Skin Care With Liquid Body Wash

Liquid cleansers were first introduced in the 1990s, revolutionizing the skincare marketplace by offering an alternative to bar soaps. Today, liquid body washes and shower gels are incredibly popular, coming in hundreds of scents and colors. You certainly have a large variety to choose from. Which is amazing—and overwhelming.

Liquid body soap foam on hands
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What Is Body Wash?

Body wash is basically soap in liquid form. (Although, technically, body wash does not fit the definition of "true" soap, which is made from fats/oils and an alkali.) The vast majority of body washes today are made with synthetic surfactants rather than oils. They also contain water, viscosity agents to thicken the product and give it a nice feel, preservatives for a safe, shelf-stable cleanser. Many washes also contain moisturizers, botanicals, and fragrances. Some may also contain exfoliating ingredients or over-the-counter acne-fighting medications like benzoyl peroxide.

Body wash and shower gel are, for all intents and purposes, the same product. They're both used the same way. But, in general, shower gels tend to be a bit thicker (think gel-like consistency) whereas body washes are a bit more fluid.

Humectant-Rich Body Cleansers

Best for: normal to oily skin types

Most body washes fall into this category and contain glycerin as the humectant. Unfortunately, the humectant-rich body cleansers are not as beneficial clinically. Because this type of cleanser contains water-soluble ingredients, most of the moisturizing ingredients get washed away in the rinse. They don't leave enough moisturizer on the skin to moisturize it.

Even though the name of the product contains "moisturizing", the only way to tell if you have a humectant-rich body cleanser is to look at the ingredients. These cleansers typically contain (in order):

  • Water
  • Sodium Lauryl (or Laureth) Sulfate - a surfactant
  • Glycerin - the main humectant
  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine - another humectant

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are detergents that give body cleansers, shampoos, hand washes, etc. foaming and cleansing properties. As cleansers, SLS and SLES are great. Too good, in a way, because they can be a bit stripping and drying to the skin.

Humectants can help counteract the drying properties of sulfates somewhat because they help the skin stay hydrated without leaving a greasy film across the surface.

Emollient-Rich Body Cleansers

Best for: normal to dry skin types

These body washes contain emollient ingredients to help moisturize the skin. Sunflower oil or soybean oil are common additions.

Many people prefer emollient-rich body cleansers over humectant-rich cleansers because they tend to be milder and more moisturizing. The surfactant used in these washes is milder than the surfactant used in other washes, causing less damage to the skin. Also, because the emollient is not water-soluble, it stays on the skin and moisturizes it.

Dove® and Olay® are two examples of emollient-rich body cleansers, but there are many others. You can tell if you have an emollient-rich body cleanser by looking at the ingredients. These cleansers typically contain (in order):

  • Water
  • Vegetable, nut or seed oils like Glycine Soja (soybean oil) and/or Helianthus Annuus (sunflower oil) Seed oil - emollients
  • Petroleum - an occlusive
  • Ammonium Lauryl (or Laureth) Sulfate - a surfactant

Ammonium lauryl sulfate and ammonim laureth sulfate are both milder than SLS and SLES, so body washes and shower gels that contain these surfactants will be less stripping. But they may also feel less cleansing. Also, know that the emollient ingredients in these types of body washes leave a film behind on the skin. Dry skin types will love it, but it may feel too heavy for oily skin.

Low-Foaming Body Cleansers

Best for: sensitive skin types

This category of liquid cleansers is most often used on the face, but there are low-foaming body washes, too. Low-foaming cleansers have little to no surfactant to damage the skin, but they don't contain any ingredients to replace moisture in the skin.

The main low-foaming body cleanser is made by Cetaphil®. If you look at the ingredients, there are no humectants or emollients, and the surfactant (sodium lauryl sulfate) is farther down the ingredient list meaning it is present in smaller quantities.

Low-foaming body washes are best for sensitive skin types. They are the least cleansing of the bunch, and some people feel they don't leave their skin feeling "clean" enough.

A Word From Verywell

No matter which type of body wash that you choose, do pay attention to how it makes your skin feel. After cleansing, your skin should feel clean but not overly dry or stripped. Itching, redness, or a tight feeling are all signs the product isn't right for you.

Also, remember that body washes, and shower gels in particular, are very concentrated. Just a small squeeze, no bigger than a quarter, is enough for your entire body. Apply to a shower pouf, sponge, or washcloth to work up a lather.

Is there a benefit to choosing a liquid body cleanser over a bar soap? In years past, body washes tended to be gentler and less drying than bar soaps. But today, both work equally as well so it comes down to personal preference.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Heather L. Brannon, MD
Heather L. Brannon, MD, is a family practice physician in Mauldin, South Carolina. She has been in practice for over 20 years.