Soap and cleansers: how not to destroy your skin.
Updated: Jun 25
From early on we are told that soap is our friend. That we should make sure that it reaches every part of our body during a wash. That it’s the one thing that will save us from impure skin and even illness. So we rub and scrub like there’s no tomorrow. But do we really want to be so squeaky clean?
How does soap work?
Essentially soap molecules have two ends. One end likes the dirt, the other end likes water. So the dirt attaches to the soap molecules and is washed away with water. This seems like a genius idea. So where’s the problem?
Things get complicated, because the silly dirt-loving ends of the soap don’t just attach to the things we don’t want on our skin. They attach to pretty much everything that isn’t water. Including the integral parts of our skin, which we need in order to keep our skin healthy and functioning well.
Soap vs. skin’s pH
Skin has a rather acidic pH between 4.0-4.5 (more acidic then previously estimated 5.5 pH). Why? It’s because this acidic environment is not something that the bacteria and other pathogens like. This is why this property of our skin is called the acid mantle –it provides protection against infections. Washing with soap raises the skin’s pH, destroying the protective coating and therefore making us more vulnerable to pathogens. This in turn causes inflammation, which results in conditions like acne, contact dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, itchyosis or candida albicans infections. Nowadays, the cosmetic producers are very eager to advertise that their cleansers are e.g. pH neutral or 5.5 pH. These cleansers would be called acidic. You can assume any cleanser that does not make these claims would be an alkaline cleanser. Alkaline cleansers are the worst offenders – they rise the skin’s pH drastically. Be aware, however, that even the acidic cleansers raise skin’s pH (although not so drastically and not for so long) – something, that sensitive skin owners should keep in mind.
Note: All natural bar soaps are alkaline with a pH considerably higher than that of our skin.
Soap vs. skin’s hydration
Remember what I said before? On one side, soap molecules are attracted to everything that isn’t water. The bad news here is that they are also attracted to the good oils on your skin (the so called lipids). The lipids are very important for our skin, because they too form a barrier. They help our skin retain moisture and in turn its healthy, fresh appearance. Soap disorganises the lipids on the surface of our skin, making the skin’s barrier ineffective. Skin is not able stay hydrated and the transepidermal water loss (TEWL) increases, leading to dry, flaky skin.
Soap vs. skin’s sensitivity
Following from the previous point, after the soap breaks through the lipid barrier on our skin’s surface, it has an easy passage to the skin’s living cells underneath. The soap molecules interact with our skin cells and cause the sensitive skin symptoms like redness, itchiness or rashes. It is estimated that more than 50% of all skin irritation is cause by soaps and shampoos (9,10).
Soap vs. acne and skin infections
I already explained how alterations in the skin’s pH can lead to appearance of acne and other skin disorders. Another important point to understand in relation to these skin conditions is that “squeaky clean” skin might be the root of the problems. There are millions of beneficial bacteria living on our skin. This microscopic ecosystem is called the bacterial flora. Scientists are now starting to understand, that maintaining a healthy bacterial flora on our skin is essential to preventing skin infections and acne. Why? Because the good bacteria are keeping check on the bad ones by taking the space and food from them. And you guessed it – soaps are not great when it comes to recognising, which of the bacteria should be washed away and which should stay. They are leaving our bacterial flora completely out of balance, allowing the bad bacteria to multiply out of control and cause many skin concerns.
Note: If you suffer from acne, think about how you could help the good bacteria on your skin. Avoid scrubs, chemical peels, harsh cleansers and alcohol in your cosmetics.
1. Cleanse your face using the Oil Cleansing Method (OCM) – this cleansing method works on a “like attracts like” principle, whereby the oils in the cleanser bind to the dirt on your face, but they don’t destroy the skin’s barrier and they will leave your bacterial flora happy. This method is extremely gentle to your skin, yet extremely effective. It removes even waterproof make-up. You can read more about how to cleanse your skin with OCM here.
2. This may sound controversial, but try to avoid washing with soap as many of your body parts as possible. Simply opt for water instead. However, I totally understand, that this option may not sound appealing or is not a possibility for some people.
3. Choose products free from sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ammonium laureth sulfate (ALS) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). These three incredibly common harsh surfactants are known for causing skin irritation.
4. Avoid bar soaps. Yes, even the natural ones. Unfortunately they are all rather irritating alkaline surfactants (easily spotted on the label under the name Sodium, followed by the name of the oil, e.g. Sodium Olivate) and therefore capable of being the cause of many skin problems. The natural, handmade bar soaps, however, have usually the advantage of having the hydrating glycerine retained within them.
5. Use natural but mild surfactants – look out for these on the labels:
Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate,
Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate,
Sodium Lauryl Sulphoacetate.
These surfactants are all derived from plants and are completely biodegradable. This page is a great resource for determining whether a surfactant is mild or harsh: https://nyponros.com/en/soap-and-other-surfactants/the-surfactant-list
6. Always moisturise using plant butters and oils following washing your hands, a shower or a bath, to help rebuild the skin’s barrier.
What are your experiences, problems and challenges connected to cleansing your face and body? We want to hear from you. Leave us a comment below.
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9. Meding B, Liden C, Berglind N. Self-diagnosed dermatitis in adults. Results from a population survey in Stockholm. Contact Dermatitis 2001; 45(6):341–345.
10. S. Schliemann, M. Breternitz, P. Elsner. Principles and Mechanisms of Skin Irritation. Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology. 2009; 3: 444-453