Isn’t that a bit, well, gross?
Is it even hygienic?
You know soap comes in nice plastic bottles with a pump thing now, right?
We seem to have got into the habit of reaching for liquid handwashes and shower gels as our default. Walk into any supermarket or pharmacy and the personal hygiene aisles are filled with shelf upon shelf of brightly coloured, mostly plastic, bottles of liquid soaps and washes, with perhaps a few different bar soaps to choose from if you’re lucky. You can pay under a pound for a supermarket own brand handwash or shower gel, or splash out almost a grand on some with David Beckham’s name on. For the more moderate among us, there’s one from Chanel which costs just under £40.
Concerns around hygiene seems to be a leading factor in the seeming decline of bar soap use over the past couple of decades. Which is fair enough – if you’re washing you need to know that you’re actually getting cleaner – but it’s unlikely that there’s much truth behind the perceptions.
The premise is that because liquid soap is encased in its bottle and dispensed via a pump, no bacteria can enter and be spread to anyone else, whereas with a bar, bacteria is transferred from one dirty hand to the bar – and on to the next person who uses it.
Intuitively this feels as though it’s probably correct, however it does ignore a couple of truths.
Firstly, if you’re living in a home with other people, whether they’re your family or housemates, you’re probably sharing similar microbes anyway. Unless you never sit down to eat or have a conversation together, and you fastidiously wipe down everything in your house with bleach before you use it then you are going to be sharing germs. If you live with a partner who you like to kiss then you’re even more certain to be swapping bacteria (as well as love and affection).
And if you have small children then there is absolutely no way that you’re not pretty much constantly covered in their microbes (at least if your kids are anything like mine, who seemed to consider slobbering on my face or wiping her nose on my sleeve the highest compliment until she was about 5. Even now I regularly catch her trying to dry her hands on my top if the towel is too far away. Say, 6 or 7 inches.)
So sharing a bar of soap is probably the least of your worries.
The good news is that this is all completely natural and healthy! Research suggests that exposure to the microbes in a normal home – good clean dirt – is vital for developing and maintaining a healthy immune system which can fight off the really nasty stuff (bad, dirty dirt) if it has to.
Secondly, everything you do to make sure your soap lasts as long as it should – so leaving it to dry, rather than soak in a pool of stagnant water between uses – plus the fact that you then have to run the bar under the tap in order to get a lather going, means that a) the bacteria don’t have the moist environment they need to grow, and b) those that do survive will be washed down the drain.
So in terms of hygiene, bar soap is at least as good as the stuff in bottles.
There are many other pros to the bar, affordability being a big one, especially in the cash strapped and uncertain times we live in today. Research by the Institute of Environmental Engineering in Zurich showed that we use almost seven times more liquid soap (2.3 g) than bar soap (0.35 g) each time we lather up.
It’s very easy to accidentally pump out more than we need, or misjudge the angle of the dispenser and squirt half of it down the plug hole, whereas it’s pretty difficult to accidentally over lather a bar of soap. Again, if you have small children it is both impressive and terrifying how much shower gel or handwash they can liberate in the 5 seconds your back is turned.
If I had my cynical hat on I might suspect that companies almost wanted consumers to overuse their products, because the quicker you run out the sooner you need to buy more.
But that’s probably not true.
The other MASSIVE bonus of bar soap is of course the environmental impact, or lack thereof, compared to it’s liquid counterpart.
Bar soap does use water in it’s manufacturing process, but considerably less than liquid. In fact, the Zurich study found that liquid soaps require five times more energy for raw material production and nearly 20 times more energy for packaging than bar soaps do.