Body Wash Vs. Bar Soap: Does it Matter?

Photo: Maria Robledo-Trunk

According to a recent Nielsen Data study, 35% of American women use bar soap in the shower. But according to commercials, TV, and movies, 100% of American women use body wash and a loofah. So which is it? And does your skin really care what you use to clean it?

Soap is a $1.3 billion industry, about the same size as the body wash market, so why does it get a bad rap? Dr. Jennifer Chwalek, a dermatologist in New York City, says, “There’s always a lot of confusion about whether or not one is superior to the other, but it really comes down to the ingredients in the cleanser.” 

You often hear that soap strips the skin, doing more harm than good. The reason is that the soap-making process produces an inherently alkaline product. “That’s the cause of drying of the skin,” explains cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson, who has formulated thousands of products. “Soaps like Irish Spring or Ivory tend to have more alkaline ingredients,” Dr. Chwalek agrees. “That really strips your skin of oil.” 

That doesn’t mean that bar soap has to be drying, though. Wilson explains that soap formulators add ingredients known to moisturize skin. Olay’s Ultra Moisture bar ($6), for instance, uses shea butter.

Chemically speaking, shower gels and body washes can incorporate newer ingredients because they’re not confined to a certain pH. “You have much more flexibility,” Wilson explains. “You can use a milder surfactant.” Formulas can use more foaming agents, too—though Wilson notes that doesn’t lead to cleaner skin. “Foaming has nothing to do with how well a body wash works,” she says.  

One drawback of those more-flexible liquid formulas: they allow for more fragrance, which can cause skin irritation. “It’s best to avoid extra fragrances, and this can be an issue with gels,” Dr. Chwalek says. “You can develop allergies to certain plant extracts and fragrances. They can cause dry skin or itchy patches.”

So, is soap or shower gel better? The choice is yours, says Dr. Chwalek. “It’s a matter of preference,” she says, adding that simpler formulas are ideal. She frequently recommends soaps and shower gels from Dove, Aveeno, CeraVe, and Cetaphil. “So many times, less is more,” she says. Good advice in general—and especially for your skin.