If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

800px-Pears-Soap-barbox

I first used Pears soap when I was in high school, many, many years ago. The fact that it was British had appealed to me as an Anglophile, especially the prominent Royal Appointment seal that graced the box at that time: “By Appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.” While I’ve since strayed to other brands, I find myself every once in a while buying a bar of Pears whenever I’m feeling nostalgic. The rosemary fragrance reminds me of washing my face with Pears in the morning before going off to school. There are many people, much older than I, who remember Pears soap from their childhood and still use it today. Because Pears soap has been around forever. Well, almost forever.


Pears Soap was first developed in London in 1789. It was the world’s first transparent soap, and Pears was the world’s first registered brand. This makes Pears the world’s oldest continuous brand. Pears soap was made with glycerin and other natural ingredients in an age before cosmetic chemistry, when every product was “all natural.” It was aged for three months to give it that trademark transparency. Generations of people in Britain and beyond have grown up with this classic soap. But recently, long-time customers have started to notice something different about their much-loved, tried and true complexion and body bar.

In October of 2009, Hindustan Unilever Ltd, the India-based subsidiary of the corporation that now owns A.& F. Pears, changed the formula of Pears soap. But they didn’t bother to tell consumers. Yet many unsuspecting customers who recently purchased bars of Pears soap realized something was not quite right with the new bars. The appearance was the first clue. The distinctive concave shape of the old bars, the result of shrinkage during the curing process and not from a mold, has been replaced by a bar with a large outer rim to mimic the appearance of old bar, but with a center that is no longer recessed. Many long-time users of Pears made practical use of the concave center of the original soap to store the last sliver of their current bar inside the center of the unused subsequent bar. In addition, the new bars of soap are no longer transparent, the trademark characteristic of Pears soap since 1789. The fragrance was the next tip-off that the soap had changed. The spicy rosemary and thyme fragrance, derived from extracts of the actual herbs, has been replaced by an overpowering, artificial odor that many liken to disinfectant. The box that the soap comes in still looks the same, except for the ingredients list, which long-time users of the soap wouldn’t bother to look at because they didn’t expect the formula to change. The old ingredients, from a formula over two hundred years old, were:

    Sodium Palmitate, Natural Rosin, Glycerine, Water, Sodium Cocoate, Rosemary Extract, Thyme Extract, Pears Fragrance Essence.

That’s just eight ingredients. Compare them to the twenty-four listed ingredients of the new soap:

    Sorbitol, Aqua, Sodium Palmate/stearate, Sodium Palmkernelate, Sodium Rosinate, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, PEG-4, Alcohol, Glycerin, Perfume, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Meta Bisulfite, Etidronic acid, Tetra Sodium EDTA, BHT, Cl 12490, Cl 47005, Benzyl Benzoate, Benzyl Salicylate, Cinnamal, Eugenol, Limonene, Linalool.

The new formula contains three times the number of ingredients as the old formula, including the dreaded sodium lauryl sulfate, as well as artificial fragrance and a host of chemicals. Cl 12490 and Cl 47005 are colorants – the box for the old formula specifically stated “no colorants.” When fans of Pears soap realized that the formula was changed, they started a grassroots campaign on Facebook. The official Pears Facebook page is filled with comments from unhappy fans. In addition, Facebook groups have started up, including Bring Back the Original Pears Soap, The Pears Soap Appreciation Society, and Save Pears Soap. The outcry against the new formula worked, sort of. In January 2010, British newspapers such as The Telegraph reported that Unilever planned to abandon the new formula and that by March 2010 a new version would be available that is “much closer to the original.” What that means is anybody’s guess.

So why would a company shoot itself in the foot and mess with a 221-year-old formula? Unilever claims the soap’s recipe was reformulated to accommodate a more environmentally friendly method of production that requires fewer steps. But there is speculation that Unilever changed the formula because they wanted to update the brand. In any event, the new Pears soap isn’t the same product anymore. In addition to the differences in appearance and fragrance, the new soap apparently isn’t as effective as the old formula. The many Facebook fans bemoaning the new Pears soap have similar complaints about itchiness, reactions to the fragrance, and drier skin after using the new formula. The consensus is that the new Pears isn’t as gentle or as moisturizing as the old formula. The word most frequently used to describe the new formula is “disgusting.”

While the box for the new Pears soap appears unchanged, there are subtle differences beyond the ingredients list. The old slogan of “natural, original” that graced the old boxes has been replaced by the words “gentle care,” (since the soap is now neither natural nor original). The words “healthy skin,” “transparent soap,” “hypoallergenic,” and “non-comedogenic” (all beneficial things) have also disappeared from the box with the new formula. The new bar comes in an unnecessary cellophane wrapper, whereas the old soap did not. I haven’t tried the new formula, so I can’t personally attest to the differences, but I think I’ll scour the grocery store and drugstores to see if I can find a box with the new ingredients list. In the meantime, I did manage to find a few bars of the old formula at my local Dollar Tree. I might go back and stock up on several more in the hopes that by the time I use them all up, Unilever will have reverted back to the original formula.

The-great-pears-soap-disaster
Old bar (left) and new bar (right). Image courtesy of http://www.greyhares.org

Let’s hope the continued campaign to save Pears soap has a true impact on Unilever, and convinces them to abandon the new formula in favor of bringing back the old formula. Hey, it worked with New Coke.

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