Soaps and facial cleansers are all marketed as being good for your skin. On the surface this claim seems to be true because your skin does need to be regularly cleansed of dirt and impurities that clog pores and speed up aging.
However, many of the most common cleansing products out there prove not to be skin-friendly when you take a closer look.
The main reason for this is the long-term effects these products have on your skin. They are formulated (often with toxic and synthetic ingredients) to have some sort of immediate effect without protecting or nourishing your skin in the long run.
Here’s more about what your skin needs to be healthy, how most soaps fall short, and where to go from here.
What is Soap Supposed to Do for Your Skin?
Let’s start by taking a look at why we use soap.
You may have heard this already, but your skin is actually the largest organ of your body. It’s also what comes into contact with the outside world and prevents most things from entering into your internal systems.
To get a little more technical, skin is made up of three layers: the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis.
These three layers all work together to maintain skin moisture, protect the deeper layers of skin, rejuvenate the top layer of skin, keep skin elastic and firm, ward off infections, and protect internal organs.
The epidermis (top layer) gets renewed when dead skin cells flake off to be replaced by new ones. The dermis (middle layer) contains the sebaceous glands that produce oil to moisturize and soften your skin.
This is mainly where soap comes in.
Gently cleansing your skin on a regular basis helps to exfoliate away dead cells. This keeps your skin looking bright and healthy rather than dull. Soap also cleans out dirt and debris that clog up your pores and helps get rid of excess oil.
The right cleanser keeps your skin looking youthful as well.
Everyday, your skin is subject to impurities and pollutants that come from the external environment. Many of these are carcinogens that can cause premature aging, irritation, skin dryness, etc. Cleansing your skin daily helps prevent these toxins from either sticking to your skin or penetrating to the deeper layers.
Where Soap and Facial Cleansers Go Wrong
As you can see, soap is supposed to have a beneficial effect. Facial cleansers, especially, can help the more delicately balanced skin of your face stay healthy and youthful-looking.
However, there are several major flaws in most common soaps and facial cleansers- even the fancy, expensive ones. Here’s what you need to watch out for.
Moisture and Natural Oils Get Stripped Away
For many years, clean skin was synonymous with getting rid of “pore-clogging” oil as well as dirt and impurities. This meant that cleansers were formulated to strip skin of pretty much everything.
We now know that our skin naturally produces an oil called sebum for a good reason. It not only moisturizes skin and forms a protective barrier, it also plays a role in antimicrobial defense.
While overproduction of sebum can be a contributing factor to acne, maintaining a normal amount is essential for healthy skin.
Without a natural layer of oil, your skin will quickly become dry, red, and irritated. It will also show signs of aging more quickly because your skin barrier is impaired and unable to protect your skin from outside toxins as it should.
Most soaps and face washes still contain chemicals known as surfactants. Surfactants dissolve oil and dirt so that they can be washed away by water, since oil and water normally repel each other.
Several of the most common ones strip away natural sebum and undermine your skin’s barrier, allowing impurities and bacteria to penetrate more deeply.
A better solution is a natural ingredient like aloe vera that cleanses pores without stripping your skin. Above all, avoid cleansers with harsh surfactants that leave your skin feeling dry and tight.
High Alkalinity Disrupts Skin pH
Another major downside of most conventional soaps is that they have a highly alkaline pH. This is because most are made by combining a fat or oil with an alkali like lye. This is what allows the soap to grab onto dirt and oil.
The problem is that your skin has what’s known as an acid mantle. This is an important protective layer made up of amino acids, fatty acids, and oils.
Because of this acid mantle, the normal pH of skin falls in a range of 5.4-5.9, which is on the acidic side. Staying within this range is critical for keeping beneficial bacteria on your skin thriving. Any damage to the acid mantle can open the way for pathogenic bacteria and cause skin dehydration and irritation.
Unfortunately, the most common soaps on the market typically have a pH between 9-10. Some go as high as 11. This makes them not only alkaline, but very alkaline.
And while some have argued that alkaline soap doesn’t really affect skin pH, there is evidence that alkaline cleansers do in fact raise the pH level after washing with them.
There is often even more disruption from alkalinity because soap usually leaves a residue on your skin. This means it can keep affecting the acid mantle, even after you’ve rinsed it off.
Damage to the acid mantle accumulates over time, so you’re likely to notice the effects more as you get older.
Conventional bar soaps tend to be the most alkaline. Liquid cleansers and high-quality, handmade soap bars are usually closer to the pH of your skin.
Toxic Ingredients Are Hiding in “Cleansers”
Not only is skin your largest organ, it also absorbs a lot of what you put on it. Many factors are involved in whether a substance gets absorbed or not, but studies have shown that an average of 64% of what goes on skin gets taken into your body.
The skin on your face is more permeable than most other body surfaces, and anything that does get absorbed goes directly into your bloodstream.
This is important because soaps and cleansers often hide potentially toxic chemicals- in spite of the fact that they are supposed to get rid of impurities on your skin.
To make matter worse, the skincare and personal care product industry is highly unregulated. Despite being somewhere close to a $60 billion industry, there are few safety protocols in place to protect consumers who buy cosmetic and skincare products.
In fact, more than 1400 chemicals are banned from cosmetic products in the EU and other countries, but only nine chemicals are currently banned in the U.S. by the FDA.
Since it remains up to you to protect your skin, here are the top toxins to look out for in soaps and cleansers.
Parabens are a common preservative used to prevent bacterial growth in personal care products. They are easily absorbed into your skin and are associated with a host of negative effects.
Most notably, parabens can mimic hormones within the human body. This makes them endocrine disruptors that affect the hormonal health of both men and women. They are also connected to developmental problems and cancer.
Look out for different forms of parabens, including butylparaben, propylparaben, and methylparaben.
Sulfates are used as surfactants in soaps and increase foaming and lather. The two most commonly used are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES).
The main problem with sulfates is that they can strip your skin of healthy oils. Long-term use can lead to skin irritation and sensitivity. There are also concerns that they have a major negative impact on the environment. Aquatic wildlife seems to be especially affected.
Seeing the word “fragrance” on the ingredient list for any product should immediately send up a warning signal. Companies are allowed to keep their fragrance cocktail a secret. This means there could be a large number (sometimes hundreds) of undisclosed chemicals hiding in a cleanser.
Fragrance additives are likely to cause allergic reactions, skin sensitivity, and irritation. Several common fragrance compounds, including phthalates, are potential carcinogens and hormone disruptors.
There’s every reason to avoid “fragrance” like the plague. If you really want a scented product, look for one that has natural plant extracts or essential oils.
#4- Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives
Formaldehyde is a chemical with dangerous side effects, even at low-level exposure. It’s been found to cause respiratory problems, skin irritation, and dermatitis.
Most often, formaldehyde isn’t added directly to soaps or cleansers. However, several common preservatives are known to release small amounts of formaldehyde over time. These chemicals are readily absorbed by the skin and are even found in baby soaps!
A few countries have banned these preservatives and many others have severe restrictions in place (not the U.S).
Some common ones are: diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, and 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol).
#5- Cocamidopropyl Betaine
Cocamidopropyl betaine is a synthetic chemical and another surfactant. It increases foaming action and can be found in hand soap and other cleansers.
In 2004, this chemical was named ‘Allergen of the Year’ by the American Contact Dermatitis Society due to the frequency with which it was causing skin irritation. Sensitization becomes more likely the longer it’s used, and some people are very sensitive.
Look out for it under these names as well: Cocamidopropyl dimethyl glycine, Cocoamphocarboxypropionate, Cocoamphodiproprionate, CADG, and Disodium cocoamphodipropionate.
This particular chemical isn’t something you’ll see on any ingredient list. It’s actually a byproduct created when other chemicals- like sodium laureth sulfate- are combined during manufacturing.
The EPA lists 1,4-Dioxane as a likely carcinogen that’s frequently present in cosmetics. It can cause skin irritation, respiratory problems, and kidney and liver damage.
The best way to avoid it is to avoid other chemicals at all costs. You may also want to look for organic soaps and cleansers, since one large study found that USDA Certified Organic products were all clean of 1,4-Dioxane.
#7- Triclosan & Antibacterial Chemicals
Triclosan is a nasty antibacterial chemical that has been linked to cancer, allergies, hormonal disruption, and more. Thankfully, it’s now been banned from soap but somehow remains in other various personal care products.
The problem is that a few other antibacterial chemicals escaped this ban and can still be added to cleansers. These include benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, and chloroxylenol (PCMX).
Not only have soaps with these chemicals not been proven more effective than “plain” soap and water, overuse of antibacterial soap has likely contributed to antibiotic resistance. They also appear to have their own negative side effects, much like triclosan.
It’s much better to simply skip these chemicals.
Watch Out for Misleading Labels & Marketing Tactics
After reading about these toxic chemicals in soaps and facial cleansers, it seems to make sense to opt for an “all-natural” or “organic” brand, right?
The answer is yes- and no.
Products with truly natural and effective ingredients are the best. However, just because something has a nice-sounding label doesn’t mean it contains what it claims.
It’s always important to remember that the skincare industry is very unregulated. There are few rules that guide what companies can and can’t put on their labels.
For example, the FDA currently has no definition of the term “natural” as it applies to cosmetic products. This means it’s completely up to the interpretation of the manufacturer. Also, a product could contain just a single organic ingredient and yet have “organic” printed in large letters on the front.
The best way to be certain you are getting truly clean and toxin-free soaps and facial cleansers is to look for “USDA Certified Organic” on the label.
This is a strict certification — independent of the company — that it is toxin-free, from the ingredients used to even the farming and manufacturing practices used to create those ingredients.
What All This Leads To + Where to Go From Here
The end result of using common soaps and facial cleansers is that they end up hurting your skin- and possibly your health- in the long run.
The reason many cleansers appear to work is because they have ingredients that give you quick results. For example, many have surfactants that make your skin feel clean or exfoliators that brighten skin tone.
But because these ingredients aren’t truly good for your skin, you’ll eventually notice a long-term effect of dryness, dullness, and irritation. Cleansers laden with chemicals can also accelerate skin aging, and the longer you use them, the more pronounced the effects will become.
As much as we all would love a simple answer, it always comes back to doing your research to find something better for your skin.
Reading labels carefully is always a good first step. Another option to consider is using a non-soap cleanser. This refers to cleansers made without harsh surfactants that strip oil away. Look for ones that contain both cleansing and moisturizing ingredients to keep your skin hydrated.
Most of us have gotten used to associating a sudsing effect with getting clean, but non-foaming cleansers are less likely to contain toxic chemicals.
Finally, nature has given us all we need for healthy skin. Look for a cleanser that contains plant-based ingredients and extracts that are proven effective.
Opt for Clean and Healthy Skin
If you’ve struggled to find a facial cleanser that really works for your skin (and are tired of reading labels), the new Pur-Radiance face cleanser from Purity Woods could end your skin woes.
It’s made of 21 nature-produced ingredients that not only cleanse skin but keep it hydrated and healthy. Plant extracts, like the elastin-boosting maple leaf extract, actually rejuvenate skin and have an anti-aging effect.
Perhaps most importantly, Pur-Radiance is USDA Certified Organic. This means each individual ingredient in the entire formula has been independently certified as organic- no fake “natural” ingredients and zero toxic chemicals.
Learn more about the Pur-Radiance facial cleanser here, and give it a try if it’s what you’ve been looking for.
The more changes you can make for your skin in the right direction, the better it will look and feel.
Now that you know what to watch out for, being more cautious about your daily cleanser will help your skin to start recovering!