Beauty

What Does Dr. Bronner’s Know That Other Brands Don’t?

The nearly 75-year-old brand has a legion of devoted followers within the beauty industry. But don’t call them a cult.

Dr Bronner's soap company is an organizational anomaly within the beauty industry. Why is it so popu...
Print Collector, Jerry Cooke, Saurav Singh Bisht, EyeEm/Getty Images

In 2015, writer Jessica DeFino started a search for gentler skin care products. She’d developed a severe case of dermatitis and needed soaps that wouldn’t aggravate her condition. The beauty reporter, who had access to a wide range of pricey sample products, tested hundreds of options, ultimately landing on an inexpensive, sold-at-Walmart brand: Dr. Bronner’s.

“It was a little gentler on the skin, and it was cheap and widely available,” says DeFino, who’s reported for publications like Allure, the New York Times, and Vogue. “I liked that it was organic, that the ingredients were fair trade, and that it's concentrated, so one bottle could last me about a year.”

In buying her first bottle of Dr. Bronner’s castile soap, DeFino joined a slew of beauty insiders who have enthusiastically embraced the nearly 75-year-old brand. April Gargiulo, founder of luxury skin care label Vintner’s Daughter, is raising her kids on it (“It’s a brand I can feel good about from a safety standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, and from an ethical standpoint,” she says). Diarrha N'Diaye-Mbaye, founder of makeup company Ami Colé, uses the peppermint-scented castile soap. Multiple members of the Glossier team, past and present, including Chief Marketing Officer Ali Weiss, sing Dr. Bronner’s praises (“It's a good benchmark for comparing to other things … in terms of how clean you feel,” says Ali Oshinsky, a former editor at Glossier’s Into the Gloss blog). And even celebrities with seemingly unlimited access to luxury products — like Meghan Markle, Chloë Sevigny, and Anwar Hadid — are fans of the brand, which sells 8-ounce bottles of castile soap for $7.

Dr. Bronner’s products, from cleaners to hand sanitizers, are most recognizable for their labels, which feature walls of text more densely packed than a pre-pandemic subway at rush hour. In a sea of minimalist, design-centric beauty packaging, they stick out. Not only does the label present an aesthetic anomaly, but it features a philosophical-religious manifesto that references Jesus, Confucius, Halley’s comet, and Carl Sagan, complete with exclamation point-peppered declarations about the “All-One-God-Faith” that will unite the human race on “Spaceship Earth.”

So how has the brand with the kooky label managed to become the kind of beloved staple that sticks around for nearly 75 years?

“The soap is really good,” says filmmaker Sara Lamm, who began researching Dr. Bronner’s in the early aughts for her 2006 documentary about the company, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox. “If people didn't love the soap, we wouldn't be having this conversation.” But Lamm acknowledges the brand has a complicated history, too. “It's an amazing story. It's painful — I don't mean to gloss over the parts that are full of suffering — [and] in terms of its origins, it didn't start perfectly.”

Long before there was a wildly popular brand, there was Emanuel Heilbronner. Born in Germany to a Jewish soapmaking family in 1908, Heilbronner moved to the United States in his early 20s, where he adopted the title “doctor,” perhaps as a mistranslation for the German soapmaking accreditation "master.” After Hitler rose to power in his homeland, causing him to drop the “Heil” from his surname, his parents were both killed in concentration camps. Dr. Bronner, as he now called himself, began preaching a message about uniting the human race — so passionately, in fact, that he was committed to an Illinois insane asylum in the ’40s and subjected to electric shock therapy. (He claimed the treatment was responsible for the blindness he developed later in life.)

“He saw people in World War II fighting over these divisions between them,” says his granddaughter Lisa Bronner, who now runs a blog for the company, in a phone interview. “He realized that we were on the brink of destroying each other, ourselves, and our world because we were so focused on the differences between us and not on similarities.”

Bronner eventually escaped the Illinois asylum and hitchhiked to California, leaving his children in foster care. “He would sort of swoop in like the exciting uncle and take them for outings,” says Lisa of her father’s childhood, in which Bronner occasionally visited but never sent for his kids to come live with him. “There was the lingering idea that my grandfather had chosen his vision, and saving Spaceship Earth, over raising his own children.”

Once in California, Bronner resumed preaching what he called the “Moral ABC,” his message that humanity is “all-one or none!” He began handing out homemade soaps, made from his family’s recipe, to anyone who would listen. When he realized that some people just took the soap without listening to what he had to say, he started printing his message directly on the label. It’s changed very little since.

Though the founder’s understanding of his enterprise as a religious organization rather than a company eventually got him in trouble with the IRS — requiring massive restructuring by his sons in the ’90s to bring the company back from bankruptcy — the Moral ABC remains a guiding light for his living descendents, who kept running the business after he passed away in 1997.

“He founded the company as a not-for-profit religious organization dedicated to uniting the human race across ethnic and religious divides,” says his grandson David Bronner, the company’s current CEO (“cosmic engagement officer”) and Lisa’s brother. “The soap was almost there more to sell the message.”

Today, many people who purchase a peppermint-scented pure castile liquid soap don’t know about the company’s origins. They come instead for a product that’s essentially stayed the same for decades, and that works: The soap is free from sulfates, a common soap ingredient that can dry out the skin, and contains roughly half the number of ingredients of other popular brands. (The brand made the most significant changes to the liquid soap about 20 years ago, when it reformulated to swap organic ingredients for conventional ones and to add hemp oil to make it more moisturizing.)

But some customers know the history and take issue with it. DeFino, for example, stopped using the brand in 2020 after reading Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less, in which author James Hamblin writes that the company “began as a church.”

David is quick to point out, though, that Dr. Bronner’s isn’t a religion. “You can’t become a member, and we don’t perform marriages,” he says. (The marriage comment isn’t a joke. People really have asked for that.)

Within the company’s current C-suites, religious affiliations are varied. Lisa is a Christian who attends a Presbyterian church with her mother, company Chief Financial Officer Trudy Bronner. She appreciates her grandfather’s message of unity even if the apparent syncretism of the Moral ABC might step on some people’s toes, she says. Her brother David, on the other hand, talks about the label almost as a sacred text and frequently quotes it, dropping phrases like “take a man at his best and with that as a lever, lift him above the rest” into casual conversation. He doesn’t identify with any organized religion, he says, but his experiences with psilocybin — the chemical compound found in “magic mushrooms” — helped him more deeply align with his grandfather’s message. “I had some really big psychedelic awakenings … and realized my grandfather was 100% correct,” he tells me. “I, maybe more than [the rest of my family], really resonate with the spiritual core of the label.”

And even though Clean convinced DeFino to stop buying from the brand, its author describes Dr. Bronner’s as one of the companies he’s least suspicious of. “What's said on their label feels less manipulative to me than the sorts of ads that play on concerns about attractiveness or body image issues that are very often exploited in the [beauty industry],” says Hamblin, whose book traces the history of hygiene and personal care.

Filmmaker Lamm was similarly impressed by how little the Bronner family tried to manipulate the narrative of her film. They voluntarily gave her access to records that question Bronner’s grip on reality, like his repeated calls to the FBI: One time, he said fluoride in drinking water was a Russian plot to poison Americans; another time, he claimed he was Albert Einstein’s nephew and that Communists were keeping him from seeing his uncle. (A spokesperson for Dr. Bronner’s told me the family “does not know” if they are related to Einstein.)

Lamm’s experience in the early aughts echoes my own reporting 20 years later. When I asked David about some of his grandfather’s more troubling behavior — like being nude in front of an employee — he brought up other issues unprompted, like his grandfather’s homophobic comments. As a journalist, I’m used to interviewing people who try to hide even the smallest speck of dirt. I found the Bronner family’s attitude disarming, and kept thinking of something that David and Lisa’s late Uncle Ralph, another company employee, said in Lamm’s film: “If you don’t know what to say, tell the truth.”

“There are a lot of good things my grandfather did, but he was not a perfect man,” Lisa tells me. “And we can't pretend otherwise.”

Many of the brand’s devotees, such as Vintner’s Daughter’s Gargiulo, are drawn to it because of its environmental practices. And even though Dr. Bronner’s may rise above its peers in regards to its sustainability and social-good commitments, David is equally candid about where it falls short, namely in its ongoing inability to totally eliminate plastic.

According to Darcy Shiber-Knowles, Dr. Bronner’s director of operational sustainability and innovation, the brand was among the first personal care and cleaning product companies to be certified organic and among the first U.S. cleaning product companies to source 100% of the plastic for its bottles from post-consumer recycled PET. Additionally, in 2020, Dr. Bronner’s donated about 40% of its profit (8.6% of its revenue) to a variety of charitable causes, ranging from refugee and migrant rights to criminal justice reform — a far cry from brands whose good deeds stop at donating 1% of revenue or writing the occasional justice-centered Instagram caption.

Dr. Bronner’s is so well-respected among its business-for-good peers that it’s often praised by industry leaders like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. “We’re proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. Bronner’s for the work they’ve done to pioneer a socially and environmentally responsible supply chain,” Chouinard wrote.

“People ask me, ‘How can you guys afford to do all these things that you do — give away all this money and invest in new renewable technologies?’” says Shiber-Knowles. “And I say, ‘Well, in part it has to do with this key financial decision, which is that nobody is taking home millions of dollars a year.’”

The company caps the wages of its highest-paid executives at no more than five times that of its lowest-paid fully vested employees. In 2020, top CEOs made, on average, 351 times what typical workers did, according to an Economic Policy Institute report. In contrast, David and his brother, Michael, who’s the president of Dr. Bronner’s, each take home roughly $300,000 a year, per the New York Times, which is much lower than other beauty CEOs, whose base salaries are often well over $1 million. The brand also advocates for regenerative organic agriculture and loosening restrictions on psychedelic therapies, and wades into legal battles on behalf of the family’s values, suing the government over organic labeling standards and the fight to legalize hemp cultivation. (In an individual capacity, David has been arrested repeatedly for his activism, once locking himself in a cage outside the White House with hemp plants — for making hemp oil, not for smoking — with a sign admonishing then-President Obama to “Let U.S. farmers grow hemp!”)

These decisions have earned Dr. Bronner’s an extremely loyal consumer base, who interpret the company’s choices as a testament to its authenticity.

“Whereas Procter & Gamble’s kind of just like, ‘Let’s decide our message based on what the market tests tell us would be effective,’” Hamblin says, he feels the Bronner family genuinely believes in the core of its patriarch’s message. And since, he adds, the “entire industry is just an exercise in marketing,” with qualitative differences between most soaps being negligible, the primary way brands differentiate their products is via slick visuals and slogans.

For a soap to stand out in the beauty industry, then, it certainly doesn't hurt to have an unwavering, decades-old message backed by real-life commitments. In that way, Dr. Bronner got at least one thing right — it really is all in the label.