Our skin is our largest organ and plays an integral role in keeping us healthy. It protects us from disease and injury and helps regulate body temperature, so keeping our skin in great shape is vital to maintaining overall health.
While soap is sold to us as an exfoliating must — it removes dead skin cells and carries away oils and dirt — it also might be one of the things that does more harm than good.
Conventional soaps can damage your skin
It’s been well documented over the years that conventional soaps, which are made by mixing fat or oil with an alkali such as lye, can wreck skin by changing its pH, obliterating healthy bacteria, and stripping away vital oils.
The pH of your skin really matters
Healthy skin pH is around 5.5, which is slightly acidic, but most conventional soaps have a much higher pH, sometimes as high as 11.
“When the skin's pH is too high, your body produces excess sebum to fight back and restore its natural pH levels. However, the soap residue ensures the disruptive pH is maintained,” says independent beauty chemist David Pollack. “The end result is that skin can become too oily. If that isn't bad enough, soap residue emulsifies or binds to the skin's lipid matrix.”
How long it takes to damage our skin’s acid mantle (a protective layer of oils, fatty acids, and amino acids) can vary, but signs of damage include increased dryness, itching, irritation, and inflammation. All this can also worsen skin conditions such as acne, eczema, dermatitis, and rosacea.
And what would help some of those symptoms? The oils that conventional soap strips away!
These oils serve an important function in keeping skin moisturized and intact. Without them, our skin becomes susceptible to cracks, tears, and other irritation that can jeopardize its function as a protective barrier.
Pollack, who has formulated best-selling products for popular brands like L’Oréal, Smashbox, Bliss, and SkinCeuticals explains, “When you rinse your skin, a layer of the protective barrier is actually washed away, leading to even drier skin.”
Basically, our current ingrained cleaning process can actually make it harder for your skin to heal and protect itself. But it’s possible — and really easy — to get your skin back to its optimal, self-sustaining state.
How to ditch your soap for good
If you’re not sure what’s in your soaps, your best bet is to throw them out. Bar soaps are generally the harshest because they have a higher, more alkaline pH than that of normal skin. Bodywashes and shower gels are made differently, with surfactants or emulsifiers, and are closer to our skin’s natural pH. All three types of soap dissolve and rinse away vital oils our skin needs.
The good news, though, is that soap is pretty much unnecessary
Yep. You don’t need to use conventional soaps in your daily hygiene routine.
All you absolutely need, bare bones, to stay clean is water. Just water.
Water does a fine job of rinsing away dirt without stripping vital oils from your skin. Also, avoid those luxurious long, hot showers. Just a few minutes under the spray is enough to rinse away a day’s accumulation of dirt, and any longer might dry your skin.
You can choose to use a mild cleanser on your armpits and genitals if you’re super concerned, but unless you’ve been sweating heavily or rolling around in literal dirt, don’t worry, you won't stink (but if you really need sleep, we’ll give tips on finding the best soap below).
1. Try oil cleansing
One option is cleansing oils. Though it may seem counterintuitive to slather your skin in oil to get clean, it’s a much healthier alternative than soaps.
Oil-based cleansers trap dirt and dead skin cells, allowing them to be rinsed without disrupting the oil barrier already in place. One trick to remember is to oil up before entering in the shower. Newer oil-based cleansers are manufactured to produce a light lather when it gets wet that rinses easily without damaging your skin or leaving a residue.
Pro-tip: Consider adding a mat to your shower floor to prevent slips and bruised bottoms — and pride.
2. Brush dead skin cells off
Dry brushing is another effective way to remove dead skin cells and dirt from the surface of your skin, while also promoting the production of healthy oils. Dry brushing is exactly what it sounds like: you brush your skin, while dry, with a natural fiber brush.
The movement of the bristles over your skin helps exfoliate and remove dirt. There’s also some evidence that brushing the skin helps to promote lymphatic drainage, thereby serving as a detox not just for your skin but for your whole body.
To try dry brushing at home, you’ll first need a good quality, natural bristle brush, available in the bath aisle at most stores.
Dry brushing instructions
- Begin at your feet and brush upward, following the contours of your body.
- Moving the brush in clockwise circles, apply comfortable pressure — softer on thinner skin, more forceful on thicker skin.
- Always brush toward the center of your chest.
- After brushing your lower extremities, abdomen, and chest, brush your arms, toward the body from your palms.
- After you’ve brushed your entire body, shower in cool water and apply your preferred moisturizer.
3. Make your own all-natural scrub
For the DIYer, there are literally thousands of different recipes for products you can make right in your own kitchen. From salt and sugar scrubs to oatmeal and honey exfoliators, the list goes on.
Brit+Co has a few all-natural recipes that will scrub off dead skin cells and keep your body nicely hydrated without damaging your skin’s natural barrier. But your own mix can be as simple as oatmeal, honey, and plain yogurt — or avocado oil, honey, and sugar! Just remember to avoid your face as the skin there is more delicate and sugar crystals can cause micro tears.
Always patch test: As with any new product you try or make, be sure to test it on a small area of your skin for at least 24 hours and see if you have any adverse reactions.
What about natural soaps?
If you’re not quite ready to drop soap, consider a natural or handmade small-batch soap. Handmade soaps tend to be less harsh than commercially produced bars and generally use higher-quality fats and oils during the saponification process. Good ingredients like shea butter, coconut oil, or olive oil are often the base for these soaps, whereas commercially produced bars use harsh ingredients and low-quality oils and fats.
Double-check ingredient and avoid:
- sodium lauryl sulfate
- sodium laureth sulfate
- synthetic coloring agents (FD&C Yellow, etc.)
- artificial fragrance
- Pro-tip: To research specific products, look through the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database.
Are you ready to say goodbye to soap?
Considering how soap can negatively impact the naturally occurring bacteria, or microbiome, that lives on your skin surface, it may be time to ditch this cleansing agent for good.
Quick soap reminders for your best skin
- Conventional soaps can damage your skin barrier and prevent it from functioning optimally.
- Ditch your soap and opt for cleaning with water, oils, dry brushing, or all-natural options.
- Keep an eye out for harmful ingredients — use EWG’s Skin Deep app for product research.
After all, a healthy and functioning microbiome is a crucial element to maintaining healthy skin. Don’t wash out the “good” bacteria in an effort to get rid of the “bad” bacteria. Let your body care for itself and be its own armor.
Kristi is a freelance writer and mother who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She’s frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction. Find her on Twitter.