The history of bar soaps, and the best of them all worthy of your money: Lush, L’Occitane, Aesop, etc

The history of bar soaps, and the best of them all worthy of your money: Lush, L’Occitane, Aesop, etc


Text: Emily Heng

Image: Instagram | @lushcosmetics

If the mention of bar soap brings to mind a utilitarian, functional brick purely responsible for cleaning behind your ears, it might be time to revise your stance. The bar soaps of today are a new breed, in possession of skin-nourishing ingredients and formulations that do everything from moisturise, soothe to restore. Considered a staple in many a household once upon a time, the humble bar is poised to make a bubbly comeback — and this time, stay in the limelight for good.

First, we examine how it washed out of fashion (heh), then seek out to uncover the reason behind the rise of the prodigal sud.

The rise of the bar soap
No one knows exactly when the bar soap was conceived, though several sources claim it dates as early as 2500 BC. According to Roman legend, soap was named after Mount Sapo, an ancient site of animal sacrifices. Sounds gross, but apparently, rain would flush animal fats and ashes down the banks of the Tiber river, where women laundered their clothes. Over the years, they noticed that cleaning their garments in certain parts of the river was more sanitary than in any others, leading them to discover the cleansing properties of animal fats which inspired the birth of the bar soap. Soap makers popped up in the seventh century. At the time, they utilised ingredients based almost entirely on their availability — soap was made with goat fat in Spain and Italy; olive oil was preferred in France. By the time World War I rolled around, the bar soap was a household product.

The fall of bar soap
Sure, bar soaps did the job. Not long after, it became apparent that they were harsh and drying on skin if used for prolonged periods. Founder of Osmia Organic's Oh So Soap, explains this in an interview with The Cut. "Lots of soap made by grandmothers in kitchens [were] math-poor and lye-heavy. The result of excess lye is a soap with a higher pH, which could be drying to skin over time. Adding synthetics like fragrance or surfactants can irritate the skin and make it more susceptible to water loss." This contributed to the bar soap's eventual fall from grace. On its pedestal, liquid soaps and body wash ruled the roost. Well, until now...

The resurgence of bar soap
Studies conducted by the Department Dermatology Clinical Trials Unit at Leeds General Infirmary, found that the latest bar soap formulations are more beneficial to skin compared to its forefathers, as they contain more fats, antioxidants, and phenols. Many of them also have a lower PH, are cold-processed, and contain powerhouse ingredients that act as humectants (see: glycerin). And it doesn't stop here: bar soaps also prove more environmentally friendly than liquid options, since there's less (plastic) packaging involved, if any. Convinced? We know we are. In celebration, a selection of the latest and greatest bar soaps, below.