Last week we published a story about what the soap in your downstairs loo really says about you. Who knew that something so prosaic would cause such debate. "People who try and impress their visitors by leaving expensive soap on display are just so pretentious,’" wrote one outraged reader. "A good bar of Lifebuoy works wonders," added another.
I couldn’t help agreeing with these readers. I also judge people on their choice of "handwash" – with utter disgust for buying such an appalling product. I don’t care what brand it is, from Aldi’s own label to Santa Maria Novella’s liquid soap (£50 for 250ml): any form of liquid handwash is an indefensible consumer choice. The only kind of handwash I respect is a good old bar of soap.
What’s wrong with "handwash"? Well, the Orwellian construct of the name for the stuff sets me on edge, even before I start thinking about all the other things wrong with it – and it’s perfect for such a contrived product. Born from a point of particular evil where petrochemicals meet marketing.
Handwash, and it's equally horrid and unnecessary sibling "bodywash", is basically Fairy liquid, just with a nicer smell and some emollients to make it feel creamier on the skin. It’s a detergent made from oil – that precious and finite commodity. On top of that, it is sold in single-use plastic bottles. Plastic that is also made from oil.
Plastic bottles that we send off in our recycling with a little warm feeling that we’ve done the right thing, although it is well documented that less than 10 per cent of the UK’s consumer plastic is actually recycled. The rest of it gets shipped to Third World countries, or is just dumped in landfill here, decomposing for the next 1,000 years, while releasing toxins into the ecosystem.
Of course, there is the option to store handwash in more eco-friendly glass pump bottles that can be topped up at your local refill shop. But the stuff that goes into those goody-goody glass bottles is still oil-based detergent – well, 5 per cent of it is.
The other 95 per cent is pure water. And, as anyone who has ever picked up a full watering can knows, water is very heavy. So, imagine the amount of diesel fumes being pumped into our air every year, transporting plastic bottles of oil-based detergent handwash to supermarkets and corner shops up and down the country – 95 per cent of it actually just water.
See what I mean? Indefensible. Particularly when we already have a well-established – and I think, much nicer – alternative to keep our hands and bodies clean. Those good old bars of lovely soap. Small and compact, easy to transport and they last ages longer than the liquid version, which have pump springs deliberately designed to squirt out slightly more gloop than you need with each dispense.
With a bar of soap, you turn it over in your hands as often as feels right to get sufficient dirt-lifting bubble action. One bar of soap lasts a couple of months, or longer, at my bathroom sink.
The odd thing is, while the normality of handwash seems to be fixed in the national consciousness, the message about the unacceptability of 95 per cent water products in single-use plastic seems to be sinking in when it comes to shampoo.
Shampoo bars started out as beardy-weirdy health-shop niche products – and weren’t great to use – but are now properly decent and fully mainstream, with even elite hair care brands like John Frieda producing them, on sale at high-street chemists.
There is increasingly a sense of prestige to be seen to be using such eco-friendly beauty care – as there is with "clean beauty" products, containing no potentially noxious chemicals. (As you’ll know, if you’ve seen the crowds in Liberty’s beauty hall around the just-landed US clean make-up brand Jones Road.)
So why don’t we all come together and endow that well-deserved status onto bar soap? For me, unwrapping a fresh bar – from the paper packaging - is one of life’s joyous mini treats, on a level with getting into bed with clean sheets and buying a new lipstick. And even before you do that, you can press it into service, using it to scent underwear drawers and knitwear, while giving it a few months to harden off, which is the secret to making each bar of soap last much longer once put to use. (A tip I’m very grateful to my late mum for.)
Buying the stuff is a treat in itself – which is why bar soap is still a traditional gift purchase, coming in lovely wrapping and box sets. One of my favourite places to buy it is National Trust shops, which sell a great brand called Soap Folk.
I also love the classic Bronnley soaps in the shape of lemons and limes, wrapped in twists of tissue, the vintage Portuguese brands in wonderfully illustrated boxes, and classic Provencal olive oil soap, which comes in an array of scents and colours. And while any prestige branding will soon wear off the bare bar of soap, you can make up for that with another "shop-portunity" the product brings with it: a lovely soap dish for the bar to sit on.