We’re sure you’ve seen them out there: “soap-free” cleansers. But have you ever wondered what makes soap, well... soap? And why would anyone want to go ‘soap-free’ when soap has always been proven to strip away dirt and grime to make us all squeaky clean?
First we gotta understand what is it in soap that allows it to leave us with clean skin (don’t worry, we won’t be TOO scientific here haha!). Most soap is made by treating animal fat with lye (sodium hydroxide) or potash (potassium hydroxide). Soaps have ingredients called “surfactants” which hold water and oil so you can wash away dirt & oil WITH water. This is why you have that squeaky feeling after using soap vs. just washing with water. There are bar soaps, and soaps that come in liquid form.
But the stuff in soap that clean you up real good are also the same things that strip away moisture from your skin. Some soaps and beauty bars can change the pH of the surface of your skin, making it more alkaline (less acidic) which can be irritating to sensitive or dry skin. That is why ‘emollients’ are sometimes added to lower the pH of the soap, making it more neutral. Hence, the birth of moisturizing soaps that advertise they are 3/4 made of moisturizer - whatever it is to let you know they aren’t as harsh as soaps would normally be. If the pH of your skin is not balanced, you will have less protection against bacteria, infection, and water loss - which results to dry skin. Not to mention, soaps react to hard water and leave films of scum in your bathtub AND on your skin too.
K. So now that we know that, this helps us understand why people started searching for alternatives to soap.
Soap-free products are made without the combination of fats and alkaline products. They are more often called “cleansers” or body “detergents” (yeah, detergents aren’t only for your laundry and dishes). What we notice about most soap-free products is that they don’t foam as much as soaps do. That is because most soap-free products are surfactant-free and surfactants need the rich lather to spread out easier onto your skin.
So okay, if we don’t have the stuff on soap that’s supposed to get rid of oil and dirt on our faces and bodies, how is soap-free gonna help us stay clean?
Instead of fatty acids and surfactants, soap-free products are made with a combination of oil or water and an emulsifying agent. “Emulsifiers” in soap-free products work to break up fats and oils to clean the skin, without stripping away much moisture. Just like soap, soap-free products can come in bars or liquid form (more known as cleansing lotions).
As for the face, liquid facial cleansers tend to be more acidic and are less likely to change the skin's pH. Dr. David Bank, who’s a regular on The Today Show and Good Morning America and Dr. Neal Schultz of Beauty Rx Skincare recommend soap-free products for sensitive skin types and those prone to allergies, since they tend to be less harsh and drying. Another main advantage is that using only detergent based cleansers in the bath won’t give you soap scum.
When you look at it, soap-free products don’t work better than soaps do, because both can cleanse your skin. It’s only that soap-free is better for your skin. Dr. Mehmet Oz explains it best:
“Both will get your skin clean, but soap and non-soap cleansers function in slightly different ways. Regular soap can contain harsh surfactant ingredients that can strip your skin of its natural moisture. Non-soap cleansing products contain synthetic surfactant ingredients, which are milder than regular soap, and can help keep skin healthy and moisturized.”
So there ya go! Now that you know that you don’t have to use soap to get clean, you can find gentler alternatives for your skin. Of course it’s all up to you. We’d rather have scum-free tubs though! Haha!