brand but also have a partnership with Chinese white goods company Haier to make domestic appliances in Nigeria where they also have a palm oil plantation and refinery joint venture with the notorious Indonesian palm oil trader Wilmar.

A Greenpeace report criticised PZ Cussons in 2018 for not giving any details about its palm oil supply chain despite having “no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation” (NDPE) policies. It targetted the Carex brand and told the company to “come clean”.

Since the report, PZ Cussons has nearly achieved tracing its palm oil supplies back to the mill and only sourcing from suppliers with NDPE standards. But it does not use any RSPO-certified palm oil products and stated it wouldn’t until 2023.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. This information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.