Lifebuoy is a famous and distinctive brand of soap that was created by the Lever Brothers soap factory in 1894. It was the first soap to use carbolic acid, which gave it a red colour and strong, medicinal scent. Lifebuoy is still manufactured today and is the leading brand of soap in many developing countries.
In 1885 William Hesketh Lever and his brother James began a small factory in Warington, England, where they used palm and vegetable oils instead of tallow to produce soap. The first soap they produced was called Sunlight Soap, which was used primarily for household cleaning.
As the Lever Brothers' business grew, they expanded their company and built a larger factory as well as an employee village for workers on the Wirral Peninsula (eventually called Port Sunlight) across from Liverpool. While in Port Sunlight, the company began to experiment with creating different types of soap and Lifebuoy was born.
The brand went global in 1911 and began distributing to countries such as the United States, Germany, Switzerland and Canada.
Lifebuoy soap was the first to use carbolic acid or phenol as an ingredient in their cleaning products. This gave the soap its signature red colouring and a distinct medicinal odour. Carbolic was previously only used by people in medical professions, mostly surgeons, for disinfecting purposes. The addition of this ingredient to consumer products was considered a breakthrough in the early 1900s. Lever Brothers and the Lifebuoy brand provided an affordable product that promoted personal health and hygiene.
The original Lifebuoy soap, like Sunlight Soap, was primarily used for household chores such as washing clothing or cleaning the floors. However, the brand took personal hygiene to the next level by introducing the toilet bar in 1933. This special bar soap was used primarily for hand and body washing.
Evolution and changes
Lifebuoy went through several changes and incarnations throughout the brand's history. A white version of the soap was introduced in 1962 and contained a light perfume scent. Pink and aqua versions were released soon after. Each package of Lifebuoy soap contained the phrase "Knocks out B.O." and the brand is credited with coining the long-standing abbreviation for body odour.
The original Lifebuoy soap was manufactured in the UK until 1987 when the production and distribution was halted. The brand was shortly taken over by Unilever and is still in production today---albeit with several key differences.
Due to regulations put forth by the European Union, the soap can no longer contain carbolic because it is potentially toxic and linked to skin irritation and respiratory tract problems with prolonged exposure. The substance is also considered a possible carcinogen.
Lifebuoy soap is still the leading brand of soap in several countries worldwide, specifically in India and parts of Southern Asia. Unilever produces a wide range of products under the Lifebuoy umbrella such as body wash, liquid soaps and acne-fighting solutions.
Hygiene Education and Disaster Relief
From its inception, the Lifebuoy brand committed to educating the public about the dangers of germs and microbes. In the early days, door-to-door campaigns were organised in order to demonstrate the proper technique for hand-washing.
Lifebuoy also has a history of helping people maintain hygiene in times of natural disaster. During the 1940 Blitz of London, the brand set up mobile, free washing facilities for public use. Each unit was equipped with showers, towels and soap. In 2004 after a Tsunami hit Asia, Lifebuoy bars were sent in relief packages to India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to help prevent the spread of disease. The brand also provided aid after earthquakes hit Pakistan and Northern India in 2005. Lifebuoy donated over 200,000 bars of soap to the International Committee of the Red Cross to support the recovery effort.
Lifebouy in Pop Culture
This specific brand of soap received some special screen time in the 1984 comedy "A Christmas Story." The main character Ralphie was forced to hold a cake of red Lifebuoy soap in his mouth after saying the "F" word.