Pouf! Soaps transformed into magic potions

March 16, 1997|By Susan Reimer

WHATEVER happened to Ivory soap?

You know, 99 and 44/100 percent pure. So pure it floats. Buy three bars and get an extra one free.

Whatever happened to Ivory soap?

It used to be right there in the grocery store, stacked like bricks next to Dial and Dove. In the same aisle with Comet cleanser and SOS pads.

Sometime around 1994, bathing stopped being a matter of personal hygiene for American women and became a pampering ritual and poor, plain, pure Ivory soap and its bar soap buddies were left behind.

Now the sills of our tubs are crowded with bottles of brightly colored, fruit-flavored shower gels and body washes. Mesh poufs aerate these products into a fragrant lather and we soothe and moisturize -- or exfoliate and invigorate -- ourselves where once we were just trying not to offend.

"In Europe, liquid soaps have been popular for a long time," says Kim Cruise, publications manager for Marketing Intelligence Service in Naples, N.Y.

"The theory was that American women didn't like to touch their own bodies. But when poufs came along, the market went wild."

Soap is no longer just soap, but a body-care product, and it has moved out of the grocery store and the drugstore and into its own little boutique in the mall, where it is served up in fruit and vegetable flavors and with a side order of politics.

Anita Roddick pioneered the politically correct soap shop in the early 1970s in England, proclaiming that neither the animal kingdom nor the environment suffered for her products, but no one believed Americans would give up their white washcloths and bars of soap.

In 1994, Procter & Gamble, Lever and Jergens shelled out $50 million each to launch their moisturizing body washes, and the race was on. Since then, bar soap sales have been flat while body-wash sales have tripled or doubled every year.

In just five years, the New York Times reported, the number of stores has grown to more than 2,000, and it has become a $24.2 billion business.

That's because body washes appeal to the harried older woman with enough disposable income to pamper herself, and to the teens and 20-somethings who don't have enough money for much more than that. There is something about a pretty pastel pouf and a new bottle of pineapple and papaya body wash that makes you feel like a pretty woman.

And everybody wants to get in the shower with you. Apparel stores such as the Limited, Eddie Bauer, the Gap and Banana Republic, seeing "lifestyle" shops replace the marginal clothing shops around them in the mall, started offering their own lines of fragrance and body-care products right next to the jeans and sweaters.

The profit margins are huge on these little bottles, and the very idea of them dovetails nicely with our new favorite notion of the home as a place of retreat and serenity.

Bath and Body Works, a division of the Limited, is the market leader. Decorated in gingham, it offers scents inspired by home-baked pies. Crabtree & Evelyn puts you in mind of an English tearoom. In Victoria's Secret, there are scents to wear under your underwear. Only the folks in Greenpeace can feel comfortable in the Body Shop. And Garden Botanika has entered the field as greener than thou.

Even Hallmark is selling bath gels and scented soaps with their cards, for goodness' sakes.

There are soaps for men named after something they might encounter while hunting deer: Canyon, Woodlands, Cool Spring, Forest Moss. And soaps for babies: Beatrix Potter's Tom Kitten has his own line of lotions and body washes. And something for the preteen: bubble-gum flavored gel. Perfect for when you are provoked into washing out a smart mouth with soap.

A year ago, I did not know what sea kelp or tea tree oil or shea butter was, and now I can't believe I ever put anything else next to my skin. I don't want to think about the fact that I once bathed in soaps made from animal fats.

And exfoliation is my life now. Where was Ivory soap when I was covered with all those dead skin cells?

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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