In praise of a bar of soap

According to a recent report, we aren’t buying bars of soap. But, says Amy Bradford, there’s a lot to be said for the old-fashioned bathroom staple .

For centuries, we’ve associated the smell of soap with being clean. But how many of us actually use a good old-fashioned bar of soap these days? A recent report would suggest not many. Sales of the sudsy stuff have been declining as millenials are instead choosing liquid soaps. However, I think they are missing a trick.

I was a 1970s child, and cheap and cheerful Pears glycerine soap was a staple in our household. Every bathtime, this slippery stuff would leap out of my hands and land on the opposite side of the room as if it had a life of its own. At my granny’s house, the old-ladyish scent of pink Camay soap filled the bathroom. But then shower gel arrived on the scene and all that was just memories.

Around the same time that power showers became standard kit in British homes, marketers succeeded in making us believe that shower gel was good, and soap was bad – hopelessly outmoded and terrible for your skin. The average shower gel ran out faster than you could say “wash and go”, which meant we bought more. The marketers loved us and we felt squeaky clean. Despite having been around for centuries, soap had had its day.

I rediscovered soap a couple of years ago, when I acquired a posh bar that seemed to go on forever. (That’s the thing about soap – it lasts. Cost per wash, even a pricey bar of soap is much lower than its price tag suggests.) It was a pleasure to use and retained its fragrance down to the last sliver – a sign of good quality, according to Sam Jameson of artisan soap brand Soapsmith, who handmakes her soaps in East London using vegetable bases that leave skin soft as well as clean. “We soapmakers refer to the holy trinity’ of ingredients – coconut oil, olive oil and cocoa or shea butter,” she explains.

Soapsmith isn’t the only one set on reviving the dying trend. Among the growing number of brands dedicated to making lovely, vegetable oil-based soaps is The Soap Co, a social enterprise that handcrafts its bars in the Lake District. Try the Black Poppy & Wild Fig scent (£7), which contains real poppy seeds for exfoliation as well as the “holy trinity” of oils and hydrating pro-vitamin B5. I also love Liberty’s new shea butter soaps (£6.95) wrapped in the store’s famous prints.

Nesti Dante soaps from Florence (£5), laced with fruit and flower extracts, are seriously tempting, with their pretty patterned wrappers. And cult perfumer Frédéric Malle has just unveiled a collection of soaps featuring notes normally associated with fine fragrance – among them iris, vetiver and sandalwood. He says his round bars feel like “ocean-smoothed pebbles slipped between my fingers” – trust a Frenchman to make soap sound sexy. They cost £25 each, elevating the humble soap bar into a bathroom luxury.

But do you have to spend a lot to get a good product? “Some luxury soaps are just great branding – it pays to look at the ingredient list. Avoid anything that contains cheap fillers like tallow or animal fats,” advises Jameson. In my opinion, you can’t beat good old Pears soap, which you can pick up for under a quid on your local high street.

Still put off by the idea of a bar of soap going soggy on the side of the bath? Don’t be – just get a soap dish, preferably one with drainage that allows air to circulate. Or, get one of those genius magnetic soap holders (Amazon has a selection for around £10) which keep everything clean and dry.

As a fully signed-up soap convert, I now wouldn’t be without a bar in my bathroom – I’ve felt the benefits both for my skin and my wallet. True, soap bars aren’t terribly travel-friendly and they might skid around the bath, but using one has a fabulous sense of nostalgia and tactility. Plus, there’s no plastic bottle to recycle when you’re done. There’s something to really get in a lather about.

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