The Glampeur’s Guide: Don't Put Chemical-Ridden Soaps & Sunscreens in Wild Rivers & Streams! Part II


Leave No Trace! Even Biodegradable & Biocompatible Soaps Need to be Used 200 Feet From Rivers & Streams

Text by Lizzy Scully, Photos by Steve Fassbinder

In this two-part series, we’ll examine why putting chemically-ridden soaps, sunscreens and lotions on your skin or into the ground is a bad idea. In this second part, I focus on why some ingredients in soaps are bad when they ends up in rivers and streams.

Because it’s a Leave No Trace principle that all adventurers have ingrained in them from day one, I know to bathe with soap or wash my dishes at least 200 feet from rivers, streams and lakes, and to dig a hole for the “greywater” that remains after washing. If you want to be really responsible, filter the food out of the greywater if you’re out in the backcountry (and carry it out with your other garbage), or dump greywater in a designated area if you’re in a more populated camping area.

As well, even if I’m not using soap, before I swim in an enticing pool of water, I always consider the fact that residue on my body from sunscreens or other products, whether full of toxic chemicals or not, can still pollute. Jump into a small desert water hole, and just watch those oils migrate off your body, and know the DEET you sprayed on earlier will travel downstream regardless of whether or not you use soap to wash it off.

On the other hand, I regularly jump in water bodies to rinse off when I’m hot or after a long day’s climb in the mountains. However, I try to think before I jump. 

Consider This:

Regular soaps and detergents are full of stuff that kills animals and plant life. I’ve included a list of ingredients to totally avoid at the bottom of this article, courtesy of EcologyCenter.org, but definitely avoid chlorine bleach and Borax, phosphates and surfactants.

Detergents kill fish and fish eggs in various ways if present in sufficient concentrations (even biodegradable detergents!). Phosphate detergents are very caustic, and surfactant detergents are toxic. Both damage fish gils and destroy the external mucus layers that protect them from bacteria and parasites. As well, they lower the surface tension of water, making other chemicals more easily absorbed by fish. Plus, phosphates lead to freshwater algal blooms that cause serious problems (Source: Lenntech).

Biodegradable is Better, Right?

Yes, but… just because your dish- or body-washing soap is “biodegradable” doesn’t mean it’s actually going to be biodegradable; it depends on how you use it. Most of these soaps still need soil to breakdown properly because soap-eating bacteria live in soil, not water. According to the folks at Leave No Trace, soap that makes it into streams and ponds will linger for years. 

As well, while biodegradable camp soaps are “better” for the environment, even those have chemicals and/or cause issues when they break down. Some leave a lot of salt, boron and other chemicals that aren’t necessarily good for plants and animals and can sometimes be downright toxic.

Consider instead soaps to wash your dishes and body that are both biodegradable and “biocompatible.” I.e. are you familiar with and would you feel safe eating all the ingredients in the soap you’re using? If so, then this soap is likely also OK for the plants and animals and will result in greywater that isn’t harmful to flora and fauna even after it breaks down.

What Else Can I Do?:

Also consider always using hot water, as it makes it easier to clean and allows you to use less soap than you would if you used cold water. Or, to completely avoid soap, use sand or gravel to wash your body and dishes.

Philip Werner from SectionHiker.com put it perfectly in one of his blog posts: “It’s pretty simple. Dig a hole 200 feet away from other water sources and pour your wastewater in it. Putting it in a hole lets the soil act as a filter, helps accelerate the biodegradable process, and protects wildlife from disturbing it by helping to hide the scent.”

Green Goo doesn’t make a camp soap yet for dishes, but I’d feel good about using their all-natural Rosemary & Lavender Shampoo Bar for both my hair and body in the backcountry. 

Avoid These Chemicals:

  • boron/borax (toxic to plants)
  • sodium and ingredients with the word “sodium” in them*
  • chlorine bleach (acceptable alternative: hydrogen peroxide)
  • sodium perborate
  • sodium hypochlorite
  • peroxygen
  • petroleum distillate
  • alkylbenzene
  • water softeners (contain sodium chloride or potassium chloride)
  • anti-bacterial soaps & cleaners
  • “whiteners”, “softeners”
  • enzymes (enzymes in biological washing powders break down protein or fat stains on clothes)
  • titanium oxide
  • chromium oxide
  • artificial colors; FD&C colors
  • synthetic fragrance
  • artificial preservatives