Like many elder millennials, I’ve spent the past few years watching the fads of my adolescence become trendy again, with a mix of nostalgia and confusion. On the one hand, it’s thrilling to see Delia’s knockoffs crop up in stores I can now afford to shop at, but on the other, it’s disheartening to watch a new generation be terrorized by low-rise jeans and bucket hats.
I do remember the appeal, though. As a girl aspiring to be a woman in the 1990s and early 2000s, everything I coveted was shiny, squishy, and made of plastic, from the silver jellies on my feet to the blue blow-up chair in my bedroom that I won at a bat mitzvah. In my eyes, sophistication meant rolling multicolor body glitter onto my skin with a plastic applicator and applying thick layers of sweet-smelling gloss straight from the Lancôme Juicy Tube. It was truly the glazed donut of design eras.
Bath oil beads were the perfect manifestation of these 1990s trends—colorful, plasticky capsules made of hard gelatin that melted when submerged in water to release a stream of fragrant bath oil, turning your tub into a slippery deathtrap. Although their popularity peaked in the 1990s, bath beads have been around since as early as the 1960s, and were referenced in a 1964 New York Times article about the once-booming bath oil business and its mission to moisturize women’s dry wintertime skin. “Because today’s economy is based on boons that produce problems requiring something else to solve them, everyone from chemical manufacturers to perfumers has jumped into the bathtub,” it read.
You heard that right: The original bath beads referenced in the article were created not by a luxury beauty brand but by a chemical company. When women started using water softeners designed for laundry and dishwashing to bathe in hard-water areas—gross—the Calgon Corporation got the idea to add scented oils, change the packaging, and remarket its water softener as Calgon Bath Oil Beads. In 1964 you could get a pound of the strong-smelling spheres at the supermarket for just $0.79, making it easy for you to become, as the NYT suggested, a “hedonist who wants to sleep surrounded by waves of fragrance.”
But despite their ubiquity, it would take decades for bath beads to reach the craze levels they did in the 1990s, when a curious combination of social and cultural factors made squishy, indulgent items particularly irresistible. “The popularity of bath oil beads in the 1990s and early 2000s happened during a time that elevated pampering, indulgence, playfulness, and fun,” Daniel Levine, a trend expert and director at the Avant-Guide Institute, told me. “Swatch watches made Swiss quality fun, Miami Vice equated bright pastels with luxury lifestyles, and techno party fashion highlighted shiny baubles and neon accessories. Bath beads embodied this trend with their powerful scents, bright colors, and shiny appearance.”
Those beguiling orbs left a lasting impression. Recently, I tweeted about bath oil beads and was met with a surprising flood of sensory-specific nostalgia. “I can feel these in my hand and I want to pop one so badly,” replied one person. “I spent my allowance at Pier One Imports on these. Little stars and moons. The pain of resisting just straight up squishing them with yer fingies!” remembered another.
Some people didn’t resist, though. Many people ate them, thinking they were candy, or at least wanted to, a phenomenon strikingly similar to the Tide Pods craze from a few years ago. In a 2018 article for Atlas Obscura, neuroanthropologist John S. Allen attempted to explain why squishy things like detergent pods are so appetizing: They look like ripe fruit, they’re all types of interesting shapes and colors, and they have an “intermediate texture” not dissimilar to meat. “It’s not hard like a rock, where you would immediately say, ‘I can’t chew this,’ ” he said. The same could be said for bath beads, which look and smell closer to Gushers than beauty products.
For those who didn’t eat them, bath beads made a lovely, jewel-like decoration that often went untouched … for years. “I always think of these sitting in a pretty bowl covered in a fine layer of dust because we were saving them,” confirmed @stickfigure_d, a Twitter user who responded to my tweet. This habit of hoarding bath beads for some imaginary future use was indicative of a larger trend: According to Levine, “Bath products in the 1990s brought public aesthetics to the personal space, so much so that many homes had the beads on display even when there was no intention of ever using them.” That would explain why I chose to display the French vanilla bath beads I’d begged my parents to get me at Bath & Body Works until they eventually deflated, never once having been used in a bath.
After their cultural peak in the 1990s, bath beads lost their luster and were rapidly replaced by the next big thing in accessible bath-time luxury—the bath bomb. Lush, their infamous creator, launched its first store in Canada in 1996, and soon, the oozing bath-bead residue at the bottom of our tubs had been replaced by grainy remnants from a once-fizzing ball of scented chalk. The colorful bath bead containers that blanketed gift tables at every mall in America also disappeared, creating a new demand on sites like eBay and Etsy from those craving the nostalgic self-care ritual.
Today on the independent bath-bead market, $15.95 will get you 50 green butterfly-shaped gardenia bath oil beads from an eBay user who goes by “soapman2008” and whose store has more than 2,000 five-star reviews. Throwing down $19.18 will get you a container of assorted scented moisturizing bath oil beads—including a banana-shaped bead varietal—from Canadian store Crafted Bath. I spoke with Melanie Forsyth, the owner of Crafted Bath, who told me the bath beads are the most highly searched items in her store.
Now, with ’90s trends overtaking both the runway and social media, bath beads are poised to make a major comeback, but they’re going to have to meet our new 2023 product standards first. The bath beads that adorned my bathroom counter growing up were filled with artificial colors and scents known to throw off vaginal pH, leading to yeast infections and UTIs, and their gelatin casings made them particularly unfriendly for vegans and other concerned citizens. In the perfectly put words of @bigkittenqueen, another one of my tweet respondents, “Cannot believe all the dyes and perfumes and whatever the hell else is in these things that I used to just sit and marinate my pussy in.”
“These days, people are more conscious about healthful ingredients, organic materials, and sustainable manufacturing processes that won’t harm the environment,” said Levine, who predicted that as bath beads gain traction again, “they’ll be a kinder, gentler bead that aligns with our current sensibilities.”
It’s not just the ingredients that have gotten an upgrade for the new millennium, though. Fashion insider Stacee Michelle, who fondly remembers the bath beads of her youth, noted how “the Crayola box of artificial colors that used to adorn Grandmother’s bathtub have been replaced with subtle champagnes and lavenders.” In other words, Miami Vice is out; White Lotus is in.
Fur, a company striving to offer a “kinder, gentler” bead, offers a champagne-colored oil orb that’s still rooted in nostalgia. The clean-beauty brand launched its Bath Drops in 2018—they’re made with a seaweed casing and a blend of softening oils meant to target dry skin, irritation, and itchy hair follicles. The product page makes a point to note: “Unlike the bath beads of the ’90s, which were produced with gelatin casings, Bath Drops contain absolutely zero animal products and are made with clean ingredients.”
LipBuzz has also elevated its bath beads for 2023 standards, but it’s leaning into the nostalgia factor even harder, offering fun animal shapes that call back to the tiny jeweled creatures I coveted as a kid. Many of the reviews on LipBuzz’s Etsy store directly reference nostalgia, showing how excited purchasers are to rediscover such an enjoyable product from years past. “These bath oil beads are EXACTLY as I remember them from my childhood. SO HAPPY!!!” one commenter wrote next to her five-star review.
Their nostalgic approach is also working on TikTok, where LipBuzz has 74,000 followers and a ton of engagement from viewers rediscovering the joy of sitting in the tub squishing a half-melted bath oil bead between your fingers. People are figuring out the beads have ASMR applications too. One video, with more 212,000 likes, shows a person squeezing LipBuzz’s bath beads into a tub, the sloshing water and the faint popping sounds of the beads providing an achingly satisfying sound.
It’s not clear yet whether bath beads will persist this time, or if they’ll just sit on our shelves again, gathering dust for another few decades until we circle back to them. But for now, there’s only one thing we can do while we wait to find out—squish them, squeeze them, and desperately avoid putting them in our mouths.