For the better part of the two decades I have been involved in the beauty industry, it seems as though people hear the word “soap”, especially in regards to bar soap, and freak out that it will somehow make their skin a dried-out, irritated, residue-covered mess. That is rather unfortunate as some of the most iconic skincare and revered hygiene products in the world, and over history, are bar soaps. In addition, bar soap is MUCH more economical and sustainable to produce, ship, package, and use than liquid soaps or body wash. If we take brief walk down memory lane of one of the world’s oldest beauty products to understand a bit more about how this happened, it can help explain why bar soap may be one of the easiest steps you and your family can take into making a more sustainable, and effective, choice for personal care.
Forms of soap has been made for thousands of years, stretching all the way back to ancient Egypt and China, and was used for both household and personal cleaning. Soap is very simple to make (only needing a few ingredients), but quickly became a fine art that was recognized worldwide by the 15th century. Marseille, France, in the Provence region, is still renowned to this day for their fine soap making, and it is often a status symbol in luxury hotels and spas. In America, Proctor & Gamble® started manufacturing Ivory Soap in the late 1800’s, with the slogan “It Floats”, as this feature made it popular for the reason that many people still bathed in outdoor rivers, ponds and tubs – if the soap floated, you could easily find it as it didn’t sink to the bottom. Throughout the centuries of human civilization, access to soap and clean water was often the first line of defense to disease, in addition to safer food and drinking water sources. By the late 1800’s, the first liquid soaps were invented, which allowed for easier dish washing, household cleaning, and laundering of clothing. Once plastic was introduced in the mid-1900’s, the concept using liquid soaps suddenly became much easier to sell to the newly minted “consumerism” driven markets of post-war economies.
But why has the last 20 years of the skincare business been so against bar soap, and pushed liquid cleansers and body wash instead? Well, creamy or liquid cleansers are not new. For centuries, mixtures of olive oil, natural waxes, honey, and other essential oils were combined to make cold creams or cleansing balms that gently cared for drier skins, and also act as a great pre-cleanse to remove makeup. But they were often packaged in glass, which added weight for shipping and could be slippery or hazardous to handle in wet bathroom conditions. In the post-World War II industrial boom, plastic soon dominated the packaging industry due to its cheap cost and flexibility to customize, which also allowed for more creativity (ie. branding) to be included. That translated into various body washes and face cleansers for both kids and adults, each specifically geared towards gender, favorite scent, or result / skin type (dry skin, oily skin, sensitive, with scrub beads, with added lotion, etc). It also became convenient, as a squirt would lather up really fast, and could be used as bubble bath too. With this explosion of possibilities for sales, manufacturers and retailers flooded the market over the years with options. Good ol’ trusty bar soap was suddenly dwarfed by this new avalanche of liquid options. Particularly in America, our obsessions with “newness” overrode the previous brand loyalty of more traditional products. Avon ladies began showing up at their neighbor’s doors, persuading their friends that skincare regimens (planned very specifically with color schemes, scents, and flowery names) were the thing to try – especially concerned with keeping that youthful appearance of the emerging Hollywood glamour standards. But the amount of plastic packaging waste started piling up, in addition with more garbage from elaborate gift set boxes and retail displays – marketing all of the benefits, and not meant to last past the season.
In addition, as newly developed anti-bacterial agents, such as triclosan, or deodorants were added to bar soaps (and liquid soaps too), people started to experience their drying side-effects when used daily. Dial soap was a staple for many workplace-use needs, such as in hospitals, but became a household name with the over-marketed protective fear against germs. With it came rashes and irritated skin when over-used, which most dermatologists recommended avoiding and treating with less harsh cleansers to remove everyday dirt. Lever 2000 bar soap contained a high dose of deodorants, which could cause allergic reactions on sensitive skin. While it may have been great for a specific use (such as post-workout or athlete’s locker room use), it was pretty harsh for an everyday beauty product. As a kid growing up in the 1980’s, I remember hearing the TV ads shout about the horrors of “soap scum” on glass shower walls, hard water concerns for skin softness (where’s the Culligan Man?) and oh my gosh, let Calgon take you “away” in your bubble bath to float into a relaxed pink oblivion. But in reality, no one was talking about the piles of bottles, tubes, pumps, and caps that were being tossed into garbage cans as a by-product of liquid soap. In 2019, National Geographic featured an article about the issues surrounding the “liquification” of beauty products over the years, revealing that body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and face cleanser formulas contain an average of 90-95% water. When purchasing these products, we are basically paying mostly for the water, fancy packaging to contain it, and fuel / vehicle expenses of shipping liquid (which is quite heavy) from manufacturer to retailer. And it all eventually goes down the drain, in addition to depleting fresh water resources…(insert face palm here). Effective skincare is about the maintained routine of cleanse, tone, treat, and moisturize. But it does not have to be in all-liquid forms to deliver the best results.
So where do you factor in with your own habits? Think about your daily routine, and how many bottles or tubes are sitting in your shower or at your sink. Bar soap can easily wash you head to toe, and the ones I feature below are gentle enough for face and body, plus everyone in the family can use them. Just like selecting any liquid or creamy cleanser, the same approach should be taken with choosing a bar soap – the results you want, as well as the skin type you have, are factors in your selection. One of the most iconic soaps in the world is the standard golden bar of Clinique™ “mild” face soap, originally created in the 1960’s as an idea from Estée Lauder’s daughter-in-law. Sold as a relatively inexpensive and refillable product (packaged in foil paper and cardboard), it has been the effective cornerstone of one of the most easy-to-use skincare regimens in the world. Fun fact – it also makes a great body soap, but it is not marketed that way. Most of the soaps I recommend below are fantastic to shave with too, by producing mounds of lather and reducing the need for yet another shaving product. Using bar soap daily can also be extremely economical overall, while reducing the amount of packaging waste your household tosses out.
These bar soaps below are some of the most easy to find and shop for. We’ll chat about homemade soaps too, but let’s focus on these four and their qualities to start. From the top left: Dr. Bronner’s All-One Hemp Baby Unscented Pure-Castile Bar Soap is one of the legendary naturally-based soaps in America since the late 1940’s. With a base of organic coconut, palm, olive, hemp, and jojoba oils, the formula mimics our skin’s natural oils to make it extremely mild yet purifying. Dr. Bronner was a real person, embracing the early conservation and Earth-conscientious practices of the 20th century, especially focused on fair trade, vegan and organic ingredients. To this day, the company strives for the highest standards in eco-conscious production, as well as sustainable paper-only packaging. For around $4 a bar, these long-lasting soaps are perfect for children, and adults with hyper-sensitive, combination skin that is prone to flare-ups of acne or irritation. To the right is the iconic Dove® Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar. A world-recognized beauty product, mass-produced by Unilever since the late 1950’s, this beauty bar is one of the most gentle and moisturizing cleansers, recommended by dermatologists. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database rates Dove’s Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar as a low 2 for overall toxicity, making it extremely safe for all ages, and is especially effective for super-dry, delicate, over-stressed or irritated skin. While many of us may not think of Unilever as an eco-conscious beauty company, they have committed to aggressive goals to use recycled plastic, reduce water consumption, and less wasteful production practices globally. I consider Dove the “non-soap” of soaps, and my favorite winter skincare staple. Committed to show real women in its marketing, the soap is extremely affordable (around $1 a bar), packaged in cardboard, and can be purchased relatively anywhere. From a sustainability standpoint, the safety and simplicity of the ingredients, the low waste packaging, economic accessibility, and the brand’s investment in youth programs make this a big player on the beauty stage, even though it does not adhere to natural or eco-conscious marketing messaging.
A little less-known soap is the Pure Provence Certified Organic™ Triple Milled Unscented Soap (bottom), which is made in France of completely vegan and 86% organic ingredients. A hefty 5.3oz bar is long lasting, creamy, and made in the style of the famous Marseille soap making traditions. I usually buy this from Amazon in packs of 3 for $25, but an easy online search delivers other options. This formula contains Shea butter, and leaves skin squeaky-clean – it’s great for oily or acne-prone skin, or needing to remove grime and sweat after a workout. I love using this soap in our humid Wisconsin summers, as it balances yet completely cleans without any residue or irritation. Lastly on the left, the Cetaphil® Cleansing Bar is another inexpensive drugstore beauty staple that delivers results. Similar to the Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar, this is an extremely gentle soap that cares for all skin types yet cleans deeply, and is great for drier and aging skin. Another drugstore equivalent (not pictured) is the CeraVe® Hydrating Cleanser Bar, which is very similar to Cetaphil’s Gentle Cleansing Bar, but has the added anti-aging ingredients of ceramides and hyaluronic acid. Anyone using a stricter anti-aging skincare regimen would highly benefit from using the gentle cleansing bars of Cetaphil, Dove or CeraVe as skin can be stressed by aggressive exfoliation that involves AHA or BHA acids to smooth fine lines and wrinkles. The only criticism I have of Cetaphil, Dove, and CeraVe is the use of plastic wrapping to bulk-pack multiple bars – from a production standpoint, they could easily change to a cardboard outer box.
Homemade soaps are now more accessible than ever, being widely sold at farmers markets, natural food stores, boutiques, and online. Kits are easily found online or in craft stores, and can be a fun creative project to do with kids. I do support finding a local soap maker that you trust, if you want to pursue an even more sustainable approach to beauty. I just caution that you still assess the ingredients used, as many “natural” soaps often are heavily fragranced, and essential oils can cause reactions on sensitive skin. One of my favorite local grocery stores features an area soap maker, and they produce a fantastic unscented, olive-oil based bar soap that runs about $5 per bar. These soaps are packaged extremely minimally, often in a simple sleeve of paper. Think of these types of local homemade soaps as the same concept of farm-to-table food – the less distance a product has to travel, the better for the local economy and less pollution or waste. This is a main cornerstone of sustainable business practices, and allows for direct support of local talent.
Regardless, choosing any of the bar soaps above could replace at least two plastic bottles or tubes from your bathroom routine (face cleanser and body wash), as well as streamlines your regimen with a single multi-tasking product. These can also replace shaving creams and lotions, due to their high-lathering formulas. This saves money and waste, but still delivers results. When advising anyone on skincare regimens, especially those who have concerns of sensitivity or anti-aging, I often recommend using a gentle, moisturizing bar soap (inexpensive) and then investing in a treatment serum or moisturizer that sinks into skin and specifically treats concerns such as fine lines or uneven skin tone. Remember, any cleanser literally goes down the drain – you are simply needing to remove dirt, oil, dead skin, and makeup, which does not require a high investment. By using this balanced approach of low and high cost products, it allows for you to have more flexibility to invest in the beauty products that do more heavy lifting and absorb into the skin, such as serums, eye creams, and moisturizers – these will deliver the most impactful results. Since our skincare needs often change with the season, I keep multiple bars of each brand above on hand in my household to easily switch out as needed. One final tip: if you are dead set on keeping a liquid face cleanser (I know how hard it can be to let go of a beloved product), then use an alternating approach for AM / PM regimens. For example, I love Clinique’s All About Clean Rinse-Off Foaming Cleanser, and I’ll occasionally buy it. However, I’ll only use it at night, and in the morning I use bar soap head to toe. That way, it extends the life of my Clinique product, since I’m only using it once a day. In addition, the Clinique Cleanser is packaged in a tube, which is more sustainable packaging than a pump-style bottle. We’ll talk more about why this is important in future blogs!
By switching to bar soap, you can dramatically and easily reduce waste output from your household, yet uphold an effective skincare regimen. This can also be a cost-effective move, since bars can be purchased in bulk and used by the entire household, as well replacing multiple products. And if you’re wondering what to do about shampoo and conditioner, I’ve got plans for a dedicated post on that shortly!
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