Category Archives: Reading Ingredients Labels

Myth: All Goat Milk is the Same

It seems like a lot of folks think that “goat milk is goat milk is goat milk.”  That’s not true.  We produce our milk very differently from commercial milk.  Here’s a webpage with lots of pictures of typical goat milk farms:

What you’ll see in those pictures is a lot of goats inside barns, a lot of big heavy equipment bringing feed to the goats, and not much pasture at all. When you imagine a goat farm, you probably picture something like ours – goats nibbling trees, bushes, grasses, and weeds (forbs) out in the sunshine.  The reality for most commercial dairy goats is more like laying hens – they’re not free-range unless they proudly advertise that fact, and, if they do have the freedom to go outside, it’s a small lot adjacent to the barn with little to no living plants to eat.

Do you seek out grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, pastured poultry, etc.?  Then why would you settle for confinement-raised milk?

I have not found any nutritional studies on pastured vs. confined goat milk systems.  But it is hard to imagine that goat milk would be the only farm product that defies all the other research showing pastured farm animals produce healthier products.  Here are some pages specific to grass-fed milk:


We know that humans who eat fresh veggies and get lots of exercise are healthier than humans who sit around eating processed foods.  We know that hens who walk around outside foraging on fresh plants produce healthier eggs than chickens who spend their lives in battery cages, eating only processed food.  We know that cows who walk around outside eating living grasses produce healthier meat and milk.  But goats aren’t “economically important” enough for nutrition scientists to study the difference in goat milk.  And scientists would be hard-pressed to find pastured goat milk in stores.  Because, like all dairies (cow or goat), goat dairies find it’s cheaper to produce milk in confinement.

So I find it a little disturbing that well-educated food-focused consumers think that all goats are pastured and all goat milk is the same.  It’s not.  Dairy goats are typically only pastured on small farms.  Pasture is expensive.  But if the nutrition isn’t the same, cheap goat milk could be more expensive than you think.  If you have access to local dairy goat products that are pastured, snap them up.  They are worth the higher price.

Here is an interesting article that compares 1940s nutrient levels to 2002 levels (Meat and Dairy: Where Have all the Minerals Gone).

What changed between 1940 and 2002?

1) Increased reliance on confinement farming; 2) increased reliance on petro-type fertilizers for raising the crops that we feed to animals; 3) the moon landing; or 4) All of the above?

Back when dairy animals were predominantly raised outdoors, milk and cheese were richer in important minerals.   The old-fashioned ways left the land and the consumer in better shape.  The old-fashioned small farms bought most of their inputs locally, and spent most of their farm income locally.  The old-fashioned pasture-based farm recycled manure into compost into nutrient-rich fertilizer into nutrient-rich grazing land and back around, 360 degrees, into nutrient-rich foods.

If you are thinking about raising goats, please learn about pasturing goats (and using pasture rotation to keep goats healthy).  If you must raise them in confinement, try to bring them freshly-cut forage as the bulk of their diet and make sure they still get exercise and sunshine.  But the goats will definitely be happier if they get to go out and choose from the “buffet” for themselves.  Goats like exercise, fresh food, variety and mental stimulation.

Favorite Resources for researching skincare ingredients

If you add the letters INCI to your ingredient search (“INCI __” i.e. “INCI sodium cocoate”) it tends to refine results to a translation, rather than tons of ingredients list or chemical manufacturers.

Because ingredients are listed in Greek (er, Latin, commonly), there are a lot of websites that try to help people translate.  They are usually trying to perform a specific public service – promote natural products, ease fears of chemical products, etc.  Each seems to have a unique perspective, and their values inform their translations.  So it’s useful to look at more than one source to really understand the impacts an ingredient can have on your body AND the planet.  Some of the websites I use to understand ingredients:

Bubble and Bee Organics Chemical of the Day: Obviously, an organics company is going to slant heavily towards organics, but I find their brief data to be pretty straightforward and well-sourced.  Of course, they don’t seem to go out of their way to do posts on “this is a GREAT chemical!” so think of them as a place to find a summary of risks.

Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skindeep cosmetics database: Good: They have a comprehensive list, probably the most complete list you’ll find.  Search function works pretty well.  Mobile app.  Bad: A lot of people in both camps (pro-natural, pro-chemical) criticize EWG’s ratings, and the criticisms are valid.  When you try to document every single ingredient, you don’t have time for perfecting the analysis.

Might flag an ingredient as “bad” if it has a safe use limit, even if it’s safe when used within limits.  Yet some potentially harmful natural ingredients may be flagged as safe.  For example, Anise essential oil is safe at low limits, but can be a sensitizer at higher limits; it is rated 0/green (where 0 is safe and 10 is toxic).  Why is a chemical rated red because it has use limits, but a natural ingredient with use limits is rated green?  Product ratings may be inaccurate, because the data is sort of raw.  For instance, essential oils may be listed on an ingredient list as “fragrance” and EWG rates anything called “fragrance” as bad.  But it is a solid starting point.

Paula’s Choice Cosmetics Cop Ingredients Dictionary: Another good starting point.  Ratings are based on an individual perspective.  Using anise as an example again – Paula’s calls Anise bad.  Used at safe limits, and accompanied by an antioxidant, anise is safe (my source: Tisserand’s Essential Oil Safety textbook).  Paula seems to like her chemicals.  Lots of chemicals with contamination potential or environmental impacts may be generally safe to use, but, if you want the whole story, blend Paula’s info with another source.

Robert Tisserand, the essential oil expert: Get the straight scoop.  Maybe you heard that an essential oil is bad?  Tisserand digs up the subsequent research showing that the estrogenic plastics found in the original study came from the lab equipment used to perform the study, not from the essential oil itself.  Not a comprehensive source, but an authoritative source when he does cover material.  And his big honkin’ textbook, Essential Oil Safety, is the best (if you want me to look one up for you, come by our farmer’s market stall).

And multiple companies that sell to small producers have informative websites.  They almost never discuss risks or downsides – they are selling, after all – but they do a good job of explaining why a product is used, and their reference pages are fantastic.

And a great book:

The Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients.  Very much like a dictionary – brief summaries, brief info on risks.  Some issues, like sodium cocoate (saponified coconut oil) just says “see coconut oil.”  There’s a big difference between the two!  But for a single place to look up almost anything you can find on a label, this is it.  Pretty unbiased.

Simplifying the International Nomenclature of Ingredients in soap and “soap”

How can you even tell if you’re looking at a soap when the ingredients are listed in Greek?  I mean, Latin.  International Nomenclature (INCI) uses standardized terminology, and it’s usually scientific terminology.  It can make your eyes glaze over, but if you learn some simple rules, you’ll be a better shopper.  You’re more likely to get the natural product you’re looking for.

  • Natural soap oils, in INCI format, look like:
    • Sodium [part of the oil name]-ate.”
    • Example: Sodium Olivate (olive oil) or Sodium Cocoate (coconut oil).
    • You’ll probably sort of recognize the oil name.
  • Parts of an oil look more like this: Sodium Stearate, Sodium Palmitate.
    • Bet you’ve never heard of “Stear Oil” or “Palmit Oil”, right?  They don’t exist!
    • Parts don’t fall out of an oil.  They are forced out using heat, pressure, or solvents.  Heat can hurt the oil’s naturally beneficial properties, and solvents can contaminate the oil or the environment.
    • So when you can’t guess what oil it is, ask or search!

Some ingredients that start with the word “Sodium” aren’t soap at all.  Soaps are usually 2 words (sodium [oilname]-ate).  Most sodium chemicals are 3 words, like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.

If an ingredient list reads like this:

blah (good stuff), blah (good stuff), blah, blah (good stuff), blah (naturally sourced), blah (organic)

  • Focus on the one that doesn’t say nice things in parenthesis after it.  Why?  Unless it’s something obvious like “water”, maybe there’s nothing nice to say about that ingredient, or they don’t want to draw attention to it.  It can be a good way to zero in on “bad” ingredients.

Things to watch out for:

__araben usually means a paraben.

__phthalate  – plasticizer, can be bio-absorbed.

___aldehyde can indicate a formaldehyde releaser.

__eth__ is typically a chemical (sodium laureth sulfate, for example; and methylparaben)

Acronyms – EDTA, TEA, PET, PEG, and most numbers – are usually abbreviations of really long chemical names.

Numbers – PEG-6, FD&C 7 – almost always chemicals, including dyes.

My personal rule of thumb: If an ingredient is good, they want you to know it’s in there.  If it’s good but misunderstood, they don’t want to argue.  If it’s bad, they want to hide it behind acronyms and abbreviations.

And, my personal conspiracy theory: if it’s natural, they want to make it look like a chemical.  So, instead of olive oil soap, they call it sodium olivate.  Lavender?  Can’t call it lavender, it’s “Lavandula Augustifolia (Lavender),” the botanical name for the plant and the FDA kindly permits us to add a note explaining that it’s Lavender to the rest of us.  So don’t automatically fear Latin, and definitely look for the parentheses (Lavender) explanations.

  • The harshest chemicals are often near the end of the ingredient list.  Why?  They have safe usage limits!  Typically below 5%, can be as little as a fraction of a percent.
  • Sulfates – Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS), among others – can irritate skin.  Try eliminating them for a week and see if your skin is happier.
    • Notice all those letters?  SLS, ALS, SLES – acronyms are not usually used for natural ingredients.
  • Plants – usually natural ingredients – look like this “Lavendula Augustifolia”.  Some others: Rubia tinctorum (madder root), Matricaria chamomilla (chamomile), camellia sinensis (green tea).  Botanical names usually have two parts.  They are often soft words, Latin-based, and may vaguely remind you of Spanish or French sounds.
  • Chemicals usually have harsher-sounding names like phenoxyethanol, and/or numbers (PEG-6) and acronyms (Tetrasodium DEA).  Not all chemicals are bad, but the good ones often have an explanation after the name like: sodium chloride (salt)
  • Preservatives can have negative effects, but germs can be harmful, too!  Natural soap doesn’t need preservatives.  If you’re trying to minimize preservative and chemical exposure, natural soap is a great choice.
  • Mild preservatives (paraben replacements) can be irritants, too.  If you can minimize your skincare routine for a while and use all-natural products, you may be amazed at how your skin behaves.  Some of us are just more sensitive to chemicals than the safety studies think we would be.

The sodiums cheat-sheet:

Good Sodiums – SOAP! saponified oils (soap is technically a “salt” of a fatty acid – oil) and they look like this:

Usually…             Sodium [most of the oil name]-ate

Almond Oil – Sodium Almondate

Apricot Kernel Oil – Sodium Apricot Kernelate

Avocado Oil – Sodium Avocadate

Babassu Oil – Sodium Babassate

Borage Oil – Sodium Boragate

Canola Oil – Sodium Canolate

Castor Oil – Sodium Castorate or Sodium Ricinoleate

Cocoa Butter – Sodium Cocoa Butterate

Coconut Oil – Sodium Cocoate

Corn Oil – Sodium Cornate

Cottonseed Oil – Sodium Cottonseedate

Crisco Shortening – Sodium Soybeanate, Sodium Palmate

Emu Oil – Sodium Emuate

Grapeseed Oil – Sodium Grapeseedate

Hazelnut Oil – Sodium Hazelnutate

Illipe Butter – Sodium Illipe Butterate

Kukui Nut Oil – Sodium Kukuiate                                                See the pattern?

Macadamia Nut Oil – Sodium Macadamiate                      Easy!

Mango Butter – Sodium Mango Butterate

Neem Oil – Sodium Neemate

Olive Oil – Sodium Olivate

Palm Oil – Sodium Palmate

Palm Kernel Oil – Sodium Palm Kernelate

Peach Kernel Oil – Sodium Peach Kernelate

Peanut Oil – Sodium Peanutate

Rice Bran Oil – Sodium Ricate

Safflower Oil – Sodium Safflowerate

Sesame Oil – Sodium Sesamate                                       If you don’t recognize the oil name,

Shea Butter – Sodium Shea Butterate                      ask what it is.

Soybean Oil – Sodium Soybeanate                          Companies making quality products

Sunflower Oil – Sodium Sunflowerate                      WANT you to understand the product

Sweet Almond Oil – Sodium Almondate                   qualities!

Walnut Oil – Sodium Walnutate

Wheat Germ Oil – Sodium Wheatgermate

But try to remember these soap “sodiums” – they’re the ones that don’t follow the “look for the common oil name rule” and they’re good in soap!

Rice Bran Oil – Sodium Ricate

Babassu Oil – Sodium Babassate

Castor Oil – Sodium Castorate or Sodium Ricinoleate

Coconut Oil – Sodium Cocoate

There are other ones, too, so don’t be shy about asking what it is!

Another sodium:

Sodium Chloride – regular old salt!  Often contains trace minerals.  Try a sea salt bath or scrub, you might like it.


Maybe good ingredients:

(Animal byproducts that would otherwise go to waste, but fats tend to bio-accumulate toxins, so organic is probably the safest bet with lard and tallow.  Cheap tallow and lard may come from factory-style farms that may cause environmental damage.)

Beef Tallow – Sodium Tallowate – from beef fat – this is commonly seen in commercial soaps like Ivory.  It’s a real soap, but might not be the best choice.

Lard – Sodium Lardate – from pig fat

Stearic Acid – Sodium Stearate – may be made from vegetable oils or animal byproducts – “Parts” extracted from a vegetable oil don’t have the full nutrient profile anymore, kind of like corn syrup.  These types of oils usually don’t specify whether they’re animal-derived or plant-derived, so Sodium Stearate is sometimes considered a way to “hide” tallow in an ingredients list.  As in, if you pull it out of the tallow, it’s still an inexpensive ingredient, but the package doesn’t have to say “Tallow” on it anymore.

Sodium Palmitate  – may be made from vegetable oils or animal byproducts; (Sodium Palmate is saponified palm oil.  If there’s an “it” in the middle, it’s not saponified natural palm oil.)

Sodiums many consumers want to avoid:

SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate)

SLES (sodium laureth sulfate)

Sulfates can cause irritation and sensitivity.  They can be easily replaced with soap for skincare, and may be replaced by soap for haircare.  If you don’t like soap, other mild surfactants that can be used in place of sulfates include soapnuts, herbs like soapwort, but maybe not “mild” chemical surfactants like…

Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate “Sodium cocoyl isethionate is created by combining fatty acids with isethionic acid. Isethionic acid is created by combining sodium bisulfite in an aqueous solution and ethylene oxide. Ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen. Traces of ethylene oxide can remain in the product, along with carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane.” (

Basically, any sodium __eth__ is probably a chemical and probably a detergent if it’s in “soap.”

Buying natural soap: Avoid Natural-washing and Green-washing

Just because the word “natural” is on the front, doesn’t mean it’s free of un-natural ingredients.  “Natural” is unregulated, but usually means the product includes natural ingredients, not that it excludes synthetics.  Read the ingredients.

“Made with” is a sneaky way to disclose part of the ingredients – usually the ones that sound good – without disclosing all of them.  One company claims to scent their soaps “with” natural scents, but they don’t say they don’t use artificial fragrances.  So it’s not lying if they include artificial fragrances, as long as there’s some natural fragrance in there.  Look for a real ingredient list to be sure that all of the ingredients are listed.

If ingredients are not listed, ask!  Most premium soap makers are proud of the quality ingredients used in our products.  Sometimes ingredients lists are left off the label to save space, but we never hide ingredients.  If a producer respects your skin, they’ll want you to have ingredient information available somewhere to make wise purchasing decisions.  When we make a quality soap with quality ingredients, the wise decision will be to buy it!

Don’t settle for vague terms like “natural oils” or “in a __ base.”  If a company discloses some ingredients but not all of them – why?  Partial disclosure of ingredients is a red flag, just like not disclosing ingredients.   (Vague terms on the front marketing copy are fine, if the specific ingredients are listed somewhere else.)

By the way, laundry soap doesn’t have to list ingredients, either.  We do.  We think you have the right to know.  But if you’ve gotta buy a laundry soap that won’t disclose ingredients, at least look for the “made without” claims.  They should at least be “made without” the worst laundry detergent chemicals.