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What is Carbolic Soap?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Carbolic soap is a mild disinfectant soap that contains carbolic acid, a compound that is extracted from coal tar. This soap was once the disinfectant of choice in operating rooms and private homes alike, and it still can be found in some regions of the world. Several companies manufacture carbolic soap as a reasonably cheap disinfectant, and some people like to use this soap out of a sense of nostalgia or a genuine liking for it.

Effective Disinfectant

As a disinfectant, this type of soap is a reasonably good choice, especially when the options are limited. It can be used by healthcare professionals to wash their hands between patients in a clinic, for example, or as a regular showering soap, although users should keep it away from the sensitive skin around their faces. Some people also find that this soap is effective against stubborn grease and embedded dirt, making it especially popular with mechanics. Carbolic soap also can be used to do laundry and scrub floors, and a few companies sell versions that have been formulated for these tougher tasks.

Can Be an Irritant

One of the distinctive features of this soap is its pink to red color, which is caused by the carbolic acid. Carbolic acid is actually used in a range of products, and in pure form, it can be a mild irritant. People who use a great deal of carbolic soap might find that their skin becomes irritated as a result of the prolonged contact; this is one of the reasons why this soap has been displaced in hospitals by more effective, gentle disinfectants.

Distinctive Scent

The scent of carbolic soap is quite distinctive. Many people say that it reminds them of leather, and people who have been using the soap for years might find the smell to be quite nostalgic. The smell also is a feature in many medical memoirs, with authors remembering the smell of carbolic soap in operating rooms and hospitals.

Where to Find It

One place where carbolic soap has continued to be popular and readily available is in the Caribbean, especially in places like Jamaica. The soap can be found in drugstores and hardware stores in that region of the world, and it is a ubiquitous feature in private homes and businesses. Anyone who wants to buy carbolic soap but has difficulty finding it in stores should look online, where it can be ordered from several websites.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon350853 — On Oct 08, 2013

I live in Jamaica and you can buy a bar of carbolic soap from any supermarket you visit.

By anon294174 — On Sep 30, 2012

Well I'm from the Bahamas -- a former British colony -- and carbolic soap has helped my boyfriend who has all kinds of skin allergies. He gives me a bath with it and it makes great memories. My son is 15. He had a horrible outbreak of acne, his dad recommended and gave him a carbolic soap gift. He used it and voila! He's boasting now of how great his face looks!

By anon293664 — On Sep 27, 2012

I'm 44 years old, from West Africa now living in Newnan, Georgia, and truly in my entire life have used only carbolic soap, and since my arrival here, I've desperately seeking for this soap in the pharmacies. I hope to God I'll find it, because my body misses it.

By anon258294 — On Mar 31, 2012

I've been using real carbolic soap for years and love both the old-time antiseptic smell and how it really makes my hands feel "clean". I've tried the Soapworks brand because it advertised as an "organic" soap made with all vegetable ingredients, but found that the soap tended to dissolve away faster and not last as long.

I find I prefer the more old-fashioned formulas that include the genuine carbolic acid ingredient derived from coal tar or petroleum base (both plenty organic for me). I've used both Island Pride and Blue Power brands and really like them.

I've read where many people find real carbolic soaps to be effective for acne and eczema.

By anon176339 — On May 15, 2011

I'm in Welland, Ontario. I just picked up Soapworks Carbolic Soap in the back of Bulk Barn at the Seaway Mall. Can't wait to try it for acne!

By anon173868 — On May 08, 2011

carbolic soap is the best! and i only use that only and exfoliate two times a week. i had really bad acne ever since i used this soap my face is so clear and i have no acne at all. I had really bad acne to the point that my skin would shed and makeup would only make it worse. now i have clear, beautiful skin and no spots at all. I love this soap my grandpa recommended it to me.

By anon162717 — On Mar 24, 2011

The fragrance of Carbolic soap and Growing up in Kingston Jamaica in the 60's and going to Immaculate Conception all girls school, evokes a flood of memories. Now I have to go get some. It is just such a clean smell. Yes, and a great deodorant.

By anon150058 — On Feb 06, 2011

I am also from Ontario, and i know the soap works carries a bright red carbolic bar. they can be found at a lot of natural food stores like noah's.

By anon146452 — On Jan 26, 2011

As many others I grew up being scrubbed head to foot in "Lifebuoy" Red, a popular carbolic soap of my youth, then went into nurse training and we had to use it then under Sisters glare of needing "Correct Hand Washing".

I recently fell over a house clearance and spied 30 bars of it for sale. I'm so glad I did. It's a godsend for lots of uses, and for helping me remember good times of skinned knees and playground bumps that were scrubbed out with this soap, lololol Sarah, Cornwall, UK

By anon145297 — On Jan 22, 2011

If anyone is looking for carbolic soap, your best bet is to find a local health food store, or health store, not a drugstore.

By anon137365 — On Dec 27, 2010

I am from eastern ontario. I heard carbolic soap is good for acne. where can I find it in this area?

By anon98473 — On Jul 23, 2010

Carbolic soap is the best and great on the skin.

By anon97681 — On Jul 20, 2010

Good question. I would like to know if carbolic soap is harmful to eczema as well. Anyone with comments please let me know. Thanks.

By anon82808 — On May 07, 2010

I'm from St Croix US Virgin Islands. I live in NC and have not seen carbolic soap here. I was in NY this weekend stocked up on carbolic soap and took a bath with it this morning and feel great. It's good for your skin.

By anon79539 — On Apr 23, 2010

I've just started using this soap for acne on my face (came recommended) and i find that it definitely got rid of any unwanted spots and is now preventing spots! Put it this way: the carbolic acid can't be any worse than the stuff they put into modern face creams and cleansing lotions!

By anon76518 — On Apr 10, 2010

I would think probably yes. It is an irritant and an acid so probably best not to use on sore or broken skin.

By anon70679 — On Mar 15, 2010

I grew up in Jamaica, W.I. in the 1950's, and carbolic was a mainstay in households, but only for washing hands and bathing dogs. It was not used as a bath soap because of its characteristic strong "medicinal" smell that was associated with hospitals and dispensaries (pharmacies).

By anon50293 — On Oct 27, 2009

I am from St. Thomas USVI and I grew up with Carbolic soap. As children we called it "old people's soap" but once I became a teen, i had trouble with my underarms. my doc told me I had to change soaps every three months to avoid that. I've used carbolic soap since then until now, and I love it! It cleans your body till you hear the squeaky clean sounds, and it doesn't build up under your arms like the other soaps. I highly recommend this soap! If this soap is too harsh for you try dettol soap--does the same thing. Akima from St. Thomas USVI

By anon50023 — On Oct 25, 2009

I grew up using carbolic soap (early 60's). Five years ago, I found a bag containing Ferguson and Shaws (Glasgow) Ltd carbolic soap - over 400 bars! I have used it daily since then, and would thoroughly recommend it. It cleans properly, and disinfects anything and everything. This company stopped trading in 1977, so this stuff is at least 32 years old -and still smells strongly. And it has never rotted/molded/degraded. it's pretty clear that germs can't live with it.

By anon45598 — On Sep 18, 2009

what is the maximum percentage of carbolic acid in a hand wash soap.

By anon37359 — On Jul 19, 2009

carbolic soap contains carbolic acid which is very harmful for skin. continuous use may damage skin. In europe carbolic soaps are used for bathing animals only.

By anon34341 — On Jun 21, 2009

A Natural Deodorant???

I ran out of deodorant and didn't have the time to get few sticks immediately so I used good old carbolic soap under the arm pits, remember to rinse. I got into the car drove around to do some errands. Anyway, to make a long story short. I did not apply deodorant that day. I asked my fiance if I smelled and he said no. Trust me he would have said something, either of us are not polite when it concerns the nose.

By anon23325 — On Dec 21, 2008

Is Carbolic soap harmful to eczema?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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