Dear Nicki,

Which is better for the skin – soap or shower gels?


Dear Bree,

Our great-grandparents had no choice but to use a bar of soap in the bath or shower. Yet like so many other improvements – horses to cars, landlines to cell phones, air mail to email – shower gels and body cleansers are often an improvement to soap. Take, for instance, a 2004 study in Dermatologic Therapy which found cleansers with a high pH (like many soaps) can strip skin of lipids and proteins, leading to dryness, irritation, redness, and, in some cases, even broken skin leading to infection. For this reason, I tend to avoid any cleansers with a high concentration of sodium bicarbonate (with a high pH), as well as most bar soaps.

What’s the Difference Between Body Wash and Shower Gel?

Both moisturizing body wash and shower gel can be applied straight from the container, or with a hand-held pouf that provides extra lather and full-body coverage. Each offers a different texture and concentration, and each cleans differently.

  • Body wash is better for those with normal skin. Body wash is thinner than shower gel because it comes in liquid form.
  • Moisturizing body wash is best for those with dry skin. During cold months, it also provides extra moisture. Moisturizing body washes are rich with moisture, often featuring occlusive agents, like petrolatum and mineral oil, which seal moisture into the skin while you are still in the bath or shower.  It is still thinner in consistency in most cases than shower gel.
  • Shower gel is generally better for those with acne-prone or oily skin or in warm, humid climates. Shower gel is thicker than body wash and has a more firm consistency; many formulas are also “cooling,” with cucumber or sea extracts.
  • Treatment body washes or shower gels, like Neutrogena Body Clear Body Wash defy the rules listed above. These contain active ingredients like salicylic acid and a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that alleviates acne, despite the fact that it is technically a “body wash.” BHAs work in part by softening keratin, a protein that forms part of the skin structure. This helps to loosen dry scaly skin, increasing cell turnover.

Are Antioxidants Important in Bath or Shower Gel?

Yes and no. In order to get the benefits of a body wash or shower gel, you need to rub these into the skin for a full minute. According to renowned dermatologist Dr. David Bank, M.D., using cleansers for less time doesn’t allow the beneficial ingredients to bind to the skin at their full capacity. Ideally, a body wash or shower gel should include antioxidants and beneficial ingredients like the following:

  • Coffee
  • Green or white tea
  • Mangosteen
  • Pomegranate
  • Goji and/or acai super fruit

Certain luxury bath products may also contain skin conditioning nutrients like the following, which are beneficial when applied to the skin for long enough:

  • Vitamin A (retinoids)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacinamide)
  • Vitamin B5 (panthenol)
  • Vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid, derivatives)
  • Vitamin E (tocopherol)
  • Glycolic or lactic acid

Choosing a Scented Body Wash or Soap

Regardless of whether you prefer a shower gel or body wash, part of the attraction is finding a scent that invigorates you in the morning or relaxes you after a long day. For instance, Vitabath makes the following scents many prefer in the morning:

  • Fresh Citrus
  • Ivy & Lily
  • Lavender Chamomile
  • Nouveau Rose

Or if you want a substitute for some rich dessert, you might choose an aroma like:

  • Coconut Crème
  • Luscious Lemon
  • Vanilla Sugar
  • Wild Red Cherry

Bottom Line

Though there are moisturizing soaps like Dove, most bar soaps have a high pH and too little moisturization, leaving your skin depleted of certain hydrating lipids and proteins so that you experience uncomfortable “after-wash tightness,” dryness, redness, irritation, and, in some extreme cases, even skin breakage. It’s best to select a body wash in the cool fall/winter and shower gel in the warm spring/summer, although “treatment” body washes for acne, eczema, psoriasis, and the like will defy these rules altogether.

Looking for the best skin care? FutureDerm is committed to having its customers find — and create — the best skin care for their individual skin type and concern and based on your ingredient preferences. Learn more by visiting the FutureDerm shop!


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