As a child, I was deeply ashamed of people using my bathroom.
It stemmed from an ill-fated playdate that ended with a friend, a Jewish girl who lived across the street, bursting out of the bathroom in laughter and announcing to the entire block that my family washed themselves with rocks.
I realized, shamefully, that she was referring to the large irregular boulders of blackish brown African black soap that my mother and aunts kept in a basket near the bathtub, cut straight from the store.
Buying black soap isn’t just a natural skincare purchase. The soap demonstrates the potential of wealth in black diasporic products. The amount of money spent by black folks is greater than the proportion of their population (14 percent). According a Nielsen report, around 85 percent of the consumer market of hair and beauty aids are black shoppers. That’s a whopping $54.4 million.
Consumers of color spend $1.3 million on bath products. An investment towards the markets of ingredients in natural diasporic products like black soap (plantain, palm oil, shea butter) are investments into the communities that make them. For example, a Business Insider study lists shea butter (an ingredient in the soap) as an African “priority crop” that supports 16 million people (mostly women workers). There is a $2 billion market revenue in Nigeria alone. If fair trade and good work practices are used, the wealth returns back to the black-owned businesses that distribute the soap.
Proper (and most) black soap uses no chemicals and mainly utilizes sundried mixtures of cocoa, palm tree bark, palm oil and shea butter. Instead of harmful binding chemicals like lye, African black soap uses plantain.
The skin benefits are even sweeter when paired with the economical and ecological benefits. African black soap can be drying but can reduce oily complexions. Without chemical ingredients, it is suitable for most skin types but is especially helpful for dry skin. The beautification outcomes—reduces wrinkling, treats acne and promotes a glowing complexion—are just bonuses to the soap’s ability to reduce inflammation, irritation and skin rashes. The light, almost powdery scent of the soap is a favorite for people who are sensitive to smells.
On a recent trip back home to St.Vincent this year, local girls swarmed the largest beauty shop in town for skincare options for the colder months (70 degrees Fahrenheit). I had observed the Americanized options for skincare were being ignored—even the bigger brands with fancier packaging and internationally-known models lathering themselves up on the brand posters.
Girls would pick up mainstream now and then or pensively eye the ingredients. However, the African black soap flew off the shelves. The young girls noting that it had worked for their mothers and grandmothers. Some people on the island make batches of the rougher versions of the soap (often called by its African name Dudu-Osun). Even though it was less popular than the smooth, oil slick black kind, Caribbean-American were wont to seal chunks up in plastic bags and wrap them in towels to travel back to the States or Canada with it.
With brands like SheaMoisture developing a smooth and exfoliating version of the soap, as well as masks and lotions to pair with it, Caribbean markets are booming with the product. As long as I’ve been alive (and before that), the product has been popular, but with the rise of “beauty influencers” in the Caribbean, young people are stocking up on the product that their parents have used for years.
Brands have reworked their packaging and marketing to cater to a new market of black millennials, who by the same Nielsen study are reported to be the largest trendspotters for consumers, cementing popularity for new products.