What kind of soap do you use in the shower? It seems like a weirdly personal question to ask a stranger, and yet that is what I asked over a dozen UMass Amherst students. The purpose of my question, among other questions I asked, was to identify what product young people use in the shower, why they use it, and encourage them to reflect on their purchasing decisions.
As the owner of a sustainable, natural bar soap company marketed toward the younger population (teens to early 30s), I take great interest in protecting our natural environment while enticing young people to purchase my product. Bar soap is better for the environment, our skin, and our hormones. Although body wash is generally bad for the body and the environment, its usage has steadily increased while bar soap usage has decreased. Why is the market experiencing this trend? Why is body wash harmful? How can bar soap sales make a comeback?
According to a recent Mintel Market Report, over the past few decades soap sales for use in the shower has increased. Soap sales from 2014 to 2015 alone increased nearly three percent. Additionally, the number of households using the conventional bar soap fell from 89% to 84% between 2010 and 2015. Today, only 64% of Americans use bar soap, the majority of whom are older Americans.
The majority of students interviewed reported that they use bottled body wash. This supports Mintel’s recent report stating that young people generally use body wash over traditional bar soap. Forty-eight percent of US consumers believe that bar soaps are covered in germs after use, a feeling that is strong among consumers aged 18-24. Meanwhile, 55% of all consumers believe bar soaps are less convenient than liquid varieties.
When asked why she uses body wash instead of bar soap, AH, a freshman, stated, “It’s easier, and it doesn’t slip out of my hands. I don’t like when I’m trying to get clean, and it [bar soap] slips out of my hands and falls on the ground. It’s very easy to use a bottle.” Many young people use body wash for its convenience over bar soap.
Another reason for body wash’s popularity is because bar soap is perceived to be less sanitary than body wash. This has been disproven. However, it is still a prevalent misconception. NH, another student, stated, “I used to use bar soap at home, but then I got grossed out because my brother also used the same bar soap. I felt like his germs were getting on my body, so I started to use body wash.”
Furthermore, the growing market for body wash resulted in a large variety of available scents. Scent is important in the purchasing decision of soap consumers. NH also stated, “I use my body wash because it matches the scent of my shampoo and conditioner.” Another student, JE, stated that she uses her body wash because she “likes the smell of vanilla” and “that specific bottle smelled good to me at the time.” Lastly, IL declared, “When it comes to soap, smell is important. It's like a key factor to every bar soap or body wash that is out there.” He’s not wrong. Yet another Mintel study found that 38% of consumers have purchased soap solely based on the scent. With many available body wash options, it’s difficult for the bar soap market to compete.
Finally, bar soap generally has a few downfalls. JE stated, “Bar soap kind of leaves my skin feeling dry or sticky….kind of tacky-feeling.” Mintel reported that consumers did not like bar soaps because they left a residue on their skin and in the shower. Bar soap requires a storage dish and may not last as long as a bottle of body wash.
Perceived convenience and sanitation of body wash are two of the main factors that drive consumers to purchase body wash over bar soap. However, there are several reasons why body wash is a less desirable option than bar soap.
Firstly, body wash contains many chemicals that can irritate the skin and may cause imbalances in hormones. Formaldehydes and sulfates, which are carcinogens, were widely used in body wash as preservatives. “There are way more unnecessary chemicals in body wash than in soap… all of which can mess with the way your body produces hormones or the ways your cells replicate, which can cause cancer. Many other ingredients like fragrance and colors in body wash may also cause skin irritation.” When asked if she thinks about the effect that the body wash has on her body, sophomore NH responded, “...as long as it’s doing the job. I assume that they wouldn’t be selling a product at Target that is bad for my body.” She assumed incorrectly.
While many body washes contain harmful chemicals, some bar soaps also contain similar chemicals. However, they are less prevalent in bar soaps than in body washes. A study conducted by the American Contact Dermatitis Society found multiple allergens, irritants, and harmful chemicals in body washes and bar soaps, and compared them in regard to the likelihood of encountering them. The study showed that harmful chemicals were found to be much more abundant in body washes than comparable bar soaps. One such chemical was Alkylphenol ethoxylate, a chemical used in many liquid soaps that is a main concern for fish and other aquatic life. This chemical is classified as a hazardous chemical, and yet it continues to be used in liquid soaps because it is not monitored. This leads to the second point of why body wash can be harmful: it negatively impacts the environment more than traditional bar soap.
The plastic waste created by body wash bottles is extremely harmful to the environment. In the United States, 238 million people use body wash in single-use bottles. Accordingly, it is predicted that 1.4 billion throwaway bottles are consumed annually. All plastics, including body wash bottles, are created from crude oil, a finite resource that is hazardous for two reasons: first, the manufacturing process produces a lot of pollution, and second, the product is not biodegradable. Instead, body wash bottles fragment into tiny microplastics that contaminate our soil, streams, food, and even our air.
When asked if she thinks about the environment when using body wash, MI responded, “No.” A simple and yet impactful answer. I received similar responses to this question from other students. This is interesting considering almost all of the interviewed students claimed to believe in climate change and considered the environmental damage to be a pressing concern. SK stated, “I just choose a bottle, I don't really think about the environment. I know that's bad. I do care about my body though. I have really sensitive skin, so I have to make sure it's good for my skin.”
As previously mentioned, bar soaps include fewer synthetic and environmentally damaging chemicals, require less energy and resources for manufacturing, and use minimal packaging. Typically, liquid soaps are more expensive, need five times as much energy to create, and 20 times as much energy to package. Because bar soaps use far less water in manufacturing and are composed of virtually no water, they do not require chemical preservatives.
How can we influence young people to buy bar soap instead of body wash? As previously discussed, young people value convenience. Additionally, new data from Mintel suggests that young people also highly value sustainability. If young people were educated about the benefits of bar soap and the negative environmental impact of bottled body wash, it might result in changing purchasing patterns of consumers.
Many younger consumers view bar soap as old and outdated with body wash being a new-age product. There has been a trend in consumer markets toward vintage products, especially in the millennial market segment. Some bar soap brands may find that leaning into the old-fashioned perception of soap may help them appeal to the younger generation and generate more sales. Others may find that bar soap must shed its outdated image. To entice customers, bar soap must expand its offerings, finding a method to hydrate, exfoliate, and soothe the skin better than liquid soap. Other companies have taken a different approach in offering bar soaps that appeal to luxury consumers. Brands such as Dr. Squatch, Tom’s of Maine, among others, have seen success from this angle.
It is not untrue that body wash is more convenient than bar soap. It’s easy to use and transport, and there is a great variety of options for consumers. Bar soaps are not viewed as sanitary compared with bottled body wash. To overcome this perception, businesses must develop marketing strategies that highlight the benefits of bar soap while shedding light to the negative impacts of bottled body wash. Because most large soap companies, like Dove and Unilever, offer both body wash and bar soap options, it is up to the companies that produce sustainable bar soaps to lead the way to educate the population about the benefits of using bar soap when compared with the negative impacts of using bottled body wash. Because young consumers receive much of their information from social media, these bar soap manufacturers should focus their marketing efforts on capturing their audience’s attention with creative and intelligent marketing campaigns on widely used social media sites. This may provide the desired result of increasing bar soap sales over body wash sales in the desired demographic population.
Body wash is a worse option than bar soap because it negatively affects the environment and the human body. Bar soap sales have been declining recently, especially among young consumers but, if marketing teams focus on revitalizing the bar soap industry and marketing toward the youth, bar soap has a good shot at becoming the primary cleansing product in the shower again.
Bhattarai, Abha. “The Surprising Reason Many Americans Are Skipping the Bar of Soap.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 Oct. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2016/08/23/the-problem-with-bars-of-soap/.
This article uses information from Mintel’s market report about bar soap usage decreasing and makes it more palatable for a general audience. It highlights the fact that there is a growing misconception that bar soap is inherently less sanitary than that body wash. I use information from this source about consumers and their concern for the sanitation of bar soap and their affinity for convenience.
Emma Zang-Schwartz, MPH. “Soap > Body Wash.” Because Health, Because Health, 16 Apr. 2018, https://www.becausehealth.org/switch-from-body-wash-to-soap-2535159492.html.
This article is about why consumers should make the switch from body wash to bar soap. It makes the argument that bar soap is superior to body wash for the reasons of cost, lacking harsh chemicals, among other reasons. In my initial research, I gathered most of my information about why body wash is bad for the body from this source.
Feinn, Lily. “Why Do We Hate Bar Soap? Body Wash Reigns Supreme among Millennials.” Bustle, Bustle, 21 Sept. 2016, https://www.bustle.com/articles/185282-why-do-we-hate-bar-soap-body-wash-reigns-supreme-among-millennials.
Hall, Alexandra Eagle. “The Environmental Impact of Body Wash.” Tiny Waste, https://tiny-waste.com/environmental-impact-of-body-wash.html#:~:text=Body%20wash%20bottles%2C%20like%20all,get%20rid%20of%20once%20produced%22.
This source describes the environmental impact of body wash. It provides statistics and facts about the amount of body wash bottles that are discarded. It makes the point that body wash is harmful to the environment and that bar soap is a greener alternative. I used information from this source regarding the environmental impact of body wash.
Koehler, Annette, and Caroline Wildbolz. “Comparing the Environmental Footprints of Home-Care and Personal-Hygiene Products: The Relevance of Different Life-Cycle Phases.” Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 43, no. 22, 2009, pp. 8643–8651., https://doi.org/10.1021/es901236f.
News, Mintel. “Slippery Slope for Bar Soap as Sales Decline 2% since 2014 in Favor of More Premium Options.” Mintel, Mintel, 12 July 2018, https://www.mintel.com/press-centre/beauty-and-personal-care/slippery-slope-for-bar-soap-as-sales-decline-2-since-2014-in-favor-of-more-premium-options.
This market report goes over consumer trends and statistics revolving around the usage of bar soap and body wash. It states that bar soap usage is declining while body wash usage is increasing, especially among younger consumers. I used a large amount of information from this source. Many of the other websites cited were just parroting this source.
Sagon, Candy. “Bar Soap vs. Liquid Soap: Your Choice Reveals Your Age.” AARP, 26 Aug. 2016, https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2016/bar-soap-choice-reveals-your-age-cs.html.
Siegel, Julia A., et al. “Comparison of Contact Allergens in Bar Soaps and Liquid Body Washes.” Dermatitis, vol. 29, no. 1, 2018, pp. 51–53., https://doi.org/10.1097/der.0000000000000289.
This study looked at the harmful preservatives and other chemicals used in body wash and compared them to the chemicals in bar soaps. It found that harmful chemicals are much more likely to be found in body wash than in bar soap and that these chemicals are harmful and drying to the skin. I used information from this source about body washes being saturated with these chemicals compared to bar soap.
Suciu, Peter. “Teens Increasingly Rely on Social Media for News - but They Don't Trust It.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 12 Oct. 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2022/07/22/teens-increasing-rely-on-social-media-for-newsbut-they-dont-trust-it/?sh=4fa8f7aa19ff.