BIODEGRADABLE SOAP: THE RESPONSIBLE WAY TO STAY CLEAN OUTDOORS
Dirt. Grass. Mud. Sweat. Pollen. Sticky foods. Body substances. Insect repellents. Sunscreens. Do we need to continue?
Venturing outside can be a messy endeavor.
Bringing soap into the backcountry, particularly for multi-day backpacking trips, is a great way to keep yourself refreshed, sleeping well, and ultimately feeling like a human within wild environments.
That being said, it is important to understand the environmental impacts that using soap outdoors will entail. Choosing the right biodegradable soap is an important part of that understanding, as is developing proper backcountry hygiene practices. Doing your part to leave no trace and minimize impact will increase the likelihood that beautiful places will remain for many generations to enjoy.
Keep reading to discover, exactly, what makes a soap biodegradable, why you should be using one, both outside and at home, as well as specific instructions for disposing of it properly while hiking or backpacking.
Looking to Learn More About Biodegradable Soap?
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A biodegradable soap is, simply, one that can be broken down or decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Contrary to many popular hand or dish soaps found in homes and businesses throughout the country, biodegradable soaps are efficiently decomposed (eliminated or reduced to negligible amounts) by organic soil.
Traditional soaps, like those, probably, sitting at your kitchen sink right now or found within public restrooms, often contain synthetic (man-made) chemicals. Many of these harmful chemical preservatives, such as parabens, phthalates, petrochemicals, along with artificial colors and scents, do not break down quickly.
This means that if they are disposed of in nature, traces of their chemical makeup can still exist many years later. The negative impact potential on local flora and fauna is considerable, and that is why traditional soaps should never be used while camping.
Most biodegradable soaps, however, are produced with natural, organic ingredients that break down efficiently when exposed to the bacteria found in soiled environments. These concentrated solutions can, also, provide suitable cleaning power with drastically less soap.
Before looking closer at the benefits of using a biodegradable soap over a traditional version, we should address the reality than any soap used outdoors will cause an impact. The highest quality, all-natural, organic, biodegradable soap still has the ability to affect the environment in a negative way, especially for aquatic species.
If you are, truly, adamant about leaving no impact, you will, likely, learn to hike and camp without the use of soap. This is not to say that using a biodegradable soap is considered unethical or unacceptable. We’re just acknowledging the fact that any soap, even biodegradable, will cause more impact than none at all.
Most, ourselves included, will still justify bringing soap into the backcountry for the sake of general hygiene, health, and to aid in the prevention of communicable diseases commonly transferred through camp cookware. Following strict guidelines for its use and disposal helps us remain responsible and aligned with LNT principles.
While minimizing environmental impacts and adhering to LNT practices are the most obvious reasons for why you should be using a biodegradable soap when cleaning up outside, there are numerous other benefits that you may not be aware of yet.
The very nature of a biodegradable substance means that it will become, virtually, undetectable over time (when disposed of properly). Unlike other harmful chemicals or plastics, biodegradable soaps pose very little threat to existing ground vegetation or surrounding plant life.
Additionally, they pose less risk to aquatic species. Although soap exposure to waterways should be avoided at all costs, it’s nice to have a little extra assurance in the event that we fail with this responsibility.
Biodegradable soaps are concentrated and designed to be mixed with water. This means that you can, typically, use only 1-2 drops of soap per cleaning application. One small bottle of biodegradable soap can, actually, last longer than a larger version of the traditional variety.
If you already pay close attention to the ingredients that make up what you eat and drink, why not extend this monitoring to the soaps and lotions that you place on your skin? Chemical laden soaps can contain known carcinogens and skin irritants.
I don’t know about you but natural ingredients that I can pronounce, like olive oil, coconut oil, or jojoba oil, commonly found in biodegradable soaps, give me extra confidence to know that I am not risking my health with a product.
If you make the decision to go soapless when handling your hygiene needs in the backcountry, consider some of the following strategies:
There is a common misconception among many hikers, backpackers, and campers that biodegradable soap doesn’t pollute the environment. As a result, these folks pay little attention to how much they are using, where they are using it, or how they, ultimately, dispose of it.
Using a biodegradable soap near or within any water source is a serious violation of LNT practices. It carries numerous environmental and marine wildlife impacts that cannot be reversed. Please, do not shower, wash your face, or do your dishes with soap in any river, lake, or stream.
Here’s what to do instead:
Carry the necessary water for your cleaning tasks, via a bottle, hydration reservoir, or collapsible bucket, to a site that is at least 200 ft. away from all sources of freshwater.
Use soap sparingly - 1 to 4 drops is more than sufficient in most cases. Biodegradable soaps are highly concentrated so that you can limit what you need to use outside. Follow the instructions for mixing with water, which are typically found on the bottle.
For best practice in disposing of biodegradable soap, consider digging a cathole into which you can pour your ‘grey water’. This surrounds the soap with the organic soil compounds that aid in efficient decomposition. It, also, helps to prevent potential surface runoff during rain events.
It is, alternatively, acceptable to disperse small amounts of grey water in a wide arc (imagine slinging the water out of your pot, as opposed to pouring it). This method prevents the concentrated pouring of the entire solution in one spot and saves you from having to dig a cathole.
This is, perhaps, the most well known biodegradable soap amongst outdoor travelers and eco-conscious consumers. Dr. Bronners has amassed a cult-like following with products that feature organic and certified fair-trade ingredients. Their famous 18-in-1 philosophy, found on each bottle’s label, is a testament to the versatility of their soaps.
Manufactured by Sierra Dawn Products, CampSuds has been the pioneer for concentrated, multi-use, biodegradable soap since 1968. You can find these iconic green bottles in most outdoor supply stores and they are, typically, the most affordable option.
Sea-To-Summit’s Wilderness Wash is another popular option for backcountry-ready, biodegradable soap. Like the others, it is concentrated so that only 1 or 2 drops are necessary for diluting into water. The citronella version, also, features essential oils that help deter bugs.
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In addition to his role as an outdoor adventure guide, Chris Olson seeks to share his passion for, and experience in, the great outdoors through writing and photography. He has backpacked, hiked, climbed, kayaked, biked, and skied throughout much of the eastern United States, as well as iconic locations such as Zion National Park, Newfoundland, and Puerto Rico. His passion for fresh air, and beautiful places, reminds us all of the simple joys to be had from spending time outside!