Why Soap Gets Such a Bad Rap - Interview with Debra Spence

Having ridiculously sensitive skin can be challenging – especially if you are unsure of whether it was a single ingredient or the whole product you just used that caused the unpleasant rash spreading across your forehead/arms/torso. Perfume? Color? A combination?

For as long as I can remember, I have used soap-free products to cleanse my face because soap would always leave my skin feeling dry, taut, and itchy.  

In many respects, soap has a bad reputation. 

Well, guess what. 

That's not really fair to soap. 

Today, I've enlisted help from a soap-savvy skin therapist to explain why.

The Difference Between Hand Made and Factory Made Soap

There is a difference between commercially-produced and handcrafted soap. Glycerine – naturally present in handcrafted soap – is deliberately separated out during commercial soap production. What remains is a soap that will cleanse but – more often than not – also leave skin feeling dry. 

After reading this post about soap's bad reputation, I asked the author, skin therapist Debra Spence to answer my questions about soap and dry skin in this exclusive interview. 

You have probably heard the complaint ‘my skin can’t tolerate soap’ many times. Your blog post about debunking soap addresses why some soaps dry out skin while others can be beneficial. You mention glycerine as a vital part of good soap, but there are commercially made glycerine soaps. Could you discuss glycerine soap briefly? Are these as non-drying as handcrafted soaps?

When a patient tells me that their skin can’t handle soap, it is a trigger to focus more on their skin's acid mantle than the soap. It suggests to me that their skin is not rebalancing back to a pH of about 5 after washing. Further investigation is required to understanding the triggers before blaming a single product. It may be due to a commercial soap, or because the patient is not rinsing thoroughly, or maybe they are neglecting to finish with a toner and moisturiser after cleansing.

I love using my own soap with a facial brush to cleanse and give myself mild exfoliation – especially if I have been using heavy makeup or out in the field working in dust and grime – but I always follow up with my other products to help the skin to return to its normal pH level faster and to protect it from Trans-Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL).
Commercially made soap like Pears was once based on a Glycerin soap, but this has been changed by its owner, multinational Unilever

Compare the current ingredient list of Pear Soap with the original formula:

Pears Soap Current Ingredient List
Sorbitol, Aqua, Sodium Palmate/stearate, Sodium Palmkernelate, Sodium Rosinate, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, PEG-4, Alcohol, Glycerin, Perfume, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Meta Bisulfite, Etidronic acid, Tetra Sodium EDTA, BHT, Cl 12490, Cl 47005, Benzyl Benzoate, Benzyl Salicylate, Cinnamal, Eugenol, Limonene, Linalool.
Pears Soap Original Formula Ingredient List
Sodium Palmitate, Natural Rosin, Glycerine, Water, Sodium Cocoate, Rosemary Extract, Thyme Extract, Pears Fragrance Essence.
Even though they claim hand crafted glycerin soap is milder and better for you, from my soap making experience, I cannot chemically calculate much difference in glycerin levels when comparing with a normal handcrafted cold process soap. I believe the difference in mildness is due to resting time and the ingredient list. 

What causes dry skin in people? Is it due to DNA? Living style? Diet? Are there any studies on this anywhere?

This is a big question and as I mentioned, it is about the acid mantle of the skin which is affected by DNA, diet, lifestyle, hormone,s environment, weather, TEWL, over exfoliation/ under exfoliation, stress, exercise etc etc. It is never a single trigger that causes dry skin – it will always be multiple factors.

For patients with extremely dry skin, I treat with what I call the "Marilyn Monroe Treatment" – a protective natural gel – Castorlene Gel. This is a natural vegetable substitute for petroleum (Vaseline) jelly, that is used day and night with no other products. The gel places a protective barrier over the skin to stop TEWL and to allow the natural sebum to rebuild. This in turn will rebalance the acid mantle and reduce dryness.

My patients normally see an improvement in their skin within 7-14 days. During this time, we investigate all the possible triggers and work on correcting these.

Castorlene Gel Ingredients
Ricinus Communis (Castor) Seed Oil (and) Hydrogenated Castor Oil (and) Copernicia Cerifera (Carnauba) Wax (and) Beeswax

Do you see links between certain skin problems and countries/climate? For example, are some skin problems more common in humid/dry climates?

In extremely general terms, a common skin reaction is  
Humidity = acne/oily skin problems 
Dry = Dry skin problems 

However –  it is not that simple or easy!

Environmental and cultural influences matter, and the food we eat will have an effect on the skin. Genetic makeup will affect how skin reacts to the environment and culture of the country you live in. Australia, where I live, is a vast and diverse country in regards to both climate and culture. We are a multicultural and a genetic mixing pool, so I see a wide variety of skin problems in my patients.

For example: my husband has an Italian/Scottish genetic background, but because his DNA is more Italian than Scottish, he does not burn and is aging very slowly with hardly any pigmentation. He never suffers from dry skin despite his work as a Surveyor where he is constantly outside. His older brother's skin has a more Scottish DNA and burns easily as well as suffering from extreme pigmentation and dryness in the peak of summer and winter. Same home, diet, and climate, but wildly different skin reactions due to their DNA. 

Debra, please tell us a bit how you came to the profession you have been in for 15 years now. What made you decide to work as a skin therapist?

I have always had an inquisitive mind and asked WHY until I drove my parents and teachers insane. My dad learned very early on that if he gave me a scientific or technical answer to my “whys” I was quickly satisfied and moved on.

So there I was, standing in the middle of a Coal Mine in Central Queensland in 40-degree heat, covered in black dust while staking out pegs for the explosive Rigger. What had happened to my dream of high heels, a suit and sipping a cup of tea as I made my way up the corporate ladder? I realized owning a survey company with my husband had taken me on a different corporate ladder; a dry, dirty and hot ladder. In this environment, I had become very frustrated with my skin health as it was becoming dry and leathery – no matter what I bought from the chemist or supermarket – it didn't work. So I started asking my favorite question - WHY. Why is my skin dry, why are these moisturisers not working. 

This started my quest for knowledge of skincare. The more I knew, the more why’s I had. So to shorten the story, despite being extremely Dyslexic, I had a thirst for knowledge and a need to answer my Whys.

I completed an Advanced Diploma in Applied Science – Aesthetician to understand skin and absorption while owning and running a successful and award-winning Medispa. Followed up with various online cosmetic chemistry courses, and Diploma of Personal Care (cosmetic chemistry) which has given me a very large base knowledge on what works on the skin, how to fix the skin, and the inside workings of the beauty industry.

My passion for skin and cosmetics has not wavered over the years, and I can always be found researching new ingredients, scientific studies, and skin treatments. Skin is a very complex system and there is always more to learn. 

Find More About Debra Spence here.

Do Tell

Have you ever tried a handcrafted soap? How did it leave your skin feeling?


Melinda Coss said…
Really interesting read Lise. Most mass produced soaps are made from synthetic detergent but it is as well to understand that some clear soaps (sold as 'glycerine' soaps) are also made from a syndet base. The most moisturising soaps are cold processed where natural glycerine has occured as part of the saponification process. If the soap is superfatted by around 4 -5% this will also help.
Soaps that have a higher level of superfat ie free oils are more moisturising but depending on the oils can go rancid and soft quite quickly.
LisaLise said…
Hi Melinda - Thank you for sharing your insight! :)
Remzo Zuri said…
Handmade soaps make my skin soft and somewhat moist. I don't feel the tightness or dryness after a bath
Unknown said…
I make my own CP soap and there is a world of difference between that and anything that cleanses bought in a store. Soap, body wash, or whatever, it all makes my skin feel dry and itchy. I would rather wash with water only than use anything other than handmade soap. I do still buy the fancy foaming hand wash but am moving away from that also. It is starting to give me rashes on my hands if I over-cleanse, which I am guilty of because I have a young child in school. I tend to be a bit germaphobic around school children. Yes, you can laugh at me! I can't help it! Schools are like one big gross Petri dish full of germs to me!
Barb said…
I started making my own soaps years ago and I won't use anything else now. There is a big difference in my skin and how it feels after using my soaps. Homemade soaps for the win!!!!
LisaLise said…
@Funmi - I agree with you. I do best with handmade soaps as well!

@Belinda - OMG you totally made me giggle with the petri dish analogy! :D

@Barb - It must be fabulous to make your own. I still have to get started with cold process. I've only done melt and pour!
Unknown said…
Lise, you definitely need to try making CP soap. It is addictive fun!
LisaLise said…
Belinda - I know! I'm afraid that's what it going to happen! 😂
Andrew said…
I smiled when I read the ingredient comparison from the past and now, right now I'm working on organic liquid soap based only on coconut, olive, castor oil, Shea butter and cocoa butter made with the glycerine method where all water is replaced by vegetable glycerine.

The result is a lovely product that's not at all drying. It's like there must be a market for an improved version of the old formulas rather than almost entirely synthetic versions.

Thanks for the blog it was very interesting.
Jay C said…
Andrew- I've never heard of using just glycerin, is it a one for one sub? How does the lye react to it? What are the benefits of using just glycerin over just water?

I know that adding glycerin will create a more stable lather, mostly used as a shaving soap, not necessarily all that cleansing or moisturizing. I would love to know more about this method and your experiences!
LisaLise said…
Hi Andrew - Thanks for your kind comment. I agree it makes you stop and wonder when you compare the old and new ingredients list for Pears soap. Your own soap sounds like a real winner!
goodgirl said…
What a great interview, thank you! <3

I've been making my own handcrafted soaps for close to 10 years now. The most impressive thing that happened shortly after I started were my mom's hands. She's got very dry skin, which used to break up and have small wounds on her hands in winter. No brand of hand cream, nor any excessive application of hand cream helped that matter. That stopped when she started using my soaps. Her hands are still dry during winter season, don't get me wrong. But they don't bleed anymore. Normal synthetic "soaps" must've de-fatted her skin so badly that it was dry enough to crack.

This and other, similar experiences bring me joy :). I personally have more or less stopped using body lotion, because I simply don't need it anymore when I use handcrafted soaps in the shower.

I'm happy that I have a very stable circle of family and friends who don't want to use anything else anymore. And they love the range of scents and colors they can't get in any drugstore ;).

Try it, Lise! Well cured, handcrafted soaps are really worth it :).
LisaLise said…
What a wonderful story to share goodgirl! Thank you! I will indeed be getting serious about CP soap later this year. I have a few too many things on my plate at the moment, but thanks for your encouragement!
Mamasan said…
This was a wonderful article! I really liked the insight into the industry, and especially liked the comparison between the old Pear recipe and current one. I have been making soap for years, and agree with the others that say there is a world of difference between commercial soaps and home made soaps...as well as a world of difference between the soaps of our grandmother's era, and the new super-fatted, glycerin rich soaps here. It's like soap has gone gourmet!! Thanks for the great posts, and kudos to the guest writer too. Fabulous!
LisaLise said…
Thank you for your comment Kirsten. I love the expression soap going gourmet! :)
Unknown said…
It took more time to learn what cold process soaps are, i can clearly tell from people who could never even touch a regular store bought soap, can use my soaps from day 1, it takes 5 weeks to cure, and the combination is unique, no synthetic colour or chemicals. Just pure soaps, if you give the care and the combination, i have reached 16 ingredients over a period of time and the best so far.

www.facebook.com/naturescent to know more.

Iam not promoting myself, but to make understand what goes in making the best cold process soaps. Best wishes.
LisaLise said…
Hey there Unknown - it sounds like you have put quite a bit of care and love into your soaps. Lucky people who get to use them. Thanks for sharing.