It’s 1970 and here’s an advert from Woman’s Weekly of September 5th.
If looks could kill you’d be pushing up daisies. Look at them. They’re all utterly disgusted with you. How could you possibly do this to them? The mere though that you could force men and boys to use a woman’s soap. After all,
“The fancy stuff is strictly for the birds.”
Now I’m assuming that the use of the word ‘birds’ here isn’t meant in the sense of ‘young woman’ but instead ‘strictly for the birds’ means ‘strictly for the uneducated’ or ‘strictly for the bird-brained’. That’s better then, isn’t it?
“Give them the clean, fresh smell of Wrights’s Coal Tar Soap every time!”
So, 45 years later, can a worried woman faced with the disgust of the male members of her household still get Wright’s Coal Tar Soap? The surprising answer is ‘Yes’. It’s still in production and still available in the UK. Intrigued I ordered a bar. Or four. It was cheaper to get a pack of four bars from Amazon.
So how come it’s still around? What’s the history of this soap?
“Created by William Valentine Wright in 1860, Wright’s Traditional Soap, or Wright’s Coal Tar Soap, is a popular brand of antiseptic soap that is designed to thoroughly cleanse the skin. It is an orange colour. For over 130 years, Wright’s Coal Tar Soap was a popular brand of household soap; it can still be bought in supermarkets and from chemists worldwide. It was developed by William Valentine Wright in 1866 from “liquor carbonis detergens”, the liquid by-product of the distillation of coal to make coke; the liquid was made into an antiseptic soap for the treatment of skin diseases.” Source
“Liquor carbonis detergens”. Pardon? That’s coal tar to you and me. Pardon? The tar that comes out of coal when they turn it into coke. Mmm, spread it all over me. Hold on…
“In animal studies, coal tar has been shown to increase the chance of skin cancer.” Source
So coal tar causes cancer. It’s also used as a prescription treatment for extreme psoriasis:
“Coal tar concentrations between 0.5% and 5% are safe and effective for psoriasis, and no scientific evidence suggests that the coal tar in the concentrations seen in non-prescription treatments is (or is not) carcinogenic because there are too few studies and insufficient data to make a judgement.” Source
So it may or may not give you cancer in low concentrations as well. Coal Tar also causes sensitivity to sunlight:
“After applying coal tar, protect the treated area from direct sunlight and do not use a sunlamp for 72 hours, unless otherwise directed by your doctor, since a severe reaction may occur. Also, make sure you have removed all the coal tar medicine from your skin before you go back into direct sunlight or use a sunlamp.” Source
So how big was the industry making tar from coal?
“In the coal gas era, there were many companies in Britain whose business was to distill coal tar to separate the higher-value fractions, such as naphtha, creosote and pitch.” Source
One of the most important components of coal tar is Phenol. Phenol’s common name is Carbolic acid. Yes, as in Carbolic Soap.
“In 1834, German analytical chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge discovered a phenol, now known as carbolic acid, which he derived in an impure form from coal tar.” Source
Carbolic acid was an essential part of surgery after a famous discovery by Dr Lister in 1865:
“In August 1865, Dr. Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister applied a piece of lint dipped in carbolic acid solution onto the wound of an eleven-year-old boy at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, who had sustained a compound fracture after a cart wheel had passed over his leg. After four days, he renewed the pad and discovered that no infection had developed, and after a total of six weeks he was amazed to discover that the boy’s bones had fused back together, without the danger of suppuration.” Source
So it stopped your wounds ‘suppurating’. Excellent. What else was it used for.
“In the 1960s school teachers in the United Kingdom were allowed to use corporal punishment in the classroom, so along with the cane, a child who cursed in class might be made to wash out their mouths with Carbolic soap.” Source
Oh yes, the traditional British pastime of being cruel to children, who must be “seen and not heard.” I remember it well.
Coal Tar is still used in Sealcoat products to seal tarmac on car parks in the USA after being banned in Europe. It’s extremely hazardous to use and continues to be hazardous after application as it wears and weathers and people breathe in the dust.
Who has owned the Wright’s Coal Tar Soap brand and where is it made?
“In the late 1960s the Wright’s Coal Tar Soap business was taken over by LRC Products Ltd (London International Group) who sold it to Smith & Nephew in the 1990s.”
So the famed London Rubber Company, producer of Durex condoms and Marigold gloves owned the brand for a while.
So why does Wright’s Coal Tar Soap have Coal Tar in it if it’s a carcinogen, gives you skin cancer and causes your skin to be photosensitive? The answer is, thanks to the EU, it doesn’t have any Coal Tar in it now. That’s why is says “With Coal Tar Fragrance.” It just smells of coal tar without the coal tar.
“As European Union directives on cosmetics have banned the use of coal-tar in non-prescription products, the coal tar derivatives have been removed from the formula, replacing them with tea tree oil as main anti-bacterial ingredient. Despite this major variance from the original recipe, the new soap has been made to approximate the look and smell of the original product.” Source
So we’re still making Coal Tar soap but just not putting Coal Tar in it. So what does it have in it now? We’re putting Tea Tree oil in it. Thanks goodness Tea Tree oil is safe for the family to use. Hold on:
“Tea tree oil is toxic when taken by mouth.” Source
“According to the American Cancer Society, ingesting tea tree oil has been reported to cause drowsiness, confusion, hallucinations, coma, unsteadiness, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach upset, blood cell abnormalities, and severe rashes. It should be kept away from pets and children. Tea tree oil should not be used in or around the mouth.” Source
At least it’s giving us some jobs here in the UK though. Hold on…
“The soap is now made in Turkey for the current owners of the brand, Simple Health and Beauty Ltd based in Solihull in the UK and is called Wright’s Traditional Soap.”
In 1970 you could “safely entrust” Wright’s “with their hygiene and body freshness.”
“Win their approval”
it says. What with? Hazardous cancer causing chemicals?
In 2015 according to the Tesco website:
“Wright’s Traditional Soap has been a family favourite for over 130 years. Created by William Valentine Wright in 1860, it has retained its honest, natural appeal.”
1970: Safely entrust. 2015: Honest and Natural.
Anyone want three bars out of a four-pack of Wright’s soap?