I can bathe in the lake if I use biodegradable soap, right? This is a myth. Just don’t do it. No matter what the label says.
"Biodegradable", "safe for rivers, lakes, ocean", "all-natural", "non-toxic", "eco-friendly". These labels sound good but are not without significant impacts to aquatic life. In fact, the greenwashing by companies trying to sell products by making promises and claims that sound good is downright greed. Simply said, they put profits over people and planet.
What does biodegradable mean?
Biodegradable means "capable of being broken down (decomposed) rapidly by the action of living organisms, producing water, carbon dioxide, and biomass." Because something can biodegrade doesn’t mean it will. [See 1] And just because something is biodegradable doesn't mean it is safe.
Fact: Even if soap (liquid or bar) is biodegradable, it is not safe to use directly in the river, lake or ocean. Never, ever. All soap, whether biodegradable or not, affects the chemistry of rivers and lakes and has a negative impact on fish and other organisms.
Soap (including handmade and commercially made) falls into the category of surfactants. Synthetic detergents are also surfactants. They are called surfactants because they break the surface tension of water. To humans it might not mean much, but to the organisms that live in the water it’s a big deal. Lower surface tension also reduces the oxygen in the water. Decreased oxygen can cause stress and ultimately kill aquatic life.
Another culprit is phosphorus because it feeds algae. Algae blooms can turn lakes into thick smelly green soup that is undesirable for swimming and other recreational water activities. Too much algae clouds water and blocks sunlight from reaching aquatic plants. [See 2]
So, how do I stay clean while in the woods?
Here are a few suggestions taken from blog post: Personal Hygiene on the Trail
If soap is not safe for aquatic life and use in the lake, is soapy water safe for use on plants and the soil (grey water system)?
Read my article on Is Your Soap Safe for Greywater Systems?
What else should I know?
Even if you don’t use soap to wash in the lake or river, think again before getting into water with your chemical laden body, including lotion, deodorant, sunscreen, insect repellent, and the like. These can contaminate water sources just the same or worse. For this reason, Hawaii has banned chemical sunscreen. [See 3]
Want some more resources?
Bubbles belong in the bathtub
Biodegradable Soap in the Backcountry: The Campsuds Myth
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