November 08, 2009

Virginia Soaps and Scents

You'd think I would be the one getting the beauty packages in the mail, but this time my mamasquirrel received her very own to review as part of a review squad she's on. Disclaimer: these were sent free to us to review.

So I got a chance to comment on the variety of soaps that arrived from Virginia Soaps and Scents. They are made by a homeschooling family with nine children in rural Virginia and tout their products as "real old fashioned hand made soaps".

After a thorough review of the literature provided with these real old fashioned soaps, (which is much more detailed than anything I was able to find on their website), I was able to summarize their thoughts on soap quite easily: soap is good, detergent is bad. Coconut oil gives a fabulous lather. We make absolutely everything ourselves. We use absolutely no chemicals whatsoever and everything is all natural. Chemicals are bad. Our soap has overcome wrinkles, acne, stress, skin dehydration, dandruff, overproduction of sebum, dry hair, hair colour stripping, and anything else you care to think of. (Let me point out a contradiction right there: if it's moisturizing, it's not going to simultaneously counter oil production. Even the big cosmetics companies make this claim and it's a rather muddled statement.) I would also like to point out before I even begin this review that my qualifications to make my statements are this: I am a hairstylist apprentice and a chemistry student. I know my soap.

Well. After such a scintillating product push, you would think I'd be just raring to try the VSS soap. But after finally finding my epidermis's one true love with Avon shower gels, not to mention all the reading I do...and some interesting articles with titles like "Is Natural Really Better" and "Hidden 'Natural' Toxins", I was actually quite skeptical. And it's true. Natural is not always better.

Instead of dragging out my introduction, I'll just tell you what happened to my family after trialing these soaps. My mother tried the shampoo bar (the next best thing since--well--shampoo) and found that it was indeed not a one-size-fits all product, but an extremely poor fit for her fine hair. She was faced with limp, greasy feeling roots, and dry shaft (she didn't use conditioner since with a supposedly moisturizing product she shouldn't need it with such fine hair). She also was surprised with some lovely scalp buildup. Unless you have ridiculously dry hair, there is no reason to use such a moisturizing product on your root and scalp area. This will only result in buildup and a heavy feeling. The bulk of your moisturizers should be in your conditioner, not your shampoo. I didn't even bother trying the shampoo bar because I've had similar problems just from lightly moisturizing shampoos.

Then I tried their Coconut Lemongrass soap. The pamphlets I read said that the coconut oil used in the product gives a luxurious lather. I could hardly get it to lather at all and it was rather a lot of work to use this soap. I spent the next day fervently itching. I rolled up my sleeve and looked at my elbows, which were covered in dry scales...highly unusual for me. I will point out that I did not follow my VSS bath with moisturizer, because I never have to with the product I'm currently using and I wanted to make a fair comparison. Finally I took my shirt off and was shocked to find that I, of all people, who isn't even allergic to forty volume peroxide with bleach, had broken out in hives/pimples all along my back. I haven't had any kind of skin reaction to anything since I can ever remember. In fact, even the cheap dollar store (non-detergent, as are the VSS) soaps that I've used haven't given me dryness like I experienced with this soap.

My father decided to pull out another bar (Oatmeal something or other scent) just for general hand-washing purposes that same evening. Mere minutes after washing his hands with it he reacted with a horrible burning sensation. At first we thought of his coconut allergy, but since this wasn't the Coconut Lemongrass like I tried, and the coconut oil itself is no longer coconut oil after the neutralization reaction that makes soap, it must be one of the fragrance oils that he reacted to, although we couldn't pinpoint it.

I realize this post is getting long, but I really feel I must give my opinion some of the statements made by the VSS company. They have said a few things which irk me.

Firstly: soap is good, detergent is bad. This particular soap (which I am going to assume is lye and oil based, since they list absolutely no ingredients, but say they don't use glycerin soap base) is the same type of "real old fashioned" stuff that the pioneers used. Detergent based cleansers were not just invented, as we are told, when housewives turned in their scrap fats to the war effort and a cheap alternative was necessary. Soap is not an effective cleanser. It clogs drains, dries out skin, and leaves hair coated. Ever heard of a "bathtub ring"? I could hardly get the soap I tried out of the tub. The same effect occurs on your skin and hair when you use soap which is why it doesn't work very well. Detergent based cleansers are designed to rinse off and dissolve: the detergent molecule has a lipophilic (grease-attracting) end and a hydrophilic (water-attracting) end. It's very effective because it's been designed that way.

Secondly: said company uses no chemicals. I suppose they have a completely different definition of chemical than I do. The fragrance oils are definitely under my definition of chemicals, and according to chemical labeling regulations even if they were squishing up actual lemongrass and adding it to their soap, any fragrance is listed as "fragrance". If they wanted to be more specific, they could, but as of now they don't even include ingredient labels on their soap, which I think would be a wonderful gesture to those of us with sensitivities such as my father, in order to avoid what we know could irritate us. But forget fragrance oils for a second. How is soap made exactly? One standard type of chemical reaction is what is known as a double displacement. You can visualize how this works by going to a dance with someone, and switching partners, thus leaving with a different person. There is a certain type of double displacement called a neutralization which utilizes this switching to take an acid (in this case a fatty acid, olive or coconut oil) and a base (sodium hydroxide, commonly known as lye) and they are neutralized to produce an ionic salt and water. What does neutralized mean? pHs are brought from the extremes of the pH scale to meet at the midpoint, 7...the pH of distilled water. The ionic salt in this case is pure soap. Unfortunately, this neutralization is partly why pure soap is so terrible on your skin. pH is a huge part of hairdressing and aesthetics curriculum these days, and after multiple assignments and reports I can safely say that the acid mantle of skin and hair falls between 4.5 and 5.5. Occasionally you may see these numbers as 4.5 to 6.5. This means that soap has a higher pH and is more basic/alkaline than skin, which, essentially, means it is drying. As an aside, these may not look like large jumps incrementally, but a jump of one whole number is actually a jump to the power of ten. A pH of 7, for example, is ten times more basic than a pH of 6, and one hundred times more basic than a pH of 5. Where else am I going with this point? Soap is considered a chemical. Sodium hydroxide (lye) is something I commonly work with in chemistry class and we have to wear goggles at all times when working with it because it's hygroscopic: it sucks water out of the air, making an extremely concentrated solution of itself which can burn your skin right off. I'm not saying that it's wrong to make soap out of sodium hydroxide. It's completely neutralized afterward. I'm just saying that it is indeed a chemical, and so is soap, because it results from a chemical reaction.

To wrap things up: I can certainly believe that some people enjoy the VSS products who have a different skin type or hair type. And I can understand that honestly, it' s just soap, those who chose to use soap can use soap and those who like detergents can use detergents. But I do feel that the statements made by the company are somewhat misleading, and I also know that I have never broken out like that from anything else. Sadly, I will have to give these soaps a major thumbs down. I wish I could at least give them brownie points for having an ingredient list.

Disclaimer #2: Yes, some of you reading this blog may notice that this post was edited. I was asked to remove anything that would infer that I thought the VSS company was lying, or could be construed as libelous slander against them. I really hated to do this because I think that I reviewed it as fairly as I review other products on this blog, but it boils down to this. My mother asked me to edit this, and I do respect my mother such that I do what she asks. I would like to say that I do not think the company is lying, per se, but they have made some rather misinformed statements on their website and in the literature my mother received. Countless companies make these same exact claims when they tout natural or organic products, and whether the production of misleading statements is intentional or not is beyond my judgement. I personally have nothing against VSS, but perhaps (I only recommend this) they should review some wording used, specifically their definition of a chemical. I have given my chemical argument for this above.


Roy Spargur said...

I would like to respond to your post, if I may. My name is Roy Spargur, and Virginia Soaps & Scents is our family business. Actually, the business belongs to my wife, Richelle. She is the artistic and creative force in the endeavor. I’m here for the heavy lifting.

I have no argument with the majority of your commentary, although the tone is a bit harsh, even after your revision. My purpose in responding is to address the issues you claim “irk” you.

You site your qualifications as follows - “I am a hairstylist apprentice and a chemistry student. I know my soap.” I appreciate your ambition in research and logic. Your thesis was quite impressive.

Our qualifications are these: Richelle, who formulates the recipes and actually makes the soap, holds dual degrees in medical technology and chemistry, with a minor in biology. She has tutored chemistry for over 20 years. Our oldest daughter is a dermatology nurse and prior to starting her own family was employed for over 8 years by one of the most reputable dermatologists on the East Coast of the U.S. Our second daughter holds a degree in biology and education. She teaches, among other things, biology and anatomy/physiology in a private school. Our eldest son is also a nurse, serving in the emergency room of a 150-bed hospital. These professions require a bit more than a nodding acquaintance with the dynamics of chemistry. We are members of the Handcrafted Soapmaker’s Guild, through which Richelle has tested and received certification as a handcrafted soapmaker (scoring 100% on her certification examination). We test all of our products in our home (among the 10 family members living there) for several weeks before we offer them to the public. We also have several volunteers who use and assess our products prior to general distribution. It would be safe to say that we, too, know our soaps.

You take a bit of freedom in summarizing our claims as “soap is good, detergent is bad. We use absolutely no chemicals whatsoever and everything is all natural. Chemicals are bad. Our soap has overcome wrinkles, acne, stress, skin dehydration, dandruff, overproduction of sebum, dry hair, hair colour stripping, and anything else you care to think of.”

Let me address your assertions:

Soap or detergent in and of themselves are neither good nor bad. People often hold preferences of one over the other. Detergents, as noted, do have their down side. (As you have also noted, some people have issues with soap as well.) We offer an alternative for those who choose to use soap rather than detergent products.

We make no claims whatsoever as to what “our soap has overcome.” We have shared a few testimonials given by customers and a few of our own experiences. Those who have reviewed our products have made comment as to their experiences, as have you. We have only passed on some of those comments.


Roy Spargur said...

(Continued from previous)

You spent a great deal of time and effort attempting to disprove our claim that we “use absolutely no chemicals whatsoever and everything is all natural.” You did a fine job making your case, too. Had we actually made those claims I would probably have to recant. We don’t, however, claim that we “use absolutely no chemicals whatsoever.” By most definitions, water is considered a chemical, and even by the loosest interpretation the term would definitely include sodium hydroxide, which is used in soap production. The claim you seem to have exaggerated was this, and we stand by it - we use no added chemicals for hardening or lathering properties in our soaps.

You also took issue with the fact that we don’t list ingredients on our soap labels. We do, in fact, provide a listing of contents on each and every bar – our package contains soap (as shown on the label) It also contains all-natural oils and it contains fragrance and it contains colors. Those are all listed in accordance with the requirements of the United States Food and Drug Administration. What we don’t list on the labels is what goes into the pot to make the soap. It can cause a great deal of confusion. As you know, what goes into the pot - water, oils and sodium hydroxide (lye) - is not what comes out of the pot (pure soap). I’m sure you’re familiar with the process of saponification, whereby the mixing of the oils and lye causes a chemical reaction which results in a brand new compound, soap. That new compound can no longer be broken down into its original component parts, so in fact, it no longer contains the same things that it started with. It would therefore be inaccurate to claim that soap contains lye, because all of the lye was consumed in the saponification process.

Finally, you provided commentary on pH levels, citing skin and hair pH at approximately 4.5 – 5.5, sometimes as high as 6.5. You also correctly cite the pH of distilled water at 7.0 and, if I understand correctly, claim that a complete neutralization of the base (lye) and the acid (oils) will result in a soap with a pH right around 7.0. Since you know your soaps, I’m certain you’re familiar with a technique called “lye discounting” or “super-fatting”. (Same process from two different perspectives.) It essentially calls for utilizing a certain percentage (usually around 5 to 8) more oil than is required to neutralize the sodium hydroxide. This process has a few benefits. First, it ensures that there is no lye product left in the finished soap. Next, it leaves a certain amount of unsaponified oil in the soap for moisturizing and lather (hence, all-natural oils are listed as contents) Lastly, it produces a product with a lower pH level than would be produced with a complete neutralization of lye and oil. Most soapmakers employ lye discounting as a normal process in their soap production.


Roy Spargur said...

(Continued from previous)

You said in your disclaimer #2 “I would like to say that I do not think the company is lying, per se, but they have made some rather misinformed statements on their website and in the literature my mother received.” I disagree. You seem to have misinterpreted a great deal of what we have posted on our website and/or said in our letter, and ignored most, if not all, of the e-mail of explanation Richelle sent to your family. Your analysis and confusion is definitely the aberration rather than the norm, (Please observe the other 100+ reviews posted on The Homeschool Crew site) and casts more question on your review than on our company.

I would not go to the extremes of such a lengthy post were I not concerned with truth being known. (Ephesians 4:15) We are not a large, evil corporation that needs to be taken to the woodshed. We are a family, quite possibly very similar to your own, who has entered into an entrepreneurial endeavor and hope to provide satisfied customers with a product of value. The vast majority of our customers have found this to be the case. I am sincerely sorry for the experiences your family has encountered.

Very Sincerely,
Roy Spargur, USN (Retired)
Virginia Soaps & Scents

P.S. “real old fashioned soap” is grammatically correct if you mean, as we do, that it is real, the genuine article, and not as an adverb meaning “to what extent”

The Apprentice said...


I thoroughly appreciate your taking the time to respond to my comment. I do recognize the process of superfatting although I would question whether the final pH level of the product is tested. I do still think that, although they are not as you say, claims, your website and literature could be somewhat misleading to the average consumer. And I most definitely did read the letter Richelle sent and considered her explanations before writing my review. She did explain a few of my questions that would have otherwise been posed in the review. I would also like to point out that my mother gave me the entire package that your company sent, and I am yet to see an ingredient list. And no, I am not looking for the chemical components of the soap, but I haven't even seen a list saying "pure soap, fragrance oil xxx, etc.".

But to conclude, I never thought that your company should be taken "to the woodshed" or anything of the like. I am sorry if I came across otherwise but in the context of the other reviews I have written my review was actually below my normal scathing commentary.

Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

that was snotty