The good old bar soap has been a much-loved staple in skin care routines for years. They’re cheap easy, and effective at removing dirt and oil, right? Well, while squeaky clean skin sounds good in theory, lathering it up on the regular however, might be doing more harm than good. Traditional bar soaps contain a mixture of fats, lye colouring and fragrance. Which are commonly too harsh and irritating to be used on the face and can wreak havoc on our skin by over drying it, causing irritation and disrupting its PH levels.
So, what exactly are soaps? Now get ready everyone because it’s about to get a little ‘sciency’ in here. Technically speaking soaps are the chemical result of combining some kind of vegetable or animal fats with lye, otherwise known as sodium or potassium hydroxide or another strong alkaline solution which is what gives soap its cleansing power. This chemical process is called saponification, and the resulting molecules have a hydrophilic (water-loving) head and a hydrophobic (water-phobic) tail. Normally water and oil don’t mix which makes it hard to clean things properly with just water. However, when these molecules or soap comes into contact with the dirt or debris the head of the molecule attracts itself to these oily particles and the tail of the molecule helps them to be effectively removed by water.
Nevertheless, soaps aren’t the only molecules that have this talent. They’re actually rather a small group within a larger chemical class known as surfactants. Surfactants or otherwise known as ‘surface active agents’ are materials which have both a polar and non-polar unit that acts on the surface of two mediums. Normally this refers to water and some type of oil but it could also include water and air or any other liquid/liquid or liquid/gas interface. When talking about soaps this refers to the molecule’s hydrophilic head and hydrophobic tail, and their ability to emulsify water and oil. Soaps are part of the strongest group of surfactants known as Anionic surfactants. This is the largest group, within the surfactant chemical class and are considered the high-foaming powerhouse surfactants that really pack a punch in terms of cleansing power. They’re the most widely used and versatile surfactants found in all sorts of cleaning products such as detergents, handwashes, kitchen cleaners ect and are the most effective at removing oily residue. Due to their potent power however, these surfactants are also the most prone to causing skin irritation. Anionic surfactants include soaps, sulfates (e.g. sodium lauryl sulfate), as well as gentler alternatives like sodium lauroyl sarcosinate. If you see a surfactant beginning with ‘sodium’ and ending with the ‘-ate’ suffix, it’s safe to say it’s anionic.
Regular soaps like anionic surfactants are made for cleaning regular things like our kitchen counter top, and our skin is certainly not regular. It’s actually a rather complex organ with its own microbiome we need to make sure we look after. Think of it like your gut. Both our gut and our skin rely on millions of good bacteria to maintain at optimal health. If this microbiome is upset or disrupted it can seriously damage our skin health just like how it would similarly cause problems in our gut such as Indigestion.
Our skins health and condition are directly linked to its PH levels. The PH of something is measured on a scale from 0 – 14 with 0 – 6.9 being classified as acidic, 7 being neutral, and 7.1 – 14 being alkaline. The skin sits at a scale between 4.5 and 6.5 making it slightly acidic. This acidic environment is otherwise known as the acid mantle and is comprised of sebum from our sebaceous glands, lipids from the breakdown of skin cells and amino acids from our sweat. This acid mantle is one of the most important parts of our skin and its slightly acidic environment helps to protect us from harmful bacteria, infections and all sorts of nasties. Not only this, but it also helps to form a shielding barrier over the skin in order to stop dehydration and irritation. Most bar soaps are alkaline and have a PH of around 10. This high alkaline PH makes it super easy to dissolve fats, grease, oils, and protein-based substances which is what makes anionic surfactants like soap the most effective cleaning agents. Unfortunately, while our skin may feel super clean afterwards, continual use of these soaps disrupts our skins natural PH levels and leads to a whole host of other problems.
Not only do soaps disrupt our PH levels, but they also over strip the skin of its natural oils and moisture which leads to dryness, flakiness, inflammation and irritation. Without the skins protective oils, water can also easily evaporate through the skin known as trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) which leads to dehydration and again, inflammation and irritation. Dehydration is a big no-no when we’re concerned with healthy skin. It can make fine lines and wrinkles more apparent, create redness, blotchiness or uneven skin tone, and makes us look overall dull. Dehydrated skin cells also are unable to intercellularly correctly communicate with each other which can lead to a whole bunch of other problems such as pigmentation issues, or increased premature aging.
Using soaps on our skin can not only dry it out, but can also cause breakouts and aggravate acne. When our skin is stripped of its natural oils it can put the cells into panic mode as they rush to re-protect the skin and reproduce the sebum it’s lacking. This oil production can lead oilier skin and pore clogging, which can turn on the acne cascade," warns Dr. Seemal Desai, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. When our skins PH balance is disrupted it also allows other bad microorganisms such as the bacteria that causes acne to breed and multiply on our skin which can significantly increase breakouts.
So, what can we do? Well the easiest thing to keep in mind when shopping for a new skin cleanser is to look for one that is specifically designed for cleansing the face rather than just going for an all over soap. It’s also best to make sure your products are PH balanced and preferably soap free or Anionic surfactant free. So how do know if a cleanser is soap free if it’s not written on the packaging? Well Initially, soaps have very meagre solubility and so they’re almost always found in solid bar form. However, if you’re up for the challenge the easiest way to pick out a soap free product is to look at the back in the ingredients list and look for ingredients with the prefix (sodium or potassium) and the suffix (-ate). Soaps are named based on the oil or fat they’re made from, so olive oil, once it’s treated with sodium hydroxide, becomes sodium olivate. Tallow becomes sodium tallowate, and coconut oil becomes sodium cocoate. Emulsifying agents in soap free products work similarly to soaps in the way that they can breakup fats and oils to cleanse the skin but without the harsh alkaline PH and the over drying effects. One popular gentler surfactant used in many soap free products is cocamidopropyl betaine. Using milder, soap free surfactants will ensure you get the best product that is able to effectively cleanse your skin while maintaining your skins health and not over strip it of its precious oils.