Will You Soap My Back? The Impact of Your Shower

Man in the showerSimran Sethi and Sarah Smarsh are writing a series on the impacts of everyday things. They will be posting previews on the Green Options Media blog network before launching the posts on Huffington Post. Here’s a sneak peek at what happens in the shower.

The magical cleaning agent in your bar of hygiene is likely cow fat or oil from, say, coconut. At the manufacturing plant, a chemical process removes the valuable glycerin in the fats and oils to be used in other products. The leftovers are mixed with sodium hydroxide and then blasted dry to form soap pellets, which are then mixed with the colorants, fragrances and other ingredients that allow a humble soap to go by the name of Carribean Breeze or Lilac Meadow.

While the production of soap—or anything, really—has environmental repercussions all its own, the pretty smells in our personal care products are, perhaps, the issue most worth examining here. Many of the chemicals producing fine aromas have been linked to not-so-fine human ailments or tested on animals, and their disposal—down your shower drain in a sudsy stream—fills our water system with chemicals that do not readily biodegrade (or breakdown).

Now, how about a shave?

Razor production involves a lot of steel—made from our friend iron ore, a finite natural resource, through a process officially known as Carbon Emissions Nightmare.

Modern-day razors also owe a lot to the stinky plastics industry, as most are either entirely disposable or come with the nifty replaceable blade cartridge. An estimated 2 billion disposable razors wind up in U.S. landfills in each year. Don’t forget the packaging (the thick plastic encasing a new Venus Quad-Blade Mach 3000 is more accurately described as a booby trap). You’ve got the plastic bag around the disposable razors, the plastic tray holding razor cartridges, the various spots of cardboard. A group called the Dogwood Alliance is fighting for companies such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Revlon to reduce excessive paper packaging.

Thanks to the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Lacey Johnston for research assistance.

  1. Gavin Hudson

    Two comments on shaving:

    (1) I’ve been wondering where to buy an old fashioned straight blade razor. The disposable ones have two major disadvantages: they’re wasteful and they make me feel like a little bit less of a men every time I reach for the soft, moulded plastic with skin moisturizing gel cream on the tip.

    (2) Instead of shaving foam in a can, I’ve found this really great hand bar shaving cream. It’s like a round cake of hand soap, except that it foams and becomes shaving cream when you use it. All natural and everything. Avoids the waste of a can, which only lasts.. I don’t know a couple of weeks? These bars last several months and they’re a couple bucks each.

  2. JBB

    You can certainly get straight razors online. Solingen is a great brand. I’ve been using mine for years. Get a good leather strop to “sharpen” the razor before each use.

    I’ve stopped using soap entirely. Instead I shave just after a shower when the beard is as soft as it can get. Works fine.

    Problem I’ve run into: Try getting one of these on an airplane in carry-on. 😛

  3. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    I’m always a bit leery of those products directly marketed on television, but came across one recently that looks it might help lighten one’s footprint somewhat on the shaving front:


    Now, of course, I have no idea of the lifecycle of this particular product, but I remember seeing this and thinking “Hmmm… that’s kind of a green product…” If my assessment is right, it also speaks to the idea of conservation as a marketing tactic… or, at least, saving money by getting more use out of a product.

  4. Polkadot Robot

    For soap, I have Filthy Farmgirl has the best quality all natural soap:


    They’ve got tons of super lathery yummy flavors with no chemicals detergents or yucky stuff, and free shipping too. It’s like Lush without the petrochemicals. 🙂

  5. ecokfb

    Hi! I’m new here. I disagree – my husband’s beard is a turnon, we don’t shave, we use biodiesel glycerin soap made locally (also great to clean the shower!), the shower is low pressure & short.

  6. Gwenny

    I use soap my mom makes. She makes the soap using all natural, organic and mostly local supplies and essential oils for fragrance. I think it works better than the commercial stuff that often causes me to get dry patches and sneeze.

  7. Simran

    Ecokfb, you are so inspiring. Let’s agree to disagree on kissability. Gwenny, I get my soap from my farmer’s market.
    Small Ball, if you need a razor while traveling and are forced to use a disposable, try the Recycline ones – they are made from recycled plastic and they will send you a postage-paid envelope so you can return it when done for continued recycling: http://www.recycline.com/triplerazor.html

  8. Sonya

    I find these posts full of useful and depressing information. It seems like there’s an environmental hazard in every nook and cranny of my life.

    I’ve never seen a razor that’s not disposable- is that uncommon? What’s an eco-friendly alternative for women?

  9. Simran

    K, Scruff IS sexy. . .okay, enough daydreaming.

    Sonya, I know! It’s tough! But think about what a difference you’ll make by switching from some chemical-laden deo or shaving cream to something more of the earth. Mother Nature thanks you for caring! As for the most eco hair-removal system, I am going to guess waxing.

    Anyone else care to weigh in?

  10. Sarah

    1. Sonya, take heart–society’s growing awareness, due in part to potentially depressing messages like these, is the only thing that will get us turned in the right direction.

    2. Another vote for scruff.

    3. Waxing is inhumane and, for me, unsustainable.

  11. Amber

    My personal opinion, avoid shaving as much as possible. If it becomes a necessity (I’m about to have to shave/wax for work in order to wear the capris to work that I wear about town with hairy legs all the time …) then consider waxing with cloth strips and a sugar-based wax. These ‘waxes’ are water-soluble so once you’re done you can wash the strip and re-use it for next time, and if you get it on anything else (a washcloth, the rug, etc) it’ll wash right off, so it’s a much better option than some of the ‘standard’ waxes out there.

  12. Polly Davis

    For the gentleman looking for an old fashioned staight razor, and the fantastic shaving soap you put on with a brush and the amazing “Strop” used to keep your blade sharp so that one blade lasts for years please check out http://www.lehmans.com They have provided invironment friendly products for many years to the Amish religion and have everything you could imagine that is invironmentally safe and green. I have dealt with them myself for about 15 years and can vouch for thier quality products and thier excellent customer service. Everyone please give them a look. I believe you’ll be glad that you did.

  13. Polly Davis

    Good for you. Homemade soap can’t be beat! I used to make it all the time. You get all the glycerin & purity that’s missing in the store bought soap. You got the good stuff!!!

  14. Charlie

    This doesn’t mention the biggest impact of all–the energy use for hot water! Taking a shower uses energy at close to the same rate as driving an SUV. See the link from my name for detailed suggestions on how you can make your shower use a lot less energy.

  15. Fresh

    These are great tips. I shave only once a week now myself. Also, my family has removed soap from our laundry process altogether as well. We use a LaundryPure that uses Silver Ions and UV technology to get us clean and fresh. Check it out here:


  16. Nicky

    k guys here is the problem I’m all for going green however I don’t make a lot of money and “enviornmentally friendly” products tend to be on the pricey side It makes it hard I’m certainly not using that as a cop out I still want to be “green” I’m just a little concerned on affordabilty any thoughts?

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