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Squeaky Clean with a Little Caffeine


Published August 28, 2002
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Getting that first caffeine jolt in the morning can be so darned long and complicated. You have to make coffee. Or you have to go out and buy coffee. Usually you even have to get dressed.

Not anymore. Hop out of bed and perk right up with Shower Shock, apparently the world's first soap loaded with caffeine, ready to shoot into your bloodstream through your skin instead of down your throat.

"People are already telling us they can't live without it," says Willie Vadnais of, an online store specializing in "extreme caffeine" products. "I've used it and it really peps you up."

That may be so, but now it's time for the disclaimer: Shower Shock has not been scientifically tested. Although caffeine can be absorbed through the skin, it's not clear how much and how fast, especially when you wash it right off.

"We don't usually get any medication or nutrition through the skin by soap," says Dr. Coleman Jacobson, a Dallas dermatologist who is also a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. "If the implication is that you're absorbing as much caffeine in your shower as in your cup of coffee, that needs to be examined."

Nevertheless, a lot of products seem to work just because we think they work. And a lot of products get made just because they seem like a good idea.

This idea started brewing in the early '90s, when Jeff Costic was studying engineering at the University of Colorado.

"My roommate and I were talking one day," he says. "Somehow we started discussing the way to sell something is you put something addictive in there. We started joking that we should make gum with heroin.

"Then we got a little more realistic. I actually mentioned that soap with caffeine would be pretty good, and we stopped and looked at each other and said, 'You know, that would be good.'"

Fast-forward a few years to New Jersey, where Mr. Costic is running a computer network. He sees an article on how to make your own soap, mixes crushed No-Doz tablets into a liquid soap base and tries a few bars.

"We refined it a lot into what I'm selling today," he says. "But it's still just soap, caffeine and peppermint oil. That gives it a little tingle."

From a makeshift production line in a spare room of his parents' house, Mr. Costic was supplying "an extended circle of friends" in Jackson, a small town in southern New Jersey.

Although he doesn't have the scientific studies to prove it, the inventor is sure his concoction works.

"I had a little industrial accident once where I ended up covered in liquid soap from the neck down," he reports. "It was definitely a good kick."

A few months ago Mr. Costic surfed in to, which asks its caffeine-craving customers to suggest new ideas.

"We've tried to come up with some more unique ways to get caffeine beyond just mints and drinks," says Mr. Vadnais, whose site is 3 years old. "He said he could make caffeine soap. So he sent us some samples, and we came up with the name Shower Shock."

By July, showers were being shocked around the country, at $6.99 a bar. Mr. Costic says he plans to add another scent to the line but isn't sure where the enterprise will lead.

He doesn't have a patent, and he admits to being a bit concerned that some big company will steal his idea. After all, consumer products giant Procter & Gamble makes both Ivory soap and Folgers coffee. How easy would it be for the company to synergize the two?

Tracey Long, a spokeswoman at the Cincinnati-based conglomerate, says the company hadn't heard of Shower Shock and has no plans for caffeinated cleanser competition.

"But it's interesting," she says. "I would suggest that a bar of Zest [another Procter & Gamble product] will get you refreshed and ready to take on the day. The scent is really invigorating."

Mr. Vadnais says that while his customers have been enthusiastic, they would like to see some documentation.

"All we can say is there's caffeine in that soap and it's absorbed through the skin," he says.

Dr. Jacobson, the dermatologist, doesn't dispute that. Many substances, from pain medication to nicotine, reach the bloodstream through the skin - although they don't get washed off right away. Deodorant soaps, which do get washed off right away, help control bacteria that cause body odor.

A test, he says, wouldn't be difficult. Just lather up, then take a blood sample to look for caffeine.

"Then you'd know if it's really absorbed," Dr. Jacobson says.

Mr. Costic pledges "some more rigorous testing" as soon as he can afford it. In the meantime, he says, true believers are approaching him with other ideas.

"Seriously, people have asked me, 'Can you hook me up with some marijuana soap?'" he says. "I'm looking into other products, but I don't know about that."