Soap, pH, and The Skin's Barrier Function

Have you ever heard someone say about a cleanser (or other personal care product) 'it doesn't leave my skin feeling clean enough' ?

This is quite an interesting statement.

When is skin clean enough?

  • when it's squeaky clean?
  • when it feels taut?
  • when there is no detectable scent?
  • when it smells like soap?

We are creatures of habit, but sometimes habits are just that – habits.

Must we wash our skin with soap to be clean?

The answer is no.

Upsetting The Balance

Our skin is called the acid mantle for a reason. Human skin remains 'in balance' with products of pH 4.5 - 5.5

If the skin's pH balance is 'disturbed', it works toward re-establishing it's normal pH.

Just getting into a tub of plain water is enough alter the skin's pH. Water – which is neutral – has a pH of around 7.0

If soap is added to the equation, the skin's pH is nudged even further from its natural state. Soap is alkaline and the harsher ones can have a pH of up to 12.0

pH Balanced Products

If you see a product advertised as pH-balanced, it's ok to snicker a little. Products for skin care are all formulated to be as skin-friendly as possible, so they are, in effect, as pH balanced as they can possibly be.

There is no need to shop specifically for 'pH-balanced'.

What About Soap? 

It is generally understood in our society that 'it takes soap and water to get clean'. Soap is one option for cleansing, but if you find your skin feels taut and dry after using soap and water, perhaps soap is not ideal for your skin.

There are quite a few alternatives to soap that cleanse quite effectively.

  • Oil
  • Hydrosol
  • Rhassoul
  • Honey
  • Clay

Any one of these can be used as a face cleanser. Rhassoul and clay are equally suited as body cleansers.

It's all a question of how your skin fares best. The most difficult part might be getting used to the idea that the skin can be effectively cleansed without soap.

It actually took me a while to fully realize that my skin just doesn't do very well with soap. Now, I can't remember when I last used soap on my face. I will use soap for showering on some days – but even though it is as gentle and baby-friendly as a soap can possibly get, the cleanser that leaves my skin feeling best of all is an oil and salt scrub.

Do Tell

Does the idea of cleansing without soap seem strange to you?

Info and Nerdy Stuff About Soap, Skin, and the Barrier Function

Changes in epidermis metabolism after exaggerated soap use - Journal og Investigavtive Dermtaology
The influence of soap on the permeability of the epidermis
Alkaline surfactants and the water barrier function of the epidermis
Effects of soap on skin surface pH in newborns
Effects of soap and detergents on the barrier function
Healthtap: is washing the face with soap bad?
What Does pH balanced mean?


María said…
Interesting post, no doubt, and I agree with some points, but not with others.
Through the years I've seen that the skin pH is a controversial point with lots of opinion, above all the so called acid mantle.
One theory (i agree with it as I felt myself that it's true) explains that this acidity on the skin surface is caused by the big change in the human race's diet done is the last years. The increasing of the manufactured food, super rich in sugar, has made that our own sweat and transpiration (please note that our body excretes toxins also through our skin pores) and these toxines and perspiration are more acid that they were before, causing an acidification of our skin.
I could test myself that for a very bad skin condition (with a lot of rash and dermatitis) an alcaline bath (2-3 tablespoons of bicarb in a bath tub) for a couple of hours was almost miraculous, so, so soothing.
I think the same about the soap, but with a precision: the home made cold-process artisan soap.
It's true that the face's skin is never so so dirty that you really need to wash it with harsh surfactants, and hydrosols, clay, etc are more that excellent for face skin daily maintenance.
But the rest of the body is another history, at least, in my opinion :)
I confess that this is a very interesting point of debate ;)
P.S. Sorry for the super long post, I couldn't stop myself :D
LisaLise said…
I love your input! Always inspirational!
Signe said…
I agree with Maria, store-bought soaps are so different than home-made cold process soaps, that you cannot even talk about them in the same day. I've always had very dry, itchy and atopic skin, and it just got worse when I was using commercial products. When I started to wash with my own soaps I got rid of those problems pretty soon. But I think we all are different people with different kind of skin and habits,so every one must find the best way him/herself. :)
Mom said…
I haven't used soap for probably 10 years. 😉 sometimes I use clay but mostly just water and sometimes baking soda with a citric acid rinse. I noticed a big difference in my skin once I quit using soap, especially body odor which is now nonexistent. Mostly I just quit using soap because I was trying to eliminate petroleum products from my home.
LisaLise said…
HI Signe - I agree with you that home made cold processed soaps have so much more to offer in the way of variety and options. I have tried many hand crafted soaps and react very well to most of them. You are absolutely right that we are all different and everyone needs to find what is best for them.
LisaLise said…
Hi JNC - Another great example of Signes comment - we all need to find what works best for our skin. I'm pleased you have found a solution that works for you. Thanks for your input
Tina Rasmussen, CPH said…
I started making soaps a few months ago and love it! I am sad to read they are not good for my face cause I have made a few very gentle bars which I use on my face and really like - it's a personal thing I know and I do like the clean feeling I get from a soap and it has to do with the lather, good or bad in the morning i like something that foams :-)
LisaLise said…
Hi Tina - this is great input! Everyone's skin is different and does well with different things. I think it's great that you have made a product that is perfect for you - that's what it's all about.

Do you sell your soaps? I'd love to have a peek at your store :)
Rikke said…
Nix. I use argan/rosehip oil or coconut oil
LisaLise said…
well you can't go wrong with those! :)
Unknown said…
Soap: a substance used with water for washing and cleaning, made of a compound of natural oils or fats with sodium hydroxide or another strong alkali, and typically having perfume and colouring added.
Commercially made "soap" is not soap according to this definition of soap.
Having very dry skin and my own olive grove, I set out to make a soap bar that could litterly be used from head to toe and I did. The main ingredient in the cold process soap makes the difference. My soap is made using cold pressed organic olive oil and is very gentle and does not dry the skin. For my face, I use a cleansing oil in the evening to loosen makeup and dirt then suds up and wash off. Morning cold splash, spritz and face oil.
LisaLise said…
Thanks for this input Deon - I have also had good results (read: no drying or irritation) using soap made purely with olive oil.