Body Wash Basics

Body Puff, Shower Gel & Towels in pink and lilac hues. Shot on a white ground with deep depth of field for crisp edges.
Getting Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Body wash can be gentle skin cleansing option. See more beautiful skin pictures.

In the world of skin care, dirt, oil and sweat are the enemies. When we have too much grime on our bodies, we tend to feel unclean and even anxious. Washing it off is far more soothing, giving us a feeling of health and relaxation.

Before Proctor and Gamble developed Ivory Soap in 1878, cleaning yourself meant washing with a crudely made soap derived from animal fat, water and ash [source: SkinCareGuide]. Today, cleaning yourself with bar soap isn't the only way to wash dirt and sweat off. There are several different types of popular cleansing products you can use on a daily basis to keep clean from head to toe, including cleansing creams, astringents and toners, abrasive scrubs, facial masks and body wash.


Body wash is similar to soap in the way it creates lather, but there are a few key differences that set the two apart. The reasons someone might choose a body wash over soap, for instance, have to do with skin sensitivity and personal preference -- harsh soaps can be a little more abrasive, whereas body wash, especially formulas containing moisturizers, is gentler on the skin.

If you use body wash, wet your skin in the shower or bath, lather some of the body wash on your hands and use a loofah or a washcloth to apply it to your skin. Rinse it off and pat dry with a towel. Don't rub, because rubbing takes away moisture. Experts recommend that you moisturize after bathing to help keep the moisture that you just got from your body wash in your skin [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

The purpose of body wash is to rid your skin of things like dirt, excess oil, odor, sweat and makeup. To find out how it does this, keep reading.


Chemistry of Body Wash

Although there are several different skin types, the basic chemistry of body wash is usually the same. Most skin cleansing products are generally made up of two parts: a lipophilic part, which is fat-soluble, and a hydrophilic part, which is water-soluble. Dirt itself is lipophilic, which means that it won't dissolve in water. Simply rinsing yourself with water after you've got some dirt on yourself won't get you clean. Only something with a fatty product will dissolve the dirt and lift it off your skin.

This combination of lipophilic and hydrophilic ingredients is called a surfactant. A surfactant cleans your skin because the lipophilic part dissolves the dirt on your skin, while the hydrophilic part washes it away. Body washes typically contain mineral oil or petroleum derivatives as their lipophilic part and water as the hydrophilic part. Skin cleansers also may contain several other types of ingredients. Emulsifiers such as diethanolamine (DEA), for instance, keep the chemicals in cleansers from separating into different layers. Biocides, also commonly known as antiseptics, reduce bacteria count on the skin and reduce body odor. Preservatives, meanwhile, keep products on the shelves and in your bathroom cabinet for longer [source: DermNetNZ].


Some liquid skin cleansers actually don't include fatty acids. These are called syndets, which is short for synthetically produced detergent [source: DermNetNZ]. Instead of fats, syndets are made with petrochemicals, which are derived from petroleum, or oleochemicals, which are derived from fats and oils. These can stand in for the lipophilic part of surfactants. Some of the benefits of using syndets over regular soap are that you get less soap scum and bacteria. They're also better for sensitive, dry skin, and for treating acne.

See the next page to find out which types of body wash are right for which skin types -- and which type may be right for you.


Body Wash and Skin Type

Just as with any type of skin cleanser, the type of body wash you use will depend on your skin type. There are four common skin types -- normal, oily, dry and sensitive. The best way to find out which skin type you are and which body wash is right for you is to experiment. If possible, try out free samples of body wash or buy the travel sizes until you find the one that best suits your skin type. Then you can commit to a full-size bottle.

If you have dry skin, strong soap may be too harsh for you, because it removes a lot of the oils that your skin already lacks. Instead, use a mild cleanser, which will often have the words "cream" or "oil" in the name. Try to look for body washes that contain glycolic acid or lactic acid, since these ingredients are moisturizing.


If you have normal or oily skin, you don't have to worry about using mild cleansers -- regular soap or body wash should work fine, but soaps are typically better at removing oil. There are also many body washes on the market designed especially for oily skin, however, and some are even designed to help clear up body acne caused by excess oil.

People with sensitive skin may have the hardest time deciding which body wash to use. If you have allergic reactions to certain beauty products, such as redness or itching, try to avoid body washes that have fragrances or a lot of preservatives, since sensitive skin will commonly react negatively to those two ingredients [source: SkinCareGuide].

See the links on the next page to find out more information about body wash and skin care.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Dry Skin and Keratosis Pilaris." (Aug. 24, 2009)
  • Bruno, Karen. "Women's Skin Care for a Soft Body." WebMD. Aug. 6, 2009. (Aug. 24, 2009)
  • DermNetNZ. "Soaps and Cleansers." June 15, 2009. (Aug. 24, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Skin Care: Top 5 Habits for Healthy Skin." Dec. 28, 2007. (Aug. 24, 2009)
  • "Cleansers for Various Skin Types." April 1, 2008. (Aug. 24, 2009)
  • "Skin Cleansers - An Overview on Soap." April 1, 2008. (Aug. 24, 2009)