When Did Soap, Once Simple, Get So Complicated?

Posted by Jimmy Gould on

When Did Soap, Once Simple, Get So Complicated?

Via The New York Times

By Tyler Watamanuk

For some time, status in the first world has not been signaled just with expensive clothes and designer handbags, but also with so-called elevated versions of everyday items: an elegant pour-over coffee kit in place of a humble Mr. Coffee machine; dinky house ferns replaced by exotic Monstera plants; and in recent infamy, drinking straws and paper clips from Tiffany.

Now, as the wretched heat of summer settles, let us consider what has happened to soap.

Remember Softsoap? Ivory? “You’re not fully clean unless you’re Zestfully clean”? Camay, all over?

These plastic bottles and softening cakes were once a boring household staple, little considered, casually tossed in the supermarket cart along with toothpaste and paper towels. In many households, they still are.

But with apothecary-style packaging, natural ingredients and minimalist brand names, high-priced soap has caught on with many members of the same generation associated with avocado toast and a certain shade of pink. Many facets of one’s life can be artfully framed and filtered for hearts and comments. How many make photogenic lather and also smell nice?

“I think I might have been influenced by another influencer,” said Summer Miller, a 23-year-old freelance stylist who swears by hand soaps from brands like Aesop and Byredo. “I’ll do anything to have good packaging for the way that it looks on my shelf. It makes me so happy and makes my bathroom look fancier.”

Alexander Atkins, a 29-year-old social media specialist and men’s wear blogger, is also a fan of Aesop, as well as Le Labo. “It appeals to people like me, in terms of it photographing very nicely,” he said. “I think that my generation seems to be more aesthetically driven.”

Listen, at least they’re washing.

A Pretty Package

Expensive hotels were the first to use soaps as a form of brand enhancement; now restaurants and boutique fitness studios are following.

The Gramercy Park Hotel in New York has been using amenities from Aesop, based in Australia, since 2014. Morgans Hotel went local with Malin & Goetz. Around the world, the Ace Hotel chain stocks products from Rudy’s Barbershop, a nod to the company’s Northwestern roots.

Included in the price of SoulCycle’s $36 stationary-cycling class is a rinse off with Le Labo, a 12-year-old perfume company in New York that started producing soap last fall. The boutique workout company Barry’s Bootcamp stocks Oribe, the luxurious line of the celebrity hairstylist. Equinox, which helped take gyms upscale, has stocked Kiehl’s soaps in its locations since 2009.

When the Italian fashion brand Prada and the high-end online retailer Mr Porter hosted an event at Gutter Bar, a grungy bowling alley and dive bar in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, to celebrate a springtime fashion collection, no detail was overlooked and organizers put Byredo in the bathroom, resulting in some enthusiastic tweets.

But how much will it set you back to get this stuff in your own bathroom?


Byredo Suede Hand Wash sells for $65, Aesop Reverence Aromatique Hand Wash sells for $39, and Le Labo Hinoki Hand Soap sells for $38. Even boutique bar soap ain’t cheap: Saturdays NYC Moisturizing Bar Soap, made by a men's wear label, is $20 and Binu Binu Shaman Black Charcoal Soap is $18 (yes, charcoal — that which used to smudge chimney sweeps).

Compare this with what one can buy at the local Duane Reade or CVS drugstore: Softsoap Liquid Hand Lavender & Chamomile Soap for $3 or Dove Beauty Bar for $2.

The United States soap industry is one of the largest in the world, generating about $18 billion in revenues annually, and it is projected to reach $24 billion by 2022, according to a recent report by Expert Market Research. While the luxury subset within the overall category is small when compared with mass-market soaps, it has been growing steadily, bolstered in part by renewed interest in natural and organic soap,

The leading players tout their substance. “While pretty stores and pretty packaging are important to us, it would be nothing without having a quality product inside,” said Andrew Goetz, a founder of Malin & Goetz. “If you pump out one of our hand washes, you’ll notice it’s really viscous and thick, and it’s not going to run through your fingers.”

The first patent for liquid soap was issued to William Shepphard in 1865. While Shepphard is often credited for inventing modern (albeit crude) liquid soap, his patent was listed as “Improved Liquid Soap,” giving the impression that some variation of the product was already available.

In 1898, Benedict Johnson and his B.J. Johnson & Company introduced bar soap made of palm and olive oils and cocoa butter. The distinctive green product was called Palmolive and became one of the best-selling soaps in the world.

Liquid soap wouldn’t truly scale until nearly a century later, in 1979, when a small company by the name of Minnetonka released the first line of successfully mass-produced liquid hand soap, Softsoap. Until then, the usage of non-bar soap was mostly limited to public restrooms and hospitals.

To enter the home market with a competitive advantage, Minnetonka wiped out the stock of available hand pumps (most commonly used to dispense lotion at the time) by purchasing an entire year’s supply from the only American manufacturers.

Softsoap became the name synonymous with liquid hand soap, like Scotch with cellophane tape before it, and by 1986 the brand had reached $100 million in sales. It would jostle with clear, clinical-seeming bars like Neutrogena and Pears.

Washing With Dirt

An idea of industrial squeaky clean in America — remember when everyone had a little bottle of Purell? — has long done battle with one of gently cooperating with nature. Nowadays it’s the nature-inclined faction that seems to be winning, with handmade, rough-hewed bars filling shops from Etsy to Sephora.

Aveda, the natural grooming company founded in 1978, helped usher in the concept that high-quality shampoo and soap was worth paying a premium for. Aesop, founded in 1987, added streamlined design. The increase of niche brands continued into the 1990s, including companies marketing sensitive-skin soaps and fragrance-free soaps.

Yet another wave of these premium beauty, skin care and soap brands popped up in the mid-aughts, including Sachajuan, in Stockholm, and Grown Alchemist, from Melbourne, Australia. The Erno Laszlo “Sea Mud” black bar, given a shout-out in “Annie Hall,” has been joined by entrants from Herbivore and Korres.

Around 2010, a public dialogue regarding sulfates (cheap lathering detergents) entered the soap lexicon. The verdict was that sulfates were bad, and soon brands started to push natural ingredients and sulfate-free formulas with newfound purpose.

Caring about one’s soap and shampoo became more mainstream — if you’ll forgive the pun. And “natural” formulas upped the ante, including unconventional ingredients that are not typically associated with modern cleanliness: smoke and dirtvolcanic ashactivated charcoal, even cannabis.

“The thing about fragrance is that it’s more evocative and emotional. It’s what I call our Proustian narrative — it tells a story,” said Mr. Goetz, who helped create the popular Malin & Goetz cannabis soap. “I happened to have lived in Amsterdam for a number of years. One of the things that I always remember is the waft of cannabis and hash coming out of all the coffee shops.”

Despite its reputation as the messier, inferior application, the bar soap is resurgent.

In a Softsoap television commercial from 1982, bars of soap from Camay, Ivory, Dial and Dove are stacked upon a royal blue sink counter and shown eroding alongside a pristine bottle of Softsoap. The voice-over then states: “Soap without the soapy mess.”

But a report by Mintel, a market research firm, found that more than 60 percent of consumers said they might consider buying “premium” varieties of bar soap, even though more than half of consumers say bar soap is inconvenient. In 2018, mess and inconvenience, as long as it seems intentional, can feel more like a feature — not a bug.

The Brooklyn-based company Joya offers a bar soap that comes with its own beautifully designed tray, and Salt & Stone, a company based in a village in British Columbia, sells salt bars in distinct pyramid shapes. Even the bar soap from Saturdays NYC comes embellished with the logo, the same one that adorns the brand’s widely coveted graphic T-shirts.

“I’m happy to use an unscented Dove soap and buy it for $1.50,” said Frederick Bouchardy, the founder of Joya. “But I also want these, and I’m not ashamed of it. These are so cool and beautiful — you just want to touch them, smell them and have them.”

Yes, cynicism may incite immediate dismissal of the thought of spending more than $5 on soap. But the botanicals and essential oils awaken our senses, the lush suds overtake our dirty hands, and the packaging tickles the visual part of our brains. These expensive soaps make the minutiae of washing one’s hands suddenly feel like a little moment of respite — and who doesn’t want that?

“I think that people have done this for a long time, and each generation sort of reinvents it a little. If you think back to your grandmother, she probably had those round soaps in paper that sat out and nobody ever used,” Mr. Goetz said. “It’s an easy way to accessorize your bathroom and also express your personality, whatever the brand may be that you like. You have to wash your hands, so why not have it look beautiful?”