Cleansing is typically the first step in just about any skincare routine. That doesn’t just go for your face—you clean your body, also! And just as you take care to find the right products for your complexion, so, too, should you pick the right options for your body care.
When it comes to what’s in your shower, many people are divided on one matter: bar soap vs. body wash. You might even wonder what the difference between the two is, anyway.
Good news: We’re here to answer that question and share everything you need to know about bar soap, body wash, and which option might be best for your skin.
When it comes down to it, both bar soap and body wash generally have the same purpose: to break up oil and remove dirt and debris from the skin. But they do have some fundamental differences that have observable effects on your skin.
For one thing, soap can be solid and is mostly made up of alkali salts of fatty acids or oils mixed with a strong alkaline substance. However, some bar cleansers technically aren’t “soaps” (by the strictest definition) because they’re often made with synthetic detergents (aka syndets).¹ Still, we’re including them under the “bar soaps” category for this discussion.
Because of their ingredients, bar soaps often have higher (more alkaline) pH levels than the skin, which normally has a pH range of 5.4-5.9. This can have a drying effect which can be problematic for people with naturally dry skin.²
Body wash, on the other hand, usually comes in a liquid or gel form, and is often formulated with ingredients intended to help moisturize, exfoliate, or even fight acne.
Of course, there are bar soaps that are formulated for all of those uses as well. The main difference is that most body washes are usually not made of those solid fats or oils. Instead, they’re made of syndets derived from fats, oils, or petroleum sources.³ Because there is no strong alkaline substance, the pH level found in a body wash is usually much closer to the skin’s natural range.
The popularity of body wash has grown dramatically over the years. In 2021, sales of liquid body wash hit $6.4 billion, whereas deodorant bar soap saw only $288 million in sales.⁴ But don’t let that number fool you—there’s more to the story.
Body wash may hold the crown in the popularity contest these days, but bar soap is still in very high demand and for several good reasons.
Compared to body wash, bar soaps typically have less packaging, which is often made of cardboard or paper rather than plastic. The soaps themselves usually don’t contain any microplastics or other ecologically problematic ingredients, either.
Bar soaps are solid and contain mostly just their active ingredients, with fewer additives than you would typically find in body wash. Some cleansing bars may contain humectants or moisturizers, deodorants or fragrances, and antibacterial agents like triclosan, but a solid bar won’t include the additional emulsifiers and stabilizers you’re likely to find in the complex formulas of liquid body washes.⁵
Because bar soaps typically need fewer ingredients compared to body wash, they’re usually much cheaper to manufacture, and therefore cheaper to buy. Not only that, we use much less since we’re not piling a mountain of shower gel into our loofah, so it usually lasts longer, too.
One thing to look out for in your bar soap is sodium lauryl sulfate. This chemical compound can strip the skin of its natural healthy oils and leave it feeling tight (the “squeaky” feeling of “squeaky clean”). That can lead to irritation⁶ and possible breakouts, especially for people with naturally dry, acne-prone, or sensitive skin, as it can clog pores!
Another thing to watch out for with bar soap is how it’s handled. When it’s dry, there’s usually not much of an issue, but often people will leave their bar of soap sitting in a stagnant puddle of water in a soap dish or on the shower ledge.
That stagnant, warm water is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. To prevent your soap from staying damp, keep it in a holder with perforations that can drain the water away. Additionally, give the bar a quick rinse before and after use.
It’s difficult to deny that body wash is the champion of the shower these days, and to be fair, it’s easy to see why. Here are a few of its benefits.
While the alkali salts of fatty acids in bar soap can strip the skin of its natural oils and leave the skin feeling tight and dried out, many body washes are infused with moisturizers and humectants that leave the skin feeling hydrated and refreshed.
Many body washes or shower scrubs have added exfoliators, such as sugar, rice, crushed amethyst, and even microdermabrasion crystals to help scrub away dead skin cells and promote cell regeneration. Be careful, though—too much exfoliation can lead to irritation.
Body washes are often formulated to be more gentle and hydrating. They can be formulated to the normal skin pH of 5.5 or can be adjusted for certain skin types.⁷ Some products are specially formulated to be easier on the skin for people who have eczema or sensitive skin.
Unlike bar soap, body wash is usually stored in a bottle and doesn’t touch the skin before it gets used, so there’s not much chance for bacteria from skin contact to get inside and contaminate the rest of the product. That’s definitely better than sitting in a dish full of warm, stagnant water!
It’s very important to note that the “more-hygienic” property doesn’t apply to the loofah or sponge that you might be using in the shower—those can be bacterial breeding grounds. They should be rinsed thoroughly before and after each use, and they should be switched out for a new one every few weeks.
Body wash tends to have more ingredients than bar soap. For example, body wash generally uses one or more of a variety of chemical compounds called emulsifiers to maintain a liquid consistency without separating. But don’t let that name scare you. It’s just a description of what happens when two specific substances interact—we use emulsifiers in food (like salad dressings) all the time.
At the same time, having more ingredients does mean that there is more chance of exposure to potential allergens. The cleansing agents in body washes are called surfactants, and some of them are known to cause irritation in certain skin types with certain properties or concentrations.⁸
Body wash and shower gel can sometimes be less eco-friendly. They usually come in plastic tubes or bottles, some of which may or may not be recyclable. Also, though microbeads have been banned in many countries like the U.S. for quite some time now,⁹ some body washes may still contain other chemicals and compounds that may not be environmentally friendly.
Body wash can also be more expensive than bar soap. There are plenty of affordable body washes out there, but depending on the ingredients and the brand, some can cost as much as $60 per bottle or more. Not only that, but they generally don’t last as long as bar soap, so that empty bottle of body wash needs replacing more often.
There really is no cut-and-dry answer to the bar soap versus body wash debate. It really does depend on your skin type, personal preferences, and your skincare goals. If your aim is to combat acne, then consider Curology’s Acne Body Wash — a dermatologist-designed solution.
That said, if you’re looking for acne or anti-aging treatments for your face, Curology’s got you covered! We offer personalized formulas prescribed by licensed dermatology providers. Click here to find out more!
Many dermatologists will tell you that there’s no single bar soap or body wash that’s best for everyone—the best and most effective product will always depend on the individual’s skin type and skincare goals.
Sometimes it’s actually recommended. For people with dry or sensitive skin, rinsing off with warm water can sometimes be better than using soaps or body washes that might strip away the natural oils of the skin. Of course, you always want to be clean, and the underarms and groin areas should always be washed thoroughly with your cleansing product of choice.
That all depends on the individual and their skincare goals. What might work best for one person may not be best for the skin of another. It’s always a good idea to consult a licensed dermatology provider, like the ones you’ll find at Curology, to discuss your options for a personalized skincare routine to best suit your needs.
Coiffard, L. and Couteau, C. Soaps and syndets: differences and analogies, sources of great confusion. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences. (2020, n.d.).
Tarun, J., et al. Evaluation of pH of Bathing Soaps and Shampoos for Skin and Hair Care. Indian J Dermatol. (September 2014).
Mijaljica, D., et al. Skin Cleansing without or with Compromise: Soaps and Syndets. Molecules. (2022, March 21).
Statista. Dollar sales of soap in the U.S. as of 2021, by product category. (2023).
Ertel, K. Modern Skin Cleansers. Dermatol Clin. (October 2000).
Choi, H., et al. Irritating effects of sodium lauryl sulfate on human primary keratinocytes at subtoxic levels of exposure. Microsc Res Tech. (2018, October 8).
Mijaljica, D., et al. Skin Cleansing without or with Compromise: Soaps and Syndets. Molecules. Ibid.
Seweryn, A. Interactions between surfactants and the skin - Theory and practice. Adv Colloid Interface Sci. (2018, April 13).
U.S. Congress. H.R. 1321 - Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. 2015, December 28).
Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.
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Meredith Hartle, DO