Kiehl’s Imperial Body Balm & Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps

Kiehl's Imperial Body Balm & Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps

There is a point to be made that regardless of make, soap is soap. I've always felt that you lather up with soap to get rid of germs, dirt, whatever you've been rolling in, and then what you pile on next (moisture-wise, and you know how we feel about moisture around here) is what matters. How special does soap really need to be? Even if it’s scented beautifully, made from the tears of angel children, or formulated with a super-rare sea kelp, all of that is rendered moot after what you choose to put on next. Also, how much of a lifting/tightening/firming/loosening effect can a bodywash really have on your skin if it stays on there about a minute, tops? Maybe acne cleansers with salicylic acid do something, but I'm unconvinced. We are, as denizens of this century, consistently inundated with advertising, and beauty products are emblazoned with directions, statistics, and poetic odes to The Future You all over their shiny-bottled selves. The multimedia installation artist Rachel Hovnanian had an exhibition in 2009 entitled ‘The Power and Burden of Beauty,’ in which she displayed a wall of 220 jars of ‘Texas Beauty Queen Cream’—rows of identically packaged containers save for the slogans on their labels (e.g., ‘Virtually eliminate the depressing feeling of looking older than you are,’ and ‘Make your boyfriend’s jaw drop’). Her point being, of course, that you can’t buy confidence or youth or inner peace, and if you could, it probably would not be sold at the drugstore.

Well, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps are sold at the drugstore (around $10 for a 16 oz bottle, or several-months worth). They are also plastered with assertions of a different sort entirely: their labels bear quotations from a motley crew including Jesus, Einstein, Rabbi Hillel, Abraham Lincoln, Chairman Mao, and Dr. Emmanuel Bronner, himself, whose aim seems to be to unite all humans on ‘God’s Spaceship Earth‘ with his ‘Moral ABC' and the understanding that we are ‘ALL-ONE!' There is also prominent and affectionate praise for the first amendment. The bottle is so text-heavy, in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to read (you have to keep turning it, and the syntax renders the sentiments borderline-unintelligible), though statements such as 'Health is Wealth' and 'Absolute Cleanliness is Godliness!' are displayed in larger font. [Ed. note: The story of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps was the subject of a 2007 documentary, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox, which chronicles the life and death of the company's mental-hospital-escapee/self-regarded-rabbi/master-soap-maker founder. Dr. Bronner, who once claimed he was Albert Einstein's nephew, led a fascinating life: he fled Nazi Germany, where his parents perished, escaped the aforementioned mental institution, and seemingly never lost his sunny disposition. ITG recommends you take a gander sometime, it's very interesting.]

The soap is completely biodegradable, vegetable-based (derived from hemp), organic, USDA-certified, fair-trade certified, and refers to itself as an 18-in-1 product that brings people together while providing them with ‘tips for living a better life.' (The company claims it's the best-selling natural soap in North America.) Even the bottles, themselves, are 100% post-consumer recycled. As you might guess, Dr. Bronner's Soaps, established in 1948, were a huge hit in California in the '60s and '70s, where newly minted “hippies” valued the product’s versatility (one imagines it proved useful in commune situations). “Enjoy only 2 cosmetics, enough sleep & Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap to clean body-mind-soul-spirit instantly uniting One! All-One!” the directions declare. There is also much talk of a corporeal tingling effect, and a promise that it will be the ‘most pleasant soap you have ever used or your money back!’ But let's cut to the chase: the soap is pleasant. I once took a half-gallon of the stuff on a month-long community service trip to Costa Rica and we used it to wash our bodies, dogs, tools, and once, our cars. I favor the Baby Mild version, which Colby Smith always recommends to the newly pierced, and the stuff really works: after using it as a body wash (it is free of foaming agents and so it only gently lathers), one feels almost too clean. The adjective “squeaky” comes to mind, and this is, after all, what you're looking for with a soap. No frills, no filmy residue! (If you want smell, it comes in Lavender, Tea Tree Oil, Almond, and a slew of other naturally-scented iterations.)

Kiehl’s Imperial Body Balm ($42 for 8 oz), meanwhile, doesn’t want to protect your soul, the planet, or any constitutional amendments (though it was founded in 1851 by a homeopathic pharmacist with an eye for healthy remedies and later sold to Irving Morse, a Jewish émigré like Dr. Bronner). The old-world-inspired balm doesn’t have any particularly altruistic aims, and the tub is a gleaming onyx black, with golden-colored text that talks about leaving you ‘royally radiant' (Annabelle Dexter-Jones told us once that it made her feel "like a lady"). The yellow cream inside has been whipped into a swirl that both looks and feels a lot like margarine (the color is due to the high concentration of antioxidant-rich carotenoids). It smells of honey, shea and cocoa butters—all featured ingredients— as well as some other obscure herbs/things, such as the sea buckthorn berry. Post-shower, the balm rubs on slightly opaquely before absorbing into your skin, for a lustrous, silky sheen, leaving you smelling not-too-sweet but somehow impeccably cared for. It feels and smells rich. I once had a friend in college whose jokey pick-up line was, “Baby, you look like you bathe in milk and sleep all day.” The Imperial Body Balm makes you look like that—minus, one imagines, the scent of spoilt milk that probably followed Cleopatra around.

And so there you are, skin: clean, soft, and protected. And as far as spiritual hygiene, Dr. Bronner's got you covered...Chant "All-One!" ten times and call me in the morning.

—Alessandra Codinha

Illustration by Karleigh Sherman

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Nomadic D.

    I agree that cleansers dont' actually do much for you except, well, cleanse. Paula Begoun (who I totally trust on these matters) affirms that all those ingredients that could hypothetically help just get washed down the drain when you rinse the cleanser off. So the best thing to do is get one that is gentle, non-stripping, but also effective. And you don't have to pay a hefty price for that at all. As for Dr. Bronners, I used it when I had the chicken pox as an adult (not fun!) and it was gentle and mild enough for the job. Truly a great all-purpose soap, though I don't think it would replace my regular facial cleanser.

  • Yogini78

    "baby angel tears" haha! No, but the DR Bonner soaps are brilliant. I've used every variation, I alternate between the peppermint in summer, and lavender in the winter. No harsh chemicals, just simple soap.

  • elise

    Alessandra, you're a gifted and clever writer. I'd read an article about grass growing or paint drying from you!
    As a team you make me laugh every day.

  • Judit

    Unfortunatelly some of the products are not available in the Netherlands/Europe but nonetheless I truly enjoy reading these articles and I love your writing style a lot, Alessandra!

    • YY

      Judit, Dr Bronner's washes are easily found on eBay. Just a tip.

      • Judit

        thank you for the tip!

    • Diana Delgado

      I'm in Antwerp, Belgium and I buy Dr. Bronner's from the bio supermarkets here in the beauty and health sections. I was surprised to see them there, maybe check any organic/bio store close to you. Good luck!

    • Alex

      Hi Judit - you can also get Dr Bronner's in Europe from -

  • VotreAmie

    I went the route of Dr. Bronner's liquid soap in Baby Mild a little over a year ago and I'll never ever EVER look back.

  • S. Light

    Trying Dr. Bronner's soap on ITG's (many) recommendation(s). I've discovered some of the BEST and reasonably-priced products from ITG!

  • Hazel M

    Dr. Bronner is a seriously amazing soap, the tea tree is amazing if you have slightly temperamental skin too.

  • mickharper

    Should be mentioned that Dr. Bronner's Peppermint will set you on fire downtown.

    To clarify what "set on fire downtown" means -- I'm saying your shower experience will be like this:
    "Wash wash wash wash ... hmm, that's tingly... AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!! IT BURNS!!! HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN!?!"

    But by the second or third time you use it... it's rather enjoyable.

    • mlle p

      It does say on the liquid Dr. Bronner that you're supposed to dilute it! Just straight out of the bottle it will git ya.

    • Janine

      Oh my gosh yes. I had to stop using it immediately. I felt like I was in the Psycho shower. Too much peppermint oil.

    • Caitlin Robertson Willard

      YES! while it should be obvious due to the peppermint label on the bottle..i lathered up and thought it would be akin to a little neutrogena cold cream(remember that stuff?!) was so wrong. and good hell, i rinsed and rinsed and was still burning! i thought my lady parts were going to never be normal again! although now i must say..i have become used to the feeling and somewhat enjoy it...very sadistic of me i know :)

  • Kitchen Afternoon

    love the illustrations, fresh.

  • Cay

    I like it! It's taken some getting used to, but I remember getting sad when I would come here and it wouldn't be updated with a new post every day.

    • Guest

      Maybe not update the snaps or the products so often those little boxes aren't so worth it, but the new actual post additions like this are


    We've exhausted our sample opportunities at the Kiehl's in the East Village. I guess it's time we bought something. We're not the five finger discount type.

  • Pirinco

    My philosophy is quite the opposite one. I carefully choose soaps (using very cheap but highly effective one at the moment. goat milk is the main ingredient, and it is hand made here on the Balkans). My skin is so soft and moist after showering that I actually stopped using body lotions.

  • Janine

    I noted below that I've used the peppermint in the shower but that's a bit uncomfortable but I am hooked on the lavender. I use it in the shower, as hand soap at my sinks, and have just started using it in the laundry. The scent that emanates from the washing machine when the laundry is done is so lovely. And I don't use all that much. And that pretty scent just lingers. I absolutely love it. My clothes have a slight scent to them. I am in love with this soap. I've used it on my face, on hot and humid days, and it washes beautifully. I wouldn't use it every day since I'm over 40 and need all the oil I can muster up.

    I found an online site that carries the gallon bottles too. :>

    Two thumbs up for Dr. Bronner's lavender. :)

    • win

      how much soap do you add for a regular load?

  • Joyce

    i just want to say that i love these illustrations. well done!

    • Abby

      I do, too! They make me smile.

  • Sean Santiago

    Thank you for taking the time to write well and provide all that background info - I'm a newly converted Dr. Bronner's devotee myself and hadn't yet taken the time to read that effing label...and now I think I'll just skip it and watch the movie :)

  • Kath

    A first I was excited about the increased contetnt, but I think I agree with this commenter now. I think the new voices make it a little confusing and overwhelming. It is still pretty much my favorite place on the Internet though.

  • TheAwfulDinnerParty

    I know one washes soap off and so one might think it matters less than moisturiser, which stays on the skin. But I can really think that the right soap or cleanser is the most important part of any skin care routine. If you have clog-prone, sensitive skin as I do, your soap has to cleanse, not irritate, and not leave any residue on your skin. That is actually a really tough accomplishment for a soap. I've tried many soaps and cleaners and only like Pears, Dove Sensitive Skin Soap, and that baby Dr. Bronner's you wrote about in this post.

  • Liz Stahl

    I really like that you guys have started posting more! Being a huge fan of the blog, of course the more content the better! Looking forward to seeing you expand more and more....

  • nereids

    I respectfully but vehemently disagree. I LOVE reading all of the new content here. I save it for the end of the week when I have a lot of free time and can go back and read it all at once.

  • Tomoko

    I ended up using this soap and Kiehl's body cream (aloe massage cream) after went all over pricy products.
    I am surprised at this post on same moment as I do same as here.
    Simple, but no hustle to myself.

  • Caitlin Robertson Willard

    i am so in love w/ dr. bronner's peppermint! another great recommendation from you guys! i never took it seriously when i would see it in stores(possibly due to all the craziness on the label), but i'm so glad i took the plunge! i love that it smells so nice and minty in the shower but a few hours later you smell perfectly clean like fresh laundry! i don't know how the scent changes once it's on your body but it is perfect! good call ITG :)

  • A Fan

    The writing's brilliant. Kudos, Alessandra!