Soap Stories

Soap slab 2 small
Soap slab fresh out of its mold.

There is something gratifying about releasing a large slab of soap from its mold, still warm to the touch, the fragrance of its essential oils filling the room. Soap that is made by hand is a world apart from mass-produced soap, usually made using palm oil (read about the environmental disaster that is palm oil here) and sometimes animal fat. Petroleum derivatives are a common ingredient of mass-produced soap as are a variety of other synthetic ingredients including synthetic fragrances, synthetic preservatives, antibacterials such as triclosan which is a known hormone disrupter, and EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraaceticacid), a heavy metal chelator which can mobilise heavy metals in our waterways.

Shea butter small
Unrefined shea butter is abundant in the nutrient-rich ‘unsaponifiable’ fraction.

In addition to containing suspect ingredients, mass-produced soaps are often very drying to the skin, since they are frequently stripped of the moisturising glycerol found in natural soap, and may not be ‘superfatted’, which means they contain little free oil to moisturise the skin. Mass-produced soaps are also low on the valuable ‘unsaponifiable’ component, so-called because it is the fraction in oils which cannot be turned into soap. The unsaponifiable fraction contains most of the vitamin and phytonutrient components of the oil, which are nourishing to the skin when included in both soap and moisturisers. The unsaponifiable fraction is largely removed from refined oils: for example, unrefined shea butter may contain between 6-17% unsaponifiables, whereas refined shea butter typically contains less than 1%. Natural soap made using unrefined organic oils and formulated so that it is superfatted, will be rich in moisturising natural glycerol and nourishing unsaponifiables. This soap will gently clean the skin without stripping its natural oils.Soaps curing smallHow exactly do you make soap?

Soap is made using a classic acid-base chemical reaction, resulting in the formation of a salt, which is soap. Yes, soap is technically a salt! The acid part is provided by the weak organic fatty acids that make up vegetable oils (and animal fat). The base or alkaline component is known in soap-making terms as ‘lye’. Lye may be made using sodium hydroxide (NaOH) to produce solid soap, or potassium hydroxide (KOH) to make liquid soap. The fatty acids in vegetable oils and animal fats exist mostly in the form of triglycerides, which are composed of a glycerol molecule bound to 3 fatty acid molecules.  A molecule of glycerol is relased as part of the acid-base reaction when the fatty acids react with the lye.

Lye     +    triglyceride =    soap  +  glycerol

Base   +    acid            =   salt     +  glycerol

This chemical reaction is called ‘saponification’, which means ‘the process of turning fatty acids into soap.’ Heat is released as part of the process – that’s why a freshly made slab of soap is warm. In mass-produced soaps, the valuable glycerol fraction is removed from the mixture and used in other skin care formulations like moisturisers, as well as in the food and pharmaceutical industries, which is one of the reasons mass-produced soap is so drying.

Isn’t lye harmful to the skin?

Lye is a strong alkaline solution that will ‘burn’ the skin on contact. The beauty of the soap-making reaction is that when performed correctly, all the lye is consumed in the process, so that there are no remaining free lye molecules in the soap. The product is the stable salt which is soap. So yes – lye is harmful to the skin, but a correctly made soap does not contain lye. In fact, most handmade soap will contain an excess of oil which ensures that all the lye is consumed, and ‘superfats’ the soap, providing additional moisturising properties.

Pouring soap 2
Pouring soap into molds.

The process – solid soap

Handmade bar soaps can be made using either the ‘cold process’ or ‘hot process’ method. Both methods allow retention of most of the beneficial components of the oils. In cold process soap-making, the process we use at Mokosh to make bar soap, the lye solution is prepared by adding a predetermined amount of sodium hydroxide to distilled water. When the lye solution has cooled, it is added to oils and butters which have been heated to between 40-50°C . The two are blended using a whisk or electric stick blender until the mixture thickens. At this point essential oils and plant extracts may be added. The mixture is then poured into moulds and covered in blankets for insulation, and left undisturbed overnight to allow the saponification reaction to proceed. The next day, the soap is solid but still warm, and ready to be cut into bars. At this point, the soap is quite soft, similar in consistency to cheddar cheese. The bars are then cured for a minimum of 4 weeks, which allows excess water to evaporate, which makes the bars firm and adds to their quality.

It is possible to make bar soap without true soap as an ingredient, using synthetic detergents instead – these are ‘non soap’ bars some people use instead of true soap. However, most mass-produced bar soaps are made using the same oil-lye reaction used in natural soap-making. Following saponification, the mixture is boiled in water to remove the glycerol fraction, which is used in other products, after which the soap is solidified by adding salt (sodium chloride). The soap is then vacuum-dried to form pellets which may be blended with a variety of ingredients, usually synthetic detergents, fragrances, plasticisers and other compounds. The mixture is then homogenised in a process called ‘milling’ which is essentially pressing the soap through rollers. You may have seen ‘triple milled’ soaps which have undergone this milling process, which simply means the soap has been ‘well mixed’. The resulting mixture is then extruded and stamped in a soap press.

The process – liquid soap Liquid soap paste

Natural liquid soap is made using the ‘hot process’ method. Lye is made from potassium hydroxide, rather than sodium hydroxide, and blended with the oils and butters until it thickens. It is then cooked at just under 100°C over a few hours – thus the term ‘hot process’. When the reaction is complete the soap forms a transparent paste (see photo on right). The paste is then mixed in distilled water to form a liquid, and essential oils are added. Most commercial liquid soap is not really soap at all, but a blend of synthetic detergents, most commonly sodium laureth sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulphate (made from palm oil), and they may also contain triclosan, an antibacterial which is a suspected hormone disrupter, and a variety of other synthetic ingredients.

Mokosh bar soaps Soap stack

We love our bar soaps – they are luxurious to use, lather beautifully and those containing essential oils make you and your bathroom smell beautiful. Although most people don’t like the thought of using soap on their face, many of our customers find them so gentle, they can happily do so. Equally, many eczema sufferers find they can use our bar soaps, whereas standard soaps dry out their skin, resulting in eczema outbreaks. Our fragrance-free olive oil soap is particularly mild, being extremely high in glycerol. It seems that 100% olive oil soaps are the gentlest, because they result in the release of the most glycerol. Glycerol is a humectant, which means it attracts water, and therefore draws water to the skin, rather than drying it out. Our shea and cocoa butter soaps are also extremely mild, glycerol-rich, and high in nourishing unsaponifiables. Because they contain coconut oil they form a richer, creamier lather than our pure olive oil soap.

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Shaving soap curing

Because all our bar soaps are naturally rich in glycerol, they need to be stored on a soap rack to dry between uses, so that they do not absorb water and go soft. When looked after, one bar will generally last around 4 weeks when used by one person.

Mokosh liquid soap Liquid soap squat bottle small

Made using coconut and olive oils, and fragranced with organic essential oils, our liquid soap is free of preservatives, synthetic additives, palm oil derivatives and potentially harmful additives like triclosan and EDTA. It is a stronger soap than our bar soaps, and recommended for hand and body wash, rather than as a face wash.

Palm oil is found in most soap

If you pick up any bar soap in a supermarket aisle and look at the ingredients list, you will likely see the words ‘sodium palmate’ and ‘sodium palm kernelate’ near the top. These are the terms for palm oil and palm kernel oil that have undergone the saponification reaction. Currently, Indonesia and Malaysia are burning rainforest at an alarming rate to clear land for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a multi-billion dollar industry resulting in the destruction of rainforest to satisfy our demand for cheap vegetable oil in our soap, skin care products (read more here) shampoos and conditioner (read more here), and the majority of packaged foods. The forest fires cause massive pollution problems and release billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Deforestation is likely to result in the extinction of the endangered orang-utan and Sumatran tiger and numerous other lesser known species, and is causing a humanitarian crisis in displaced indigenous populations.

It’s not too late to make New Year’s Resolutions – here are ours…

What are your New Year resolutions?

We’ve come up with 10 that we hope we’ll be able to stick to. Any tips you may have to help us keep them would be much appreciated!

1. Grow more fruit and veggies at home to reduce the carbon footprint of our food. And we plan to look after them better this year – this means being more diligent with the mulch, fertiliser and compost so we get healthier, more abundant produce. A secret wish – to get one feed of greens per person from the garden each day. And home grown tastes so good – this little strawberry was indescribably delicious!

2. Buy organic food as much as possible. This supports sustainable farming, and reduces the burden of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilisers in our ecosystem.

3. Food blog starters final smallBecause demand for palm oil is the cause of so much forest destruction throughout the world, this year we’re going be fanatical about banning palm oil-containing foods from the shopping trolley. Check out our recipes for some quick and delicious ways to feed yourself and your guests over the summer months without falling off the palm oil-free wagon. Healthier too! – no preservatives or artificial colours, fresher and more nutrient-rich.

4. Alex Raye hair photo smallBan palm oil from the bathroom. This means no moisturisers or cleansers that contain water/hydrosol/aloe vera juice, because water-containing skin care products need an emulsifier or surfactant – and it seems that currently there are none that are palm oil free. Read more about this here.  There are a couple of brands in addition to Mokosh that fit this bill. If you can’t get hold of these, moisturise your skin with a good quality oil such as organic camellia or macadamia. It also means no shampoo, and no conditioner, because all contain palm oil, as far as we know. Read more here.  Easy for us now that we’ve discovered that bicarb soda and apple cider vinegar will do the trick! See how here. Does this prospect frighten you? Take a look at this photo and you will see what can be achieved when it’s done correctly.

5. Bicycle riding smallUse the car less, and use the bike and public transport more. Getting fit while saving greenhouse gases and money seems a good combination!

6. Buy fair trade and ethically produced goods when we can – food, clothing, gifts and household items.  There are plenty of outlets that stock fair trade items, such as Fair Go Trading in Perth, as well as the big ones like Oxfam and New Internationalist.

7. fair trade bagNever buy mass-produced items made in sweat shops under slave-like conditions. This means avoiding most of those fabulously cheap clothes, and a lot of designer ones. If unsure, buy items where the country of origin is clearly identified, and that country has fair work conditions. Putting pressure on major retailers to buy only from factories that are treating workers fairly and providing safe working conditions would be a start.

8. vintage clothes smallAlternatives to mass-produced items will be: buying from companies that manufacture ethically, buying from charity shops and recycled clothing shops, making our own, mending more, taking better care of things so they last longer and swapping with friends.

9. Donate more to charities that provide education, health care, infrastructure and the opportunity for enterprise to disadvantaged communities, or that help preserve the environment. This should be easier with the money we’re saving on petrol, clothing and growing more of our own food.

10. Be pro-active in writing to our MPs and joining movements that fight for the changes we want to see in the world. So many spring to mind – time to act!

You don’t need to ruin rainforests to have beautiful, healthy hair

by Marion O’Leary

At Mokosh we believe the environmental, humanitarian, animal welfare and species conservation issues associated with the palm oil industry mean anything containing palm oil or its derivatives cannot be regarded as ethical choices for consumers, even though many of these products are often advertised as ‘green’, ‘eco’, ‘organic’, ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty free’ .

Thankfully, there are now many affordable, palm oil-free skin care, cleaning and toiletry products to choose from, providing you read the labels carefully or choose to buy from a reputable company that is ‘palm oil free’. However, this does not apply to shampoo and conditioner – a recent survey by Mokosh found that palm oil derivatives seem to be used in all shampoos and conditioners sold in Australia (Read more here). This is bad news for anyone who wants to do the right thing by the rainforests, and the people and animals whose lives depend on them.

The concept of ditching shampoo and conditioner is generally a hair-raising idea for most of us. After all, we have been brought up with the convenience and luxury of hair care products that guarantee that in just a few minutes we will look like the airbrushed models who are advertising them. The idea that there was a time that manufactured shampoos and conditioners were not ‘essential’ products would seem far-fetched to anyone in the west under the age of 65.

The good news is that I have bravely, by trial and error, and with no regard for my personal appearance, stumbled upon some solutions that I believe won’t leave you having to decide between saving orang-utans and having good hair!

The following is a hold-your-hand guide to taking the step that I have, giving up shampoo and conditioner. In our earlier blog, we listed some alternatives to using shampoo and conditioner. These included:

– Washing hair in bicarb (baking) soda followed by a diluted vinegar rinse,

– Washing hair in palm oil-free soap followed by a diluted vinegar rinse, and

– Washing hair in ‘mud’ shampoo.

There are other options too, including washing in various plant powders, clays, and teas. I haven’t tried these yet but you might like to have a look at the recipes which are a great resource for this, in the Almost Exactly blog.

Today I am going to give you the ‘heads up’ on the bicarb soda and apple cider vinegar method, and together we can help save the rainforests.

The bicarb soda/apple cider vinegar method

Besides avoiding palm oil, people have been moving to this back-to-basics hair washing method for other reasons including:

  • Bicarb soda and vinegar are safe when released into our waterways through our drains. This is not so for many of the ingredients in shampoos and conditioners, which include preservatives such as parabens, which mimic oestrogens; the ethanolamines  – MEA, DEA, TEA, which are organotoxic and toxic to aquatic life; and quaternium-15 – a preservative that releases formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen.
  • The manufacture of bicarb soda and vinegar does not pollute the environment. This is not the case for many of the ingredients found in shampoos and conditioners.
  • Bicarb soda and vinegar is safe for human health. This is not the case for many of the ingredients in shampoos and conditioners.
  • Bicarb soda and vinegar are not tested on animals, whereas many shampoos and conditioners are.
  • You can buy ingredients in a simple cardboard box and a recyclable glass bottle – say goodbye to millions of tonnes of plastic waste!
  • It’s cheap. We calculated 31c per wash for the basic bicarb soda and vinegar wash – see our calculations below*. Of course, it costs a little more when you add the nourishing treatments you may need to keep your hair looking really good.

But does it work?

Why would manufacturers go to all the trouble of research and development, spending millions of dollars inventing new chemicals, requiring testing on animals, to create new ways to make our hair soft and shiny, if it was as simple as bicarb soda and vinegar?

Well the answer is that it isn’t always simple to get it to work. There are a lot of blogs written about the bicarb soda and vinegar method, and the results are mixed. For some people it was a disaster, for others it worked well initially, but then their hair deteriorated and became lifeless. Others say their hair never looked better and they will never go back to shampoo and conditioner.

It seems there are common reasons why bicarb soda and vinegar fail for some … and the good news is that there are ways to make it work for seemingly most people. This is providing they are prepared for the pit falls, and are ready to persevere to find out what works best for their hair. Alex Raye hair photo smallThe Almost Exactly blog is one I found the most useful on this subject, read more here.

It is written by Alex Raye, who has been using the method for more than a year and, incidentally, has gorgeous hair! See images left (reproduced with permission)

To make it easier, I am going to summarise Alex ‘s instructions for you.

Getting started – the detox

If you have been using conditioner and shampoo containing waxes, dimethicones, plastic substances like acrylates, vinyls, polymers, or other coating agents, they will react with the bicarb soda, making your hair sticky and tacky. Basically, it won’t work. You need to ‘detox’ your hair first by removing the coating. Here are 2 methods:

1. Castile soap detox

Castile soap is a natural liquid soap based on olive oil. Mokosh makes this type of soap, as do Maclyn’s, Melrose and Dr Bronner’s.

i. Dilute liquid soap approximately 1:10 with water, ie approximately 1 tablespoon per cup of water and use to wash hair.

ii. Follow with apple cider vinegar rinse made using same proportions.

iii. Massage the rinse solution into the hair and scalp and leave it on for a minute or two, then rinse with water.

iv. If you have hard water, you may need to dilute your Castile soap with distilled water rather than tap, and you may also need to rinse more than once with apple cider vinegar to remove the soap salts from the hair.

v. It may take 4 or 5 washes to remove all the coating from your hair, before you move onto the bicarb soda/vinegar method.

You should leave 3-4 days between washes.

Many people are happy with the results of using castile soap and vinegar, and stay with this method, using oils and other treatments between washes to provide nourishment to the hair. See Nourishing  your hair and scalp  with/without oils below.

2. Bentonite clay detox

Bentonite is the most absorbent of all clays and can reportedly remove coatings from hair very efficiently.

i. Mix equal parts of bentonite clay with water.

ii. Massage over the scalp and hair, and leave for around 5 minutes.

iii. Rinse with cool water.

Perfecting your detox

If your hair looks dry, try adding half a teaspoon of oil (not palm lol!)  or a teaspoon of raw honey to the cup of Castile soap solution. You can also use aloe vera juice, or coconut milk, instead of water.

If you have been colouring your hair with semi-permanent or permanent dyes, your hair may look frizzy, tangled and fly-away. This is not because the detox is damaging your hair, it’s because you have removed the waxy coating provided by agents in your shampoos conditioners , which camouflages your already dye-damaged hair.

It may be possible to solve this by using the treatments described below in Nourishing your hair and scalp with/without oils below. If you want to continue using synthetic dyes, and your hair has been badly damaged by them, it may be difficult to get your hair to look good without these coatings. But don’t despair, there is a section in the Almost Exactly blog on how to deal with this problem too. Read more here.

How to make your bicarb soda hair wash and apple cider vinegar hair rinse

Bicarb soda hair wash

i. Dissolve 1 tablespoon bicarb soda in 1 cup warm water – use distilled water if your water is ‘hard’.

ii. Pour over wet hair and massage in.

iii. Rinse well.

Apple cider vinegar rinse

i. Add 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar to 1 cup water – best cold if you can bear it as this helps close the hair shaft cuticles, thereby increasing the shine.

ii. Pour over wet hair and massage in.

iii. Let it sit approximately 1 minute, then rinse with water.

Note that bicarb soda is alkaline, as are liquid and bar soap. The apple cider vinegar is acid, and helps restore the naturally acidic pH of the hair, and close the hair cuticles.

The transition to palm oil free hair nirvana

Hair too oily?

Some people go through an oily phase because their scalp is used to producing lots of oil in response to the drying effects of shampoo. As well, this extra oil may not be totally removed by the bicarb soda.    But don’t worry, the oil production slows down – for some people, this takes up to 4 weeks, while others don’t experience it at all.

The longer you can wait between washes with bicarb soda and vinegar, the shorter this phase will be. If the bicarb soda is not removing the oil and you find it unbearable, you can add a 1:20 dilution of Castile soap to it to help get through the transition period. Doing this, however, seems to lengthen this period.

Hair too dry?

The most common problem following use of bicarb soda is that the hair is too dry. There are a number of possible ways to deal with this:

i. Dilute the bicarb soda in aloe vera juice (available from most health food stores) instead of water.

ii. Reduce the amount of bicarb soda – try it at half strength.

iii. Mix half a teaspoon of oil (for types see Nourishing your hair with oil below) in a cup of water, rinse over the dry ends after your vinegar rinse, and then rinse with water.

Hair doesn’t feel clean?

There are a few possible causes:

(i) You need to detox your hair more;

(ii) Your water is ‘hard’ and you need to mix your bicarb soda in distilled water, or you need to do additional vinegar rinses, possibly also with distilled water.

Keeping the nirvana

A common problem for people who have enjoyed bicarb soda and apple cider vinegar for a few weeks or months, is that they begin to notice their hair is looking a bit dull and lifeless. Castile soap and bicarb soda are good at cleaning hair, but for many, hair will not look good for long unless it is also nourished.

Nourishing your hair and scalp with oils

This is a gorgeous way to nourish your hair and scalp. Choose pure oils like organic unrefined coconut, argan, almond, jojoba or a special hair oil like Mokosh’s Balancing Hair Treatment. How often you do this is up to you – the Almost Exactly blog suggests every 1-2 weeks.

i. Take up to 3 tablespoons oil, and warm gently – best method is to place it in a   clean glass bottle and stand it in a bowl of warm water for 10 minutes or so.

ii. Massage into the scalp and through the hair, gently combing it through, then wrap hair in plastic wrap or a shower cap, and cover with a warmed towel.

iii. Leave for at least 20 minutes- the longer the better!

iv. Wash with Castile soap – it may take 2-3 rinses to remove the oil.

v. Note, bicarb soda won’t remove the oil – if you don’t want to use soap on your hair, try using the ‘without oils’ nourishing treatments below.

Nourishing your hair and scalp without oils

See the section on this topic in the Almost Exactly blog on how to use the following ingredients .

(i) Raw honey

(ii) Aloe vera gel

(iii) Non fat yoghurt

(iv) Egg yolks

Apply alone or in combination to the scalp and hair as a mask, leave for 20 minutes, then rinse with water.

My own experience 

Marion hair photo smallI have been shampoo and conditioner-free for around 4 months now – ever since I discovered that palm oil was probably in all shampoos and conditioners. I started out washing my hair in diluted Castile soap (around 1:10), followed by an apple cider vinegar rinse. This was good for a while, but then my hair started to look dry. I then switched to bicarb soda and apple cider vinegar, but as I had not yet discovered the Almost Exactly blog, was using the bicarb soda as a paste, which Alex suggests can damage hair. When I switched to the diluted bicarb soda according to the recipe above, my hair improved, but was still a bit dry at the ends. After reading the Almost Exactly blog, I made 2 changes: I diluted the bicarb soda in aloe vera juice rather than water, and I used a post-vinegar rinse with water containing a few drops of hair oil. No more dry ends, my hair looks as good as when I was using conventional products, and feels very soft.

It’s not difficult or fussy – I leave the bicarb soda, vinegar and hair oil handy by the shower, store the aloe vera juice in the fridge, and make up the bicarb rinse with it just before I wash my hair. It takes no more time to do than using shampoo and conditioner. I have no dandruff issues and no itchy scalp – both of which were problematic before.

I’m pleased to say I’m one of those who won’t be going back to shampoo and conditioner. I’d love to hear if anyone else has tried no shampoo methods, and what worked best for them! If you are planning to try this method, send in your photos in progress – we’d love to share your story.

*For bicarb soda, assume 15g per wash, for vinegar assume 20ml per wash. A 500g box of Bicarb Soda at $2.40 for a 500g box will come out at $0.07 per wash, and a 473ml bottle of Braggs Organic Apple Cider Vinegar at around $7.40 will cost $0.32 per rinse.

How palm oil sneaks into your skin care products

HandCreamby Marion O’Leary

Many people are now aware of the environmental and humanitarian disaster that is occurring in south-east Asian rainforests as a result of the world’s seemingly insatiable demand for palm oil. They have heard about the massive deforestation, the displacement and imprisonment of local people attempting to protect their land, the use of child labour to work on palm plantations, and the devastating impact on orang-utans, Sumatran tigers, elephants, and other endangered wildlife. Because of this, consumers are increasingly avoiding packaged foods containing palm oil, and also ‘vegetable oil’, as this is most likely to be palm.

Palm oil is the vegetable oil of choice in packaged food because it is both cheap and, being a highly saturated fat, resistant to rancidity, which provides longer shelf-life. Currently, Australia’s food labelling laws do not require manufacturers to specify the type of vegetable oil they use. In practical terms, the only way to try to find out if a product is palm oil-free is to consult one of the websites that lists palm oil free products, eg this one, or ask for a written answer from the company involved. Even then, some companies provide disingenuous answers to consumer concerns or do not respond at all. What you can be sure of is that every food aisle in your supermarket will be stacked with products containing palm oil or its derivatives.

What surprises many people is that this is also the case for the supermarket aisles containing toiletries and cleaning products. In these, palm oil is most often used as the vegetable-based building block for the synthetic ingredients that are required for the manufacture of soaps, detergents and most skin care products.  Once an ingredient has been altered synthetically, it is identified by its chemical name, and its source no longer needs to be stated.

We have previously described how palm oil is used to produce the key ingredients of shampoo and conditioner and made our conclusion that there is probably no palm oil-free shampoo or conditioner in Australia.  Read it here.  The only palm oil-free alternatives to shampoo are palm oil-free soaps, or non-soap methods of washing hair (see our summary below). So what about skin care? Why do most moisturisers and cleansers contain palm oil derivatives?


OilWaterAny moisturiser that contains water, or has a water base such as aloe vera juice or hydrosol, requires an emulsifier to mix the water with the oil. Without an emulsifier, the product would ‘separate’ into its water and oil components.  Until recently, the only two palm oil-free emulsifiers available in Australia were lecithin, which is derived from soy, and beeswax.

A new emulsifier called  glyceryl stearate citrate has just become available on the Australian market, with claims of being palm oil free , but to our knowledge no Australian manufacturer has yet incorporated it into their products. Of course, if a moisturiser is water-free, there is no need for an emulsifier.

Some emulsifiers commonly used in organic skin care include cetearyl olivate, sorbitan olivate, sorbitan stearate, cetearyl glucoside, ceteareth-20, cetearyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate and  glyceryl oleate. Currently, palm oil is used in the manufacture of each of these. Until recently, manufacturers that used  cetearyl olivate and sorbitan olivate as emulsifiers believed these ingredients were derived solely from olives. In fact, palm oil is also used to manufacture these ingredients, and they are not palm oil-free.


As one might expect, the addition of water to oil means the end-product is going to be very thin, especially when one considers that moisturisers contain up to 85% water. Thickeners are almost always added to moisturisers to improve the viscosity and ‘feel’ of the product.

Thickeners that are commonly used in skin care include guar and xanthan gums, carageenan, glycerine, glyceryl caprylate, cetearyl glucoside, sucrose stearate, stearic acid and cetearyl alcohol. Of these, only carageenan, guar and xanthan gums are not derived from palm oil, although it is now possible to obtain palm oil–free glycerine.

Skin cleansers

SurfactantMost cleansers are based on surfactants, which are compounds that have a detergent action, and are the same synthetic ingredients that are used in shampoos.

Examples we found in organic skin brand cleansers include cocobetaine, sucrose cocoate, sodium cocoyl glutamate, sodium cocoyl glycinate and coco glucoside. We reviewed all these products in our blog on shampoo and conditioners. Read it here.   All are palm oil-derived, despite the claims by manufacturers of some of these ingredients that they are from coconut. See our discussion on this misrepresentation in the same blog.

Mokosh has avoided using palm oil-based surfactants and other synthetic ingredients by producing a non-detergent cleanser based on oatmeal, neem powder, lemon peel powder and other organic plant ingredients. Miessence is the only other brand we could find that produces a palm oil-free cleanser – it contains yucca extract, which is a natural source of saponins, or naturally-occuring detergents.

The not so beautiful conclusion

To our knowledge, there are very few Australian skin care brands that don’t contain palm oil-derived ingredients. Unfortunately, if you look at palm oil-free shopping guides, many palm oil-containing brands are still listed as palm oil-free. This may be because compilers of palm oil-free guides tend to rely on statements from manufacturers, many of which do not dig deeply enough to determine where their ingredients come from.

As we discovered when researching ingredients in shampoo and conditioners (read it here), it is in fact difficult to determine the true plant origin of synthetic ingredients – many are advertised by ingredient manufacturers as ‘from coconut’, whereas they are in fact derived from both coconut and palm oils.

Skin care manufacturers need to be more pro-active in understanding where their ingredients come from, especially if they wish to make palm oil-free claims. Compilers of palm oil-free lists need to be more discerning about the products they include so they do not inadvertently mislead consumers.  Finally, the consumer needs to read and understand ingredients on labels, ask questions of manufacturers, and thereby become empowered to make informed choices about where their spending dollar goes.

Below is our guide to shopping for palm oil-free toiletries:

Palm oil-free skin care:

Miessence – moisturisers contain lecithin as emulsifier, and xanthan gum as thickener. Cleansers based on yucca extract. However, their shampoos and conditioners contain palm-derived ingredients.

Mokosh – moisturisers are water-free and so do not require emulsifiers or thickeners. Cleanser based on oatmeal, neem, clay, and other natural ingredients.

VEGAN palm oil free – uses a palm free emulsifier, that is neither beeswax nor lecithin.

Indah water-free skin care, therefore does not require emulsifier

Palm oil free hair wash:

1.Palm oil free soaps – eg Beauty and the Bees, Maclyn Naturals, Alex’s Handcrafted Soaps Note: Using soap to wash your hair is a completely different experience to using a shampoo! You should rinse afterwards with diluted apple cider vinegar to remove soap salts. For a guide, see,

2.Baking soda –  (also known as ‘bi-carb soda’ or ‘sodium bicarbonate’) followed by an apple cider vinegar rinse – there are many converts to this, who state their hair has never looked better. The most comprehensive site we have found as a guide is: Also, see our blog summarising how to do this here.

3.Mud shampoo – see how to make your own here: If you can suggest other brands that are truly palm oil-free, please let us know – we’d love to make this list longer!

Does Australia have any genuinely palm oil-free shampoo or conditioner?

by Marion O’Leary

I asked myself this recently when trying to find something palm oil free to wash and condition my hair. Like many people, I am concerned at the massive deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia that is due to the enormous demand for palm oil worldwide. Demand for palm oil has escalated in recent years because it is cheap to produce, and is stable compared to unsaturated vegetable oils, which are prone to oxidation (going rancid). Palm oil is now the most commonly used vegetable oil in food, is used in almost all toiletries and detergents, and is an ingredient in many industrial chemicals. Ironically, it is also in demand as a biofuel – fragile and dwindling rainforests are being destroyed in order to produce a more ‘eco-friendly’ fuel. Palm unloading

The rush to meet demand for palm oil has resulted in the imminent extinction in the wild of the orang-utan, Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros, as well as many other rare plant and animal species. Indigenous people are being displaced, and even jailed for trying to defend their own land from illegal clearing by palm producing companies – see ‘The Sustainability Lie’, a documentary on this issue Watching this might very well make you think twice about ‘sustainable’ palm oil claims as well.  Rainforests are being cleared at an alarming rate to produce palm oil, and the slash and burn clearing techniques of palm oil companies are causing a pollution catastrophe in south-east Asia and rapidly accelerating greenhouse gas emissions.

forest fireClearly there is a good case to stop using palm oil in our homes, or at least drastically reduce our consumption. Because Australia’s lax labelling laws allow palm oil to be listed as ‘vegetable oil’, we can’t always distinguish foods containing palm oil by reading the label.  Luckily, there are some helpful websites you can go to in order to find out including

Now, back to hair care… because the ingredient lists on most shampoos  and conditioners consist predominantly of chemical names, it’s extremely difficult to work out whether these are derived from palm oil since a chemical name does not tell us the origin of the product.  At Mokosh we are often asked to make shampoo and conditioner, and we recently decided to look into the origin of these chemicals more closely. We would love to be able to make a palm oil free shampoo and conditioner. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?

The chemical maze

Where an ingredient is present in its natural form, it is stated as such – e.g. coconut oil, or Cocos nucifera – its botanical name. For shampoos and conditioners, synthetic ingredients are needed to perform the cleaning and defrizzing, coating and detangling that we have now come to expect from hair care products, though their origins may be stated e.g. ‘from coconut oil’. The most important of these are known as surfactants, and these are made using the hydrocarbon chain backbone of either a vegetable oil or a petrochemical oil. Where vegetable oil is used these chemicals could be derived from a number of different vegetable oils, but because palm is cheaper, it is the most commonly used.  It is almost certain that a chemical containing one of the following word roots is derived from palm oil:

– ‘stear’, e.g.  glyceryl stearate, stearic acidreading label

–  ‘cet’e.g. cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, cetearyl olivate, cetrimonium chloride

– ‘laur’, e.g. sodium lauryl sulphate, sodium lauroyl sucroate

–  ‘cap’, e.g. capric triglyceride, caprylic acid

– ‘palm’, e.g.  sodium palmitate, palmitic acid, palm kernelate

– ‘glyc’, e.g. glycerine, glyceryl oleate

Every shampoo and conditioner we have looked at from supermarkets, pharmacies and other mainstream stores are made using these palm oil-containing ingredients.  Our next step was to look at the ingredients used by manufacturers claiming to be palm oil free. To our surprise, some of the above ingredients are found in brands claiming to be palm oil free. These brands containing the above ingredients, most likely palm oil derived, are also listed on shopping guides for palm oil free sites.

Despite this disturbing discrepancy, we carried on in our quest to make palm oil free shampoo and conditioner. After all, it should be possible using chemicals derived from the other most commonly-used vegetable oil – coconut oil…or so we thought.

A search showed that there are a number of surfactants claimed by their manufacturers to be derived from coconut. The presence of ‘coco’ in the chemical name suggests that the ingredient may be from coconut, as when the chemical was first named it was derived from coconut. However, as we now know, the hydrocarbon chain for an ingredient may be supplied by palm just as easily from coconut – yet its chemical name will be unchanged. Therefore, the presence of ‘coco’ in a chemical name does not necessarily mean it was made from coconut.

Let’s look at some ingredients in shampoos and conditioners that we expected to be from coconut oil:

(i) Shampoos

Coco glucoside –most commonly derived from palm oil. The Australian supplier we found made no claim that this is derived from coconut oil.

Cocobetaine– available in a few different forms, the safest form to use has the chemical name  ‘coco dimethyl betaine’, and this one is widely used in organic and ‘palm free’ shampoos. We got excited about this as the brand available in Australia states that it is derived from coconut, as does every source we found on the internet. When I asked the sales representative to give me a written statement that no palm is used to manufacture this ingredient, he was as surprised as we were to find that both coconut and palm oils are used in its manufacture. It is possible that there is a form of cocobetaine that is sourced solely from coconut oil, but we were unable to find one.

Decyl glucoside –the Australian supplier we found stated that this was made from coconut or palm oil. Once again, there was no way to guarantee this is from coconut oil only.

Sodium cocoyl glutamate – once again, every reference put out by the manufacturer stated that this was derived from coconut. After asking for a palm oil free statement from the major Australian supplier, it was discovered once again that both palm and coconut oils are used to derive the ‘cocoyl’ component.

Sodium cocoyl glycinate – the same Australian supplier as that supplying ‘sodium cocoyl glutamate’ stated that this is made from both coconut and palm oils.

(ii) Conditioners

Conditioners commonly contain ‘cetearyl alcohol’ and ‘cetrimonium chloride’ as well as ‘glycerine’, which, as we already know, are almost certainly palm-derived. But there are a few others to look at.

Behentrimonium methosulphate – this product is derived from colza oil or canola oil, but is blended with palm oil-derived chemicals such as cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol or stearyl alcohol.

Sorbitan olivate and cetearyl olivate – an emulsifier comprising two chemicals, commonly used in organic brands of conditioners and skin creams. These two compounds are combined in what is sometimes termed ‘olive wax’, as the major components are from olive oil, albeit hydrogenated olive oil. As you may have guessed by the presence of ‘cet’, the cetearyl component is from palm oil.  Some manufacturers believe that thought this is purely olive derived – it’s not.

Steartrimonium chloride – as its name suggests, this product is palm-derived.

To our surprise and dismay, the claim by a supplier that an ingredient is from coconut often means that it sometimes comes from coconut, and sometimes comes from palm – but we do not know the proportions of each. What we do know is it is absolutely not an indication that the product is palm oil free.

For these synthetic ingredients, the supply chain is long, the factories are far away, and manufacturers are not concerned about whether the starting point is palm oil, coconut oil, or some other oil – the end product is the same and that is all that matters to them. We now know that it is not possible to guarantee that a synthetic chemical is definitely not palm derived, unless you receive a written statement from the supplying company, which has traced the origin back to the starting point of each component of each ingredient. The bottom line is, don’t believe what is stated in the advertising literature – where it is stated that a product is derived from coconut, it may also be derived from palm oil.

It seems that manufacturers of shampoo and conditioners claiming palm oil free status believe superficial claims by suppliers – and it seems that ‘palm oil free’ shopping sites are doing the same. It is only when we start to dig deeper that it is clear that palm oil is in almost everything we use in the bathroom. Yes, it’s not just shampoo and conditioners that contain palm derived chemicals, it’s the glycerine and emulsifiers in water-based creams and lotions too – but that’s a story for another time.

This means just about all of us are unknowingly washing our hair in palm oil and slathering it on our bodies – and contributing to one of the most environmentally damaging practices on the planet. A lot of people are being misled, and the forests are burning faster than ever. This is not going to get better while people believe false claims about palm oil free status. Palm oil will continue to be used to manufacture cocobetaine, coco glucoside and cetearyl olivate – and many people will carry on using it.

So is there a palm oil free shampoo?

We believe that currently the only palm oil-free shampoos are actually palm oil-free soaps, such as the liquid and bar soaps made by Mokosh. Other than these soap shampoos, we have not yet seen a shampoo or conditioner that does not contain one or more of the palm oil-derived ingredients listed above. Soap shampoos are made by saponifying oils with either potassium hydroxide to make liquid soap, or sodium hydroxide to make bar soap. These are what our grandparents or great-grandparents washed their hair with. Below are some brands we know of that sell these products as shampoo.

– Maclyn Grove

– Alex’s Handcrafted Soaps

– Dr Bronner’s

If you know of a brand that is not a soap, that does not contain any of the above palm-derived chemicals, please let us know. We would love to hear about it.

So – what should I wash and condition my hair with?

This is the question I asked myself when I realised I had been unwittingly using palm oil-containing hair products. Here are some alternatives:

1)      Baking soda (also known as ‘bi-carb soda’ or ‘sodium bicarbonate’) followed by an apple cider vinegar rinse – there are many converts to this, who state their hair has never looked better. Take a look at this site or this one

2)      Natural bar soap or natural liquid soap followed by a vinegar rinse –

Look at this one:, or this one

3)      Mud shampoo – see how to make your own here:

4)      No shampoo – see a blog here:

Don’t be confused

It is clear that when looking at synthetic ingredients derived from a natural source, we have no indication which plant species was used to make them. Where a vegetable oil is needed to make a synthetic ingredient, it seems that palm oil is almost always first choice, because of price. The only way to be certain that an ingredient is not of palm oil origin is to obtain a written statement from the supplier, traced back to the manufacturer, that it is palm oil free.

We have not yet discovered a shampoo or conditioner, other than palm-free soap shampoos, that are free of palm oil derivatives. It seems that claims of ‘coconut’ origin for synthetic shampoo and conditioner ingredients cannot be believed, as it is very straightforward to substitute palm oil, without detriment or change to the final product.

It has been stated that palm-oil is driving an ecological disaster so, arguably, manufacturers who use palm oil-derived ingredients are party to this. The manufacturers who use palm oil-derived ingredients, yet claim their products are palm oil free, are perhaps even harder to defend.