With customers seeking out lower-cost product options due to the economy, distributors are finding bulk soap sales to be outpacing cartridge sales, largely because of the cost differences.

"In our geographical area, price is definitely king, so a lot of customers are interested in gallon jugs that can be used for refills in manual dispensers," says Chris Meadows, president of Simply Solutions, Neosho, Mo.

Distributors can expect to see even more sales of bulk soap because the most popular formulation, foam, is now available as a bulk pour.

"We continue to see a progression from eliminating liquids and moving toward foam," says Shane Treat, vice president of sales for Treat's Solutions, Oklahoma City. "More and more people are using foam than ever before, and I think that is going to continue."

Foam is popular because it can be more cost-effective than liquid soaps.

"Since it foams up, users perceive that they are getting more soap than they actually are, compared to a lotion or liquid soap, so they tend use less of it," says Chris Martini, director of marketing for Central Sanitary Supply, Modesto, Calif.

End users are switching back to bulk soap because they can easily refill dispensers instead of having to replace and throw out individual cartridges after each shift.

"It is almost like a 'never-out' type of system, because you can always top off the reservoir," says Martini.

If distributors sell bulk soap to customers, they should warn them about the potential for cross-contamination, however. When janitors refill dispensers, the bacteria on their hands could contaminate the soap. Bulk soap can also be contaminated by the dust in the air or by toilet water pluming out of bowls and urinals. Studies show that 25 percent of soap from bulk dispensers is contaminated. If soap becomes contaminated, it will leave bacteria on users' hands, which then can get spread throughout the rest of the facility.

With the potential for cross-contamination, healthcare facilities tend to use cartridge-type dispensers almost exclusively, says Martini.

William Atkinson is a freelance writer based in Carterville, Ill.