Y2K Killed The Bar Soap — 2024 Is Bringing It Back

RIP to your loofah, too.

bar soap trend
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Millennials have long been wrongfully accused of killing entire industries — from diamonds to beer to cable TV — by just living our lives, but there’s one product that those who came of age in the late ’90s and early aughts can actually take credit for driving to an early grave: bar soap. Overzealous marketers led an extremely successful campaign during that time telling us that liquid body wash was better for our skin and more luxurious, branding the humble bar of soap as dirty, drying, and cheap. Caress ads made an entire generation of teenagers believe that shimmer-infused liquid body wash frothed up in a nylon shower pouf was the most luxurious thing that had ever happened to your shower routine. IYKYK.

For many millennials — especially those who identify as female — that messaging stuck, and bar soaps were relegated to frat house showers, our parents’ guest bathrooms, and the occasional hostess gift (if it was fancily wrapped enough). According to a 2016 Mintel report, that negative image continued, with 48% of all U.S. households believing bar soaps were covered in germs after use, and 55% of all consumers believing they were less convenient than liquid body wash. Those factors led to sales of bar soap slipping 2.2% during a time when the overall bath and body category experienced a 2.7% market growth.

But something happened in the years that followed, as both brands and consumers began to focus their efforts on sustainability and more water conservation. As the cost of living continues to skyrocket, Mintel also reports that consumers will continue to look for ways to reduce their personal care spending. And bar soaps, with their traditionally lower price point and longer lifespan, can help remove some of the sticker shock many of us feel when we get to the checkout and watch our totals keep climbing.

For some early adopters, this shift back toward a classic format came as no surprise. “I think customers and the industry at large are excited by innovation, and while it can be overwhelming for some with the plethora of different formats and actives now available in the market space, bar soap is a well-known territory for almost everyone,” says Karina Tymko, education and community manager for body care brand Soft Services, whose cult classic Buffing Bar is just one of the more recent bar variations that made the category cool again. “I think reinventing something already well-loved or putting your own spin on it to serve your unique purposes is what makes innovation special.”

If the thought of bar soap still gives you the heebie-jeebies because you’re envisioning a vast universe of bacteria thriving on its surface, those overzealous Y2K marketers really did their jobs well. The scientific truth is that numerous studies have shown that any harmful bacteria that may be present on a bar of soap is, in fact, unable to be transferred to the skin in any detectable levels. Explains Jamie Regan, Unilever’s R&D manager of skin cleansing, “Even though it is possible for bacteria to exist on the surface of a soap bar, as you wash, the germs wash away as well. It has been scientifically demonstrated that there is no transfer of bacteria from a soap bar to the surface of the skin.” Adds Tymko, the majority of the germs present on a bar of soap are actually those same germs that are present and make up your skin’s own microbiome. In fact, notes Dr. Mona Gohara, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine, that aforementioned loofah is more likely to be covered in bad bacteria than the bar of soap.

If you’re (rightfully) grossed out about the idea of your soap straight chilling in the shower and getting that slippery sludge all over it, you can avoid the gross goo by putting your bar soap in a container. “​​While the microorganisms that originate from your skin and live on your bar are not a problem, leaving your bar to soak in pools of water and not allowing it to completely dry in between uses sets up a breeding ground for unfavored germs,” Tymko says. “These damp conditions also speed up the erosion of your bar soap.”

Just note that not all containers are considered a safe home for your soap. “Containers can create moisture and can be a welcome home for little microbes like yeast,” says Gohara. “Allow your bar to dry completely between uses. If you use a container, make sure it’s ventilated.” Soft Services’ Soap Home provides a solution that gives your bar soap a protective layer while also keeping it airy so bad germs don’t proliferate. “It’s a two-part engineering feat consisting of a ceramic dish and an aluminum splash cover,” Tymko says. “Rest your bar on the dish and use the aluminum splash cover to protect your bar from errant shower spray, while still allowing air flow to allow the bar to completely dry in between uses. You can also swap the splash cover to be used as a platform for your ceramic dish when in use.”

If you’ve ever forgotten your body wash while on vacation and been forced to use the hotel’s sub-par bar soap, only to have your skin feel itchy and painfully dry post-shower, then chances are good that you’re fully on team Body Wash Is Better. But not all bar soap is made the same and, according to Gohara, what really matters is the pH of the cleanser being used — which is true of any cleansing agent. “Non-soap cleansers have a neutral or slightly acidic pH like the skin,” she says. “Soap cleansers have a higher basic pH leaving the barrier susceptible to weakness and irritation. Look for words like gentle, non-soap cleanser or pH-neutral to help guide you in the store.”

Non-soap cleansers include those like the synthetic detergents used by Dove in their classic Beauty Bars and the new Plant Milk Cleansing Bars, explains Regan. “It is a synthetic detergent that we call DEFI, but is listed as the first ingredient on pack as sodium lauroyl isethionate. It is a plant-based, mild surfactant that we use across the entire Dove bar range.” While there is some truth to the messaging that body washes tend to be gentler on the skin than bar soaps — Regan says that traditional soap bars have a high pH level of 9-11, while liquid body washes are typically based on synthetic detergents and have a more neutral pH of 5-7 — as Tymko notes, it’s not necessarily an absolute statement.

“The format is less important than the ingredients themselves and the use levels that they are included at, which all comes into play in regards to if it will be drying,” she says. “A well-formulated bar base takes these factors into consideration, featuring more moisturizing ingredients such as olive oil, honey, goat milk, and even moisturizer itself (aka Dove Beauty Bar) within it, resulting in a more nourishing cleansing experience.” In other words, while it might take more effort on the formulation side to make a bar soap moisturizing, it can be done if you focus on including moisturizing ingredients and gentle cleansing agents that keep the skin’s pH in mind.

If you haven’t ventured back into bar soap since before low-rise jeans were cool the first time around, brands have gotten more thoughtful with their ingredients — and kinder to your skin barrier. In addition to some innovative outliers like the Soft Services Buffing Bar with unique benefits, there are higher quality bases with more moisturizing ingredients, gentler cleansing agents, and premium fragrances infused within each bar.

Below, the best bar soaps that will have you seriously rethinking your body wash devotion.