Plastic-Free Personal Care: Soap

or How I Gave Up the Bar and Learned to Love Flakes.

By Rebecca Rockefeller (Originally published at Rock Farmer)

But first, the recipe that will get you off the plastic-packaged liquid soap train:

DIY Plastic-Free Soap Flakes

DIY Soap Flakes That Work – No Plastic, No Petrochemicals

  • 1 5-oz bar natural soap in a paper wrapper
  • 1 glass jar with tight lid; a 26-oz pasta sauce jar or the like will be the right size.
  • 1 jar with holes in the lid, just the size and shape that works in your family’s wet hands
  • 1 metal grater
  • 1 large bowl
  1. Set your grater over or in your bowl.
  2. Grate your bar of soap using whichever part of your grater is easiest on your arm muscles. You can use a food processor, but you’ll likely regret it when it comes time to rinse the soap off of the plastic bowl, and you’ll end up with little chunks instead of melty, ethereal flakes. It will only take a few minutes to grate it by hand.
  3. Use your dry hands to break the grated soap up into a fine powder.
  4. Fill your small shaker jar with soap flakes and set it by your sink.
  5. Store the extra flakes in the larger jar.
  6. Wet your hands, sprinkle on a light dusting of soap flakes, lather up with the water off, then rinse clean.
  7. Do this because it’s easy, it’s fast, it’s economical (1 bar of soap lasts us a few months this way), and it’s just as good as liquid soap, really it is. Maybe even better.

DIY soap flakes in action


When I got serious about reducing the amount of new plastic that comes into my house, I knew I’d have to tackle hundreds (and then some) of mundane details. Soap is one of those. Ever since I discovered Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap All One! during my first year as a summer camp counselor, I’ve had a thing for Dr. B’s liquid castile soap. I made it through a whole camp season with one small bottle of icily invigorating peppermint soap, and not just because I only got to shower a couple of times each session – As the intriguing and slightly unsettling label on my first bottle told me, “Dilute! Dilute!” – this stuff is concentrated.  I moved on from peppermint to almond and then to baby mild when I had my own babies to wash. When my kids started washing their own hands, I let them pick a fragrance for our family soap which meant alternating between lavender and rose.  I’d buy one 32 oz bottle and pour a bit of that into our glass soap dispensers, filling the rest with water to create a liquid hand and dish soap.

For our first Month Less Plastic, we had a large plastic bottle of organic, fair trade, natural liquid castile soap in a 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottle. During our second Month Less Plastic, our liquid castile bottle ran dry and we needed to find new soap for our hands, bodies, and dishes. Since Dr. Bronner’s is using a recycled and technically recyclable plastic bottle, I felt OK with buying a new bottle. But then I thought about the plastic caps, which are neither recycled nor recyclable (at least not where I live, although that may be changing now). I wondered if there might be a plastic-free soap solution, one that would bring no plastic of any kind into my house.

I found old-fashioned answers to my question: baking soda for our kitchen sink dishes, and a bar of soap for our hands and other skin. That was easy enough.

The downside is that bars of soap are beautiful at first, but not lovely at all after a few days of being tumbled over and over by small hands. We host our Sunday school in our home every other week during the school year, so our bar of bathroom soap saw a lot of action. I had been storing it in a small jelly jar, but that resulted in slimy soap soup that no one wanted to touch. I turned the jar over, set it on an old saucer, and perched the soap on top where it could dry out a bit between washings.This helped, but it still didn’t look very inviting.

bars of soap, not so beautiful as they age

One night, after scrubbing soap slime off of the jelly jar and saucer in an attempt to make our bar of soap look like something that might leave you clean, not covered in mysterious germs and gunk, I had a flash of inspiration.

Why not grate a bar of soap the same way I do for my DIY laundry detergent? Wouldn’t those little flakes of soap be like that powdered pink grit that came out of the soap dispensers of my childhood school, only better? Much, much better?

I used my cheese grater to turn a bar of soap into tiny flakes, tipped some into a jam jar with holes hammered into its lid, and dusted my hands with some for an experimental washing up.

It worked! Very well! My plastic-free heart was flipping around like a happy fish inside of me. Yes, this is the sort of thing that counts as thrilling for me these days. I’m sure my younger self would be mortified.

I’ve discovered that it works best if I wet my hands first, lather up outside of the flow, then rinse clean, and that it only takes a small shake of soap flakes – Too much, and you get a crust of soap all over your hands and your sink. But get it right, and you’ll have a rich, creamy lather that rinses off easily, with no gunk, goo, or slime anywhere to be seen or felt.

Best of all for me, I can get my new favorite Dr Bronner’s Magic Soap scent, citrus, in bar form and grate it up to keep my love affair with these soaps going strong, in a slightly new form. This works with any bar of soap, so use your own favorite.

If you have a local bulk buying opportunity to refill your own containers with liquid soap, that’s another option to get away from single-use plastic soap bottles. I’ve fallen for flakes because I suspect that there is less plastic waste upstream from me in the production, packaging, and transport of paper-wrapped bars of soap than for liquid soaps. If you haven’t watched Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, it has an illuminating analysis of waste streams that you might find useful to frame your thinking about this.

Do you have a favorite plastic-free, zero waste soap? A favorite dispenser made of reused materials? I’d love know about what works for you.

We also have many soap-making or soap related reuse ideas for you at our Trash Backwards app. Please visit us and see if you can find more inspirations there:

Click Through for Soap-Making or Soap Reuse Ideas at Trash Backwards

Click Through for Soap-Making or Soap Reuse Ideas at Trash Backwards

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Categories: DIY, Plastic-Free Living, Trash Pile - All Our Stuff


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12 Comments on “Plastic-Free Personal Care: Soap”

  1. March 29, 2013 at 7:55 am #

    I really like this idea–not only is it a good reuse for the glass jar (reuse before recycle!), it sounds like it would be fun, too!

  2. March 29, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    I am so doing this today!! A few months ago I was lazy and ordered a package of bar soaps for winter. I haven’t used bar soap since the early 80s and realized I don’t like sharing a bar of soap with others who have just finished using the bathroom. I still have a bar there because I decided to use it up, but with a spaghetti jar soaking at the moment, I know exactly how this will be used now. Thank you! Thank you!

    • March 29, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

      We’re happy to spread the love of soap flakes! Please let us know how it works for you – My kids are still loving our jars of them, and I’ve got our guests hooked, too.

      • March 29, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

        I will let you know. My bar is all grated and waiting for the jar to completely dry before filling. I would love to hook my kids into trying this in their homes as well, it would save a lot for them to cut down on the soft soaps they currently use.

  3. Osnat
    March 30, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

    I’d wonder about young and slippery hands and a glass container….
    Isn’t there a danger of slippage and breakage???

    • March 30, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

      We’ve been doing this for over a year now and haven’t lost a jar yet – The flakes go onto your hands before they’re slippery, so the jar is only handled when it’s safe and easy to grab a hold of it. It also helps, I’m sure, that I picked a jar that my kids can easily and securely hold in their small hands. Since it takes a tiny amount of the flakes to thoroughly wash your hands, a small jar holds a lot of washes worth of soap!

  4. April 1, 2013 at 5:33 am #

    How big do you make the holes in the top of the jar? It looks like you finely grate the soap, right? This is yet another great idea! I feel sad/guilty whenever I use my liquid body wash, and now know I can grate all of the unused bars of soap I have in storage and happily wash away the guilt.

    • April 1, 2013 at 11:10 am #

      Hi Christine – I used a nail I found on my garage workbench and started with small holes, testing in between to see how much larger I wanted the holes to be, The soap flakes start out fairly large (I use the big side of my cheese grater to keep things easy), but they break down quickly into tiny flakes. If the holes are too big, you end up with too much soap on your hands. Go slowly and stop when you like the amount of soap you get in a shake or two. Hope that helps!

  5. wendi smallwood sidwell
    June 6, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    hey what about a parmesean cheese sprinkle jar with the holes already in it????? wow cool idea

    • June 6, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

      I tried that and found that my kids poured out much more than necessary (and extra flakes make the sink gummy), but if you have more cautious shakers, I think a parmesan jar might work. It really does take just a teeny-tiny amount of flakes to get a great lather. If you try it, please let me know how the parmesan jar works for you!

  6. wendis smallwood sidwell
    June 7, 2014 at 5:01 am #

    hmmmmm I will try it this weekend per I hv no children ……guests that come into our house are usually adults anyway. will let u know!!!!!

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