One of the biggest comments we get about our Lifebuoy soap is that it doesn’t “smell the same.” The simple answer is that Lifebuoy is no longer a carbolic soap. The real answer is more interesting and starts in the mid-1800s.
It wasn’t until Louis Pasture (you know, like pasteurized milk) discovered germs that handwashing was taken seriously. His methods of killing germs, though, weren’t safe for human use. British physician Joseph Lister experimented with carbolic acid, or phenol. In 1865, Lister first successfully used the substance to treat a young boy who had sustained a serious compound fracture. He was amazed to find that there was no infection underneath the bandages and that the bone fused without the need for further treatment.
Carbolic Acid & Plastic Cousins
Phenol was invented in 1834 from impure coal tar. The substance was originally called carbolic acid. Today, the acid is better known as phenol and is used in everything from pharmaceutical drugs to nylon and detergents. While Lifebuoy was certainly a popular soap during both WWI and WWII, it wasn’t the most popular use of phenol at the time.
In 1907, the substance created in a reaction of phenol and formaldehyde was patented as Bakelite. (And, yes, we’re also wondering why someone would think, “Hey, let’s take coal tar and combine it with formaldehyde and see what happens.”) Catalin and other plastic polymers soon followed.
The Miracle Soap
Lister required his doctors and nurses to sterilize both themselves and their instruments with the acid. In 1894, William Hesketh Lever (one of the Lever Brothers) used carbolic acid in a soap, bringing the antibacterial substance to the masses. The result was Lifebuoy. Lifebuoy’s signature red color and medicinal smell were due to the carbolic acid. Lifebuoy positioned its antibacterial soap as a literal lifesaver.
By 1911, Lever Brothers’ Lifebuoy was being sold internationally.
Lifebuoy took on body oder, or “B.O.” as their ads called it.
The End of an Era
Lifebuoy experimented with fragrances during the late 1930s, but nothing was as popular as the medicinal scent that Lever Brothers had once touted as a sign of cleanliness. Even so, it remained one of the most popular soaps until the 60s, when better smelling soaps entered the market. After a popularity revival in the late 60s with Lifebuoy White, the brand dwindled into obscurity for decades before being completely removed for the US and in the UK.
Carbolic Acid was eventually found to cause both skin and lung irritation. After 1976, Lifebuoy no longer contained carbolic acid. The removal of the acid also changed the once classic medicinal scent.
Although Lifebuoy is no longer sold in the U.K. or the U.S., it is still manufactured for other markets.