Less than 200 years ago, soap was considered a luxury item, and people's bathing habits were infrequent, at best. We've come a long way since then. In fact, frequent washing is now the No. 1 cause of dermatological disease [source: WebMD]. Still, the benefits of washing ourselves far outweigh the drawbacks. Consider this: Regular bathing and hygienic skin care regimens have virtually eradicated humanity's problems with parasites (such as lice), prevented disease, increased our average lifespan and generally improved our standard of living [source: Smith].
Obviously, humanity's hygiene habit is here to stay. The biggest sanitation issue many of us face is finding a decent skin cleansing product among all the superfluous offerings at the local store.
Let's examine the five most popular skin cleansers on the market today. We'll get down and dirty with everything from soap to cleansing cream to make sure you know which product works best for your needs. After all, just because modern skin cleansing habits allow most of us to live relatively hygienic, odorless lives, it doesn't mean that every cleanser is one-size-fits-all.
Head on over to the next page to get the scoop on soap, humanity's oldest skin care product.
Of all the skin cleansing products available today, soap, specifically the kind that comes in bars, is by far the most popular and common. Virtually everyone has used soap at some point in their lives, and the vast majority of us regularly keep some form of it at home [source: The Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap]. Soap's prevalence isn't all that surprising, especially considering it's been mankind's top pick for skin cleansing and skin care for nearly 5,000 years [source: The Soap and Detergent Association].
Soap is created through a process called saponification, which is the chemical reaction that occurs when a fat, such as tallow (beef fat), and an alkali, such as lye, are combined [source: Encyclopedia Britannica]. Natural oils, such as olive oil, can be added to this mixture or used instead of animal fats, if desired.
Like detergents, soap is a surfactant, which means that it helps lower the surface tension of water. Dirt and oils that won't budge during a quick rinse can be easily wiped away by soap because it allows the water to penetrate and spread more thoroughly over the surface of your skin.
In fact, soap does its job a little too well. While the surfactant nature of soap allows it to help wash dirt and grime off your body, it also removes the oils naturally secreted by your skin. Frequent washing with soap can produce dry, cracked skin, which, besides being uncomfortable, may also lead to infections [source: Leffell].
Body wash is one of the most popular skin cleansing products on the market right now. It's not as common as regular soap, but over the last 10 years or so, many consumers, especially women, have come to prefer this scented, soapy liquid for their skin care needs [source: Portland Tribune].
There are several reasons for body wash's recent rise in popularity. Unlike traditional soaps, most body washes don't dry out skin. Also, because they're bottled, they tend to feel more luxurious and personal. Plus, they're easier to share -- a houseguest using your bar of soap and squirting a dollop of body wash onto a washrag are two very different things.
Body washes are typically a combination of detergents, but because the end result is in a bottle (not a solid bar) manufacturers have a bit more leeway when it comes to the consistency of their product [source: WebMD]. For example, many body washes contain large quantities of petrolatum (think Vaseline) to help prevent dry skin and increase hydration.
These ingredients might add up to smooth skin, but using body wash may come at a price. For instance, petrolatum is considered to be a possible carcinogen [source: Environmental Working Group]. Of course, bar soaps may be filled with potentially harmful ingredients and chemicals as well, so, as with all skin cleansing options, make sure you know what a product has in it before you begin using it regularly.
Cleansing creams are skin care products designed to help moisturize and cleanse the face. The oldest type of cleansing cream, cold cream -- named such because of the cool feeling that occurs as the water contained in the product evaporates -- first hit the scene about 1,800 years ago [sources: Schoen and Lazar, Chandra]. Despite the addition of countless chemicals and additives found in modern cleansing creams, they're largely made of the same materials (oil, water and wax) and serve the same purpose as they did all those years ago.
Cold creams, however, only make up a portion of the cleansing creams on the market today. Most of these skin cleansing products are marketed toward a specific audience. There are cleansing creams to prevent or get rid of acne, to remove makeup, to clean off excess dirt and grime, and to moisturize the face. Many products have multiple benefits, such as removing makeup and moisturizing, and come in a variety of textures, scents, colors and consistencies. On top of all that, there are specific skin cleansing creams for various skin types, so regardless if you have oily, acne-prone skin or very dry skin, you can be sure there's a cleansing cream out there designed to meet your needs.
Lipid-free (also known as soap-free) cleansers are liquid skin cleansing products for people with excessively dry skin. They work well for removing cosmetics or for light skin care, and they leave behind an invisible layer of film that helps keep the skin moisturized. However, because they lack any sort of substantial antibacterial component, lipid-free cleansers are relatively ineffective at removing odors, especially around areas such as the armpits and groin [source: Alam et al.].
Perhaps the most unique aspect of lipid-free cleansers is that many of them don't even need to be washed off. The skin cleansing agent is applied to the face or body, rubbed into a lather and then wiped away -- no water needed. This is great for people with certain dermatological disorders, such as dermatitis, whose skin doesn't react well to soap and water [source: WebMD].
There are many skin cleansing products that can help wash your skin, but did you know that there's an entire industry devoted to helping you remove it? This industry manufactures exfoliating scrubs. These are cleansers designed to help you remove your face's stratum corneum, which is your outermost layer of skin.
The stratum corneum consists of hardened, dead skin cells that are grouped together to form a protective barrier between the underlying layers of living skin and the outside world. Exfoliating scrubs use abrasive materials, such as ground fruit pits, to dissolve and remove these dead cells. Using an exfoliating scrub improves skin texture and allows moisture and other skin care products be more fully absorbed. However, those with sensitive skin may find that the process leaves them irritated or inflamed, and even people with the toughest of hides can receive minor abrasions and open wounds from the exfoliating process [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. As a result, most exfoliating scrubs should typically be used no more once a week.
Exfoliating scrubs aren't the only skin cleanser that will yield a smoother epidermis. If you like the benefits of exfoliation but could do without the harsh process, try using a mild to moderate cleanser and then a moisturizer to achieve similar results. Or, you can try making a gentle, all-natural exfoliating scrub at home. Simply combine strawberries, olive oil and sea salt to create a skin-softening cleanser for the face, hands and feet [source: Planet Green].
The best face cleansers are the ones that benefit your skin, whether it's sensitive, oily or dry. Learn how to choose the best face cleanser for your skin
Related HowStuffworks Articles
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