If you’ve ever perused a Lush beauty store, you’ll likely remember two things. The first is that each shop kind of feels like the cosmetic industry’s answer to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, with bright colors, sweet smells, and bubbling swirls of pastel-colored beauty potions. (All thanks to demos of the brand’s signature bath bombs and bubble bars.) And the second memorable factor about Lush is while it sells bottled products, much of what it has to offer is solid beauty: shampoo, conditioner, bubble bath, shower lotion, and so on, all compressed into blocks that melt or dissolve when they are warmed or come into contact with water.
Lush was an innovator—one of the first international beauty brands to feature no-package, solid, sustainable products for the bath and body. In fact, it was the brand’s co-founder, Mo Constantine, who first invented the shampoo bar, after trying to formulate a new bar of soap with cosmetic chemist Stan Krysztal back in the 1980s. Constantine was initially disappointed that what they had made wasn’t quite what he imagined. But their accidental creation is now one of Lush’s signature products.
Outside of Lush, the solid beauty market is now exploding. You can find shampoo, conditioning, and cleansing bars everywhere, from the independent retailers of Etsy to some of the cosmetic industry’s biggest names. Just last year, Garnier, owned by L’Oréal, launched its first line of solid shampoo bars in the UK. (This month, the line is launching in the U.S.) Plus, Unilever’s Love Beauty and Planet and popular brands like Glossier and Drunk Elephant also have solid beauty bar options.
While there aren’t any official stats on the growth of the solid beauty market just yet, industry experts are expecting big things. “In the United States, for example, most of the brands that have entered this market are indie brands that do not appear in Nielsen or NPD statistics,” said Stephanie Reymond, the founder of beauty-focused technical and marketing consulting agency Effervescience, per Premium Beauty News. “In Europe, it is estimated that this market represents 5% of the cosmetics market, but according to the current forecasts, it will soon achieve a strong growth.”
Sustainable and zero-waste: Solid beauty is a winner
Solid beauty is taking off for one main reason: it’s better for the planet. Quite often, conditioning or cleanser bars are sold with zero or minimal packaging. A shift away from plastic is essential; right now, the beauty industry produces around 120 billion units of plastic every year. And in addition to that, the industry is using way more water in liquid products than you may have realized.
“Liquid body wash, shampoos, and conditioners are made of 80 percent water,” explains cosmetic chemist Kirsty Dobos. “They’re also packaged in plastics. Solid bar formats conserve water and allow for more sustainable forms of packaging, or no packaging at all when sold as loose bars.”
And while it might seem like a new development, Dobos notes that solid beauty is not a modern invention. It harkens back to the most basic form of hygiene, developed centuries ago: the humble bar of soap. “Cosmetic chemists are looking back to the chemistry and manufacturing of traditional soaps and syndet (an abbreviation for synthetic detergent) bars for inspiration,” she added. “Historical formulations are being revived and reimagined for today’s consumer.”
What ingredients make solid beauty so powerful?
So we know they’re better for the environment, but does the quality of solid products match up to liquid beauty and haircare? According to Dobos, it really depends on what products you buy. When you’re buying a shampoo bar, for example, look for those made with ingredients that will help it to lather, or it could leave your hair feeling dry.
“Solid shampoo and conditioner bars are harder to lather and distribute through hair,” says Dobos. “The addition of fats and oils like olive oil and shea butter can help, but better conditioning can be achieved through the addition of ingredients such as behentrimonium methosulfate or cetrimonium chloride, these can actually adhere to the hair fibers.”
While they may sound a little science-y and intimidating, the ingredients Dobos is referring to are likely already familiar to you — you’ve probably used them in liquid conditioning products time and time again. The first, behentrimonium methosulfate, is an emulsifying wax derived from rapeseed oil. It helps to reduce friction between hair shafts, making your mane easier to manage and detangle. And the second, cetrimonium chloride, is a quaternary ammonium salt, which works as an antistatic, conditioning agent.
When it comes to cleansing/makeup removing bars for your face, the addition of emollient oils helps to effectively melt away any makeup and still leave your skin’s moisture intact. But one important thing to consider with this kind of product is hygiene.
“When left in a wet soap dish, soap bars can absorb water producing a gelatinous “soap mush” that can also harbor microorganisms,” explains Dobos. “Traditional soaps have a high pH and are less friendly to microbes, but newer synthetic surfactant-based bars have a more skin-friendly pH. So you’ll want to store these types of bars in a place where they can dry thoroughly between uses.”
10 Cruelty-free solid beauty products to try
Finding the right solid beauty products for you takes a little bit of research and trial and error, but when you find one that you love – stick with it. Not only will it help to reduce the amount of plastic and water in your beauty bag, but it’s also super handy too and great for travel (no risk of leaks!). To help you in your search, here are some of the best cruelty-free solid beauty and haircare products on the market. Plus, we’ve included products to help keep your bars clean, hygienic, and dry.
LIVEKINDLY is here to help you navigate the growing marketplace of sustainable products that promote a kinder planet. All of our selections are curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, LIVEKINDLY may earn a commission.