Should I Use Soap, Body Wash, or Shower Gel?

Skin Care

Decorative hand soaps

Dear Nicki,

Which is better for the skin – soap or shower gels?

-Bree

Dear Bree,

Our great-grandparents had no choice but to use a bar of soap in the bath or shower.  Yet like so many other improvements – horses to cars, landlines to cell phones, air mail to e-mail – shower gels and body cleansers are often an improvement to soap.  Take, for instance, a 2004 study in Dermatologic Therapy which found cleansers with a high pH (like many soaps) can strip skin of lipids and proteins, leading to dryness, irritation, redness, and, in some cases, even broken skin leading to infection.  For this reason, I tend to avoid any cleansers with a high concentration of sodium bicarbonate (with a high pH), as well as most bar soaps.

What’s the difference between body wash and shower gel?

Shower gel
A thin consistency makes shower gel better for warmer climates.

Both moisturizing body wash and shower gel can be applied straight from the container, or with a hand-held pouf that provides extra lather and full-body coverage. Each offers a different texture and concentration, and each cleans differently.

  • Body wash is better for those with normal skin.  Body wash is thinner than shower gel because it comes in liquid form.
  • Moisturizing body wash is best for those with dry skin.  During cold months, it also provides extra moisture.  Moisturizing body washes are rich with moisture, often featuring occlusive agents, like petrolatum and mineral oil, which seal moisture into the skin while you are still in the bath or shower.  It is still thinner in consistency in most cases than shower gel.
  • Shower gel is generally better for those with acne-prone or oily skin or in warm, humid climates.   Shower gel is thicker than body wash and has a more firm consistency; many formulas are also “cooling,” with cucumber or sea extracts.
  • Treatment body washes or shower gels, like Neutrogena Clean and Clear Body Wash ($5.97, Amazon.com) defy the rules listed above.  These contain active ingredients like salicyclic acid, a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that alleviates acne, despite the fact that it is technically a “body wash.”  BHAs work in part by softening keratin, a protein that forms part of the skin structure. This helps to loosen dry scaly skin, increasing cell turnover.

Are antioxidants important in bath or shower gel?

Dragonfruit
Dragonfruit, anyone?

Yes and no.  In order to get the benefits of a body wash or shower gel, you need to rub these into the skin for a full minute.  According to renowned dermatologist Dr. David Bank, M.D., using cleansers for less time doesn’t allow the beneficial ingredients bind to the skin at their full capacity.  Ideally, a body wash or shower gel should include antioxidants and beneficial ingredients like the following:

  • Coffee
  • Green or white tea
  • Mangosteen
  • Pomegranate
  • Goji and/or acai super fruit

Certain luxury bath products may also contain skin conditioning nutrients like the following, which are beneficial when applied to the skin for long enough:

Choosing a Scent

Regardless of whether you prefer a shower gel or body wash, part of the attraction is finding a scent that invigorates you in the morning or relaxes you after a long day.  For instance, Vitabath makes the following scents many prefer in the morning:

  • Fresh Citrus
  • Ivy & Lily
  • Lavender Chamomile
  • Nouveau Rose

Or if you want a substitute for some rich dessert, you might choose an aroma like:

  • Coconut Crème
  • Luscious Lemon
  • Vanilla Sugar
  • Wild Red Cherry

Bottom Line

Though there are moisturizing soaps like Dove, most bar soaps have a high pH and too little moisturization, leaving your skin depleted of certain hydrating lipids and proteins so that you experience uncomfortable “after-wash tightness”, dryness, redness, irritation, and, in some extreme cases, even skin breakage.   It’s best to select a body wash in the cool fall/winter and shower gel in the warm spring/summer, although “treatment” body washes for acne, eczema, psoriasis and the like will defy these rules altogether.

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  • @Christine – Thanks for your warm wishes and a great question!

    So three things matter when it comes to skin care:
    1.) Ingredients and their concentration;
    2.) Delivery systems;
    3.) pH.

    In this case, the pH of a soap should always be acidic or neutral, never basic, because basic soaps have been shown to disrupt the acid mantle as you said and leave the skin red, irritated, and dried. See this paper in Dermatologic Surgery: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1396-0296.2004.04S1002.x/abstract;jsessionid=6D5E51F07633B50106AD682BC3312D2B.d01t02?userIsAuthenticated=false&deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=

    Water is neutral, with a pH of 7. However, water is also what is known as amphoteric, meaning that it can act as an acid or a base.

    If we use water to rinse off the acidic cleanser, the water will not damage the acid mantle of the skin, because the pH would be somewhere between 5.5 (like the acidic cleanser) and 7.0 (like water).

    Hope this helps!
    -Nicki

    • tharun

      is shower gel is the best product for body . can we wash face with shoer gel

  • Christine Wong

    Hi Nicki,

    I have read a number of rave reviews of natural soaps like Chagrin Valley which are superfatting. Though its pH is 7 to 7.5, people say that the soap doesn’t dry their facial skin.

    Thus, I would like to know if the pH of the cleasner / soap matters most or its ingredients. Chagrin Valley has her opinion http://www.chagrinvalleysoapandsalve.com/idascorner/soappH.aspx. What do you think?

    Also, one question always puzzles me is that we are always told that it is better for us to use cleanser with pH 5.5 or below so that the acid mantle of the skin will not be disrupted.

    My question is that we use water (pH 7) to rinse off the cleanser, even the cleanser I use is of pH 5.5, will the water (pH 7) damage the acid mantle of the skin?

    Last not not least, I do look forward to your products!

    Good Selling!

    With Warmest Regards!

    Christine

  • I love lye based soaps…they are natural and so not harsh on the skin!!!

  • Jax

    Phisoderm Anti-blemish Body Wash ($5.29 at Drugstore.com) has salicylic acid along with aloe, chamomile and vitamin E, which soothe skin and restore pH-balance. It’s clear and has a super slight scent, barely noticeable at all. The Nutrogena body was smells pretty horrible!

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