Bar soap is in trouble. Sales are down 2 percent just since 2014. The old cake of cleanliness is losing the marketing battle to liquid soap and bath gel/body wash. According to a 2016 study, almost half of American consumers believe bars of soap collect and retain germs. Soap, the stuff that elimintates germs.

Right now you may be thinking, “And I should care, why?” And what is up with Source, has its staff writer lost her mind?

Well, it has been a stressful week, but hear me out. There are environmental reasons why this small thing matters, why it represents how convenience, or perceptions of convenience, lead us to make consumer choices that make little to no sense and end up overtaxing the earth’s resources pointlessly.

This story is meant as a persuasion. After you read it, maybe you’ll reconsider that old standby, bar soap, maybe even a handcrafted version from a Maine soapmaker. The Handcrafted Soap and Cosmetic Guild lists 12 Maine soapmakers, but Tammy Knight of Maine Made, the state’s 30-year-old Maine Products Marketing Program, estimates there are closer to 75.

“It really has become a new little cottage industry,” Knight said.

That’s due in part to influence from the state’s farm-to-table movement, she said. “Many of these are homesteaders who are working with goat’s milk and using different ingredients that they have on their farms.” (Home Brewed Soaps in Rockland even uses its own craft beer to make soap.)


The idea for this story came to me out of a series of cranky Andy Rooney moments that began in various showers-not-my-own as I paid overnight visits to friends and family this summer.

At midlife, I need my glasses just to distinguish the shampoo from the conditioner. Soap though, I do not generally have a problem recognizing. But several times this summer, I found myself in showers with no bar of soap in sight. Instead I was surrounded by bottles, all of them a sea of fine print. For the naked, practically blind woman, these could be shampoo, they could be body wash or they could be Agent Orange.

All were extremely packaged plastic bottles with plastic pumps. Pumps that don’t always last as long as the soap inside, rendering the alleged convenience of the product a joke. My favorite, everyday glycerin soap from the Body Shop comes unwrapped. Often, so do the soaps I pick up at farmers markets or in lovely stores where I can’t afford anything else. Maybe there’s a band of paper or a piece of ribbon, nothing or little to recycle.

Somewhere in my shower-hopping period, I ended up at Stonewall Kitchen, which was proudly debuting new scents of their liquid hand soaps, with names like “Maine Woods” and “Coastal Breeze.” The colors were pretty, and I had Airbnb guests due. Anyone who rents a house out knows that small touches like a fresh sponge – still in package, naturally – go a long way toward good reviews. I always put out fresh soaps (which after a good lather, I reuse myself) but maybe I needed to get with the program. I forked over the $9.95.

I’ve been looking at that bottle with a vague sense of resentment ever since. Why had I succumbed? Didn’t there have to be a difference, sustainability wise, between bar and bottle?


Other writers have been asking the same question, in places as diverse as InStyle’s website and Scientific American. Many articles referred to the findings of a study on the carbon footprint of bar soap versus liquid soap by a pair of Swiss researchers, Annette Koehler and Caroline Wildbolz, who were at that time at the Swiss Insitute of Technology.

Both have gone on to other work, and only abstracts were available, but Koehler sent the full thing along and explained in an email that their research had focused on nine different personal care products and household cleaning agents, which they studied from cradle-to-grave.

“We wanted to shed light on the aspects that really matter,” she wrote.

They found that bar soap has an overall smaller carbon footprint than liquid soap, but that surprising consumer choices in their use influenced the equation. While the production of liquid soap has a far greater environmental footprint, about three times that of bar soap, hand washers tend to use more water, 42 percent more, when they’re lathering up with a bar of soap. But they use less of it per wash than liquid soap (0.35 grams to 2.3 grams for every handscrubbing). So more water, less product. Or less water, more product.

But besides the water usage issue (controllable by the aware consumer), the main ding against bar soap in terms of sustainability is that it typically uses vegetable oils, and thus the agricultural impact of producing and transporting those oils must be considered, even though at the end product state, the plastic, liquid-filled bottles are far weightier to transport – and recycle – than a bar of soap.

Peter Digirolamo of Rockland-based Trillium Soaps readily admits that he and his wife, Nancy, couldn’t make their bar soap without products from all over the world. “Olive, coconut, palm oil – none of those come from the United States,” Digirolamo said.

But using those whole oils tends to make for a more wholesome product, he said, one that is easier on the skin. The chemicals required to process soap into a liquid form tend to be harsher, he and others said. He has no plans or interest in making a liquid soap. “We don’t even go there,” he said.

Ultimately the Swiss study found that liquid soap has a 25 percent larger carbon footprint than bar soap. Is the liquid soap you’re buying that much more pleasing? Not to me.

Or to Shannon Grauer of Casco Bay Soap Co. She makes soap in her Durham home, uses food-grade ingredients and incorporates Maine ingredients like cornmeal or oatmeal from Fairwinds Farm in Bowdoinham. She eschews wrapping whenever possible, tries to keep prices to $4 a bar and believes she’s making a pure and healthy product. After nine years, she’s now selling only wholesale, including – gulp, to L.L. Bean’s Home store – she’s found a recipe for success. But no, she won’t be adding a liquid soap to her line either, although she understands why consumers have latched onto it.

“My sister uses it because she has got young kids,” Grauer said. With bar soap, she said, “they make a mess. They leave it in a puddle of water.”

“I think a lot of people moved away from the bar when everybody started getting nervous about germs,” she said. “There is really nothing wrong with a bar of soap. It doesn’t hold onto dirt and germs.”

What sticks in my craw – I did say this was an Andy Rooney rant – is the marketing that created a whole other variety of soap that costs consumers and the environment more. And we bought it.


I suspect the real reason we shifted to liquid soap has more to do with fear of someone else’s “cooties,” e.g. pubic hair. (Let it be noted that the public transition to bath gels and liquid soaps coincided with the popularization of “The Brazilian” bikini wax, as introduced to wider society by “Sex and the City”‘s Carrie Bradshaw circa 2000.)

According to Mintel, a marketing research firm that released findings on the soap market earlier this year, younger consumers, aged 18 to 24, were particularly negative about bar soap, with 60 percent of them believing that germs from one user sit on a bar of soap, ready to leap onto the next.

Studies don’t support that. Soap suspicion dates back at least to 1965, when studies were seriously quaint. Ten panelists (Did Don Draper just call in the secretarial pool?) had their hands inoculated with Serratia marcescens, a bacterium that thrives in bathroom settings (if your shower tile is looking pinkish, that’s probably what it is). They washed their hands and the soap was then passed to 10 more panelists, who duly washed their hands and were tested for the Serratia marcescens. None could be found.

In 1985, another study was conducted at the Dial Technical Center, the home of Dial soap, clearly, a vested interest. The panel was extended to 16 people, and this time the researchers soaked the germs – including E. coli – into the test bars of soap. In the end, the study concluded “that there is little, if any, risk of cross contamination from washing with previously used soap bars.”

“Yes, studies show that in home-type settings, bar soap does not spread germs,” said Dora Anne Mills, former Maine State Health Officer, now vice president for clinical affairs at the University of New England and director of its Center for Excellence in Health Innovation. (In an email, she said she uses liquid soap in the kitchen for convenience and bar soap in the bath.)

The unfounded fear of superpowered germs gave rise not just to liquid soap, but a whole new category of “antibacterial soap.” Most big soap companies, including the Dial Corporation, have been churning out these antibacterial products for years, even though washing with plain soap has been shown to be quite effective.

After several years in the proposed rule-making process, the United States Food & Drug Administration in September announced it was banning over-the-counter antibacterial soaps, which typically contain triclosan and triclocarbon, from the marketplace because they have not been proven to be safe to use over a long period of time. “Also, manufacturers haven’t shown that these ingredients are any more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illnesses and the spread of certain infections,” the FDA says.

FDA doesn’t weigh in on issues like carbon footprints, so liquid soap isn’t going anywhere – unless consumers see the value in something old-fashioned that also shaves even a tiny bit off the relentless, quickening march toward an unsustainable world.


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