For Glamour, by Deanna Pai.
Last month, I spent a weekend at my best friend's apartment in Chicago. I unpacked what was basically the entirety of my bathroom cabinet while the shower heated up, and then I stepped in. It was only then that I realized that she only stocked bar soap. I glared at it, white and shriveled and weird. Then, I made the executive decision to suds up with shampoo. If it's good enough for your hair, it should be fine for skin in a pinch, right? Desperate times!
I have nothing against bar soaps. Wait—yes, I do. Bar soaps suck. They're slimy, they're slippery, and you risk losing a toe if you're not careful. Then, once they shrivel up, you can't even get a decent lather out of them. If you have the option of using a shower gel, why would you ever use bar soap? It's like having the chance to drive a car but choosing to use a horse and carriage.
I relayed this to another friend and and bar soap lover, Pei. "Yeah, but I can test the scent before I buy, I like all the pretty shit they mix in—like the herbs and all the little flecks—and they come in pretty packaging," she replied. "They're cute in an I-go-shopping-with-a-wicker-basket kind of way." (She lives in San Francisco, if you couldn't tell.) Pei's not alone, though. "Many of my patients prefer using a bar soap over a liquid body wash," says NYC dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D. "It feels more normal to them in their cleansing 'ritual.'"
The differences go far beyond personal preference. Depending on what kind of bar soap you use, it could actually be bad for your skin. "Traditional bar soaps can cause dry, dehydrated skin due to their high pH," says Al-Nisa Ward, cosmetic chemist and founder of Cosmetic Science Innovations. Skin is naturally acidic, and its pH tends to hover around 5 on a scale of 1 (very acidic) to 14 (very alkaline). These traditional soaps usually include the adorable, handcrafted kind that Pei so loves.
To be fair, there are newer formulations that offer a neutral pH. "Combo bars are a combination of surfactants, which suspend oil and dirt particles so they're easier to wash away, and saponified oils, like olive oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil," explains Ward. Those oils, as well as any other organic extracts and minerals (think activated charcoal), help nourish your skin as they cleanse it, says Engelman, who's a fan of Moroccanoil Cleansing Bar ($12, nordstrom.com).
Just as good are syndet bars. Syndet (a combination of the words "synthetic" and "detergent") bars are composed of synthetic surfactants, such as sodium cocyl isethionate. That's why Dove's Beauty Bar—probably the best-known syndet bar out there—qualifies as a bar, but not a bar soap. And some bars have those massaging nubs on one side, which aren't there just for show. "They help promote circulation and can temporarily smooth the appearance of cellulite," says Engelman.
It's not like body wash is all rainbows and butterflies and gentle ingredients, either. "Body washes are primarily composed of water and surfactants, like sodium laureate sulfate, sodium laurel sulfate, and cocamidopropyl betaine," says Ward. Those sulfates can strip the skin of its natural oils, leaving it feeling dry and tight. On top of that, "liquid formulas allow for more fragrance, which can also irritate skin," says Engelman. But there are a ton of sulfate- and fragrance-free body washes out there, like Dove Sensitive Skin Body Wash ($9 for two, amazon.com), so it's not like you're doomed to dry, ashy skin forever.
Bar soap also brings up the question of bacteria. While it's not an issue for liquid washes, bar soaps can and do harbor bacteria on their surface and in the sludge they leave behind, says Ward. But unless you have a compromised immune system—which, as a transplant recipient, I actually do—it shouldn't pose a problem if you're cautious.
Like your razor, "soap should be left in a well-ventilated area or in its own box," says Engelman. "And rinse the soap before you use it." Remember that argument between Joey and Chandler on Friends, in which Chandler claims soap is okay to share because "soap is soap; it's self-cleaning"? That's not really true. Ward recommends borrowing or lending it only if you have zero other options.
If you're into something with a citrusy scent and foamy lather that can wake you up in the A.M., you might want to opt for body wash. But if you're looking for no-frills cleansing, a bar soap may be your best bet. I'll never soap up with one myself, but I guess I understand a little bit better why you (and Pei) might. A little.
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