Science

Is Dove Soap Actually Soap?

A Slate investigation into a question I never thought would matter quite this much.

A bar of Dove soap with question marks beside it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Unilever.

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

Until a few nights ago, I thought I understood what soap was. But these days, I’m up for being wrong about just about anything I once took for granted in this world. That perhaps explains why I was disproportionately alarmed when I saw a single tweet, from an account that seemed to project a worrisome amount of authority:

This is baffling: To the naked eye, Dove bars are very obviously soap. They are the exact correct size to fit in soap dishes. You can use them in the shower to get dirt and bad smells off of your body, which is different from what “just moisturizer” does. If I remember correctly, back to the time when I could use products other than the approximately four things I happen to currently have in my home, they smell and feel like soap too.

It probably would have been possible to ignore @jmbjornholm (66 followers as of this writing) as someone being wrong and shouty on the internet. But in a confusing twist, the brand’s Twitter account replied to @jmbjornholm thusly:

Now I really needed to know! Is Dove soap actually soap? If it is not soap, what on earth is it?

In addition to denying that they are soap in the tweet I saw, Dove call its bars “beauty bars,” which does make the fairly convincing argument that they are … not soap. (Dove’s own head dermatologist once told Bustle, “I truly wish people would stop using soap,” further bolstering this case.) Then again, most brands prefer to refer to their goods using marketing nonsense, rather than real terms that belie the pedestrian nature of their actual abilities. (Remember, there used to be a time, about three months ago, when hand-washing wasn’t in the zeitgeist.) According to a vintage black-and-white Dove commercial, “soap dries,” but “Dove creams,” whatever that means; maybe the company is just trying to distance itself from any negative connotations people might have about soap(?). The fine print on Dove’s website notes that what the “beauty bar” is composed of is a “gentle cleansing formula,” which sounds an awful lot like the one magical thing we have currently available on this pandemic-stricken planet that is able to dismantle the virus: soap.

I mean … right?

I decided to check in with some third-party literature.

In an article for Cosmopolitan (also known as ”the Bible”) titled “These Moisturizing Soaps Won’t Dry Your Hands Out,” a writer explains that “Dove is known for its mild soap bars.” (Emphasis mine.)

Dermatologist Jennifer MacGregor—dermatologists, constantly touching faces and therefore basically professional hand-washers—specifically recommends in a Strategist article that the unscented version of the Dove stuff is among the best hand soaps.

The University of Utah’s chief of pediatric infectious diseases, Andrew Pavia, explained to Fast Company in March that when it comes to protecting against COVID-19, “regular soap is great.” The infectious disease expert continues on to give some examples of what he means by “regular soap”: “In my house we use plain old Palmolive and Dove bar soaps to wash our hands.”

Well, certainly seems like Dove’s so-called beauty bars are soap. Let’s check in with one more expert.

Cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, a veteran of the industry and co-author of the blog Beauty Brains, explained to me in an email what soap technically even is: fat of oil, plus an alkali material (most commonly lye, which is made from wood ash), reacted together in a process known as saponification. Detergents made with other processes are known as “synthetic detergents,” and when these are molded together into handheld-size blocks, they are “syndet bars.” Chemists can formulate these to have a wider range of subtle properties, like how much they do or don’t irritate skin, compared with soap.

Though the chemical process that makes them is different, “they work the same on a molecular level,” Romanowski told me. “Detergents in syndet bars will destroy germs just as well (or better) than soap.” In fact, a Vox explainer on how “soap” destroys the coronavirus defines, with consultation from a chemistry professor, soap as anything that has a specific chemical structure that crowbars apart dirt and germs, regardless of its specific composition. But most of the cleansers we’re doing all the hand-washing with aren’t, from the perspective of cosmetic chemists and the FDA, aka the true product obsessives, actually soaps. When it comes to packaging, said Romanowski, “pretty much anything that doesn’t call itself a ‘soap bar’ is probably a syndet bar.”

As Romanowski put it in a post for his educational chemistry website a few years ago: “Isn’t Dove a soap, you ask? No, it’s not.”

He is right. But it will still kill the coronavirus, just like any soap would. So for the intents and purposes of a layperson: It’s fucking soap.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to The Gist.