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Raising the Bar: An Ode to Solid Soap

Today’s simplicity movement is helping boost bar soap’s image

Bar soap has been getting pushed to the side on drugstore shelves for years.

Liquid soaps, foaming soaps, body washes and shower gels take up easily 10 times as much shelf space at the drugstore. And when you venture into specialty stores like Lush, the selection gets all fancy-pants, with “shower jellies” and “shower smoothies.” Does the pure and simple bar of soap—even the fancy French-milled stuff—deserve this second-class status?

What’s the deal? What’s wrong with sticking with a simple classic, one that’s been around for thousands of years? According to Molly Maier, the category manager of health, household, beauty and personal care products for the Chicago office of the market research firm Mintel, bar-soap sales declined 4.1 percent between 2012 and 2014.

Let’s put the popularity of liquid soaps (bar soaps’ main competitor), into perspective, shall we? Softsoap was invented in the 1980s—a decade of abject excess, with a “legacy” that includes massive shoulder pads as a fashion statement; perms; Flashdance; leg warmers; Dynasty; and the most vivid cultural relic of the decade: greedy financier Gordon Gecko, the character played by Michael Douglas in the frightening movie Wall Street.

Softsoap’s inventor, Robert Taylor, helped his product succeed by taking cues from Gecko himself: He bought up 100 million pump dispensers (a full year’s supply of Softsoap’s entire production) to make it nearly impossible for any would-be competitors to copy his liquid soap idea and cut into his initial market share.

See where we’re headed here?

Liquid soaps and their shower-gel offshoots grew in popularity (thanks to people who wore giant shoulder pads, mind you) partly because of the misconception that bar soap is “germy.” Yes, bar soaps are touched by people who just used the toilet. But a study sponsored by the makers of Dial Soap dispelled the myth that germs proliferate on wet bars of soap—even when used by people who were suffering from the stomach flu. No need to worry, germaphobes.

As for the “ick” factor of wet bars of soap dissolving into a blob, Lisa Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps (Dr. Bronner was her grandfather) says, “Place [your soap bar] in a well-draining soap dish so that there is absolutely no puddle under it.” She offers some basic soap-use tips, too: “Do not use the bar of soap directly on your body. Instead, use a wet washcloth, loofah or brush, vigorously rub the bar on it to build a lather, and then wash your body with it. This will use the soap much more efficiently, plus you’ll get the exfoliating benefit of the cloth.”

Another advantage of the “lowly” bar of soap: Unlike liquid soaps, bar soaps’ packaging is more environmentally friendly, with none of those plastic dispensers or bottles to throw away or recycle. Bronner adds, “Bar soaps are solid because their water content is extremely low. Therefore, you are getting a much more concentrated product with bar soap.” 

This simplicity factor may be driving a resurgence in the popularity of bar soap. There are indications—spurred by the simplicity-worshipping ethos of hipsters—that bar-soap use is on the rise. Young urbanites who are enthusiastic about pickling their beets and cucumbers, listening to vinyl records and sourcing their eggs from backyard chicken coops seem to be embracing bar soap as their cleanser of choice. 

Hipsters may have goofy-looking mustaches, but they’re onto something here. Why use a product with a dozen ingredients when you can use one with just three or four? Watch out, soap pumps: The bar is back.