Few people expected that the doomsday world would be full of soap bubbles. Under the epidemic, what makes people feel deeply is not the broken windows on the street, but the endless consumption of hand-washing supplies. Last year, in the weeks following the outbreak, the sales of soaps and disinfectants in the UK soared, up 255% from the same period in 2019.
If the dazzling light of science and technology has illuminated the entire 20th century, the bleak 2020 will give us another insight. Our main weapon against new diseases has actually been perfected as early as the Victorian era-that is soap and water.
| Soap and Identity Politics |
Since soap came into people’s daily life in the 19th century, few people have praised it. Why have we ignored the pleasure of soap for so long? This is somewhat related to “identity politics”. Bacteria and viruses will not only have a soft spot for women’s hands, and dirt will not only appear in women’s vision. However, the history of soap is tightly tied to long-standing stereotypes-a good woman needs to be pure and flawless, and a real man needs to be strong and sloppy. In the end, soap has become a feminist issue.
Just think about marketing routines. As one of the global soap giants, none of the 11 refreshing characters displayed by Dove on its official website are male. In recent years, Dove has also deliberately praised “real” women of various sizes, weights and skin colors in TV and print ads, rather than skinny blonde models. The brand said: “We can decide for ourselves what is beautiful. This is not a person’s right, but our own right.” But it seems that Dove’s inclusive package seems to have nothing to do with men.
Women do pay more attention to personal hygiene than men. A 2005 survey in the United States showed that only 75% of men wash their hands after going to the toilet, while 90% of women wash their hands. This result is purely expected. After all, for hundreds of years, women have listened to compliments and firmly believe that soap cleaning is their specialty. For most of human history, the whole society has relied on women for free cleaning work-washing dishes, washing clothes, and bathing children. Women’s lofty ambitions and hand-washing habits have also been formed.
In fact, most of our knowledge of the cleaning principle is attributed to the German female scientist Agnes Perkel in the late 19th century. This smart and hardworking girl is full of hunger for knowledge, and she wants to go to university. However, after her younger brother went to college, she could only stay at home to take care of her parents, wash the dishes in the kitchen, and then teach herself the textbooks that her younger brother discarded.
Staring at the sink day after day, Perkel began to think: Why does the grease slip off the plate after using soap? After doing a few simple experiments, she came up with a way to measure surface tension. She wrote her observations to a British scientist who immediately discovered her talent and sent her letter to the academic journal Nature. In March 1891, Perkel’s article was published. At the end of the article, the British scientist introduced Perkel as a “German lady who used extremely simple instruments to achieve extremely valuable results.”
Perkel’s observations laid the foundation for the current sub-discipline of chemistry “surface science”. Researchers in this subject are trying to figure out how one substance adheres to another, and viruses are also in the subject.
| The composition and efficacy of soap |
The most basic soap formula has thousands of years of history. The ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder was one of the first to record this formula. According to his observation, the Celtics used a mixture of animal fat and ashes to dye their hair a faint red. Perhaps because he didn’t understand the principle of dyeing, the old Pliny made a mistake about the causality of the whole thing. However, he did figure out the raw material of the soap. The method of making soap is to mix oil and alkali, and the product of ashes dissolved in water is a kind of alkali.
This formula seems to be able to perform magical magic. Animal fat and ashes-the typical representatives of these two filthy things can produce a purification effect after being mixed. No wonder soap was once regarded as a sacred object.
The bases used today are all artificially synthesized, but the soap molecules produced are much the same as in the past. Andrea Serra, a professor of chemistry at University College London, gave a vivid analogy: “They are like sperm, with a head and a long oily tail.” The head is hydrophilic and the tail is lipophilic. When encountering stubborn stains, soap molecules will assemble into a “special police team.” They have their tails facing in and their heads facing out, forming a smooth, easy-to-wash sphere that tightly surrounds stains.
The two-pronged effectiveness of soap is also reflected in its ability to destroy the fragile envelopes of viruses and bacteria, causing them to disintegrate. Some soaps advertise the “antibacterial” effect, but in fact, the effect of soap is antibacterial. People don’t need to be afraid to share soap with others, as Serra said: “Usually soap will dissolve the dirt on its surface by itself.”
Whether it’s cheap pear soap bars, bottled liquid soaps, or Qatar soaps worth $2,800 inlaid with gold and diamonds, although the shapes are different, the basic chemical process is the same. The only factor that affects the effectiveness of soap is concentration. The concentration is high and it can be washed well. Otherwise, it will not be cleaned.
| Soap and marketing routines |
Soap is one of the most important inventions of mankind, but it took a while before it became popular. Despite the enthusiasm of the old Pliny, the Romans still continued their old habit of washing things with human urine. It was not until the 19th century that people clearly realized the important role of soap for personal hygiene. At that time, the stinking river Thames in London sparked a revolution in public health and sanitation. But even so, the promotion of soap still took a lot of effort. If the early advertisements said that soap was a fatty acid salt made from meat processing waste, I am afraid that people would not sell it out.
Soap manufacturers have long realized that only dreams can bring sales, but fear cannot (unless an epidemic is encountered). Pear brand is one step ahead by packaging soap into a coveted product to sell. In the 1880s, the company hired London’s most attractive sexy girl, Lily Langtry, as its spokesperson, and Langtry became the first woman to speak for merchandise. In an early Pear brand advertisement, Langtry held a piece of soap and said: “It has a unique effect on hands and complexion.”
Since then, soap sellers have advocated that their products can beautify the skin. In 1942, an ad by Lux asked bluntly: “Do you want to be more attractive?” In a picture of Palmolive in the 1940s, a lady smiled shyly at the camera. “I love my husband too much,” she wrote in the speech bubble floating out of her mouth, “I don’t want my skin to be dry and lifeless like a middle-aged person.”
With this demanding femininity view deeply rooted in Western society, a view that emphasizes masculinity came into being-men’s skin should be covered with sweat and dirt. Photographers such as Bill Brandt and Earl Dott have provided a key reference for the image of a man: in their lens, hard work has carved a tired mark on the dark face of the man. As the saying goes, women only need to be radiant, and men have to sweat all their sweat.
This cleansing concept has another dirty face-it advocates whitewashing black skin anyway. In an early pear advertisement, a black baby stepped into the bathtub and miraculously turned white when he came out. This propaganda routine has been circulating for a long time.
In recent years, soap sellers have switched to selling to women with new theories. The selling point of soap is no longer to increase the attractiveness of the opposite sex, but to soothe the mood, smooth wrinkles, and unfold women’s frowning brows. As the Royal Soap promised: “Help you relax, wash away your worries, and focus on yourself.”
On the surface, this kind of propaganda can empower women, but the subtext in it is essentially the same. The group of children in the family makes women very frustrated, and taking care of housework and work makes women exhausted. At this time, the advertisement whispered: What women need is not equality, feminism, nor is the husband sharing the burden for them, but buying a bar of soap and taking a bath.
From an economic point of view, investing in a basic cleaning product with such a high cultural added value can be very profitable. The money we spend on soaps and body washes has increased year by year. Even before the pandemic triggered a pandemic, the global market value of cleaning products had exceeded US$40 billion.
However, Dr. James Hambling, author of “Cleaning: The New Science of Skin,” believes that people don’t have to go crazy with soap. He wrote at the beginning of the book: “I haven’t bathed since five years ago.” Even if we are no longer as enthusiastic about cleaning as others taught us, we can still live well, and even in many ways, we can live. Better.
As we become more enthusiastic about washing, scrubbing, and washing our skin, the incidence of diseases such as psoriasis and eczema has increased. The health revolution makes us think that all bacteria are harmful, but this is not the case. A deeper understanding of the microbiome allows us to pay more attention to the bacteria in our intestines. So, what if the dirt on our skin is also important?
Soap can’t wash away our worries. It is neither a panacea for eternal youth, nor a soothing ointment for the frustrated. These are all nonsense that bursts like soap bubbles.