You’d think taking a shower would be a rather straightforward task. After all, all you need to do is hop under the toasty water, grab a little cleanser, and scrub the day away. But hold on a second—the cleanser you’re using might not be the ideal one for your skin.
Sorry to burst everyone’s soap bubbles, but there is, in fact, a difference between soaps, body washes, and shower gels, and that difference matters, depending on your skin type and even where you live. To figure out the best product to wash your body with, we asked Ilyse Lefkowicz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist specializing in general and cosmetic dermatology, and the global dermatologist for Head and Shoulders, for all the answers.
What’s the difference between bar soap and body wash?
“The main difference between a bar cleanser and body wash is the form they come in and how they interact with skin,” says Dr. Lefkowicz (she prefers to use the word “bar” instead of “soap,” since people often associate the latter with something too harsh). “Both bar cleansers and body wash will cleanse. However, certain bars may be harsher than body wash and can remove essential lipids and proteins, or alter the skin’s pH level, which can cause skin irritation.”
For people with normal to dry skin, or people looking for milder product formulas, Dr. Lefkowicz says body wash is best. For people with oily skin types, living somewhere hot and humid, or people just looking for a very deep wash—like after a workout—she recommends using a bar as a quick and easy way to get clean.
Dr. Lefkowicz also finds body washes to be slightly more hygienic than bars. That’s because bacteria can live on bars and remain on there from shower to shower and person to person. “To avoid bacteria buildup, always rinse it between use and allow to drain and dry completely,” Dr. Lefkowicz adds. “With a body wash, it’s easier to avoid bacteria buildup since it doesn’t touch skin while in the bottle.”
What’s the difference between shower gel and body wash?
They’re similar, but not identical. Both are liquid cleansers, typically made with emollients to soften the skin and mild surfactants that create a rich, foamy lather. The main difference is in their consistencies and concentration of ingredients. “Shower gel has a firmer, gel-like consistency, and typically has a higher concentration of fragrance,” Dr. Lefkowicz says. “Body washes tend to be more hydrating and moisturizing, which makes it more useful in harsher, colder weather to help avoid stripping moisture away from the skin, which can open it up to damage.”
According to Dr. Lefkowicz, shower gels are an excellent choice for people living in particularly hot, humid climates or with naturally oily skin. “Because shower gel is less moisturizing than body wash, it’s better for those living in warmer climates or for people with oily skin,” she says.
What ingredients should you avoid, no matter which cleanser you use?
According to Dr. Lefkowicz, it’s best for everyone to avoid parabens and phthalates, especially if you’ve had adverse reactions to soap in the past. “For people with sensitive skin, I also recommend keeping an eye out for products that have heavy fragrances or dyes, as these can be irritating to some people,” she says. “A simple cleanser, like Olay Ultra Moisture body wash ($7; amazon.com), works well.”
One ingredient she says everyone should also avoid is microbeads in exfoliating washes, since they can be harmful to the environment. “Also, for people looking to move away from using plastic altogether, bar soap typically has less packaging than body wash,” she adds.
On the flip side, Dr. Lefkowicz says people should seek out ingredients that are moisturizing, not just hydrating. “In a body wash, you want to use a product that’s helping your skin improve over time, not hurting it,” she says. “Body washes that have ceramics, hyaluronic acid, and petrolatum tend to work well.”
Should you swap cleansing products as you age?
While bar cleansers are fine for a younger audience, Dr. Lefkowicz recommends switching to a more moisturizing body wash for skin that’s a little older. “Look for gentle, moisturizing body washes that can build skin health over time,” she says, “as they’ll make your skin stay smoother, softer, and healthier for longer.”