Naphtha is a hyrdocarbon distillate left over from the process of refining petroleum or coal tar. It is a complex mixture of chemicals which is broken down into other chemicals through steam cracking or catalytic reforming. Some of the chemicals resulting from these processes are ethylene/ethene, propylene/propene, benzine, xylene, and toluene. These chemicals are used in many applications such as producing plastics, synthentic fibers, paints and finishes, solvents and strippers, waxes and polishes, camp stove fuels and to increase the octane rating of gasoline, just to name a few.
Naphtha was first used in cleaning in the mid-19th century when it was discovered that kerosene, paraffin or benzine would remove stains and soil from fabrics. This marked the advent of the dry cleaning industry. In the mid-1890s a process was developed that fixed a naphtha or petroleum benzine into laundry soap – which, during this period of history, came in bars that were shaved or melted in hot water for home laundry use. The first such soap commercially available was Fels-Naptha Soap which is today owned by the Dial Corporation and still on the market. Proctor & Gamble, at one time, produced White Naptha Soap but it is no longer manufactured.
This residue of petroleum refining and all it’s derivatives, all together refered to as “naphthas”, are volatile, flammable, insoluble in water, and incompatible with strong oxidizers. Many hydrocarbons are posionous by inhalation, and some by skin contact. Benzene is a known carcinogen. Naphthas, in general, could cause headache, dizziness, and performance speed reductions, as well as apnea or cardiac arrest as a result of acute exposure. In small amounts naphtha decays rapidly in the environment but can still affect air, water, and soil quality.
Given the possible health consequences, especially for susceptable or sensitive populations, and the possible environmental consequences, I feel that naphtha is not a safe ingredient in cleaning products. Even if it were safe, being a petroleum by-product, it is most definitely NOT a sustainable ingredient. For more in-depth information about naphtha download our special report On The History And Use Of Naptha In Soap in the Resources section.