Face Soap 101

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If you've seen one TV commercial for facial cleanser, it might seem as though you've seen them all. A woman stands in front of a mirror and sink in her sanctuary-like bathroom. She effortlessly massages cleanser into her face and then rinses by splashing her face with water. After patting her face dry with a fluffy towel, she reveals a clean, beautiful glow.

You might like to have beautiful skin like what you see in the commercials, but if you're using a bar of body soap on your face, you could end up with skin so dry or irritated that it hurts to smile -- and nothing to smile about. That's because body bar soaps often contain sodium lauryl sulfate, an ingredient that sends your skin's natural oils running for cover [source: Bruno]. The fragrances added to body soap can also be hard on your face.


Fortunately, there are many soaps on the market specially formulated for the more sensitive skin on your face. However, if you've browsed the soap aisle at the store lately, you know there are shelves and shelves of brands to choose from. To choose the best product for your skin, look past the fancy packaging and read the ingredients list.

The basic purpose of face soap is to clean off all the dirt, pollutants, bacteria and dead skin cells that build up on your skin over the course of a day. It's a common misconception, though, that you have to get your face squeaky clean. In fact, a squeaky clean face is a face devoid of natural oils, which is precisely what you don't want. It is, however, possible to get your face clean without drying it out.

One face-friendly alternative to body soap is, ironically, soap-free. Many gentle cleansers and beauty bars are made of synthetic detergents that are less likely to irritate your skin after cleansing [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. These products don't technically qualify as soap, but they do the same job.

Finding a face soap that works well for you shouldn't be a complicated task if you understand what exactly soap is and how the common ingredients affect your skin. If you're a little rusty on your soap chemistry, read the next page for a refresher course.


Chemistry of Face Soap

When you lather up and scrub down, you probably aren't thinking about how the soap you're using came to be. Yet it's important to understand the chemistry of soap. Knowing what ingredients are in daily contact with your skin can help you sort through the good and the bad of face soaps.

At the microscopic level, soaps are made up of a chain of hydrocarbons. One end of this hydrocarbon chain attaches to grease and oils on your skin while the other end of the chain bonds with water [source: The Soap and Detergent Association]. When you rinse with water, the soap and any attached impurities wash away.


Traditional body soap is the result of a chemical reaction between a fat or an oil and an alkali such as sodium or potassium salts. When the fats and oils are heated and combined with the alkali, they produce a soap plus water and glycerin [source: The Soap and Detergent Association].

Glycerin is a byproduct of soap making. That is, it is created naturally in the soap-making process. Soap companies remove the glycerin from soap to create a low-cost basic bar soap. However, when glycerin is left in soap, it can help the skin stay soft by attracting moisture to it. Soaps with glycerin work well as face soaps, except in cases of very oily skin [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

Other ingredients to look for in face soap are emollients and humectants, which act as moisturizers. If your skin is very oily or prone to breakouts, a cleanser with benzoyl peroxide can help, though it may cause some irritation.

Now that you've got the skinny on soap making, keep reading to find out which face soap is right for you.


Face Soap and Skin Type

Sometimes having too many choices isn't necessarily a good thing. If you've been in the skin care aisle lately, you understand that all too well. The wide range of brands and products can really try your patience and cause your head to spin, especially when all you really want to know is which product will work best for you.

When it comes to face soaps, there isn't a one-product-fits-all formula. What will work best for you depends on your skin type.


If your skin type is normal, you really need just a mild cleanser [source: WebMD]. The cleanser should be water-soluble, which means it should wash off your skin easily without any remaining residue.

If you have oily skin, you probably know there are many acne-fighting cleansers that contain benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid [source: WebMD]. These cleansers can be helpful, but if you are already using acne medication, stick to a mild cleanser. Oil-removing cleansing pads can also be helpful in keeping skin from becoming too oily.

If you have sensitive skin, you most likely know all about the flaking, burning or itching that can sometimes happen after cleansing. For you, shopping for a suitable cleanser can be tricky. People with sensitive skin should use a cleanser that is labeled "fragrance-free" because fragrances cause allergic reactions and irritate the skin. Keep in mind that unscented is not the same as fragrance-free. It only means there is no detectable scent; a fragrance might have been added to hide the actual scent.

In addition, lipid-free (fat free) liquid or bar cleansers are good for sensitive skin because of their moisturizing ingredients, such as glycerin, but they aren't especially effective for people with acne. A cleansing cream is also good for sensitive skin because it contains moisture-promoting ingredients such as mineral oil, petroleum and waxes [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

Now that you've learned how face soap works, hitting the cleansing products aisle to find the right face wash for you should seem a little easier. To learn more about facial cleansers and what's in them, take a look at the articles on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Cutting Through the Clutter: Making the Most of Your Facial Cleansing Routine." (Accessed Aug. 26, 2009)http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/02-21-2005/0003065165&EDATE
  • Bruno, Karen. "What's New: Advances in Face Care." WebMD. Aug. 6, 2009. (Accessed Aug. 26, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/advances-skin-care-9/anti-aging-face
  • CareFair.com. "Your Skincare Guide to Soap." (Accessed Aug. 26, 2009) http://www.carefair.com/Skincare/Your_Skincare_Guide_to_Soap_8014.html
  • Consumer Reports. "Facial Cleansers: Choices Abound." September 2007. (Accessed Aug. 26, 2009)http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/home-garden/beauty-personal-care/skincare/facial-cleansers-9-07/overview/0709_cleanser_ov.htm
  • History.com. "Soap." (Accessed Aug. 26, 2009)http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=222600
  • The Soap and Detergent Association. "Soaps and Detergents: Chemistry." (Accessed Aug. 26, 2009)http://www.sdahq.org/cleaning/chemistry/
  • The Soap and Detergent Association. "What is Glycerin?" (Accessed Sept. 8, 2009) http://www.cleaning101.com/oleo/whygly2.cfm
  • WebMD. "Skin Care Tips for Teens." Feb. 8, 2009. (Accessed Aug. 26, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/teen-skin-care-tips
  • WebMD. "Understanding Acne -- Treatment." Nov. 10, 2008. (Accessed Aug. 22, 2009) http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/acne/understanding-acne-treatment