Soap and body wash abound at the store, and without the luxury of trying before you buy, choosing the right body cleanser can be overwhelming. Your skin is your largest organ, and cleaning this barrier between you and your environment is important. But it's challenging to know which cleanser to use for each body part.
The reason we need soap is simple: to clean. Your grandparents probably had a small selection of bar soaps to choose from, but today, you can clean your body with bar or liquid soap, exfoliate your feet with a scrub and wash your face with a cream cleanser -- all during the same shower. Manufacturers are constantly creating new soaps and scrubs that do everything from remove excess oil to treat acne [source: New Zealand Dermatological Society]. The key to finding a body wash or cleanser that's right for you is to understand their ingredients and what they can do for your skin.
Traditional antibacterial and deodorant bar soaps lift dirt from the skin, but harsh ingredients can cause sensitive or dry skin to itch and flake. To counteract dryness, emollients and humectants can be added to body washes to help the skin retain moisture -- soaps with added moisturizers clean skin without stripping it of valuable oils [source: Bruno]. Although many bar soaps and some liquid soaps have antibacterial qualities, most liquid body washes aren't antibacterial -- they contain mild synthetic detergents to cleanse the skin without overdrying [source: Draelos]. Read on to learn more about selecting a body wash that will work with your skin's unique composition.
Pros and Cons of Body Wash
Liquid body washes are composed of a combination of synthetic and natural ingredients -- a combination that works with many skin types. Synthetic detergents are less drying than traditional soap, and they're less likely to leave a soapy residue on the skin. Glycerin and sunflower seed oil -- natural ingredients frequently used in body washes -- are humectants and emollients that help keep skin hydrated [source: Bruno].
Body washes are gentler than most other soaps because they contain large amounts of petrolatum, an ingredient that moisturizes and lubricates the skin. But while the gentle nature of liquid cleansers makes them ideal for dry or sensitive skin, their composition can make them less effective at removing oil, dirt and odor from your body. If you have oily skin, a deodorant or antibacterial bar soap may be a better choice for you. If you have acne-prone skin, select a bar or liquid soap that contains benzoyl peroxide or another acne-fighting ingredient that can help prevent blemishes [source: Draelos].
Liquid body washes often come in a variety of scents, but these added fragrances can cause allergic reactions. If scented products irritate your skin, look for fragrance-free body washes, which are less likely to cause irritation [source: American Academy of Dermatology].
Keep reading to learn about the pros and cons of other cleansers to decide which soap is right for you.
Pros and Cons of Other Cleansers
While body washes are more gentle than traditional bar soaps, they're not as effective at removing dirt, oil and odor from the skin. Most bar soaps contain sodium lauryl sulfate, a harsher detergent that washes away dirt and oil. Many deodorant and antibacterial soaps contain triclosan or triclocarban, which kills bacteria on the skin. But if you have dry or sensitive skin, avoid these soaps because they can cause dryness, causing skin to be itchy and flaky [source: Downs]. There is also some debate about whether these ingredients kill enough bacteria to be beneficial and about possible side effects from their use.
Soaps that contain synthetic detergents, or syndets, can clean the skin without causing excessive drying. These syndets are mild cleansing agents that are often found in beauty bars and hypoallergenic soaps -- they're created with less acid to decrease skin irritation. But even washing too long or too frequently with mild cleansers can cause irritation [source: Draelos].
If you have oily skin or acne-prone skin, you may not need the added moisture of most liquid body washes. Cleansers that contain glycolic acid or salicylic acid are good choices for oily skin -- they gently exfoliate the skin's surface while reducing sebum buildup [source: Web MD]. However, oil is produced to protect the skin from irritants, so using strong cleansers can actually cause the skin to produce more oil [source: Web MD]. And soaps that contain acne-controlling ingredients, such as benzoyl peroxide, can also have an unintended side effect -- they may stimulate oil production by drying the skin [source: New Zealand Dermatological Society].
For more information on body washes and other cleansers see the links on the following page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- American Academy of Family Physicians. "Allergies: Things You Can Do to Control Your Symptoms." 3/07. (Accessed 9/23/09)
- Burke, LaToyah. "Liquids Lead: Liquid Soaps Are Still the Clear Favorite in the Personal Cleanser Market, Even as More Bar Soaps Feature Natural Ingredients." Household & Personal Products Industry. Highbeam Research. 11/1/07. (Accessed 8/5/09) http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-171888284.html
- Bruno, Karen. "What's New: Advances in Body Skin Care." WebMD. 8/5/09. (Accessed 8/5/09) http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/advances-skin-care-9/body-lotion-cream
- Bruno, Karen. "What's New: Advances in Face Care." WebMD. 8/6/09 (Accessed 8/5/09) http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/advances-skin-care-9/anti-aging-face
- DermNet NZ. "Soaps & Cleansers." 6/15/09. (Accessed 8/26/09) http://dermnetnz.org/treatments/cleansers.html
- Downs, Martin, F. "Safety of Antibacterial Soap Debated." (Accessed 9/23/09) http://www.webmd.com/news/20080529/safety-debate-on-antibacterial-soap
- Draelos, Zoe Diana. "Skin and Hair Cleansers." eMedicine. 5/14/09. (Accessed 8/26/09) http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1067572-overview
- Highbeam Research. "American Academy of Dermatology: Cutting Through the Clutter: Making the Most of Your Facial Cleansing Routine." 2/21/05. (Accessed 8/26/09) http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-128982170.html
- MSNBC. "Win the War on Germs: Tips for Clean Living in Your Own Home." (Accessed 9/17/09) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3077037/
- Web MD. "Oily Skin: Solutions that Work." October 19, 2007. (Accessed 8/27/09). http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/acne/features/oily-skin-solutions-that-work?page=1