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 be effective cleansers? Or perhaps when the “antibacterial” craze hit drugstore aisles?
Somewhere along the line, we became a 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.
In fact, sales of bar soap have declined 2.2 percent since 2014 and use of bar soap declined about 5 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to consumer research firm Mintel. The firm's research explains why that's happened: Part of the change is convenience, but beliefs play an even bigger role. About 48 percent of consumers in the U.S. believe bar soaps are covered in germs after use, according to Mintel. The firm goes on to explain that the real issue here is a generational divide.
But did bar soap get a bum rap? For one thing, it contributes far less packaging waste to landfills than its liquid counterparts (compare a small paper sheaf to a rigid plastic bottle) and it has a smaller environmental impact overall, according to a study by researchers at the Institute of Environmental Engineering at ETH Zurich.
The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database rates both bar soaps and liquid soaps for safety. As of August 2016, the database lists 346 bar soaps on the market as “low hazard” (score of 0-2), and 85 of the liquid hand soaps as low hazard.
When you dig into what's actually in the liquid soap, the benefits of the bar are evident here as well, as this helpful Grist article explains:
And let’s not forget what’s actually in those pearlescent potions. Detergents are usually petroleum-based, to start (makes you feel a little dirty about soap, doesn’t it?). Manufacturers then pile on some questionable added chemicals, including parabens and other preservatives (suspected hormone disruptors), surfactants (some pollute our waterways), and phthalates (hormones again). Simple soaps look a lot purer in comparison.
But if you’re still afraid of bar soap, check out this 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 and was purchased by MNN in 2009. The story has been updated with more recent information.