During the pandemic, I established a personal goal to talk to some of my close relatives daily. It feels good to stay in touch with them as we share our lives and support each other. Each of us has different knowledge that we bring to our conversations, mine being a strong background in medicine and science.
One of my relatives was upset that she couldn’t buy Dial antibacterial liquid soap. When she had tried to purchase it early in the pandemic, she was shocked that a gallon refill was selling on Amazon for $70. When she revisited that product a few weeks later, it was sold out.
I reminded my relative that consumer-level antibacterial soaps were no more effective than ordinary soap and that all soap-like handwashing products were equally effective in destroying the coronavirus.
As the pandemic lumbered on, it became impossible to buy any liquid hand soap. My weekly trips to the grocer showcased bare shelves that pump bottles and refills of liquid hand soaps once called home. This elimination of usually plentiful products got me pondering.
My siblings and I are obsessive. We get pleasure from overthinking solutions and learning about topics that most would consider trivial. Anyone who knows me understands my obsessive passion for photography. However, beyond photography, I enjoy learning about many other topics that capture my interest.
My relative’s concerns about the lack of Dial liquid soap incited me to learn more about soap, so here is my “deep dive” on the topic. It is more complicated than you may think.
Soap can be a very inexpensive commodity, yet some people spend $25 or even $100 on a bar with similar cleaning qualities to brands that sell for 40 cents. Some of this additional cost can be accounted for by extras like packaging and exclusive fragrances, but those manufacturing expenses are relatively minor. What sells a product is how it is perceived, and how a product is perceived is often determined by advertising. Advertising and reality and not always bedfellows.
Why do we need soap?
Our skin has glands that secrete oil to protect our bodies from excessive water loss. We also have glands that produce sweat that helps us regulate our body temperature. These secretions are essential, but they also make us “sticky” to dirt, allergens, and microorganisms.
The microorganisms that typically reside on our skin are harmless, although they do contribute to odor. However, our skin can sometimes become contaminated with organisms that cause disease. Keeping our skin clean not only helps us smell nice, but it also protects us from illness.
Before the invention of soap, people relied on other ways to clean themselves. Most commonly, they just used water or water plus an abrasive (like pumice). Oil and water don’t mix, and this method of cleaning isn’t very useful. Like the Romans, some cultures used scented oils that they spread on their skin and scraped off using a unique gadget called a strigil.
History of soap
Archaeologists have discovered recipes for soap dating back to 2800 BC. Soap was likely being used before that time. These soaps were not the colorful scented bars that we use today, but they functioned as soap.
Animal fats and plant oils are made up of triglycerides. The molecular structure of a triglyceride looks like an “E.” The three horizontal arms consist of fatty acids bound together by a glycerol (glycerin) molecule (the vertical line of the E). When a triglyceride is reacted with a very strong base like sodium hydroxide (Lye), the bonds between the glycerol and the fatty acids are broken. This results in fatty acid “salts” and glycerol. We call these fatty acid salts “soap.”
These salts have a unique property. One end is “lipophilic,” meaning fat-loving. This end easily mingles with fats and oils. The other end is “hydrophilic” or water-loving. This end mixes well with water. Fatty acid salts (soap) can bridge the gap between oil and water, allowing us to quickly wash away the gunk and funk. Also, the mixture’s glycerol is an excellent humectant; it attracts water to our skin, keeping it moist.
Soap is one of humankind’s most significant discoveries. The practice of cleaning our bodies has had untold benefits to our health. How would you feel if your surgeon didn’t wash their hands before operating on you?
Soap has been manufactured for hundreds of years. Still, mass production of soap and the resulting reduction in cost happened in the late 1700s. By the 1800s, consumer brands like Ivory soap started to appear on store shelves.
During WWI, Germany needed to use soap making ingredients in their war effort. Their scientists created other compounds that performed similarly to soap but didn’t use animal fat or plant oil. We now know these agents as detergents, and there are now more than 1000 types in use today. Detergents offered qualities that made them superior to traditional soap. They could be made more concentrated for industrial applications, or significantly gentler than soap for personal care products. Detergents were more neutral in their pH (a measurement of how acidic or basic something is) than soap, making them less irritating on skin. It was also easier to add things to detergent products. Moisturizers and conditioners could be added to personal care products, while powerful cleaning chemicals could be mixed into industrial products. Importantly, traditional soap reacts with calcium and magnesium in water to create soap scum; detergents don’t do this, making them perfect for a variety of products ranging from laundry detergent to shampoo.
Some detergents had branched hydrocarbon chains making them less biodegradable. However, many common detergents have linear chains similar to fatty acid salts (i.e., soap) and are readily biodegradable. Although some detergents are made from petrochemicals (oil), many are now made from renewable plant oils.
Both soaps and detergent products alter their ingredients to create mixes that serve different needs. For instance, the addition of fatty acid salts made from coconut oil in soaps and the addition of the detergent sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) in detergent-based products makes these respective products more “sudsy.”
Personal care products will add chemicals that attract water to the skin, serve as an occlusive barrier that prevents water from leaving the skin, or act as an emollient to soften the skin. Some products will add abrasive agents for more robust cleaning (Lava soap); others will dilute a cleanser making it milder (Dove with ¼ moisturizing cream). Other additives include water softening agents like EDTA, colorants to make the product look pretty, and fragrances to make the product smell nice.
Most consumer soaps are created for “mass appeal” they work great for healthy skin or skin that is slightly dry or a bit too oily. Some ingredients in soaps are there to differentiate them and offer little unique benefits. Growing up, I recall a product that touted “mink oil” and a shampoo that contained “placenta extract.”
Not all bars of soap are soap!
To label a product soap its cleaning agent has to be made of the salts of fatty acids created by a chemical process called saponification:
Triglycerides + water + a strong base = fatty acid salts (soap) + glycerol (glycerin)
Real soap mostly exists in “bars.” However, if a soap chemist uses potassium hydroxide instead of sodium hydroxide, the resulting soap will be a liquid instead of solid. That is how Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap is made. However, liquid soap represents a minimal market share of the soap industry.
Almost all liquid hand “soaps,” body washes, shower gels, and shampoos are made from detergents. Detergents have more desirable properties than soaps, including the fact that they don’t cause soap scum. Anyone who has tried to wash their hair with a traditional bar of soap will attest to the fact that detergent-based shampoos are vastly superior.
If a bar doesn’t use soap as the cleansing ingredient, it can’t use the name soap on its label. Instead, it will be called a “cleansing bar” or a “beauty bar.” The most popular bar, “soap” in the US, is Dove. Dove is a syndet (synthetic detergent) bar and does not contain soap.
“Lies” that soap makers tell us
If you search Google using the keyword “soap,” you will come across many websites from cottage soapmakers, beauty gurus, and “natural” experts. They often repeat the same incorrect and misleading information concerning soaps vs. detergents. I’m guessing that some of this is due to a desire to promote their products, and some are due to poor understanding of the scientific literature on the topic.
Many of these sites seem to use the same wording, suggesting that they are cutting and pasting information. They sometimes use “scary psychology” to frighten consumers from buying cheaper, mainstream products. I like handmade soaps. However, I think consumers should buy them because they like them, not because they are afraid to use cheaper but equally effective commercial items.
I’m only going to touch on some examples, as there are too many to list in this already long post.
-Soaps are natural; detergents are not.
Both soaps and detergents are made from naturally occurring substrates. Both undergo chemical reactions to make the final product. Fats don’t turn into soap “spontaneously.” By the way, many think that natural always means better. That is a bias, not a fact.
-Soaps are biodegradable; detergents are not.
Some detergents were created using branched-chain hydrocarbons. These take longer to biodegrade. However, the structure of many detergent hydrocarbon chains look very similar to soap and are readily biodegradable. With that said, no soap or detergent should be used directly in a clean water source (such as a clear stream or lake). If you are hiking, dispose of your wash water at least 200 feet away from such a source.
-Detergents remove your skin oils.
That is precisely what both soaps and detergents are supposed to do. The key is to remove as little as possible while still cleaning you. The gentlest skin cleansers are made from detergents, not soaps.
-” Our soaps are gentler to the skin than commercial products.”
It is possible to make a gentle hand-crafted soap, but overall soap is harsher than syndet bars like Dove or Cetaphil. Soap has a higher pH (9-10), while syndet bars have a pH closer to skin pH. High pH can be irritating to sensitive skin.
-Manufacturers use detergents to cut costs.
Detergents cost more, which is why Dove costs more than Ivory.
-Detergents are made from petroleum, but soaps come from living things.
Petroleum is natural as it comes from algae and plankton. Many detergents are now made from plant oils instead of petroleum.
-Sulfates cause cancer, cataracts, etc.
Some detergents contain sulfur. One of the common detergents in personal care products is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). This agent is used because it is good at removing grime, and it also foams well. Consumers like products that foam (suds) because foaming gives the impression of cleaning. However, foaming has little to do with removing grease and dirt.
Products will advertise that they are “Sulfate-free” as an advertising ploy. There is no credible evidence that sulfates cause cancer, cataracts, or other problems. I have also seen “experts” claim on webpages that sulfates are harmful because they can burn if you get them in your eyes and that they can dry out your skin. Well, duh… so does real soap!
-” Our products are phosphate-free!”
Another gimmick. Phosphates were effective water softeners and had been used in products like laundry detergent in the past. As far as I’m aware, they were never used in personal care products. Phosphates can serve as a nutrient for plants, like algae, causing overgrowth, which can be damaging to other aquatic species. Because of this, phosphates have been banned in consumer products, like dishwasher detergent for decades. Many states in the US have total bans on the use of phosphates.
-” We only use essential oils to scent our products.”
Essential oils smell great, but they are also significant allergens for many. These plant products contain dozens of compounds that can increase your chance of getting inflammation of the skin (dermatitis). I love essential oils, but I don’t think that they are risk-free.
-” We are paraben-free.”
Parabens are preservatives used in some cosmetics, and some of them can mimic the hormone estrogen. However, the strongest estrogenic paraben is only about 1/10,000 as potent as real estrogen. Besides, some parabens do not act like estrogens at all.
-” We are 100% natural”.
The term natural is a marketing term and doesn’t mean anything. However, I have to admit that it sounds nice.
-” We use pure (fill in the blank) essence in our products.”
Essence is another term that has no real meaning.
It’s great to support small soap-making operations, and you may love their products. Buy because you like their stuff, not out of fear or guilt.
As I said above, almost all shower gels, shampoos, and body wash are made from detergents. This is because detergents don’t leave a soap scum film. It is possible to create washes and gels with a more neutral pH and build in extra moisturizers (good things). However, some products have a lot of colorants and fragrance added. Consumers like colorful products that have a strong smell. However, these two characteristics are the leading causes of skin irritation in cleansing products. If you have sensitive skin, use a mildly scented product or one that says it is “unscented” or “fragrance-free.” However, both terms have no legal definition. Products listing themselves as “unscented” or “fragrance-free may still include masking fragrances that block unpleasant smells or have an added fragrance to make them smell more beautiful. Confusing, I know. With that said, lightly scented products are less likely to cause an allergic skin reaction than strongly scented ones. You can use your on-board chemical analyzer to determine if a product is strongly scented. Press your nose to the item and give it a good sniff.
Overall shower gels are more colorful and fragrant, and body washes are more “moisturizing.” People like using thick body washes and gels. However, their thickness is caused by a thickening agent and has little to do with the concentration of other ingredients.
In general, consumers tend to overuse liquid cleaners, and a lot of these products wind up going straight down the drain. Although a bottle of wash should last (roughly) the same as a bar of soap, they typically have to be replaced more often. I scanned the internet for comparisons, and it seems like a bar of soap lasts many consumers about twice as long as a bottle of shower gel or body wash. When it comes to teenage use, the difference is even more significant.
More soap facts
The gentlest bar soaps aren’t soap at all; they are syndet (synthetic detergent) bars.
Dove is #1 selling “soap” by far in the US, and it is a syndet bar.
Other gentle bars like CeraVe and Cetaphil are also syndet bars.
Syndet bars can be very gentle cleansers.
Both soaps and syndet bars clean effectively. Certain brands add ingredients to differentiate them from other products, color, and fragrance being the most obvious.
Different fatty acid salts and detergents have different properties. For instance, soaps that are manufactured with added coconut oil and detergents with SLS foam more. People like sudsy cleansers.
You can add extra fat to make a bar of soap “more moisturizing” and less effective as a cleanser (less drying).
You can add humectants like glycerine and honey to help keep moisture close to the skin.
You can add barriers like oil and waxes that reduce moisture evaporation from the skin.
Some ingredients, like oatmeal, are calming and reduce itching (Alveeno). Others are abrasives and help clean oily/dirty hands (Lava soap).
These ingredients change some of the properties of “soap,” and you may find that one brand may suit your skin type or use needs more than another. However, the base product is the same.
Liquid soap has been promoted as being more sanitary than bar soap. Some of these claims may be due to soap manufacturers’ desire to sell these more expensive products. However, bar soap is sanitary. Researchers deliberately inoculated bar soap with bacteria and then had people wash their hands with the soap. Afterwards, they didn’t find the bacteria on the subjects’ hands. Why? When you wash your hands, you are also cleaning the soap. The bacteria doesn’t go on your hands, it goes down the drain. However, liquid soaps are neater when used in common areas like kitchens and public bathrooms.
Soap is soap
You can spend $2800 for a bar of Qatar soap, which is infused with gold and diamond dust. It is easy to find very expensive soap that sells in the $40-$100/bar range. Is this cost justified? These soaps will be made of high-quality materials. They may be milled many times to provide better blending and a harder bar; they may be a few ounces more in weight than a traditional bar. They may have more beautiful scents and come in a nicer box. These upgrades do justify a higher price, but certainly not $40-$100. Why are some willing to pay that much? Perception and image. Cause? Advertising at its best.
You can buy many brand name soaps for around a dollar a bar, and most are formulated to be gentle and effective. For people with healthy skin, a forty-cent bar of IVORY or a dollar bar of Dove will meet their hygiene needs.
More fun facts
Consumer antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soaps in controlling germs. However, they may pollute the environment more. Many brands that had antimicrobial agents have quietly removed them and now use confusing terms like “Washes Away Bacteria,” All soaps do this.
Although people have been using soaps for thousands of years, the commercialization of soap is more recent. Soap factories were known to exist in the 12th century. It wasn’t until 1811 that Eugene-Michel Chevreul determined the exact amount of fat needed to make soap. Before this, soap making was a guessing game. This finding plus other discoveries revolutionized the commercial production of soap.
During WWI, Germany needed oils and fats for their war effort. German chemists developed detergents made from petrochemicals during that time. Detergents are still made from petrochemicals, but many are also made from renewable resources, like vegetable oils.
In the 1930s, Procter and Gamble introduced a continuous process for the manufacturing of soap, which increased production and decreased manufacturing time to less than a day. Before this, many soaps had to “cure” before they could be packaged and sold. Large scale soap manufacturers still use this method.
Soaps, cleansing bars, shower gels, shampoos, and body wash may contain additional ingredients that may make their products more desirable. Color and fragrance are two apparent additions. Others may include conditioners, anti-static agents, sudsing agents, thickening agents, humectants, moisturizers, water softening agents, exfoliants, gritty additions, and preservatives.
A Historical Timeline
Ivory soap was introduced in 1879 to produce an inexpensive but good quality product. To reduce costs, Proctor and Gamble extracted the naturally occurring glycerol (glycerin) from the soap and sold it separately. They also whipped air into the product making a less dense soap in another cost-cutting method. This aeration allowed Ivory to float in water, a happy coincidence that was used to create the tag line, “So pure it floats.” The lack of glycerin made Ivory more drying than other soaps (despite its claim that it was gentle). It was eventually added back into the soap’s manufacturing process several decades ago. You may think that Ivory smells like soap. However, what you are detecting is a mild citrus fragrance that is added during the soap making process.
Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-In-One soap was introduced in 1946 and emphasized simple, quality ingredients. It is a soap product and comes in two forms, liquid and bar form. With quirky advertising and emphasis on simple ingredients, it has gained a following among people who think less is more. The real Dr. Bronner wanted humanity to unite as one, and you can find some of his thoughts on Dr. B’s soap bottles and bar soap wrappers. He also claimed that his soap had 18 uses, including as a toothpaste. As a person who once tried to brush his teeth with this stuff, I can tell you that it is a no go. However, it is a lovely soap.
Dial soap was the first antibacterial soap, and it was introduced in 1948. The original antibacterial agent was hexachlorophene, which the company called “AT-7.” Hexachlorophene was removed from the soap in the 1970s as it was determined to be dangerous. It was replaced by triclocarban, which was removed from the soap in 2016 due to FDA concerns. Dial soap bars now contain benzalkonium chloride as its antibacterial agent. At this point, it can be assumed that their antibacterial additions are more marketing than science. Dial was the most popular bar soap in the US from 1953 to the early 1990s. It is now the second most popular soap. Beyond antimicrobial additions, the soap is relatively mild and has a pleasant nostalgic scent that people associate with clean.
Zest was introduced in 1955 and emphasized that it didn’t produce soap scum in its commercials. “You’re not fully clean if you’re not Zestfully clean!” Zest was a combination bar of both soap and detergents. The detergent portion of the bar prevented soap scum. Zest was reformulated in 2007 and removed the detergents, likely to reduce production costs. They countered this change by adding more color and fragrance to the bar.
The Dove Beauty Bar was introduced in 1957. It was the first commercial bar to rely totally on detergents instead of soap as its main ingredients. Advertised as being gentle because it contained 1/4 cold cream, its real strength was in using detergents, which were gentler and more pH balanced than soaps. Dove bars are now (by far) the most sold bar soap in the US.
Irish Spring was introduced in Europe in 1970 and came to the US in 1972. It is a soap-based bar with a strong citrus/woody/clean smell. I was 19 when this soap came to the US and loved the scent. However, within a shower or two, I started to itch. I’m guessing I was sensitive to the overpowering fragrance.
Coast bars are also soap products, and the original scent was introduced in 1976. This is another bar that smelled fantastic and clean. I thought I would be a Coast user, but after a few showers, I scratched my skin off. Again, I believe my itching was due to the pleasant but powerful fragrance.
Liquid soap has been around since the 1800s. Its use in a home environment became popular in 1979 when Softsoap was introduced (a detergent, not a soap). Softsoap solved the age-old problem of the wet communal soap bar and became an instant hit.
The 1980s saw the emergence of liquid body washes followed by shower gels. These are almost exclusively detergent products. These products have decimated the bar soap industry, with about 80% of consumers using them in preference to bar soap. Manufacturers are happy with these numbers as body washes and gels are more expensive to buy than equivalent bars. It should be noted that their ingredients are very similar to shampoo, which is why many claim to be “body and hair cleaners.”
In 1999 the Deb company introduced the first foaming hand soap. Foaming soap is a diluted soap pumped through a special aeration pump that turns the liquid into a soft foam. Foamers use less soap, and you need less water to wash the foam off. I like foaming liquid soaps because there is less drippage on counters and sinks. I’ll give you a recipe to easily make DIY foaming soap later in this post.
My history (and Hack 1)
I have moderately dry skin, and dry winters used to be brutal. I would scratch my skin to the point of bleeding (usually not realizing that I was doing it). When I was a kid, I used whatever soap we had at home, the typical national brands. Once my father brought home an entire case of an unmarked and unwrapped green soap that was harsh, I referred to it as “rash in a bar.” Eventually, the whole family refused to use it even though my dad said it was, “Just fine.” By the way, he also stopped using it after we did!
As soon as I had a little spending money, I started my long journey to find a soap that would solve my dry skin problems. Some soaps, like Irish Spring and Coast, made my pruritus worse as I was sensitive to their strong fragrances. Other soaps like Dove and Camay felt like they left a coating on my skin, which was still dry and itchy. When body washes and shower gels came out, I was the first in line to try them. I enjoyed their pleasant smells, but I was still scratching. It didn’t seem to matter if I was using inexpensive Dial or high end shower gel, I kept scratching.
Decades ago, I decided to switch to more basic hygiene products. This process started with shaving. In the past, I would buy a razor and blade set at the drugstore. Although the cost of a razor was inexpensive, its replacement blade cartridges were not. Every few years, another blade would be added to a cartridge product, and the prices kept on going up. I didn’t see any benefit to the new razor designs; they seemed like gimmicks that forced me to stay within a particular brand. I decided it was time for a radical change and went back to using a simple double edge safety razor. I liked that the replacement blades were less than a dime apiece and that the system was more eco friendly. At that time, I also switched from aerosol shaving cream to shaving soap. I was no longer dumping plastic blade cartridges and aerosol cans into landfills.
My success with the “new” shaving system got me thinking about other products that I was using, and I decided to leave shower gels and go back to bar soap. I genuinely like using a good old bar of soap in the shower. I love the smell of bar soap, and the way a bar feels in my hand. Another win was the cost, as a bar of soap that can be up to 10 times less expensive than an equivalent body wash. For me, the combination of preferring bar soap plus some small savings has kept me in the bar soap camp for the last few decades. I like to switch brands, going from typical consumer products to imported bars and back again. I get tired of one scent and enjoy switching to another. Although I could tolerate just about any mild bar soap, my skin was still dry and itchy during the winter months.
I needed to think outside of the box. Our skin is soft and supple when it is well hydrated. Soaps and detergents remove a lot of the protective oils and dehydrate our skin. Formulations with milder surfactants (soaps and detergents) leave more oil behind, but they didn’t make me feel particularly clean. Products that contained substances like glycerin and shea butter were a bit more moisturizing, but I was still scratching.
My wife had told me to use a body lotion for years, but I hated rubbing all of that gunk on me. It seemed to take forever, and my skin would be white with the greasy stuff. Many years ago, I had an idea. What if I put on lotion as soon as I got out of the shower while I was still wet? That was a game-changer. First, because a little lotion or cream goes a long way and glides on your skin. Second, because it traps water on the surface of your skin, precisely what you want. When you apply lotion this way, you need to use very little, so you have no white greasy skin. It also works much better than toweling off and then applying a lotion.
I like two products, and use whatever one is that is on sale. My favorite is CeraVE moisturizing cream, and my second choice is Cetaphil moisturizing cream. Both come in tubs, and a little goes a long way. When you spread these creams on yourself, you also flatten out the water droplets on you, sort of like you are squeegeeing yourself. By the time that you are done, you are dry-no towel needed.
Foaming hand soap is convenient, it doesn’t drip onto your counter, and it requires less water to wash off your hands. It is diluted hand soap, so why does it cost as much as hand soap? It is easy to create your own foaming soap for about one-fourth of the price of the purchased stuff. Simply fill your foaming soap dispenser one-quarter full of regular liquid hand soap and then add water. Distilled water is the best, but I have used regular tap water too. Add the top, give it a shake, and you have just made foaming hand soap. Typical “Softsoap” detergent type refills, as well as liquid Castile soaps like Dr. Bronner’s work well. You can vary the amount of soap to water ratio a bit to meet your particular tastes.
During the pandemic, it became hard to buy any liquid soap refills. However, body wash was in plentiful supply, some selling for as little as $15/gallon. Body wash is hand soap with added skin conditioners. It also foams more, which can be a pleasant experience. You can use body wash just like hand soap in a traditional pump dispenser, or dilute it (as in Hack 2) to use as a foaming hand soap.
Body wash and shampoo are also very similar. A lot of body washes say “hair and body.” A cheap shampoo can be an excellent hand cleaner, and if you are out of shampoo, you can use many body washes. However, don’t try to wash your hair with regular soap as the soap scum will leave your hair a dull and tangled mess. If you have to do it, you will need to use an acid wash (like diluted lemon juice) to get rid of the gunk.
You can wash your hands using liquid dish soap, and you can also dilute it to use in a foamer. Liquid dish soap is relatively mild but more robust than traditional hand soaps (After all, it is designed to degrease pots and pans). Using dish soap would be my least preferred choice as it is more likely to dry your hands. If this is your only option, follow up your handwashing with a hand little lotion.
You can easily make liquid soap. I have never done this, but there are many YouTube videos on the subject, just type in DIY liquid hand soap, and you will be flooded with videos. The process is simple, shred a bar of regular soap and dissolve it into some hot water. Then add more water (often a gallon total). Let the mixture cool and gel, then beat it into a smooth consistency with a hand mixer. Sometimes recipes call for a couple of tablespoons of glycerine. Distilled water is best to use in this case.
There is a lot more to most things when you scratch the surface.
Soap is something that we use every day, but most of us rarely think about it. However, our lives would be very different if we didn’t have soap and detergent products. From body wash to toothpaste, soaps and detergents touch every aspect of our lives. The use of surfactants made surgeries safer and our populations healthier. We can all be thankful for soaps when we are forced to sit directly next to strangers on a commuter train or airplane.
Soap is not magical; it does its work using understandable principles of chemistry. Did you think that the chemistry class that you took in high school was useless? Here is an example of how chemistry is real, and how we encounter it every single day of our lives.
Soap like products are big business and individuals have made fortunes manufacturing the slippery stuff. Soap makers, both big and small, have used manipulations and untruths to differentiate their products from the rest. Small companies claim that the ingredients that big manufacturers use are dangerous to health, incorrectly citing research literature. Big companies promote their more expensive products while ignoring their equally good but cheaper offerings. Go to any store, and you will find more expensive body washes and gels at eye level while less expensive bar soaps languish on the bottom shelf. We have also been led to believe that bar soap is unsanitary, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and not to mention the fact that it has been used safely for hundreds of years. You have to admire the advertising genius that convinces someone to spend $100 on a product that is very similar to one costing under $1.
I touched on many aspects of these products. Still, in the end, I was most interested in the psychology of soap, and how we believe things when we are told them enough times, even if they are false.
There appear to be two common links that are necessary to convert fiction to “facts.” The first is an air of expertise or authority, and the second is a sense of trust. You see these characteristics when you read the FAQs of soap maker’s websites. They are also present when you scan a “filler” article in a magazine. It seems like many of these authors never read primary sources; they just copy other’s interpretations. Individuals with no actual expertise in an area claim it, and we believe it. Someone who has “Twenty years in the beauty industry” is unlikely able to fully understand a scientific research paper. Yet we believe them. When we hear something enough times, our minds accept that information as fact. Once we accept a fact, we rarely question it. The sky is blue; water is wet… we don’t need to think further on these topics.
Another way to influence us is by associating something with something else that we believe is true. Bar soap must be unsanitary because people who are dirty touch it. Something that was associated with being clean is now associated with being dirty. This “guilt by association” way of influencing others is classic. It can be seen used in many aspects of daily life. Unfortunately, it has also been used to denigrate entire groups of marginalized individuals.
Lastly, another way to manipulate someone is to create a problem and then offer a solution. Antibacterial soaps did this by making us believe that we didn’t need just to clean our bodies, we had to sanitize them so we wouldn’t offend. A non-related example of this problem/solution model can be seen in Portland, Oregon. Relatively peaceful protestors were labeled as terrorists, and so the solution was to arrest them “secret police” style. This later use of this technique is far more frightening to me than if I needed antibacterial soap to avoid having BO.
We are a naive and trusting culture, and our ideas are often formed by others who do so for their gain. Cult leaders and politicians gain huge followings by lying to our faces. They tell us that they have the answers while convincing us that any information contrary to their monolog is suspect and dangerous.
The next time you pick up a bar of soap, push a shower gel pump, or squeeze a tube of body wash, think about the complexity of this simple pleasure. Soap helped civilization prosper and likely had a stronger impact on infectious disease than antibiotics. Soap making is one of the first practical uses of organic chemistry. The selling of soap demonstrates how an essentially similar product can be differentiated and promoted by manipulation and trickery. More importantly, it demonstrates how easily we humans can be controlled. Is it possible for us to still be led to believe falsehoods in this age of facts and information? The sad news is that it is easier than ever before. We want to believe that we understand the world around us, and we look to influencers and leaders to guide us in this pursuit. Unfortunately, this desire leaves us vulnerable. We accept lies as the truth and then feel forced to defend our erroneous position. If you understand the history of soap you also understand the strengths and weaknesses of humans. Think about that the next time you plunk down a few bucks to buy a block of bars at Walmart.
I know that this is a very long post so thank you for reading it. I’ll be away from an internet connection for the next couple of weeks and I won’t be posting because of this. Have a great day! Mike