Friday 12 March 2021

A Little Bit Of Soap

In the downstairs cloakroom is a little dish with some soap in it. A small sliver, and a larger piece- both came from hotel bathrooms. We rarely stay in such places, but I know that when you leave, they throw away what's left of your tiny tablet. That seems such a waste, so I put the soap into my sponge bag. 

Like everyone else, we have done more handwashing than usual this past year - and my store of little soaps has gone down. Scientists generally suggest that bar soap is just as good as liquid handwash, it is the efficiency of your technique that matters. Do check out my Handwash Song, posted on 4th March last year

Soap is something that most of us take for granted. A survey of handwashing in 51 countries around the world, conducted between 2010 and 2013 showed incredible variation in the availability of this basic commodity in some areas - in Ethiopia, less than 0.1% of households had any soap. And yet we know that simple handwashing reduces the spread of disease and prevents many child deaths. 

In the 19th Century Semmelweiss, a Hungarian doctor, and Florence Nightingale working in the Crimea both made the connection between clean hands and health. He noticed that mothers of new babies didn't get the same fatal infections if attended by midwives who washed their hands- whilst the Lady Of The Lamp noticed that wounds healed quicker if kept clean, and tended by nurses who were strict about hand hygiene.

But for poor people, soap was a luxury. Annie Chapman one of Jack the Ripper's victims, had been in a brawl three days before her death with another woman- an argument over a piece of soap. Another victim, Mary Ann Nichols possessions were listed as a comb and a piece of soap - and Catherine [Kate] Eddowes had six pieces of soap at the time of her death.

I remember reading those facts when we studied The Ripper at school - and thinking that soap seemed such a trivial thing to me - yet it was a prized possession for them. A Social Worker I knew told me that for many homeless people today, the inability to be clean adds to their sense of worthlessness and loss of personal dignity. 

I remember working in one school where the staff were really concerned about two sisters, in their early teens, who were being teased 'because they smell'. It transpired that they came from an incredibly poor family where they had no proper laundry/bathroom facilities, and so they came to school in the same clothes for days on end. I'm glad to say that discreetly and without being patronising, the head was able to sort things out and improve their situation.

If I'm contributing items to a Foodbank Collection, I often pop a bar of soap in along with the foodstuffs [freshly bought - not one of my own Hotel Leftovers!] 

Handwashing is often seen as symbolic of 'cleansing the soul' - and many of the world faiths practise rituals involving washing. Francis Bacon spoke of cleanliness proceeding from reverence to God, and John Wesley popularised the phrase "Cleanliness is next to Godliness"[it is a popular misconception that this is a Bible quote- it isn't]

But a little bit of soap really can make all the difference


  1. Yes, soap can be a luxury in some places, including downtown Los Angeles, with its concentration of homeless people. There used to be an organization that used to set up mobile shower facilities, once a week or so, outside City Hall to be used by the homeless. The donation of soap and other toiletries along with food items is so important.

    1. I saw one of these mobile shower units a couple of years ago in London. They offer dignity and care with great love

  2. There was an interesting article in the Guardian last year pointing out why soap was more effective than alcohol gels in eliminating traces of covid virus from your haands:-
    "So why does soap work so well on the Sars-CoV-2, the coronavirus and indeed most viruses? The short story: because the virus is a self-assembled nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer. Soap dissolves the fat membrane and the virus falls apart like a house of cards and dies – or rather, we should say it becomes inactive as viruses aren’t really alive." Something gels apprently can't do.

    (You studied The Ripper at school?)

    1. I missed that one. I do prefer soap to gel though. And I loathe the frothy stuff dispensed in the South Mimms motorway services loos. (excuse the rant - but SM is midway between Dorset & Cornerstones so I am often there) And yes, we did have a lesson on Jack, our history teacher was brilliant!

  3. How interesting that something that most of us take for granted can be so powerful!
    My church runs a "boutique" for the homeless as part of our outreach programmes and we often ask for toiletry items such as soap, toothpaste etc. and we make up hygiene kits which always go quickly. I tend to concentrate on donating these items as I've done so much decluttering that I don't have any clothes to donate. Soap is so cheap here and things like toothpaste and toothbrushes often go on sale so not a hardship to add a few to the weekly shop.

  4. I hate hand sanitizer! I've consistently used a block of soap for about 7 years now and they really are much better for the environment. I always included hand soaps in the shoe boxes i did for children in orphanages.


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