Dr. Bronner, Cleanser of the Subversives, by Kirsten Anderberg
The Subversive Subculture of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com/March 2004)
It's a counterculture classic, Dr. Bronner's liquid peppermint soap. I remember first using it at the Love Israel "Family's" Welcome Inn, in Seattle, Wa., in the late 1970's. While I was being introduced to all kinds of new ideas and lifestyles at the time, it seemed only fitting that our cosmetics were becoming more natural in ingredients as well. Bronner's peppermint soap stood out because never before had I used a soap with a peppermint smell (and feel, in its case). I remember Tom's anise flavored toothpaste was another one of those flavors we had not previously associated with that product up until the late 1970's. Up until then, toothpastes had been about mint, and soap had not. Dr. Bronner's also had an alluring little bottle that was absolutely crammed with words from Dr. Bronner, who at times waxed poetic, and at others, waxed lunatic. (Once I called the phone number on the bottle in the 1980's and Dr. Bronner himself answered and we had a long talk that was quite crazy. Thereafter he mailed me a sampler of things I never knew he made. His product range was bizarre and wide.) In the Source Family, one of the big jokes was getting caught reading the Bronner's bottle for the umpteenth time! The claimed uses for Bronner's soaps have been tested by me and my friends over the decades and I am here to testify to which uses really work. For instance, have you tried brushing your teeth with peppermint Bronner's soap as the label suggests? Don't!
One of the things that Dr. Bronner's offered early on, before the others, was bulk buys. Dr. Bronner's soaps have been available in bulk buy squirt containers at stores in the Seattle area since the late 1970's. Bronner's soaps also contain pure castile soap, and natural ingredients, so these attributes sold it to the ecologically minded crowd. The soap is vegan, and not tested on animals, which also gave it a home among the subculture. The strange broken English on the bottle, proclaiming "all-one-god-faith" and "exceptions-none!," as well as his healthy living tips, made the soap bottles a cult classic, which is something the soaps carry on to this day, although there is much less writing on the bottles nowadays, as compared to the 1970's. Bronner's peppermint soap became a staple in every vegetarian and anarchist household and restaurant I went to in the 1970's, and has remained in those bathrooms and kitchens for decades since. I would have to say it is the soap of choice among the counterculture, at least everywhere I have lived, which is primarily the West Coast. I do not know if Bronner's is just a West Coast thing, but I do know it proliferates the counterculture's bathrooms from California to Oregon to Washington, in my social circles, in a way other soaps do not. I am amazed Homeland Security has not seized the Bronners' property for suspected terrorism, for selling soap to the underground.
My 20 year old son has never known a Bronner's-free world. He never knew soap did not come in peppermint, nor did he know a world of only solid soap. That was another novel thing about Bronner's soaps, they were liquid. Up until Bronner's peppermint soap, I do not ever remember using liquid soap for baths or showers or to wash my hands. The only liquid soap was dishwashing soap or laundry liquid. But soap for our hands and bodies was always in solid form in the 1960's. Now liquid soaps are everywhere, but Dr. Bronner was selling liquid soaps decades before the rest. My son has grown up with Bronner's peppermint soap his whole life, not only in his own home, but in the homes and bathrooms of every person, co-op and event we have ever attended within the subculture, it seems. Whether we visited Eugene, Seattle, or Los Angeles, Bronner's soap was always in the health food store bathrooms, the homes of our friends, and even in the port-a-potty hand washing areas at alternative events.
Another twist of scents in the 1970's natural cosmetics influx was Queen Helene's mint deodorant. Prior to that, deodorants all had fake smells. That was the first natural ingredient deodorant I remember being commercially available. Again, it was odd to smell mint as a deodorant in the beginning. Dr. Bronner's soap started offering almond and eucalyptus scents after the peppermint soap proliferated our lives, and again, we were not ever given almond smelling soap before! It smelled like marzipan, which was very different from Dial and Ivory soap smells, which were aiming at a more sterile, disinfectant type of smell. The smell of eucalyptus was also never used in any soaps I had been exposed to. And many people from northern areas had not even smelled eucalyptus before. I grew up in eucalyptus groves in Los Angeles, so to me, it was really nice to smell the smell of outside and trees in my soap, as opposed to smelling like a hospital. Now there are twists of flavors and smells regularly within the natural cosmetic, and even mainstream cosmetic, industries. But back in the 1970's, we had gotten sold on almost exclusively artificial scents and flavors, and when the health food product market broke through to cosmetics, they began to offer us alternatives that we have integrated so fully into our lives that our kids now do not even know these are alternative products. Now Bronner's soaps come in solid form, and there are tons of different kinds. But in the beginning, there was peppermint, almond and eucalyptus liquid soap, in bulk, available at health food stores and co-ops, and that was novel.
Back in the 1970's, Bronner's soap used to print long lists of the soap's uses on the bottle. Over the years, those uses on the label have been reduced, I have noticed. But the labels still say the soap is good for everything from shampoo to toothpaste to deodorant to laundry soap. I have tried a good many of the suggested uses over the years and I can save you some trouble by sharing the results of those experiences. When I used almond, eucalyptus or peppermint Bronner's soap, as laundry detergent, I found oil stains from the soap on my clothing. It is fine for things like rugged sleeping bags, or baby diapers, where stains are irrelevant, but anything upon which an oil stain would matter, should not be washed with Bronner's soap as laundry detergent, in my opinion. As dishwashing soap, it passes but is not the greatest. There must be a high oil content in the soap, as it does not dissolve grease on dishes that well. Don't get me wrong, I have washed plenty of sinks of dishes with Bronner's soaps. It works, it will do the job. But I have also found that there was still a bit of greasiness to the dishes that I was not used to.
The idea of using Bronner's as deodorant was something several of us tried in the 1970's at a Rainbow Gathering once…we were reading the bottle, read that suggested use, and all put it under our armpits laughing how nice and fresh we all smelled. Then later it got hot, and we started sweating, and our armpits started frothing soap…again, not a good suggested use. I tried several of the uses while camping. The suggestion of using Bronner's soap as shampoo is one I have tried on several occasions. In a pinch, it works. But it leaves your hair really dried out and ravaged feeling if you use only Bronner's soap on your hair for over a week, if you have long hair. Maybe it is different with short hair. The bottles also suggest using it for "dental." I have tried using Bronner's soaps as toothpaste. And not only does it taste really intense, but it is really frothy. Brushing my teeth with Bronner's soap is not one of my favorite experiences. The bottles also list "mouthwash" as one of the soap's uses, and I can only cringe at the thought. Washing out your mouth with soap used to be considered a punishment.
One interesting use for Bronner's eucalyptus soap that I do not believe I ever saw him mention on his bottles is the use of it as an insect repellent. I have found that if you bathe with Bronner's eucalyptus soap before going camping, less bugs will bite you. And using it throughout the trip, works to renew the repellent oils. You can also just dab Bronner's eucalyptus soap onto your skin, and old clothing you do not mind getting oil stains on, as a repellent. This is nice for kids as well. I have washed my hair in eucalyptus Bronner's soap as a help to ward off mosquitoes. We have also washed animals, such as cats and dogs, in Bronner's eucalyptus soap as a flea and tick repellent.
The almond, peppermint and eucalyptus soaps are all nice to wash or soak baby diapers in, and the soaps make mild soaps to wash babies and children in. Bronner's makes a wonderful hand washing soap in any bathroom or kitchen, and lends a nice aroma wherever it is used. The soap is ecologically sound, it is relatively cheap and affordable, and it has been a staple in the subculture for about 30 years now, that I can attest to. I see the current Bronner eucalyptus soap bottle that I have says it is an 18-in-1 soap, meaning 18 uses. I will leave it up to you to figure out for yourself which 18 uses really work best. There may be many a use we are still unaware of!