Why Using Soap Is Bad For You

Josh Sims

2 min read

A message to those who think there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned soap and water.

Men yet to come to the benefits of grooming will often argue that there’s nothing wrong with just soap and water. That it’s tried and tested over the generations, indeed, its very simplicity seems to speak to its credit. And yet, for all that the alternatives – those hi-tech cleansing gels and lotions in surgically clean or luxuriously swish packaging of great promise – often befuddle with science while looking little more than, well, liquid soap, those men are wrong.

Soap – that stuff that you keep losing at the bottom of the bath and that’s been the source of many of a comedy pratfall – has a spectacularly bad reputation among those who know their skincare. Such experts – like those at the International Dermal Institute – say they can spot a traditional soap user a mile away: by the flakiness and redness of their skin.

In part this is because – and this is not a good thing – these traditional soaps haven’t changed much since they were first made by the Egyptians in 2800BC. They are made from soponified animal fats – named from Mount Sapo, where the early Romans made their animal sacrifices. And, as though that wasn’t dissuasive enough, they are typically alkili – this means that, in reacting with the skin’s sebum, soap breaks down its natural protective acidic balance. This can take up to eight hours to recover – just about enough time to pass before a face might be washed with soap again. 

While old-style soaps may appear to do the job, they are actually drying out your skin.

While old-style soaps may appear to do the job, they are actually drying out your skin.

Add to this the fact that most cheap, wet soaps are an ideal way to harbour bacteria – one might only think of the various members of your household using it, and on various parts of their anatomy – and the case might well seem closed. Ironically, well into the 19th century such soap was considered a luxury item and heavily taxed in many countries.

But the key word here is ‘traditional’. Part of the problem has been that men typically prefer soap to liquid cleansers largely because of its format: solid, fuss-free, manly, even functional in some sense. You pick it up, rub it, put it back. But while most traditional soaps are bad for your skin, cleansers in solid form – often tarred with the same brush – are not. These super soaps – made by the likes of Dermalogica, Zirh, Nars and Anthony Logistics, to name just a few companies – are formulated using vegetable rather then animal fats so they don’t strip the skin. They’re soaps, it seems, but technically not.

They’re also more blendable, so it’s possible to add beneficial ingredients the likes of milk proteins and shea butter. Coconut or almond extract will give a skin a smoother finish. Aloe vera or liquorice will calm it. Vitamins A and E might stave off wrinkles a little longer. And so on. Other positive functions – exfoliation, for instance – can be built in. Such soaps are also anti-microbial, self-drying and self-sealing, so no more mush. And yet, satisfying that tired male need not to be seen to be looking after oneself, they also just look like bars of soap.

In other words, it pays to read the small print. Old-style soaps may appear to do the job satisfyingly well because they’re such powerful de-greasers – it’s why mechanics use variants of it on their hands at the end of the day. But while having grown up using standard soap may give it a reassuring sense of its reliability too, truth be told, it’s taking your face off. And there’s nothing comedy about that at all.

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