When it came to bathing in America, bars of soap reigned supreme for part of the 19th and much of the 20th century. But by the late 1980s, traditional solid bars of soap started getting some stiff competition from liquid alternatives known as “shower gels” and “body washes.”
Thanks to clever marketing—including pushing the idea that bar soap is gross—body washes and shower gels eventually started outperforming bar soap. Now, shifts towards using personal care products with fewer chemicals and that leave behind less waste have made room for bar soap to stage a comeback. But popularity aside, which cleanser is right for you? Here’s what to know.
The difference between bar soap, shower gel, and body wash
First, let’s start with the basics. But as we do, keep in mind that bar soaps, shower gels, and body washes are all massive product categories, and these are general descriptions of each (so there are plenty of exceptions).
A bar of soap is a solid chunk of cleanser traditionally made by mixing an oil (today, most commonly coconut oil, palm oil, and olive oil) with a liquid (usually water), and an alkali (sodium hydroxide, aka lye).
However, most of the big-brand bars of soap on the shelves today are actually “syndet bars” (“synthetic detergent”), meaning they’re made using synthetic forms of the traditional soap ingredients. They’re often labeled as “beauty bars” or “cleansing bars.”
Shower gel tends to have a firmer, gel-like consistency, a higher concentration of added fragrance, and sometimes are formulated to be used on both the body and hair.
Like shower gels, body washes are liquid cleansers that use mild surfactants to cleanse the skin. But generally speaking, products labeled as “body wash” tend to be thinner and creamier than shower gels.
How to pick the best cleanser for your skin
At this point, there are so many formulations of bar soaps, shower gels, and body washes that if you look hard enough (i.e. read the labels), you can probably find the features you want in your preferred format. But again, generally speaking, here’s what to consider when selecting a soap for your shower (or bath):
If you have dry skin and prefer a liquid cleanser, you’ll be better off with body wash, as it’s more hydrating and moisturizing than shower gel. There are also plenty of beauty bars out there with heavy doses of moisturizer for those who prefer their soap in solid form.
On the flip side, those with naturally oiler skin (who don’t need the extra hydration), and/or live somewhere hot or humid, may want to opt for shower gels or more traditional bars of soap. Shower gel also works if you simply want to get clean and nothing else, or prefer that “squeaky clean” feeling.
People with sensitive skin already know that certain soaps and cleansers can cause very uncomfortable reactions, and understand the importance of reading labels to assess a product’s ingredients. One factor to consider is pH. Body wash usually has a lower pH level than traditional bar soap—making them better for sensitive skin that’s also dry.
The other two main ingredients to pay attention to are fragrances and preservatives. Body washes and shower gels tend to have more than bar cleansers, but again it depends on the individual product.