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Rub a dub dub, natural soap in the tub

Bryce Edmonds

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Rub a dub dub, natural soap in the tub

Rubber ducky, you're the one. You make bath time so much fun … and so do the ever-increasing styles of natural and organic bar soaps available. As natural products stores' health and beauty sections becomes more robust, and the quest to lure customers into their well-groomed aisles intensifies, the bar soap shelves are filling out with new ingredients, new packaging and new brands.

According to San Francisco-based market research firm SPINS, in 2005 the soap and bath preparations category in natural products stores had the second highest sales in personal care, at more then $60 million, a 15.5 percent change from the year before. Bar soap, specifically, saw 13.8 percent growth to nearly $20 million. Unlike some personal care products that require education, soap is a relatively easy sell, says Autumn Blum, formulator and chief executive officer at Clearwater, Fla.-based Organix South. "People love soap. And once they try an organic soap bar especially, they don't go back," she says. Organix's soaps are made with organic oils.

Organic is a hot buzzword in personal care—as it is across the store—but the best you can hope for at present with soap is a "made with" designation. As groups such as the Organic Trade Association and others struggle with crafting an organic personal care standard, soap remains a sticking point. The problem is that saponification has a "caustic" phase, where either sodium or potassium hydroxide is added—neither of which can be sourced organically. The amount used of either ingredient is over the 5 percent allowed for an organic designation.

In the meantime, many soap companies are using whatever organic ingredients they can. Joshua Onysko, CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based Pangea Organics, formulates his soaps with organic ingredients and also consults with other brands to help clean up their ingredients. "If you're selling something in HABA in Wild Oats, you should be able to buy the ingredients used in the product in the store," he says. "True sustainability means helping others get clean as well."

Novel and healing ingredients are also making their way into the soap category. One With Nature Dead Sea Mineral soaps, made in Jordan, are triple-milled and contain Dead Sea minerals and muds. Robert Tepper, sales manager for the brand, says this gives One With Nature's soaps an exfoliation component, as well as pH balance. "I think across the board—I'll make a parallel with functional foods—people are looking to get health benefits from their staples," he says. The company sources most of its dyes and scents locally in Jordan.

Mia DiFrancesco-Licata, brand manager for Kiss My Face's Obsessively Organic line, says, "I think the majority of people are becoming savvy as to what they're putting on their skin. It's not just cleaning; you're nourishing and moisturizing it." She says Olive and Aloe is the No. 1 selling blend for Gardiner, N.Y.-based Kiss My Face, whose owners started selling soap out of their Volkswagen in the early 1980s.

Organix South's soaps use neem for its healing properties. "Neem has so many therapeutic properties it's called 'the village pharmacy.' If I mention all the properties neem has in one sitting, people think I'm selling snake oil," Blum says, laughing. She says neem is similar to tea tree oil in its benefits, and is great for parasites. "One primary benefit over tea tree is it's not astringent to your skin." Also, because of its antimicrobial properties, neem is self-preserving, she says. "I have two 4- to 6-year-old bars that aren't rancid." Blum says one of her most frequently asked questions is: " 'Can I use it on my face?' And I say, 'Yes, absolutely.' " In fact, the company's Facial Complexion Bar addresses that need.

Tepper says many independent natural products stores are catching on to expansion in the bar soap category, even while recognizing that growth in the washes and gels category has been explosive. According to SPINS, the body wash and bath gel category showed 22.3 percent growth in natural products stores in 2005.

Still, DiFrancesco-Licata says traditionally, everyone has bar soap in his or her bathtub. "You can have the greatest shower gels and funky things in the shower, but ultimately it's the soap. It's so versatile. Kids like to play with it—and adults too."

But Onysko says naturals soap manu?facturers can't rest on the success they've had thus far. "A lot of the innovation is starting to happen in the prestige market. I know for a fact, a company that I consult with that is one of the larger cosmetic companies in the world, is going to be launching a fully, truly organic line very similar to Pangea's ... in the next six months," he says. "And these products won't be available in the natural products channel."

As word continues to spread of the benefits of natural and organic skin care, Onysko says it's up to the naturals channel to respond by creating truly clean products that work. Blum says the demand is there for manufacturers to continue to raise the bar on bar soaps. Whether it be "smell-good soaps" or styles with more "therapeutic" benefits, "People are willing to pay more for an organic bar or for fair trade or for companies that have strong ethics," she says.

Thankfully, says DiFrancesco-Licata, the message of better ingredients, better quality and an attention to ethical manufacturing is getting through to bar-soap consumers. "It's really good for everyone and it's universal in a home. Years ago people would buy Ivory for the baby and then something else for themselves," she says. "Now bar soap can be universal for everyone."

Next month: liquid soap and shower gel.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 2/p. 34, 36

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