The recent backlash against plastic has for the most part been centred on food and drinks packaging waste, but the toiletries and cosmetics industries are not immune. The current anti-plastic climate may in fact spur a renaissance for one particular personal hygiene item – the humble bar of soap.

Disposable products such as ear buds and toothbrushes have already been targeted. British environment secretary Michael Gove is considering banning all cotton buds with plastic stems within the next year, while the EU has included them in its own, wide-ranging ban on single-use plastic, announced last Wednesday and effective from 2021. In the current line of thought, the myriad of plastic bottles that occupy many home bathrooms could be next in the firing line.

Prior to achieving a 3% gain in sales last year, solid soap products had been declining in favour of liquid handwash in plastic pump top dispensers, but now the low volume of packaging required by solid soap has put them in an advantageous position. Many are already packaged in cardboard and paper, materials which are easily recyclable and quick to degrade, while those that come wrapped in a protective plastic film use far less plastic than standard liquid handwash products – and that is just to mention hand soap.

Gone are the days when one bar of soap would be used for the hands, face and body. The well-groomed consumer is likely to have multiple plastic bottles of product in the bathroom cabinet, each with specific uses. The solid products filtering into the beauty and hygiene market reflect this.

Solid face washes targeting different skin types, solid shower gels, shampoos and conditioners are also available on the high street. Lush, the high street champion of environmental beauty, offers all of these in addition to solid deodorants and several other light packaging products, but the move towards solids can also be seen in high-end skincare brands.

Exclusive American skincare brand Drunk Elephant offers cleansing and clarifying solid face products, while Sisley Paris offers a soapless facial cleansing bar. If companies can bridge the gap between high-end and hippy to bring solid hygiene products to the masses, this would be another step in the right direction to reduce consumption of single-use plastics.

A key barrier that producers will have to overcome, however, is the comically paradoxical notion of solid soap being somehow unclean. Since widespread introduction of plastics into consumer goods in the post-World War II era there has been a direct link between plastic packaging and the notion of hygiene: if an item is wrapped in plastic or dispensed from a plastic container, it is free from the taint of human touch and is therefore sterile and safe to use. If producers can quell these fears, rebrand the outdated image of the soap dish and help consumers to adjust to unpackaged living, then solid soap may once again become a fixture of consumers’ bathrooms.

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