I normally only buy food items at the Grocery Outlet but on a recent trip I needed soap and decided to check their supply. There are plenty of not-so-sustainable products at the Grocery Outlet so I wasn’t surprised to see a whole lot of Dove soap. Dove, made from palm oil by Unilever is one of the worst choices when it comes to ethical soap. However, there were also two brands that I’ve bought before – Kiss My Face (to be reviewed later) and Tom’s of Maine. I bought one of each and tried out the Tom’s soap first – it piqued my interest because it’s something new: probiotic soap!
How does prebiotic soap work?
First of all – what are prebiotics? Well, you know how important the microbes in your body are? You can take probiotics such as live yoghurt that contain beneficial bacteria (Lactobacillus, etc.) or you can eat food that contains prebiotics, which encourage the growth of these beneficial bacteria. In general the beneficial bacteria thrive on things like soluble fibers, which you can get from a diet of veggies, or as a supplement like inulin (not insulin – inulin is a form of soluble fiber). So that brings us to soap – what’s the deal with prebiotic soap? Because you don’t eat soap, right?
As a microbiologist, I know how important the microbes in and on are bodies are. Most of us know that gut health is really important, but we are only starting to think about the microbial population (microflora) on our skin. I first heard about this after reading about a couple of scientists who had changed their routine – David Whitlock, an MIT chemistry graduate who hasn’t showered for years and is now developing a microbial spray designed to break down ammonia on our skin. Then there’s James Hamblin, lecturer in public health at Yale who weaned himself off soap and deodorant and recently published the book, Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less.
I don’t think either of them will be using the Tom’s of Maine product, since neither of them uses soap, but I think they’d be interested in the results. The first questions you’d have to ask yourself are: Why put the prebiotics in soap? Aren’t you just going to wash them right off your body? Wouldn’t they be better in a spray or moisturizer?
Perhaps small amounts of the inulin that’s in the soap may stay on your skin but that begs a follow-up question: Is it known that inulin on your skin will have the same beneficial effect as inulin in your food? I don’t think this question has been answered yet (I did search the science literature but found nothing concrete) and my feeling is that the product received FDA approval on the basis that it’s safe, but that doesn’t mean it’s effective.
I guess the proof would be in the pudding (or in this case the showering) and this may be more obvious to people with skin conditions. I’ve used the Tom’s of Maine prebiotic soap for about two weeks now and have found it to be perfectly fine. I can’t really comment on the impact on my skin microflora but as far as soaps go, I quite liked it : )
Tom’s of Maine Prebiotic soap – Ingredients
Here are the ingredients for the Fresh Apple variety that I bought – the Rose-scented version is basically the same (just a different fragrance).
Sodium Palmate*, Sodium Cocoate or Sodium Palm Kernelate, Water, Glycerin, Inulin, Fragrance**, Sodium Gluconate, Sodium Chloride, Fructose, Glucose, Sucrose. *Rainforest Alliance Certified **natural
Note that sodium palmate is basically detergent made from palm oil – and as you probably guessed the sodium cocoate and sodium palm kernelate are made from coconut and palm kernel oil, respectively. I’m never particularly happy to see the word “or” in an ingredient list – it’s usually an indication of a larger company that’s switching between commodity ingredients based on market prices. So, let’s get to the ethical review!
Ethical rating for Tom’s of Maine Prebiotic soap
Here’s a summary of how I feel about the social and environmental impact of Tom’s of Maine Prebiotic soap, which I’m scoring 2.5/5 Green Stars.
- Tom’s of Maine was a pretty responsible company that was acquired by a large multinational corporation, Colgate-Palmolive, in 2006. Sadly, Tom’s of Maine stopped reporting on corporate responsibility after that.
- Tom’s of Maine is a certified B-corporation, achieving an OK score of 93.6 (80 is the minimum score to qualify).
- Tom’s of Maine doesn’t test products on animals while Colgate-Palmolive still does, but is acknowledged by PETA to be working towards regulatory change to reduce requirements for animal testing.
- 100% of Tom’s energy usage was offset by wind energy credits, post-consumer recycled cardboard is used for packaging and vegetable-based inks for printing. Or at least that was true when Tom’s of Maine reported on sustainability and Corporate Responsibility. Now it’s all mixed into Colgate Palmolive’s reporting.
- Last year Tom’s of Maine developed a recyclable toothpaste tube, a step forward for the industry.
- This particular soap is vegan, cruelty-free, and packaged in a cardboard box (no plastic wrap).
- 10% of Tom’s of Maine profits go to good causes in Maine, such as the Nature Conservancy.
- The primary ingredient of this soap is palm oil. It’s certified by the Rainforest Alliance but note that the next ingredient may be palm oil (Sodium Palm Kernelate) that’s not Rainforest Alliance certified (no asterisk).
- As a subsidiary of Colgate Palmolive, I think it’s likely that Tom’s of Maine palm oil sourcing overlaps with that of Colgate. Colgate-Palmolive gets a mediocre score on the WWF palm oil scorecard – about a B–.
- You can read about Colgate-Palmolive’s palm oil sourcing policy here – the policy states “no deforestation of High Carbon Stock (HCS) forest or High Conservation Value (HCV) areas” but doesn’t exclude deforestation in general.
- Ethical Consumer gives Colgate-Palmolive and Tom’s of Maine their worst rating in the soap category.
- Bottom line – I’d rather be cautious and avoid products made from palm oil where possible – unless a company provides a lot of information to assure customers that the palm oil is truly sustainably sourced. Soap can easily be made from sustainable vegetable oils, for example olive oil or coconut oil.
So, not a fantastic score, and that’s mainly because of the palm oil. Tom’s of Maine is a pretty responsible company in many other ways and some of their other products would get a much higher ethical rating. But I will only support products made from palm oil if I have a high degree of confidence in the company’s sourcing policy.
I actually thought that Tom’s of Maine would do a better job on palm oil sourcing (that’s why I picked up the soap) but now that I know more I won’t buy Tom’s of Maine palm oil soaps unless their policy improves. I hope they do tackle this because Tom’s of Maine tries to be a leader in some areas, like the development of its recyclable toothpaste tube. Its parent company, Colgate-Palmolive, has a track record that isn’t terrible – it’s just not good enough. This soap is still more responsible than several mainstream soaps like Dove soap, made by Unilever. However, I think there are much better options out there, as far as social and environmental impact goes, such as Kiss My Face olive oil soap, Dr. Bronner’s soap bars and Alaffia soap.
Summary scores (out of 5) for Tom’s of Maine Prebiotic soap:
- 4 gold stars for quality and value
- 2.5 green stars for social and environmental impact
If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe : )