I open my box, brimming with brown paper possibilities.
Soap. The first invention.
The first chemical experiment.
The most organic of all history, humans and nature, transformed into one physical substance.
I take each solid rectangle from its bag and I bring it to my nose to inhale the future possibilities.
I feel the weight and texture and density between my fingertips. Each small brick makes me feel grounded and solid myself.
When I walk by a display of soap and they are stacked up like milky treasures, I think to myself, mine, all mine. I want to cup each bar in my hands and take a protective stance over the rest of the pile.
Soap is a weird thing to covet, I admit.
To be clear, it’s not the bars of detergent in the drug store that capture my attention; it’s the soap in paper packaging that come through the mail or are wrapped up in front of you by the shop owner. Hand mixed and hand cut and occasionally hand packaged in simple paper. It takes me back to a time I don’t even know and it makes me happy. I wonder, if ever there was a thing called past lives, perhaps I was a soap maker of sorts?
Several years ago I started using shampoo bars. I had loved soap and the chemistry behind it from when I was a high school student, making artisan soaps for school craft fairs for some extra cash. In 2014 when I started traveling more and got interested in minimal packing, I caught a whiff of the “shampoo bar” trend and followed it completely down the rabbit hole. I continued to use shampoo bars not just for travel but in my daily life and was gifted with full-bodied curls unlike anything I’d gotten with liquid shampoo before.
Researching the ingredients in shampoo bars inspired me to go back to creating basic skin care items for myself out of common things in my apartment like coffee grounds, sweet almond oil, crushed adzuki beans… Then I spread that love on to my students by hosting craft afternoons each semester. I’d provide the premade melt-and-pour soap bases and natural additives like sea salt and dried seaweed (the students from Japan laughing at the latter, deciding to snack on the nori instead), and my students would create beautiful (albeit a little unstable in the Hawaiʻi humidity) works of art each semester.
A question was asked recently about examples of ‘life changing travel gear.’ My response was immediate. Shampoo bars! But why? I’d starting using them in order to pack as minimally and efficiently as possible, and the effects were such that I switched to them in general. That also prompted me to give up using liquid cleansers like body wash and start purchasing small batch soaps for my face and body. It felt good to be using these things. It felt simple and minimal and fully nourishing and there’s very little plastic packaging involved to take care of afterward… so, in effect, life changing!
Carrying on that thread of life changing travel gear, here then are my travel-specific bits of wisdom:
Travel tips for shampoo bars and small batch hard soaps
- When to try: There’s a bit of a learning curve when switching to a shampoo bar and I don’t recommend doing your initial research on the road. People often go through an ‘adjustment phase’ where your hair and scalp may feel waxier/oilier than usual. Dealing with that on a vacation is no fun. If you can, give yourself a good 4 weeks with your new shampoo bars/small batch soaps to figure the ins and out and see if they’ll work for your hair/skin.
- Size: Soap takes a long time to dry. This is a problem when your itinerary has you staying at a new place almost every night. My advice is to cut your soap into multiple small pieces, small enough so that they’re exactly how much you need for however long you’ll be at the same shower. They should also be small enough that the remainder can be ditched afterwards if they’re still wet and you don’t end up using as much as you thought you would.
– BUT – do cut your pieces large enough to make them actually usable without being incredibly irritating to work with. For example, shampoo bars often don’t have the slip you’re used to when working liquid shampoos through your hair; lather is often the result of an agent that’s kept out of ‘all-natural’ shampoo bar recipes. So the smaller the sliver of shampoo bar you’re working with, potentially the more aggravating it will be getting it to slide over your strands or working it between your hands for some suds. Also, size matters on face/body soap. If you’re using a coarse, exfoliating soap for face and body, cut your pieces longer and broader so you have more surface area for the exfoliation to work against your skin.
- Fragrance: Synthetic or natural fragrances can be irritating for some people, so one of the benefits of a lot of ‘all-natural’ soaps is that they’re often left out. However, if you do enjoy some fragrance (synthetic or from essential oils) rolling pieces of soap up in your pack could be exactly what you need to keep things smelling fresh and not grody. Think peppermint, bergamot, lavender, or jasmine if you’re going the essential oil fragrance route.
- Storage and size for travel: Try not to get too precious about the containers you carry your soap in. At the end of the day, you probably want something you can abandon rather than something you’re trying to squeeze into three inches of precious space on your return flight.
And don’t let the sales people talk you into something that seems so uniquely special to their product. Sure, the Lush tin containers are round, which fit their circular soaps, and it seems quaint to have a little tin for your soap, but I worry about the potential to rust and that their flat bottoms lack any cavity for moisture to drain to.Instead, take the least expensive route: break up those perfect soap shapes and re-purpose something already in your house that’s not air tight but not dissoluble either. For example, I’ve been using this little plastic cube my hairbands came in for my last few 4-day or shorter trips and frankly, it’s been too big for my little shreds of soap:
It got pretty flattened on the last return trip because of how full I’d stuffed my backpack (I will always be a sucker for little airport bottles of booze for quick thinking-of-you-gifts from faraway lands…they keep better than cheese or chocolates) but the next time this happens, if it fully loses its integrity, I’ll know to let it go..in the recycling bin…and I’m sure I’ll find something vaguely similar at home from all the other ridiculous excess packaging goods are sold in.
- Other preferences: Soap is a personal thing in a number of weirdly specific ways…scent, color, ingredients, texture. For example, I prefer hand carved rectangles of soap, cut thick and to fit comfortably in your palms:
It’s a weird desire, but to have that textural experience met during such a basic activity (that is: cleansing) is oddly pleasing. I think that’s where the draw comes for using soap in place of body wash or other kinds of cleansers: while you travel or stay at home, cleansing with soap caters itself to a completely individual experience.
In Summary: Hard cakes of soap are your friend while traveling. No need to deal with liquid and no excess packaging to take up space. Plus, you can easily whittle them down to the exact sizes and shapes you like.
Recommendations (a.k.a. my personal preferences)
As I continue to travel and continue to love packing as minimally as possible, I’ve developed a list of what works for me in which location for both skin and hair (and in a pinch, clothes washing). If it helps you, great. Here’s a description of the companies and soaps I’ve loved:
- Chagrin Valley Soap and Salve
Oh, my beloved. This American company offers SO.MANY. fantastic options for hair, skin, and everything in between (read: skin creams and deodorants). The great thing about their (always improving) website (good work team!) is how detailed many of their testimonials at the bottom of each page get about what worked on which hair/skin type. If I’ve piqued your interest, give their search bar a click and see what people with similar hair/body/water conditions to you had to say. Also of note is that you can buy smaller “sample” sizes so you don’t have to commit to a whole big glob of soap which may not have worked for you upon testing. Here’s my hair cleansing favorites (please keep in mind my hair type: fine, longish, blondish, curly/wavy):
- Ayurvedic Herb bar: I LOVE this one. While living in Hawai‘i, this little bar was absolute gold for my fine blond curls. From the first wash they had instant body, shape, and my hair was loooong back then, so that’s saying something. Keep in mind lathering and rinsing can be a struggle for someone new to shampoo bars, but this one was no worse than most. It was gentle on my color treated hair and I never used an additional conditioner with it in Hawai‘i (though, my hair did benefit from a very occasional ACV rinse).
- Soapnuts bar: In east Asia on two separate trips I had good luck with this guy. I didn’t keep any other notes except that it had the best ratio of cleanliness (maybe not feeling like it was rinsing out completely) to curls to body, so I settled on it most of the time. It kept me moisturized and relatively frizz free in very humid environments… in fact, I swear it helped my hair suck in the moisture ‘cuz there was a lot in the air.
- The Nettle bar was great in the dry air of eastern Washington state, USA, and I like the smell probably the best out of all of these as it’s a bit more flowery than medicinal. The rinsing was a bit of a problem with our water source in the Inland Northwest, but it left my hair soft and not dry feeling, which is no easy thing in such an arid climate. Conversely, I’ve also used this on a trip to central and northern Illinois, where my hair has no problem curling on its own in the high humidity, and this was also a very doable option that rinsed relatively well.
Alas, but since living in southern Europe I can’t seem to ever rinse any Chagrin Valley soap from my hair. I know other people on the continent love them based off of the testimonials, but I’m still searching. Instead, here are my favorite skin cleansing options (I have no idea what my skin type is, sorry!):
- Shea Rose Clay Complexion bar and Adzuki Bean Complexion bar: I guess I’m starting with color preference…I don’t know why but these creamy, naturally pink bars just spoke to me visually and their shared ingredient French Pink Kaolin Clay is a favorite skin care item for me when mixing together my own soap.
- Check out Shea Rose Clay Complexion for mild exfoliation, moisturizing, and cleansing (not to mention mild flowery scent, which goes well towards keeping your travel pack smelling good) and Adzuki Bean Complexion for a littler tougher exfoliation but still moisturizing and gentle with an a.m.a.z.i.n.g. flowery orange scent which will always remind me of the two summers I used it while working in the Kyoto prefecture of Japan. (Oh, FYI, either of these feel amazing in their full rectangular size when held in your hand. Sigh, it’s a weird love.)
- Grapeseed and Tomato Complexion bar because it feels wonderful both while cleansing my skin and when it’s being rinsed off. Another strange quirk, huh? And I was surprised by how much I love the light scent. I normally don’t enjoy geranium but mixed with the ylang ylang and lavender, the combination is just right.
- Neem & Tea Tree Body & Hair Shampoo, the workhorse, the favorite of my skin when it’s in its somewhat acne-prone mood with no need for extra exfoliation. It has a slightly medicinal smell and I like having it on long trips because the tea tree is anti-fungal and it’ll more than do in a pinch to wash my scalp and my clothes. Many reviews state using it as their primary shampoo and while I have no complaints while using it as shampoo, I prefer it for my skin.
Another American company and I love the ‘basic’ness of their soaps. They seem powerful in their simplicity, like I’m using a piece of earth to cleanse my skin. The care that is put into creating these recipes with the emphasis on clay and mineral ingredients is APPARENT. The mineral additives (hint: they’re listed in the name of the soaps) creates some really lovely colors and specific benefits for your skin. I have yet to try their shampoo bars and will update here if I ever accrue some favorites. But, as far as for skin cleansing, Rocky Top soaps also seem to last the longest out of any of the other soap company’s options I’ve used, both in humid bathrooms and dryer environments. They’re all fragrance free, which means you won’t even find any essential oils in them. Here are three of my favorites:
– Alaskan Mineral Mud bar for your face and body is a wonderful, subtle exfoliater. Great for stripping away the oil gently. The scent is earthy, like mud, but in a good way. And seriously, look at that lovely pale blue.
– Australian Pink Clay bar has been one of the most beautiful bars to grace my soap tray, and it’s been steadfastly cleansing my face for a looooong time with just one bar. It seems very gentle on my skin.
– The Grit bar is the remover of EVERYTHING. It’s very exfoliating and while I love it primarily as a hand soap next to the kitchen sink, I’ve been able to use it very gently on my face and along tougher areas of my body.
Lush This is a well-known UK company with stores the world-over. It’s also become the easy choice for me in Europe. The washing process tends to be easier than the other ‘soapier’ shampoo bars like from Chagrin Valley, from the sudsing to the rinsing. And while they don’t always give me that structured, gorgeous curl shape that I get from the other bars, my hair is always feeling soft and never greasy at this stage in my shampoo-bar-experienced-scalp days. The real downside: I need to use a hair conditioner when using their shampoo which makes traveling with them a bit more of an inconvenience. My top three favorites for my fine, longish, blondish, curly/wavy hair are:
- Jason and the Argan Oil : this is my go-to while living and traveling in Europe. It washes and rinses well and gives just enough slip to create a moisturizing, detangling process in the shower. The rose-jam scent is present but mild, nothing to be shy of for pretty-ing up the scent of your travel pack without making it smell like a full on rose garden.
- The Godiva shampoo bar smells heavenly and for that alone, you could buy it. The jasmine absolute in there? That’ll leave your travel pack smelling romantically fragranced and fresh… But, if you’re looking for the hair benefits, it’s moisturizing and the suds feel full when I’m lathering it up in my fine hair. It’s a keeper.
- The Montalbano shampoo bar is my newest/current favorite. It feels so surprisingly moisturizing even though its oils aren’t as heavily promoted as in the two previous bars. Most importantly, it’s given me the biggest, most structured curl since I’ve lived in Europe and began using the Lush brand shampoo bars. Like the others, it’s lasted a long time too. And the light lemon smell will also be a bonus for keeping your travel pack smelling fresh.
In summary: It takes time and experimentation and (let’s be honest) money to get what’s right for your individual experience. So, keep your unique needs in mind as you decide how you want to go down the soapy shampoo bar rabbit hole. Deciding on and experimenting with different soaps means taking into consideration your hair type, skin type, water type, climate, allergies, and other needs, such as, is it just for travel or also for daily life? And preferences, like, are you vegan? do you want to support only cruelty-free cosmetics companies? organic only? Remember to enjoy the research process before you hit the road and then to take notes upon notes when you’re on it… you never know when you’ll need them for a blog post in the future.