A bar of soap? I can’t remember the last time I used one. My bathroom always has a liquid hand wash and lotion by the sink, and the thought of washing my body with anything but shower gel just feels plain wrong.
But it turns out that, after decades of being shunned in favour of hand washes and shower gels, the good old-fashioned bar of soap is officially back.
Last year, sales rose by 2.9 per cent, with shoppers spending £68.3 million on bars of soap, compared to £66.4 million the year before. Barred soap sales are now growing faster than both liquid soaps and shower products.
It’s something that Britain hasn’t seen since well before the Nineties, when liquid soap, with its plastic bottles and pumps, became popular on the mass market.
Fears around germs and hygiene led consumers away from soap bars.
But things are now changing, and Tim Nancholas, a strategic insight director at Kantar Worldpanel, which compiled the data, isn’t surprised.
He believes it’s part of a new trend whereby environmentally conscious customers want to avoid plastic toiletries and so are opting for more natural products. ‘The nostalgic, aesthetic and environmentally friendly facets of barred soap seem to resonate strongly with the public,’ he says.
It could be why brands such as Yardley, which has been around since 1770, are seeing an increase in sales, and other high-end names, including Jo Malone and Chanel, are launching soap bars.
Mr Nancholas acknowledges that these luxury brands are part of the reason why shoppers are opting for the experience of using a quality soap bar, rather than a plastic bottle.
‘Bar soaps are now slightly more indulgent than they have been in the past,’ he explains, ‘as there is now a much bigger opportunity for a premium offering.’
While I do love the sound of a product that is both luxurious and good for the environment, I just can’t believe that the answer is a bar of soap.
Growing up, we never used them at home, as my mum didn’t think they were hygienic. She instead stocked our bathrooms with Oilatum bath oil and Sanex shower gel, to be extra kind to our young skin, and, for guests, Molton Brown liquid hand soap.
I became so used to squeezing bottles for soap that if ever I came across a bar version, I would pick it up with disgust: was I really meant to wash myself with a bar that someone else had already used?
In recent years, though, various studies have proved it is a myth that using barred soap will transfer bacteria. While germs and bacteria do live on soap in bathrooms, it is unlikely this will transfer on to a person’s hands and cause any kind of sickness or infection.
Dr Anjali Mahto, dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible, says it is hygienic to use bars of soap, but advises taking extra care if you have sensitive skin or a condition such as eczema, where the skin barrier is weaker, as you could be at an increased risk of infections. ‘What kind of soap you use comes down to personal preference,’ she says. ‘But if you do use a bar, do it properly. Try not to leave it in a hot, wet bathroom. The ideal would be to keep it under a ventilated window.
‘Wash it well before you use it and rinse it off as soon as you have a lather — you don’t want it sitting on your skin indefinitely.
‘If you can, try to have your own personal soap, instead of sharing bars with other people.’
With these tips under my belt, I decide to put my mistrust to one side and spend a week trying out five of the most popular soap bars on the market today . . .
This is the most-bought soap brand in the UK and is on sale for just 80p in Boots. It’s nothing fancy to look at — just a simple white bar wrapped in paper — but it is made up of one-quarter moisturising cream and promises to hydrate.
Melinda Coss, a consultant working with soap companies and author of The Handmade Soap Book, warns that if a bar doesn’t have the word ‘soap’ on it, but instead is calling itself a beauty or cleansing bar, this could mean it is a synthetic detergent that could dry the skin.
Instead, Melinda suggests opting for ‘botanical, handmade soap products or super-fatted soaps with olive oil, shea butter and other plant-based oils’. This Dove bar doesn’t have any essential oils and this could be why, personally, I find that, after a week’s use, my skin is drier than usual. It does the job in terms of cleanliness but, bar the lack of plastic, there’s no clear advantage for using this over a shower gel.
The British perfumer Floris has been making soap since 1780. Its pack of three soaps arrives in gorgeous navy packaging with gold tissue paper.
I’m excited to place my cream embossed bar in my new £15 soap dish on the side of my sink. Washing my hands does now feel like an indulgent experience and I really notice the creaminess and moisture that comes from the triple-milled shea butter — my hands don’t need any lotion afterwards.
The only downside is that, after a week’s use, the bar has become a bit grey and there is dirt inside the floral embossed letters.
I do like it as an option for my hands — so long as I manage to keep it clean.
This bottle-shaped soap is kitsch in every way, from the bright green colour, to its avocado theme, but I can’t deny it smells amazing, too, and feels as good on my skin.
It has double the concentration of oils — avocado, bergamot and a shrub called litsea cubeba — than Lush’s liquid alternative, which means it lasts twice as long.
To my surprise, I love everything about it, bar the fact that my white bathroom is now splattered with green! This easy-to-use moisture-packed, packaging- free soap is definitely a rival for my liquid staples.
This vegetable-based bar, made up of sustainable palm oil and pink grapefruit seed oil, is at the cheaper end of the market. I decide to use it to shave my legs.
While it does the job, creating enough lather for my razor to slide easily along, when I’m done my legs feel drier than usual.
It’s a simple, basic option for people who want to minimise plastic packaging but, if you’re looking for a more moisturising soap, there are better alternatives.
This soap is specifically for people with sensitive or dry skin and can be used on the face and body — it features French pink clay, to draw out impurities, geranium essential oil, to balance the complexion, and no artificial fragrances.
It feels like one of the most natural options on the market.
Even so, it’s strange reaching for this soap instead of my normal liquid face wash. Dr Mahto’s advice rings in my ears: ‘Generally, facial soaps aren’t great for most skin types — if you use them for a long time, they’ll strip out the fats in your skin.’
This soap does gently cleanse, and doesn’t leave me with any dryness, but it still feels wrong to rub it on my face after it has been sitting out in the open next to the toilet.
I do love its texture, and would happily use it on my body, but I won’t be giving up my liquid face wash anytime soon.