Why do we really use soap?

When you read about various natural and/or homemade soaps, their skin enhancing properties are often heavily emphasized. Sometimes almost to the point that one would think that these soaps are an essential product for healthy skin. Glycerin soap for example, is often praised for its moisturizing properties. This is easy to do when you get excited about the goodness of natural soap. We are probably a bit guilty of that on this very site.

So let’s take a step back and have a look at the real purpose of soap.

As great as all natural soap is – especially compared with many of the commercial detergents masquerading as soap – we shouldn’t forget what the actually purpose of using soap is in the first place. And that really has very little to do with advance skin care.

If you asked a bunch of kindergartners why we use soap some of them would perhaps say in order to clean ourselves, while some particularly bright boy or girl might describe how it kind of makes your skin a lot slipperier when you bathe.

Both observations are of course highly accurate.

The properties of soap lowers the surface tension of water and helps to emulsify dirt particles, fats and other stuff when you bathe. In other words it makes the process of washing up easier and more effective. That is the why we really use soap in the first place. And although the natural soaps we recommend on this site are certainly very gentle on your skin, pushing the “skin healing” aspects of these particular products too heavily may even be a bit misleading.

Or as the FDA puts it:

“The legal difference between a cosmetic and a drug is determined by a product’s intended use. Different laws and regulations apply to each type of product. Firms sometimes violate the law by marketing a cosmetic with a drug claim, or by marketing a drug as if it were a cosmetic, without adhering to requirements for drugs. “(1

With a product such as soap it is furthermore somewhat difficult to promise exactly how it will affect the skin of each individual, since everybody’s skin is a bit different.

Why do we use soap

Today we often bathe with soap out of joy rather than necessity, one could argue.

Even “good ingredients” aren’t always entirely black and white either. Take above mentioned glycerin for example. In soap glycerin (or glycerol) serves two main purposes: It acts as a moisturizing agent by forming hydrogen bonds with water and slows down the evaporation of water from the skin. Secondly it acts to soften the fatty acids and fatty acid salts that are the primary ingredients in soap. This keeps the soap from breaking in the event you should drop it. In more liquid cosmetics (skin lotion for example) glycerin thus also keeps the product from solidifying, even if the container isn’t tightly sealed.

However, what is a much less known result of the properties of glycerin is that – in very low humidity – the natural properties of glycerin will draw moisture from the deeper layers of skin to the outer ones. Quite literally drying your skin from inside out. In practice this would happen very rarely, but nonetheless it is a main reason for skin lotions and such not containing more than about 15 percent glycerin.

Other ingredients may have similar potentially adverse effects, particularly if you account for different allergies people may have. And as pointed out in this great article on face wash, there are many additional pros and cons you need to take into account – even an otherwise good natural soap isn’t always necessarily great for your face.

So in conclusion: soap is used in order to clean our skin more effectively. In today’s day and age, with many of us having desk jobs where we don’t get soiled and hardly even break a sweat, we probably don’t really need to wash our entire body with loads of soap each and every day.

Remember that only a century or so ago, many of our ancestors bathed maybe twice a year “whether it was necessary or not”. Today one could argue, we bathe daily mostly because we can and because it feels nice. Or because we have a complex psychological relationship with what cleanliness really entails. But let’s not enter that comprehensive and philosophical topic today.

A good natural soap is certainly the best choice when you need or want to use soap. However, don’t view it as something you “have to” use a lot in order to have healthy skin.

Well, now that I got this pragmatic post out of the way I guess I can go back to raving about natural soap again. 😉


1) http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/ucm074201.htm

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One Response to Why do we really use soap?

  1. Teri Trombo says:

    We like your idea of keeping your eye on the ball or in this case the soap, as to why we really use soap. You have made some good points about the natural goodness of soap. We agree it is an important cleansing agent primarily for the skin. However, in today’s environment there are more toxins than there were years ago and the skin and pores are more receptive to clogging. It is important to remove these toxins and increase the pH balance and oxygen levels of our skin, the largest organ in our body.

    We have found that natural liquid soaps, chemically free are friendlier to our bodies as well as environment overall. Maintaining healthy skin naturally works synergistic with healthy foods and the air we breathe. I sure am glad times have changed . . . I am on my way to take a bubble bath in my natural liquid soap!

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