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Monday, 3 September 2012

A Question of Soap

Bored with the usual hand soap we get, last week instead I purchased a carton of what I shall refer to for legal reasons as "X & Y" hand wash. The design is a clever piece of marketing in itself: the font used for "X & Y" harks back to the early years of the 20th century, underneath the manufacturers name it just says "England", and the top of the bottle is made to look metallic (though still plastic). All in all it seems to hearken back to a more elegant age, and looks like the sort of hand soap you find in a posh hotel.

Apart from this cunningly wrought aura of opulence, what caught my eye was its claim that it contains vitamins A, B and C. So what? Can the body really absorb vitamins through the skin? Lots of soaps and gels inform you of the vitamins and minerals that they contain, but I don't think any ever make health claims based on this, which you'd think they would if they were able. Rather than potentially ruin this blog post, I won't do any immediate research to find out. However, a thought experiment says that if I can lie in a bath full of bath salts for half an hour, without any risk of becoming salty, then chances are that my skin is also opaque to vitamins. Also, I've never had to worry about what I might absorb from sun block, and yet I'm pretty sure that's not supposed to be taken internally.

I may be doing Messrs X & Y a grave injustice here, but I'm starting to think that the real reason they mention these vitamins is to create a mental association between health-giving substances and their product.

They are not the only ones to use this technique. One popular brand makes a virtue of being pH neutral. But other soaps will point out that they contain zesty citrus fruits, while still others talk about their milkiness. So there we have three possibilities: acidic, alkaline, and neutral. Are they all good for the skin? Or is there maybe a range of values between highly acidic and highly alkaline in which the skin doesn't really care? Each one though conjures up a mental image of healthiness through its choice of ingredients.

So is adding these ingredients to soap completely pointless? (I'm now wondering how nicotine patches work.) I shall keep a lookout for soaps that have their nutritional value printed on the packaging. Or perhaps fruit-scented shower gel that counts as one of my "five a day".

[Should X & Y's lawyers be able to identify their clients from this post, I hasten to add that the soap feels and smells wonderful—well worth that little bit extra.]