As the desire for sustainability grows, consumers have begun to shift away from conventional products engineered with harmful chemicals in favor of clean, earth and skin-friendly items. Among those are soaps, which have historically been made with some unsafe ingredients to the detriment of people and the environment. During this watershed moment, biodegradable soaps have increased in popularity as the perfect solution for lovers and advocates of the outdoors who also enjoy a good lather every now and again—even in the backcountry.
In this research-driven guide we'll break down all you need to know about biodegradable soap, and which to buy (scroll down a ways to get right to our top picks for the best biodegradable soaps and wipes).
What is Biodegradable Soap?
Unlike conventional soap, biodegradable soaps don’t contain surfactants, short for “surface-active agent”, which bind oil and water together in body products. While they aren’t inherently bad for us (unlike parabens or phthalates—harmful chemical compounds found in soaps used as preservatives that can negatively affect) the hormones in humans and animals, surfactants have been shown to harm aquatic animals and even pose a threat to their watery ecosystem if exposed to enough of those surfactants overtime.
To paraphrase the EPA guide to choosing eco-friendly home cleaning products which have similar ingredients to soaps, the surfactants can break down into “toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative chemicals” that can eventually begin to degrade aquatic life. So, when it comes to using a biodegradable soap or body wash both indoors or outside, you can feel good knowing that it’s a product designed to do as little harm to you and the environment as possible.
What to Look for When Choosing a Biodegradable Soap
Surfactants aren’t the only chemicals capable of causing damage. Before buying, scan the ingredient list of each soap or body wash and be sure to avoid the following toxic ingredients:
SLS and SLES - Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) that are surfactants used as detergents in soaps and body wash to cleanse skin and create a foamy consistency
Parabens and Phthalates - Ingredients used as a preservative, but found to be an endocrine disruptor
Fragrance - An umbrella term for a plethora of unlisted toxic chemicals designed to create a synthetic scent. Opt for fragrance-free soaps or fragrances made with essential oils for a safe alternative
Natural ingredients - Ok, let us be clear, we aren’t saying natural ingredients are harmful, but we are calling out the many companies that use this catch-all term as a way to market a not-so sustainable product as sustainable. Often called “greenwashing”, once you get good at deciphering ingredient lists, you’ll easily spot these unfounded claims a mile away. Other culprits include “eco-friendly” or “all-natural”, which might signal greenwashing if the product label doesn’t back it up.
If you don’t feel confident decoding a product’s list of ingredients or want to learn more, use trustworthy sources like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the EPA’s Safer Choice have a comprehensive database of what to look for and what to avoid.
How to Safely Use Biodegradable Soap Outdoors
Versatile and low-impact, biodegradable soaps are great for backpacking or camping because they can be used for dishwashing, laundry detergent, body wash for a camping shower, or hand soap. However, according to Leave No Trace's Seven Principles—the undisputed expert on responsible outdoor recreation—campers should never use soap or dispose of waste water in a water source. Instead, Principle Three recommends “to wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes” or “use a clean pot or other container to collect water, and take it to a wash site at least 200 feet away from water sources.” Biodegradable wipes have also become a hit with campers as a lightweight and easy way to get clean from nose to toes. If you bring them along, just make sure to carry out used wipes along with the rest of your trash to truly leave no trace.
The 9 Best Biodegradable Soaps for Camping, Use at Home and on the Road
This multi-purpose, plant-based soap has been an eco-friendly staple since the 1960s thanks to a concentrated formula that uses a small amount to clean everything from the dishes to the dog. Made with certified fair trade and organic ingredients like olive oil and coconut oil for a moisturizing effect, the unscented soap is great for little ones and sensitive skin, and Dr. Bronner’s scented options like tea tree and peppermint oil don’t use any synthetic fragrances. The smaller bottles or bar soap make for a great all-in-one camp soap that’s easy to pack in, clean up, and carry out.
Filled with skin superheroes like certified organic coconut oil, aloe vera, and shea butter, Bathing Culture’s biodegradable body wash hydrates and cleanses without a trace of harmful chemicals. Available in two earthy, botanical scents created from essential oil blends, this concentrated liquid soap is refillable and made to last, packaged in beautifully-designed recycled glass bottles. The Northern California brand joined forces with the wood fired hot tub company, Goodland, to design a Bath Ritual Kit made to enhance a hot tub soak.
Price: $18 - $35
Free of synthetic fragrance, preservatives, and cruelty-free, Juniper Ridge’s concentrated liquid soap is a gentle cleanser to suds up with at home or outside. Its nature-inspired scents are created with steam-distilled essential oils for an aromatic body wash that isn’t filled with toxic chemicals. Their 8 oz bottle is the perfect size for camping and travel, but you can also stock up and refill small bottles with the larger gallon-size container to create less waste. Also available as a 4 oz bar soap.
A woman and Indigenous-owned and operated company, each bar soap is handcrafted with harvested botanicals and fragrances are derived from pure essential oils. Their Yukon Pure Soap uses as few as five natural ingredients (yes, the real kind), including olive oil, coconut oil, and beeswax that moisturize, cleanse, and protect skin. Profits go towards the empowerment and support of Northern Indigenous communities, culture, and people.
Vermont-based Ursa Major crafts natural soaps made with their signature “forest-infused formulas” that are as gentle on the skin as they are on the ecosystem. Their Morning Mojo Bar Soap is free of SLS, SLES, preservatives, parabens, and synthetic fragrance—plus, it’s wrapped in paper so there’s no plastic involved. The exfoliating soap bar’s peppermint, eucalyptus, and rosemary aromas energize and cleanse the body without stripping away natural oils or polluting waterways.
Designed for backcountry adventures, this biodegradable liquid soap is highly concentrated to make sure a little goes a long way. Use this multi-purpose outdoor wash on yourself, as a dish soap, laundry, and even gear; always make sure to keep the soapy water 200 feet away from a water source while camping and hiking. Packaged in a sturdy plastic bottle with a secure cap, you won’t have to worry about leaks, spills, or losing space. Also check out their compostable Wilderness Wipes for a quick and easy refresh on the trail.
__Price: $5 - $9
True to its name, the Refillable Everything Soap is a multi-use biodegradable liquid concentrate (that means it’s best used diluted with water) that’s safe enough for your skin yet strong enough to clean your dishes and carpets! Lemongrass and lavender scents are derived naturally from essential oils and the pump bottles are designed to be refilled to extend the lifespan of the plastic pump pieces.
Not to be confused with your run of the mill Mrs. Meyer's, these artful soaps are crafted by hand in small batches on the Maine coast using a biodegradable formula that's free from preservatives and surfactants. Organic ingredients like aloe vera are used to soften and soothe skin, with each of their soap blends and bars packing a creative punch that ties back to the wild nature of Maine’s mountains, forests, and shoreline.
Blueland developed a simple yet innovative solution that curbs the excessive amount of plastic needed for liquid soap with a glass “forever bottle” that combines water and a non-toxic soap tablet. Tablets are made with a biodegradable plant-based formula that’s certified EPA Safer Choice to be free from preservatives, harmful chemical fragrance, so these eco-friendly soaps are good for you and the planet in more ways than one.
While they aren't biodegradable soaps per se, biodegradable cleansing wipes like these made by outdoor skincare brand, Allez, offer a quick way to get clean while camping using safe, non-toxic, and plant-based ingredients. Another great option are Venture Wipes for a fast and effective head-to-toe cleanse.