Monday, August 29, 2011

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps

When I was about 10 years old or not much older, my father started taking me on amazing backpacking trips to Yosemite, Mokelumne Wilderness, Tuolumne Meadows, Mount Conness and the Conness Glacier, and many other awe-inspiring destinations in the Sierras.

We would pack very light on these trips, and usually stop by the iconic Redwood Trading Post to stock up on essential supplies that were difficult to find anywhere else. Those visits to the Redwood Trading Post are themselves worthy of several paragraphs of description, with their amazing rack of backpacking and survival books by the door and their rows and rows of military knives and unit patches behind the counter.

One essential item we would always take on a backpacking trip was a tiny bottle of Dr. Bronner's 18-in-1 soap, in a bottle that looked exactly like the 32 ounce (one-quart) bottle pictured above, but about ten times smaller (about the size of your thumb or a little larger and containing perhaps four to six fluid ounces).

Peppermint was perhaps the only option back then (in fact, on those old labels, it apparently used to declare that: "Peppermint is nature's own unsurpassed fragrant Deodorant!"). In any event, it was the flavor we always took, and it came with the same fascinating and famous labels that are still on the bottles today, complete with instructions for the proper dilution to use for washing your camp dishes, washing your hair, washing your clothes, brushing your teeth, or even cleaning the fruit spray off of your fruits and vegetables!

I was of course fascinated by the densely-packed Moral ABC's printed on every bottle, and my Dad and I would laugh together at the quirky syntax that Dr. Bronner made famous on his tiny blue labels.

But there is no doubt Dr. Bronner believed very strongly what he was conveying in the labels on his versatile soaps. Here's one example: "Free Speech is man's only weapon against half-truth, that denies free speech to smear - slay - slander - tax - enslave. Full-truth, our only God, unites all mankind brave, if 10 men guard free-speech, brave!"

The timeline of Dr. Bronner's story posted on the Dr. Bronner's website today notes that Dr. Bronner began printing the messages and attaching them to the soap bottles early in the 1950s when he was urgently lecturing in Pershing Square in Los Angeles, convinced that the world needed to unite before it destroyed itself, but frustrated that people were buying the soap that he sold at the lectures and leaving without hearing his talk.

Dr. Bronner's message was -- and is -- that humanity needed to recognize how vanishingly trivial are their differences in the face of the stunning celestial majesty of Creation, according to the website (and any reading of his messages on the labels of his soaps).

For Emil Bronner, who emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1929, these were no mere intellectual conceits -- they were urgent and personal. His parents were both murdered by the Nazis in concentration camps during the Holocaust. In the 1940s, before he even began his soap business in 1948, he was lecturing on the need for unity "across ethnic and faith traditions, and about the dangers of Communism alongside Fascism," according to the Dr. Bronner's website.

For his efforts, Emil Bronner was actually arrested in 1947 for speaking without a permit at the University of Chicago, and committed to an insane asylum at Elgin, Illinois. He was involuntarily exposed to shock treatments and forced labor but escaped (on his third attempt) without a lobotomy. For a moving description of that part of his life given by his son Ralph Bronner, see the video below.

Dr. Bronner made his way to Los Angeles to avoid being recaptured in Illinois, and started his soap business after an initial foray into the nascent world of health-food (he made Dr. Bronner's Mineral Salt and Dr. Bronner's Mineral Bouillon before salt). He started his soap business in 1948, only a few years before the Redwood Trading Post (another family business) started much farther to the north in 1952.

Dr. Bronner's soap became a huge counterculture success among people who were suspicious of the chemicals in other products during the 1960s and 1970s. These concerns are still valid today -- we all know that our skin is the largest organ in the body, and that we shouldn't put on our skin anything we wouldn't be willing to ingest through our mouth. In fact, chemicals rubbed on the skin may be more dangerous than those swallowed through our mouths because the skin enables direct absorption into the bloodstream, while our digestive tract has systems for filtering out poisons and toxins and other harmful substances.

Many skincare, shaving products, lotions and hair products sold to unsuspecting consumers today contain chemicals and substances such as methylisothiozolinone (MIT) and numerous forms of parabens (such as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben), as well as petroleum bases. All of these substances have been alleged to be harmful in various ways to human health, and some studies appear to back up these fears (MIT, for instance, appears to be lethal to human neurons, according to more than one study).

With all the attention that we pay to what we put in our diet, we might want to consider looking into what we rub on our skin every day as well.

While the following is a bit of a tangent, it is worth pointing out that Dr. Bronner's soap is not only useful for washing your mess kit when you go backpacking, but it is also a fantastic soap for use back home in the confines of civilization. Not only that, but chips of bar soap from your Dr. Bronner's bar version soap make great shave soaps to toss into your shave mug when they start to become too thin to use with a washcloth.

When I was in the 82nd Airborne, there was a wily old Sergeant First Class named SFC Williams, who used to take a shave mug in his rucksack even out to the field. It was actually an unbreakable plastic coffee mug, with the "Strike Hold!" crest of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment on it, and he would use a moistened shave brush to create a lather and shave with it out in the field, while everyone else was trying to splash water on their faces with their hands out of a canteen cup and then apply some kind of foamy shaving cream out of a spray can.

Intrigued, I asked him the story behind this novel and old-fashioned method of shaving, and was told that once when he and his wife were going through very tough financial times (the pay we give the NCOs who devote their lives to protecting our freedoms is and was quite shameful, in my personal opinion) he examined every aspect of his budget to see where he could possibly save money. He determined that shaving with soap from a mug was far more economical than spending money on cans of shaving cream every couple of weeks, and so he switched to using a shave mug. He said he also considered switching to a straight razor, which would have been cheaper than using disposable razors, but decided that the risk involved was not worth the potential savings.

Soon enough, I had my own shaving mug (including a plastic coffee mug for taking to the field with a disc of shave soap) and was discovering all the benefits of this forgotten method of applying shaving cream. In addition to saving money (which it certainly did -- a disc of shave soap back then could cost under a dollar, when even the cheapest brands of cans of shaving cream were a couple bucks), it enabled you to heat the shaving water much hotter than you could heat it if you had to apply the water to your face using your fingers. The brush didn't mind if you heated the water to a boil in your canteen cup (or at home with your microwave oven), and by the time you had swirled it around in the shave mug it was cool enough to apply to your own mug but still hot enough to be quite nice. Additionally, the action of the brush helped invigorate your face, make the stubble stand up better, and even gave you a bit of a facewash (which was nice when you were out in the woods for weeks on end, and smearing green grease all over every inch of exposed skin every few hours).

Later, when I was no longer in the Army, I returned to using Dr. Bronner's soaps and stopped buying special discs of shave soap, since Dr. Bronner's works wonderfully for shaving (this is in fact the very first of the uses listed in line 1. of Dr. Bronner's original usage instructions!) Dr. Bronner's soap is well-known for its amazing lathering quality.

Later still, I discovered that SFC Williams could have saved money on razors without risking his jugular by using a straight-razor. As you can see in the video below, it is actually possible to "strop" a safety razor using an old pair of bluejeans.

The method shown in the video above actually works quite well, in spite of the naysayers in the "comments" below the video. Before I discovered this method, I changed out my disposable razor blade every week religiously. With this method, you can easily use the same blade for a year or more (you should splash it with rubbing alcohol after stropping it, which you only have to do every few days).

Critics may point out that I am not the most reliable source for shaving advice, since I now have a beard, but the answer to this is that I was in the US Army Infantry for 11 years of active duty, plus four more years at West Point, so I know a thing or two about having to ensure a good shave every single day.

Others may ask why anyone would go to such trouble. Certainly, if you feel like donating your money to disposable razor manufacturers, go right ahead. But keep in mind that their business model is actually such a well-known way of separating you from your money that it has spawned imitations across a broad swath of other industries, where it is known as the "razor-and-blade model" and is used to describe any business that sells you the supposed main product for next to nothing, in order to get you to buy the consumable accessories on a regular, ongoing basis for the rest of your life (computer printers might be another good example from a different industry).

This description of the wonderful shaving benefits of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps may be a bit of a tangent from the original direction of the post (which is about my warm memories of Dr. Bronner's from my childhood, and its ongoing place in my everyday life, as well as why everyone should carefully consider the ingredients in the products they rub on their skin), but it isn't really too much of a tangent.

The fact is that Dr. Bronner was urgently and personally aware of the danger of descent into barbarism in even the most apparently civilized cultures, and the need to prevent that horrible and very real possibility. He also put his finger on what he felt to be the catalyst for such barbarity: losing sight of the fact that we are all one family -- as he put it, "Whatever unites mankind is better than whatever divides us!"

This is a crucial insight, and one that we have examined together on this blog before, such as here and here, where we saw the horrible results of believing that differences in faith, skin color, or even length of earlobe can (and has) led some to decide that others deserve to lose their property, their freedom, and even their lives. Dr. Bronner experienced the loss of freedom himself over differences in belief (he later blamed the involuntary electrotherapy that he received for his failing eyesight, so he had not only his freedom violated but his body and his possibly his eyesight as well).

He spent his life trying to counteract that hideous tendency which is always lurking beneath the veneer of civilization, ready to bring it down. He understood that the security we enjoy is more fragile than we have been led to believe. He believed this message so urgently that it is still carved into every bar of soap produced by the company he founded: "ALL ONE!"

If only washing away this lingering dark side of the human condition were as easy as working up a good lather with Dr. Bronner's wonderfully therapeutic soap!