What’s the deal with soap? One of the first lessons any newcomer into the skincare world gets is something along the lines of “Never wash your face with bar soap.” To reinforce this rule, many cleansers are clearly labeled “soap-free” in big, scary letters, as though soap were the worst possible ingredient we could use on our skin. Yet, there are still aisles full of the stuff in every supermarket and drugstore out there, so people are obviously using soap and living to buy more of it. What’s more, there are plenty of skincare brands—reputable brands—that make soap specifically for the face, so clearly the “no soap” rule is somewhat up to interpretation.
To help us navigate the stigma around washing your face with bar soap, we consulted with two top dermatologists to find out the truths, the myths, and what so-called “facial soaps,” if any, are actually ok to use on your face.
What Is Bar Soap Made Out Of?
To understand why bar soap may be potentially bad for washing your face, first let’s look at what’s in it. Typical bars of soap contain long-chain fatty acid alkali salts with a pH between 9-10, along with other common ingredients including detergents. “These cleanse the skin but can also increase the pH of skin, disrupting its normal pH,” explained Dr. Doyle. “When this happens, the skin barrier is compromised and we see irritation, dryness, flaking, and redness.” Dr. Amin added that other key ingredients to avoid include sodium lauryl sulfate as well as parabens, as they are known to cause endocrine dysfunction.
Should I Wash My Face With Bar Soap?
Most soaps that we see labeled as “soap” are true “bar soaps,” as opposed to “solid cleansers” (which we’ll get to later) meaning they have a high pH of 9-10. The skin’s natural pH is slightly acidic, in the range of 4-5, Dr. Amin said—the level at which its microbiome thrives—and altering its pH can cause irritation, dehydration, and make skin more prone to sensitivity and redness. So the long and short answer is yes, bar soaps are, at least from a chemical standpoint, bad for washing your face.
One of the best examples of true soap is, ironically, the longtime facial favorite Ivory, which Dr. Doyle said would be considered harsh and drying for most people. However, she was quick to point out that not all bar soaps are made the same. “What the soap is composed of makes a huge difference, so understanding these differences will help you pick the right one for your skin,” she said. Still, she said she prefers liquid type cleansers over bar soap, as they’re formulated specifically to cleanse facial skin while respecting its delicate barrier function.
Are There Benefits to Washing My Face With Bar Soap?
Despite their potential to wreak havoc on healthy skin, Dr. Amin said a chief reason many people still choose to wash their face with bar soap comes down to environmental awareness. “From the environmental point of view, there is no question bar soaps use less packaging. And because there is no water in them, shipping costs and environmental impact is reduced.” He went on to say that bar soaps can be great for their lathering effect and ability to remove grime, dirt, and cleanse particularly oily skin, but choosing the right bar soap is key.
What Soap Should I Use Instead?
Both dermatologists agreed that there are several solid cleanser options available that would be less harsh on skin, but Dr. Doyle doubled down on her stance that choosing a liquid cleanser specifically formulated for facial skin is better than washing your face with bar soap. “While I’m sure there are some patients that prefer bar soap, I tend to steer away from them since many are stripping, drying and irritating,” she said. However, if you’re dead set on using a solid, here’s what they recommended:
Syndet Bar Cleanser
According to Dr. Doyle, these solid cleansers contain synthetic detergents and less than 10% soap, and feature a significantly lower pH of around 5.5-7.0 to minimize disruption to the skin. Examples of syndet bars include Cetaphil Deep Cleansing Bar and Dove Original Beauty Cream Bar. “If you’re going to use a bar soap at all on the face, these would be a better choice,” she said.
Like the name suggests, combars contain a combination of true soap and synthetic detergent. Dr. Doyle explained they’re milder than true soap, but have more cleansing power than a syndet soap. Examples include Irish Spring and Dial bar soap. However, while combars are somewhat acceptable for use on the body, Dr. Doyle said they’re still a no-go for the face, especially on sensitive skin.
In addition to these, there are several solid cleansing bars that get the thumbs up for use on the face, including:
Made famous by legions of old Hollywood celebs including Marilyn Monroe, Erno Lazslo’s famous black soap got Dr. Amin’s approval. “Erno Laszlo is a great luxury soap that features charcoal, which absorbs toxins, dirt and oil,” he said. “Glycerin is also included in the bar, which conditions the skin, leaving it soft, smooth and not overly-dry.”
One of Dr. Amin’s favorites, he praised its moisturizing and skin-boosting ingredients like marula oil and blueberry-derived antioxidants for their ability to gently cleanse skin without stripping it.
If this article has completely put you off washing your face with bar soap forever, Dr. Doyle was at the ready with plenty of recommendations for each skin type.
Very Dry/Sensitive Skin
“This is a creamy, soft, easy to use cleanser that can be used twice daily or just in the morning if someone prefers something a little more cleansing at the end of the day,” Dr. Doyle said.
This cult favorite cleanser gently foams to whisk away dirt and excess oil, while three ceramides, amino acids, and hyaluronic acid act to hydrate skin and protect its delicate barrier balance.
This dermatologist-recommended classic has, at one time or another, been a staple in every teenager’s bathroom, but Dr. Doyle said its salicylic acid-packed formula is also great for adult skin that tends to be on the oilier side.
The Final Takeaway
Dr. Doyle said it best: “You only have one face, so you need to make sure it gets the best care.” While we may have been brought up on the ease and convenience washing our face with bar soap, both science and our two dermatologists agree that cleansers specifically formulated for the delicate facial skin tend to be the better option. The good news is that nowadays, brands seem to be more aware than ever of the importance of products that respect our skin’s microbiome, so finding a cleanser both you and your wallet love is easier than ever.