It’s hard to remember when exactly Americans became dependent on liquid soap. Was it when a general consensus emerged that only products that smell like saccharine watermelon and come in bright plastic bottles could really be effective cleansers? Or perhaps when the “antibacterial” craze hit drugstore aisles?

Somewhere along the line, we became a Purell nation of liquid soap junkies. We’ve compulsively WebMD’d all the terrible diseases that lurk on subway handles and office doorknobs, and we’re convinced that only the pump soap we keep by our sinks will stave them off. We especially trust products that boast weird, futuristic-looking scrubbing beads, or produce more foam than a washing machine on the fritz. In those rare and confusing instances in which an antiquated bar of soap does accost us — staring mildly up at us from the flowered china soap dish in grandmother’s guest bathroom — we distrust it, deign to use it, give it sidelong glances, and almost prefer plain hot water.

But more and more green consumers are starting to opt for bar soap. For one thing, it contributes far less packaging waste to landfills than do its liquid counterparts (compare a small paper sheaf to a rigid plastic bottle that probably won’t live to see a recycling bin). And for another thing, some say bar soap is actually safer and healthier for skin. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database rates both bar soaps and liquid soaps for safety; it lists a whopping 160 bar soaps on the market as “low hazard” (score of 0-2), but only 25 of the liquid hand soaps out there as low hazard. You do the math.

If you’re still afraid of bar soap, check out this recent blurb from The New York Times. Apparently, you can use bar soap and still call yourself a self-respecting, hygienic American. What’s more, you can even share a bar of soap with other people, and live a good, long, healthy life. Who knew?

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007