How did we get here?
140 years ago, Proctor & Gamble developed an affordable, white soap bar - Ivory. It floated (a big selling point) and it was sold as the solution for adults, babies, and clothes. It was beautiful in its simplicity.
Part of that simplicity was the humble soap bar itself. Neatly packaged and easy to transport it didn’t need you to ship litres of water about or come up with packaging that could hold and dispense effectively. It was all perfectly self-contained.
This is not meant to be a history lesson on soap bars, but it's interesting to note why the soap bar is now largely only a feature of history.
Those same early producers of bar soap changed their tune in the 1980s and with the advent of cheap plastic, and in particular, plastic pumps, started mass producing and advertising liquid soap.
In the modern bathroom you’re more likely to find soap bottles than bars. 83% of people in the UK currently prefer bottled soaps, shower gels and hand soaps – those people use bar soaps one or less times per day on average.
The promise of liquid soap - from anti-bacterial hand washes to shower gels - was that it prevented cross-contamination. We’ve all looked at a bar of soap – especially those that are sat a little gunky in a soap dish and wondered how clean they really are. But despite this perception, the idea of bacteria cross-contamination from soap bars has been widely discredited for over three decades.
Yet there remains a real question about what's better for your skin health and hygiene and what should you be using – soap bars or liquid soap.
At GRASP, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve been wondering this very same thing.
In particular, what would be best for our young children.
As we struggled to get our 2 year old child to learn how to wash his hands, we recognised the impracticalities of bar soap for kids. But we resented the waste that went with plastic bottled, liquid soaps.
We asked ourselves the questions that many people think about when considering what's the right choice for their families.
What's the best soap option for sensitive skin?
You can read plenty about why we need to be extra careful with kids’ skin here - but in short, it's thinner and more sensitive. Like any parent, a soap for washing that wont react badly with, or irritate your kid's skin is a top priority.
But sensitive skin is also the number one concern of most adults as well. So does bar soap or liquid soap serve sensitive skin better?
Well, it depends. The ingredients are the key. There’s nothing to suggest one is instantly better. The challenge is often what’s put in the bottle of shower gel or the bar of soap that makes it lather, or smell good.
For example, avoiding Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) a surfactant (a chemical that helps the water interact with your soap to create a nice foam or lather) is widely seen as a good idea.
But there’s nothing to say whether bar or bottle is better – just always read the label.
What's the best soap for where I live?
Not all water is made equal. How many conversations have you had with people from different parts of the country that complain about the water – for both drinking and washing.
The truth is, hard water reacts with soap differently to soft water. Soft water means it contains less chemicals that react with the soap so you get more bubbles (lather / foam). Hard water means less lather.
Often shower gel makers will add ingredients to help encourage lathering so whether you have harder or softer water, you still get that lather feel we all love.
As above, it all depends on the ingredients, but your standard bar soap typically contains more natural ingredients so you might not get that same lather effect if you live in a hard water area. – here’s a helpful guide to where you live and the hardness of the water.
If you’re opting for more natural ingredients, you might find some soap bars are less enjoyable in hard water areas. Then again, there are plenty of recipes for bar soap – for example, using caster oil – that create soaps with excellent creamy lathers and are actually great for babies with dry skin. For examples, these guys at Kleen Soap do a nice job.
What's the best option for the environment?
There’s no denying that the mass production of shower gels and liquid soaps from the 1980s has helped contribute to the growth of plastic waste on planet earth in recent decades.
Whether you’re concerned about where plastic waste ends up – a startling amount is not recycled – or concerned about the CO2 created by producing a single plastic bottle (enough to charge 10 smartphones), the case for plastic bottled liquid soaps and shower gels just doesn’t look good.
If you’re looking to make a simple change, using bar soap instead of liquid shower gels and shampoos is one of the best, most straight forward things you can do. Soap bars are beautifully self-contained and quite simply better for the environment.
What's the easiest soap to use?
Along with the perceived hygiene of bottled liquid soap, the ease of use has been the biggest deciding factor in shifting our habits.
First, bar soap can be hard to store or hang and can leave a nasty residue in your soap dish. It just doesn't look good!
Second, bar soap is awkward to hold. Everyone’s had that moment in a bubbly bath where the soap slips out of your hands, and you’re sent scrambling to blindly find it again. They’re slippery and a pretty awkward to scrub with even if you put on a rope on it. And those problems are amplified when you have kids that need to wash too.
Getting kids to wash their hands, or their hair and bodies in the bath is near impossible with a bar soap. It is part of the reason we’ve invented our GRASP bath time hair and body cleansing brush.
The integrated bar soap holder and brush ensures a better grip for big and little hands alike and hopefully puts the question of what’s easy to use a little more in bar soaps favour.
Of course bar soap isn’t for everyone. We’d love to hear what you use and why?
But we think there’s a compelling case to use bar soap. And if you’re looking to make a switch to bar soaps for your family, we’ve made it a whole lot easier (overcoming the one real barrier to using it - how easy it is to use) with our GRASP hair and body cleansing brush.