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Bar soaps get love from millennials raised on the liquid stuff

Often locally crafted with environmentally friendly packaging and natural ingredients like poppy seeds, sea salt, and coffee, natural bar soaps have aesthetic advantages.

Sarah Graves, 29, looks through the bars of soap sold at Duross & Langel.
Sarah Graves, 29, looks through the bars of soap sold at Duross & Langel.Read moreJOY LEE / Staff Photographer

When Sarah Graves is feeling tense, she reaches for a bar of stress-relief soap made from bergamot, blood orange, ylang-ylang, and grapefruit. Other days, sandalwood or lavender soap are the 29-year-old's elixir.

A body-wash user until she was given bar soap as a gift in her early 20s, Graves is now all about the bar. But not just any kind — the several bars she keeps in her shower are all-natural and locally made.

"The fragrance is far superior and not synthetic. A higher-quality bar soap doesn't leave that film on your skin, and it's more gentle and won't irritate my skin like conventional bar soap," said Graves, of South Philadelphia, who spends about $40 a month on bars.

Once the soap standard, bars lost 5 percent of their market share to liquids and body washes between 2010 and 2015, according to market researcher Mintel. The main culprits: Users ages 18 to 24 who, according to the study, believe bars hold more germs (though research doesn't support the theory).

But the tide is changing. Often locally crafted with environmentally friendly packaging and natural ingredients like poppy seeds, sea salt, and coffee, natural bar soaps with aesthetic advantages — they tend to look and smell more interesting than commercial soap — are luring millennials raised on liquid soap.

"People in their late teens and early 20s come into the store and don't even know what bar soap is," said Ginger Kuczowicz, who makes all-natural soap as owner of SoapBox in Bella Vista. "They touch it, they smell it, and there's nothing that causes their nostrils to go wild. Once they try it, they come back."

Kuczowicz, who opened SoapBox in December 2013, carries 13 varieties and charges $7.50 for 5½ ounces, using "very simple scent combinations like lavender and lemongrass." Sales have increased each year: 2,100 bars in 2014, 3,000 in 2015, and 3,400 last year.

Quavin Johnson, 39, a self-described vegetarian who enjoys clean living, switched from liquid soap to bars about five years ago, when she discovered that "people were making all-natural, oil-based bars." Then, when the Bella Vista woman had a second son, she realized it was better for kids, a big switch when most soaps marketed to children come in a pump.

"Liquid soaps and kids are not a good match because they tend to spill all the liquid everywhere," she said. "The bar is more controlled."

She also uses bar soap — apple cider vinegar — for her hair. It strips out the extra oil and balances the pH in her scalp, she said. "You don't need conditioner, and it gets your hair really, really clean."

Steve Duross, owner of Duross & Langel in Center City, said his store's brand has continued to grow among 20- to 35-year-olds. "As the demographic gets a little older and demands a better product," he said, "they begin looking for a more sophisticated formulation."

When Duross opened the store in 2004, he sold about 7,000 pounds of soap. Last year, he sold more than 10,000 pounds — 65 soaps, plus seasonal varieties, for $24.95 a pound. Averaging about one-third of a pound, a bar costs about $7, with half-bars selling for $3.50. For kids, butterfly duck soap and fish in a bag are fun and gentle at $6 each.

You might say Duross was born to make the stuff. He learned from his grandmother, who made soap while raising three daughters alone during the Depression, taking animal scraps her butcher brothers brought home to render the tallow. "I got her recipes and updated them and made them all vegan," Duross said. "Most mass-manufactured bars are either detergent-based or tallow-based, which is animal fat, and most people don't want to bathe with animal fat."

For every bar of soap Hand in Hand Soap sells, another bar is donated to a child in Haiti, a philanthropic practice born of Courtney Apple and Bill Glaab's reason for founding the Philadelphia company — 45 percent of child deaths from water-related illnesses could be prevented with simple hand washing.

Beyond the philanthropy, the popularity of bar soaps is about sustainability, said Zofia Wolicki, Hand in Hand's chief operating officer: a wrapper vs. a plastic bottle of body wash, natural ingredients vs. palm oil — "terrible for the environment and one of the causes of significant damage to our environment and increasing global warming," she said, as the oil is taken from rain forests in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Amazon.

The company initially offered one scent, orange blossom, in boutiques and online, retailing for $11 a 5-ounce bar. As sales increased, the price dropped, making the soap more affordable for millennials, "who care more about finding brands that are socially aligned as well as environmentally friendly," said Wolicki.

Now, three additional scents — coral, lavender, and the most popular, sea salt — are sold in Target stores for $4.99. The company sold 5,000 bars its first year; in 2016, more than 100,000.

Due to client demand, Rescue Spa, a luxury day spa in Center City, now carries three-dozen bar soaps, up from just six kinds it sold three years ago. Older clients who have used commercial bar soaps for years appreciate the skin-softening benefits of natural soaps, said Kim Zimmerman, Rescue Spa's e-commerce and marketing director. "And millennials appreciate the eco-conscious packaging, that they're organic, and Korean beauty products are all the rage," she said, noting that the best-sellers are natural organic Gounjae soaps selling for $14 to $19 and wrapped in traditional Korean paper called hanji.

And Morihata's black charcoal soap, $32 for 3.8 ounces, is popular among teenage boys (bought by their mothers) for bacne (acne on the back), she said.

Arjun Goswami, 11, and his sister, Ariya, 9, already have been trained in the benefits of bar soap.

"Body wash is slimy," Arjun said. Added his sister, "Bars are easier to hold, and body wash makes more of a mess."