Soap has long been the cleaning substance of choice, but it doesn't always treat skin well. Strong soaps can be especially harsh on sensitive skin. But soapless skin cleansers -- sometimes called synthetic detergents or syndets -- could be just what your sensitive skin needs.
You wash your face and body to remove dirt, oil and bacteria from your skin. But while soap does all of these things, harsh formulas can also dry and irritate skin. Soapless skin cleansers, on the other hand, are different from soaps: They contain less acid and more moisturizing ingredients, which enables them to gently remove dirt and oil from skin [source: Draelos].
Approximately 40 to 50 percent of the population exhibits symptoms of sensitive skin, and more women than men deal with this pesky problem [source: Glaser]. You may have sensitive skin if you easily break out in rashes or experience blotchy, itchy or stinging skin in response to weather or cosmetics [source: Zamonsky]. People with sensitive skin may be prone to skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema and acne [source: WebMD]. Using a harsh soap can make these conditions worse, which is why doctors recommend a mild cleanser.
Soapless cleansers essentially do the same job as soap -- but without the harsh ingredients some traditional bar soap may contain. Keep reading to learn about the science behind these cleansers.
Chemistry of Soapless Skin Cleansers
Even though soapless skin cleansers use different ingredients from most traditional soap formulas, they still clean your skin in a similar way. To remove dirt and oil from your skin, all cleansers must be able to attract both water and fat. To do this, their molecules have an oil-loving component -- called a lipophilic part -- and a water-loving component -- the hydrophilic part. This combination of lipophilic and hydrophilic elements is called a surfactant.
A surfactant is a detergent that allows water to wash away the oil and dirt from your skin by decreasing the surface tension of water. Surfactants are both lipophilic -- oil loving -- and hydrophilic -- water loving: The lipophilic part captures the dirt and then the hydrophilic part rinses it away. The lipophilic part is typically composed of fatty acids, but in soapless cleansers, it's usually made of chemicals derived from petroleum and other oils, which are less damaging to skin [source: New Zealand Dermatological Society]. In addition, soapless cleansers have more added moisturizers and humectants than most soap, which help prevent skin from drying.
Another reason some traditional bar soaps can be harmful to sensitive skin is because of its high pH -- it can disturb the pH of the outermost layer of skin called the stratum corneum. The stratum corneum protects the inner layers of skin, but when harsh soaps come in contact with it, the soap dries the skin, making the stratum corneum more permeable to chemicals and other pollutants [source: Elias].
Chemical advances in soap and soapless cleansers have given people with sensitive skin many cleansing options. Read on to learn more about the benefits of soapless skin cleansers.
Benefits of Soapless Skin Cleansers
Because soapless cleansers moisturize the skin and strengthen the stratum corneum, they're a good choice for people with sensitive skin. But soapless skin cleansers can also benefit people with dry or oily skin. If your skin is oily, a soapless cleanser with a low pH will clean your skin without drying it out -- removing too much oil can actually cause oil glands to go into overdrive [source: Bouchez]. And because people with dry skin have little oil to protect their skin, soapless cleansers are also a good choice -- the added moisturizers will help the skin retain water instead of drying it like bar soap [source: Mayo Clinic].
These cleansers are also less likely to produce soap scum. The combination of soap and hard water -- water that's high in calcium -- can create a soap scum that leaves a residue on your skin. Soapless cleansers also have a longer shelf life than soap -- soap deteriorates easily when it comes in contact with water, but soapless cleansers can last for years.
One of the greatest benefits of soapless skin cleansers is that they keep your skin moisturized. You can help your body retain that moisture by taking warm, short showers instead of hot, lengthy ones -- too much heat can dry out your skin. Applying a moisturizer within three minutes of bathing or showering can also help you retain the moisture that the water and cleanser added to your skin [source: American Academy of Dermatology].
For more information on soapless skin cleansers, see the links on the following page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- American Academy of Dermatology. "Dry Skin and Keratosis Pilaris." (Accessed 09/01/09).http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/skin_dry.html
- Bouchez, Collette. "Oily Skin: Solutions That Work -- No Matter What Your Age." (Accessed 9/29/09).http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/acne/features/oily-skin-solutions-that-work
- Bruno, Karen. "Women's Skin Care for a Soft Body." WebMD. August 6, 2009. (Accessed 09/01/09).http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/advances-skin-care-9/moisturizer-toning-cream?page=2
- Draelos, Zoe Diana. "Skin and Hair Cleansers." eMedicine. 5/14/09. (Accessed 9/28/09).http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1067572-overview
- Elias, Peter M. "Integrated Functions of the Stratum Corneum: Implications for an Optimal Skin Care Regimen." Skin and Allergy News. March 2005. (Accessed 09/01/09).http://www.skinandallergynews.com/webfiles/images/journals/sanews/aqa01032s30pdf.pdf
- Food and Drug Administration. "Is It a Cosmetic, a Drug, or Both? (Or Is It Soap?)." July 8, 2002. (Accessed 09/01/09).
- Glaser, Dee Anna. "The Role of Cleansing and Moisturizing Regimens in the Management of Patient Skin." Skin and Allergy News. March 2005. (Accessed 09/01/09).http://www.skinandallergynews.com/webfiles/images/journals/sanews/aqa01032s30pdf.pdf
- MayoClinic. "Acne." April 30, 2008. (Accessed 09/01/09).http://mayoclinic.com/health/acne/DS00169
- MayoClinic. "Dry Skin." (Accessed 9/29/09).http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/dry-skin/DS00560/DSECTION=lifestyle-and-home-remedies
- MayoClinic. "Moisturizers: Options for Softer Skin." December 16, 2008. (Accessed 09/01/09).http://mayoclinic.com/health/moisturizers/SN00042
- New Zealand Dermatological Society. "Soaps and Cleansers." DermNetNZ. June 15, 2009. (Accessed 09/01/09).http://dermnetnz.org/treatments/cleansers.html
- Scirrotto, Julia. "Soothing Solutions for Sensitive Skin." (Accessed 9/29/09).http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/features/soothing-solutions-sensitive-skin
- WebMD. "Eczema." February 7, 2009. (Accessed 08/06/09).http://www.webmd.com/allergies/guide/eczema
- Zamonsky, Lisa. "The Sensitive Skin Myth." (Accessed 9/28/09).http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/features/the-sensitive-skin-myth