This year marks the 60th anniversary of Dr. Erno Laszlo’s Dead Sea Mud cleansing bar. Sold at Saks since 1952, the distinctive black bar, a louche, luxurious cousin to Ivory, promises to remove impurities and exfoliate the skin while hydrating it.
Laszlo’s creation is a cult favorite, but face soap in general has long had a dirty reputation in the beauty industry. Many consumers have been pushed by marketers into thinking that soap strips necessary oils and unfavorably alters the skin’s pH level. Bar soap has also had a tough time competing with the overabundance of liquids, creams and foams that skin care companies offer.
But the scorn for soap might be outdated, said Dr. Patricia Farris, a dermatologist in New Orleans.
“Bars of the past contained alkaline and had a pH of 9 to 10, which disrupted one’s epidermal barrier," she said. “Today’s face bars are formulated to be nonirritating. They contain less than 10 percent soap and are made with syndets, synthetic detergents that cleanse the skin. They also have a lower pH of 5.5 to 7.0, to match your normal skin’s level."
Like many other personal grooming products, face soap has gotten a makeover, shedding preservatives, chemicals and fragrance. And at a time when natural and organic are prized, bars seem to fit the bill. And besides Laszlo’s bar, which is $40, they are almost all less expensive than bottled cleansers. (The Neutrogena Original Formula Facial Cleansing Bar, a drugstore favorite for its clear appearance, is less than $3.)
Kim Gillman, 45, a marketing manager who lives in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., is a devotee of Aveeno with oatmeal, sold in drugstores, and the higher-end Origins Checks and Balances.
“I feel a bar gives you better control," Gillman said. “It lasts longer and it doesn’t have the slimy consistency of liquid cleaners. I also like to feel the heaviness of a bar in my hand. There’s something soothingly tactile about it."
Dr. Dennis Gross, a dermatologist in New York, said: “People now have a choice on what delivery method they prefer. Many are choosing to go back to a bar. Companies are making them because over all they are more economical, have more environmentally friendly packaging and there’s a demand for it."
One of these companies is the Britain-based Lush, which manufactures almost 600,000 pounds of solid soap a year. Sales of Fresh Farmacy face soap, which contains calamine and is packaged like cheese, are up 41 percent since last year, according to Brandi Halls, North American campaign and communications director for Lush.
“Bar soaps are hygienic because they contain no water, which is required for bacterial growth," Halls said. “Liquid soaps are predominantly water, a breeding ground for bacteria, and so they require chemical preservatives."
Though, as Lynn Fischer, director of global education at SkinCeuticals, a company that offers six bottled cleansers, pointed out: “Bar soap can sit in a dish of dirty water and be exposed to the air. Or your hands could have bacteria on them. Then it’s transferred to the soap, and that can go to your face."
Despite such concerns, soap sales seem to be on the rise. In July, Melvita, an organic cosmetics and skin-care company, released Ultra-Gentle Face Soap, promoted as a nondrying deep-cleaning bar. In December, Lather, another natural skin-care business known for its olive oil bar soaps, will introduce two bars: Vanilla Bean & Shea and Eucalyptus & Clay.
From July 2011 to July 2012, Ahava sold more than 8,000 bars of its Moisturizing Salt Soap, up 22 percent from the year before, according to Elana Drell-Szyfer, the chief executive of the company. “That means eight additional bars of soap we sold each day this year," Drell-Szyfer said. “That’s a very large and surprising number for a small brand like ours, especially when it’s not been an intentional focus." (Ahava also sells a popular Purifying Mud Soap.)
Kiss My Face has been selling face soap since the company started in 1981. Today it sells 14 times the number of bar soaps than all their other facial cleansers combined, and more bar soaps than any of the 100 products it sells, according to Jim Healy, the company’s vice president for marketing.
Dr. Sarah Villafranco is an emergency physician who in 2010 developed and created Osmia Organics, an all-natural skin-care company.
“Commercial soap companies tend to manufacture and process soap in a way that decreases or removes glycerin and adds other synthetic elements to create a harder bar," she said, adding that some industry professionals think big companies want soap to dry your skin so you’ll need their lotion to moisturize it. And liquid washes can be just as drying as bars, since many contain harsh surfactants, like sodium laureth sulfate, to lend the sudsy feeling some consumers demand.
Last month, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences questioned the use of the chemical triclosan, an ingredient found in many antibacterial cleansers. The study suggested that exposure to triclosan was linked with muscle function impairment in humans.
But some people seek out soap simply because it provides a sensual and decorative experience. At C.O. Bigelow, the 174-year-old apothecary and beauty emporium in New York City, some of the best-selling products are soaps made from silk and rice bran, and egg white and camomile flower, and a sponge made from pure vegetable fiber and Binchotan charcoal. The hardest worker of the lot, according to Ian Ginsberg, a pharmacist and the owner of the store, is Cor Soap Silver treatment, an all-natural bar that, like Laszlo’s, costs $40 and promises to even out skin tone, fade sunspots, replenish lost collagen and protect from ultraviolet rays.