Is Soap Bad for Your Skin?

Traditional cleansers may do more harm than good

Bar soap can be bad for your skin, especially the skin on your face. Depending on the product you use, your daily face washing routine may be stripping away things your skin needs to be healthy.

This article looks at what conventional soap does, why it's not good for your skin, why liquid cleansers are better, and how you can cleanse without damaging your face.

The woman is washing her face.
Michael H / Getty Images

How Soap Works

Bar soaps and other types of facial cleansers are designed to remove dirt and oils from the skin. They do so with chemicals called surfactants, which:

  • Surround and dissolve dirt and oil so it's easier for water to wash them away
  • Remove dead skin cells from the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin)
  • Bind to and over-hydrate healthy proteins, making them swell with excess water

The swelling allows the soap ingredients to more easily penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin. That might sound desirable for a "deep clean," but it leads to problems.

Functions of Surfactants

Surfactants act as detergents, wetting agents, foaming agents, conditioners, and emulsifiers. They're in soaps, facial cleansers, lotions, perfumes, shampoos, and a multitude of other hair and body products.

The Negative Effects of Conventional Soap

Surfactants are broadly divided into two categories: soap-based surfactants and synthetic, detergent-based surfactants (also known as syndets, short for synthetic detergent).

Syndet products, such as liquid facial cleansers, and considered better for your skin. The soap-based surfactants are especially problematic.

It Can Dry Your Skin and Cause Wrinkles

Soap-based surfactants can be bad for your skin. They can:

  • Cause dryness, redness, and irritation
  • Strip away the skin's natural moisturizing factor (NMF)
  • Undermine the skin’s natural barrier function

When the skin barrier is compromised, it lets toxins, bacteria, and other unhealthy substances penetrate deeper into the skin, where they can do long-term harm.

In those deeper layers, soap-based surfactants come in contact with nerve endings and trigger a response from the immune system. That leads to inflammation, itching, and irritation.

The skin damage caused by prolonged use of bar soap on your face may make your skin sag. That can lead to premature wrinkles. 

It Can Damage the Skin Microbiome

Your skin naturally plays host to a variety of:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Fungi
  • Other microbes

They make up what's called the skin microbiome. Some of these microbes are harmful (pathogens), but—in healthy skin—most of them are beneficial.

One job of the beneficial microbes is to keep harmful pathogens in check. They do this by keeping the skin acidic.

The surfactants in conventional soaps lower your skin's acidity and kill off a lot of the good bacteria. That allows the bad ones to flourish.

The beneficial bacteria also turn immune-system activity in the skin on and off. When they're depleted, the immune system may not respond to infection, inflammation, and damage.

Basically, when the microbiome is out of balance, your skin can't protect itself or heal.

It Can Make Skin Conditions Worse

Acne and eczema are two common skin conditions that may get worse when you wash your face with bar soap. Part of the reason lies in the health of your skin microbiome, but other actions of soap-based surfactants play roles, too.

Acne

In acne, hair follicles in the skin become clogged with oils and dead skin cells. That leads to pimples. It may seem counterintuitive, but stripping the oils and moisture from your skin can make acne worse.

That's because, when you remove your skin's natural oils, it responds by increasing oil production to make up for what's been lost. More oil production means more acne.

Eczema

Eczema (also called atopic dermatitis) is an inflammatory skin condition. Symptoms include:

  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Rashes
  • Scaly patches
  • Blisters
  • Skin infections

These symptoms are the result of a weakened skin barrier (the surface of the skin), which is supposed to keep things out of the deeper layers.

The surfactants in soap can damage that already sensitive part of the skin, making eczema worse.

Benefits of Liquid Cleansers

The best "soaps" for your skin aren't traditional soaps at all. Liquid facial cleansers and body washes are usually better than bar soap for two main reasons:

  • They tend to have a pH (acidity) level that's closer to your skin's
  • They often include moisturizers (emollients), which are good for your skin

Emollients work by retaining water on the surface of your skin and making the cells able to hold more water. That helps keep your skin looking and feeling healthy.

These benefits are important for facial skin, especially if your skin is dry or sensitive.

How To Wash Your Face

How you wash your face matters, even if you've chosen a liquid cleanser that's better for your skin than soap. It's not complicated, though. Just follow these three steps:

  1. Use warm water. (Hot water causes dryness.) Don't soak your skin for a long time, as that can strip out moisture.
  2. Pat your skin dry instead of rubbing it vigorously. Treating your skin gently helps it retain its natural softness, resiliency, and moisture.
  3. Add a light layer of moisturizing cream or lotion, especially after a hot bath or shower. Consider one with sun protection factor (SPF), which can help prevent sun damage to your skin.

Summary

The surfactants in bar soap are hard on your skin, causing dryness and irritation, throwing the skin microbiome out of balance, and contributing to skin conditions like acne and eczema.

The syndet surfactants in liquid cleansers are better for your skin. When washing, use these products with warm water, pat your skin dry, and use a moisturizer.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do I have to use soap even if it causes skin irritation?

    Most dermatologists agree you don't need to use soap to stay clean. Warm water is usually enough to remove dirt and sweat, and it doesn't strip away your skin's natural oils.

    Cleansers can be helpful for washing away makeup and oils on acne-prone parts of your body, though.

  • Are natural soaps best for my skin?

    Natural soaps are made without artificial surfactants, which means they're less likely to dry your skin or cause irritation. Studies have found that natural soaps can also be effective at destroying harmful microbes. 

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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.
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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.