The Dirt on Soap
Coming Clean on a Dirty History
By J.T. Alvarez
No one can dispute soap's value in hand-washing, a critical step in stopping the spread of disease and preventing infections. Daily, head-to-toe use of it, however, is a little suspect. Read on to learn about the normalization of suds and their impact on our society - and our psyches.
What is Soap, Even?
All soap - regardless of price tag or intended purpose - is made of ‘surface active agents,’ molecules attracted both to fats (oils) and water. Tension created from these opposing attractions dislodges dirt and the like, suspending it in water which allows it to be easily rinsed off of skin, fabric, and other surfaces. Surface active agents have traditionally been created using two essential ingredients: a triglyceride, like animal lard or palm oil, and an alkali, like potash or lye (also known as caustic soda). Due to its high lye content (exposure to which can dry or even burn human skin), the earliest iterations of homemade soap were more commonly used for clothes washing rather than for bathing.
While artisanal soap with plant oils remained a luxury item for centuries, the 19th century proliferation of mass manufacturing, the printed press, and an emerging ‘middle class’ gave rise to countless new industries, including that of personal care.
On July 31, 1790, Samuel Hopkins, an inventor from Pennsylvania, was granted the first U.S. patent. Hopkins had refined a method "in the making of Pot ash” which would be used in soap and fertilizer.
Over the course of a few short decades, soap’s sudden affordability reversed centuries of thought regarding personal hygiene, transforming soap from an indulgent luxury item to an everyday necessity. How could such a broad cultural reversal happen? Advertising, of course!
William Lever was a British soapmaker and one of the founders of what would eventually become the Unilever brand. He led a new school of advertising with the launch of the Sunlight Almanac and Sunlight Year Book, publications which contained timely topics, calendars, and advice...like 'use Sunlight soap.' In 1906, Procter and Gamble published How to Bring Up a Baby which would remain in print for some twenty years. Marketed as a parenting handbook for mothers, it contained legitimate advice on child rearing while also interspersing tips on how to use their Ivory Soap. The soapmaker Pears also published a kind of literary magazine called Pears’ Annual, replete with postcard insert ads for none other than Pears soaps.
The Lever Brothers Co. in particular became known for its aggressive, wide-reaching advertising which set a new normal for corporate marketing. Hiring famous artists to illustrate ads and conducting extensive market research ahead of campaigns ushered in a new era of advertising.
Continued advances in production and shipping left some manufacturers with a surplus of products. Manufacturers began designing different packaging for the exact same kind of soap after realizing they didn't need to attract new customers, they needed to create them. Suddenly, one cake (bar) of soap wasn't enough for an entire family. Mothers, fathers, and children were all encouraged to have their own 'just for them' products addressing their imagined particular needs and lifestyles. A soap for beauty, a soap for health, a soap for every skin type.
Taking care of a family's health (by buying the right soap) fell under 'woman's work,' naturally, and advertisements suggested a failure to do so would lead to shameful consequences.
The women in these advertisements appear concerned, bewildered, and insecure - until they and their families are transformed by the use of the advertised soap. These ads promised the restoration of beauty, ease, marital desire, and a return to youth.
Addressing, or eliminating, body odor became an intense focus, particularly for women. Harsh antiseptics like Lysol were marketed as vaginal douches and even as a method of birth control, all in the name of 'feminine hygiene.' Despite multiple deaths, chemical burn injuries, and infections, Lysol douching was recommended by doctors for years.
On November 2, 1920, Pittsburgh's KDKA aired the results of the presidential election (Warren Harding won), making it the first commercial radio broadcast in the U.S.
By 1921, hundreds of radio stations cropped up around the country. It was an exciting new medium of communication and entertainment, and a boon for advertisers. The Palmolive Hour, a musical-comedy sponsored by Colgate-Palmolive debuted in 1927 to great success. Quickly following was Clara, Lu, 'n Em sponsored by Super Suds Fast Dissolving Soap Beads, which would become the first daytime serial, later known as a 'soap opera.'
Procter and Gamble aired Oxydol's Own Ma Perkins in 1933, chronicling the life and times of a poor widow, Ma Perkins, whose burdens were lifted by none other than Oxydol laundry detergent.
The Lever Brothers, Rinso, Babs-O, and Duz ("Duz does everything") got in on the game as well, with the latter sponsoring The Guiding Light which eventually moved to television and became the longest running scripted show in TV history.
In 2016, soap was the highest grossing health and beauty care product sold in the United States, followed right behind by skincare products developed to replace the skin’s natural oils and rebalance its pH (like toners) after soap use. Wash on, wash off, wash on, wash off...
Light, Bright, and Perfectly White
Big Beauty has often reaped the benefits of colonialism, slavery, and eugenics. The Lever Brothers Co. used forced labor in Congolese palm oil plantations during Belgium's brutal occupation of the region. Between 1885-1908, half of the entire population of the Congo died, an estimated 10 million people. L'Oreal founder Eugène Schueller was an anti-Semite and nationalist associated with French Nazi sympathizers who had connections to the fascist dictators Mussolini and Franco in Italy and Spain, respectively. L'Oreal's first German headquarters was shamelessly located in a house whose Jewish occupants, the Rosenfelder family, were evicted and sent to concentration camps.
A vital component in soap marketing, one that exists to this day, has been the myth of its 'civilizing' powers. Or, put more bluntly, the proximity of cleanliness and a white racial identity. According to countless soap advertisers, their products have the ability not only to clean, but to 'uplift' people of color from unkempt savagery, even going so far as to whiten deeper skin tones. Early ads often featured Black domestic workers in astonishment of the soap's power or Black children being washed literally white.
Alternatively, soap advertisements featuring vague or outright derogatory references to Japan, China, Egypt, and Turkey featured 'exotic,' orientalist depictions of Asian and North African women. These figures were shown as sensual, hyperfeminine, and pale - often in repose, flirtatiously looking at the viewer, or being served by a dark-skinned servant.
By exoticising Asian women and holding them up as an ideal in comparison to darker skinned people, these advertisements perpetuate a kind of the 'model minority myth' and enforce whiteness as the default, just part of a neutral, American identity.
Advertisers directly contributed to the spread and legitimization of deeply harmful, racist tropes that deem skin of color - and by extension, people of color - unclean, undesirable, and Other. They achieved this through mass advertising of imagery and rhetoric that held a white racial identity as exceptional, innately moral, and attractive - particularly in comparison to Black and Indigenous people.
And they did it to turn a profit.
"Colonialism is often seen as a distant abstraction of the past. Yet, colonial mentalities and practices continue to reign supreme in how business operates today...[the] systems that are predicated on the extraction and exploitation of resources, from raw materials to labour, as the means for infinite growth and success." - Aditi Mayer, labor rights activist
The New School
Rates of inflammatory diseases like acne and eczema have been fast on the rise since we adopted these aggressive cleansing habits only a century ago. The most common skin conditions (like acne, rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema) are now widely considered to be inflammatory diseases, yet the market remains flooded with aggressive cleansers and exfoliants that chronically inflame the skin and compromise its delicate microbiome.
Thankfully, the tide is changing.
As we continue to question how the past has informed our practices and notions today, more and more research about the skin and the microbiome continues to emerge, and people are reconsidering our 'common sense' knowledge. In this day and age, we have unprecedented technology and access to information to help us understand the wide-reaching impact soap has had on our skin, our environment, and our psyches.
By rejecting the outdated, shaming messaging that Big Beauty has pushed for over a century, we set an entirely new tone to the conversations we have with ourselves and each other.
When we look at our bodies as part of our whole beings intrinsically worthy of care and protection, we can start to work with them, instead of trying to outsmart them. We can foster love and patience for them instead of trying to ‘fix’ or punish them. And then, we can take that love and care and multiply it by sharing it with others.
It's time to change the conversation and get real about getting clean.
About the AuthorJ.T. Alvarez is a writer and editor for CRUDE and the School of UnLearning. Find them on Instagram or Twitter @judeanism.