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

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.

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