Using soap for skincare might seem like the most natural thing to do–after all, the main purpose of soap is to clean the skin. It functions as a surfactant, separating dirt and debris from the skin with its foaming action, so it can be washed away, leaving the skin squeaky clean.

Simply stated, soap is made by mixing fats (initially animal fats, but later, vegetable and industrial oils) with water and an alkali (traditionally, this was in the form of fireplace ash, and later on, lye). A chemical reaction called saponification occurs, where the alkali turns the fat into soap and glycerin.

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It is estimated that soap was invented 5000 years ago in Babylon. Its first uses on the body were medicinal; to cleanse, prevent, and treat diseases of the skin. Soap wasn’t produced for personal hygiene until later in the first century CE, when “Arabic chemists made perfumed and colored soap, some of the soaps were liquid and others were solid. They also made special soap for shaving.” ( Soap was a hot commodity on the Silk Roads, and before long, soap making evolved into an art form in various centers across of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Different types of soaps–Aleppo soap, African black soap, castile soap, etc–are made with regional ingredients (oils, herbs, natural aromatics) and technique variations of the main process, and are each associated with their own cleansing rituals and lore.

When did using soap for skincare become a bad thing?

Using soap to cleanse and beautify the skin was considered beneficial for the skin, until the dawn of the mass produced cosmetics industry in the late 19th century. The traditionally used plant and animal fats were replaced with cheaper mineral oil (white petrolatum). Essential oils and other natural aromatics were replaced by synthetic perfumes. Soaps were mass produced using methods that were intended to reduce cost, and increase yield and efficiency; and the resulting soaps were devoid of any of the nutritional or medicinal value that the nutrient-dense fatty acid-based soaps of the past had.

These newer soaps were harsher on the skin as well. They were drying and irritant because they were more alkaline, and often left a sticky film that most people found undesirable. Advances in chemistry led to the development of petroleum-based surfactants that did not require the saponification process, and were cheaper than soap; so the idea of the “non-soap” cleanser came to market and the public was convinced that using soap to cleanse the skin was bad for the skin.

To this day, most aestheticians shudder at the thought of a client coming into their practices, admitting that they wash their faces with soap and water. The majority of the cleansers marketed to skincare professionals contain non-soap surfactants as the cleansing agent; and while they may have been pH balanced to be less alkaline than a typical soap, in most cases they are no less irritant.

Now, with the rise of more nourishing cleansing milks, lotions, and oils–the idea of the foaming cleanser is beginning to go out of fashion just as soap did.

However, today artisan soap and traditional herbal soapmaking methods have made quite the comeback. Artisan soaps are made again with natural animal (such as tallow) and plant (coconut oil, shea butter, castor oil) fats, and now comes infused with highly skin nourishing ingredients such as hydrosols, essential oils, herbs, mineral-rich salts, and clays. Noted doctor-founded luxury brand, Osmia Organics, centers its cleansing rituals around traditionally made soaps. Traditional African black soap itself has also had a resurgence thanks to brands like Shea Terra, who, through its fair trade initiatives, has brought traditionally made black soap from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, to the West.

So the question remains…should you use soap for skincare?

NAA President, Rachael Pontillo and NAA Member, Linda Johnston

NAA president, Rachael Pontillo, and NAA member, Linda Johnston (licensed aesthetician, aesthetics educator, and Boutique Skincare Designer) decided to investigate. Together, they attended an artisan soapmaking class at the MidAtlantic Women’s Herbal Conference, taught by herbalist, soapmaker, and herbal skincare formulator, Donna Bryant-Winston, RN.

They learned how to make cold process soap step-by-step, using only natural plant oils such as sustainably sourced palm oil, coconut oil, and olive oil (Donna explained how the fatty acid composition in each oil gives the soap different characteristics such as amount of lather and the size of the actual bubbles), oatmeal, goat’s milk, cocoa powder, water, and lye (in the form of food grade sodium hydroxide). While, during the saponification process, much of the “oiliness” from the fats disappears, much of the emollient nature still remains, in addition to many of the unsaponifiable nutrients such as antioxidants and other phytonutrients.

The oils and add-in ingredients themselves are chosen for their nourishing and protective qualities, so how could these soaps be harmful for the skin? When Rachael asked this question, Donna replied that traditional artisan soaps such as the one we made in class, in fact, are very nourishing to the skin for several reasons:

  • The glycerin is not separated out of the end product, so the soap itself moisturizes as it cleanses–commercially made soaps often separate the glycerin out, which makes the soap more drying
  • Different oil blends benefit different skin types
  • Using natural oils and fats helps the soap retain its nutrients, whereas synthetic soaps and surfactants are devoid of nutrients
  • The essential fatty acids in natural oils are acidic–so the final pH of the soap will be less alkaline
  • The traditional method allows the soap to cure for 4-6 weeks, which lowers the pH and makes the soap more mild

After the class, both Rachael and Linda had a change of heart about using soap for skincare.

Here’s what Linda had to say:

NAA President, Rachael Pontillo, assisting Donna Bryant-Winston with the soapmaking demonstration at the 2017 MidAtlantic Women’s Herbal Conference.

“Bar soap has gotten a bad rap. Just like every other skincare product, there is good soap and there is bad soap based on the quality of the ingredients and other factors. For aestheticians, due to sanitary purposes, there is no using bar soap for the cleansing process during a facial in the treatment room.  However, that does not prohibit the client from using it at home. I have been recommending Shea Terra’s African Black Soap Bar to my clients with oily, acneic, congested skin for years! They tell me it is the only cleanser that has worked. I credit that to Shea Terra’s use of minimal, natural, organic, recognizable ingredients.”

After the class, Rachael decided to make the soap herself to gain her own perspective. She used castor, coconut, and olive oils, in addition to powdered oatmeal, dried lavender, goat’s milk, and rose clay. She tried the soap after a 4 week curing time, and then again after 6 weeks.

Here’s what Rachael had to say about her experiment:

“This is by far the best soap I have ever used. Both soaps left my skin feeling clean and soft, though the 4 week cured bar did still leave my skin feeling a bit tight. The 6 week cured bar, though, did not leave any tight feeling. Though my skin doesn’t feel as hydrated or moisturized as it feels when I cleanse with oil or my lotion cleanser, this is a huge improvement over other soaps I’ve tried, and even over non-soap foaming cleansers.”

What’s our verdict on using soap for skincare?

Nutritional Aesthetics® is a field that is based on the path carved by pioneers in both nutrition and skincare; and traditional artisan soapmakers definitely fall into that category. We believe that soap can be very beneficial when a person uses the right soap for his or her skin–and knowing what that right blend of oils and nutrients is for that person can take some trial and error. However, that’s no different than finding the right balance of whole foods in one’s diet, the right blend of topical skincare ingredients and treatments, and right lifestyle choices and habits for beautiful skin and optimal health. It’s an exploration we think is worth taking.

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Do you use soap for skincare? Are you an aesthetician with strong feelings either way about using soap for skincare? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Additional reading:

Pure Soapmaking: How to Create Nourishing Natural Skin Care Soaps by Anne-Marie Faiola

The Natural Soap Book: Making Herbal and Vegetable-Based Soaps by Susan Miller Cavitch


“Sharing the Secrets of Soapmaking” class by Donna Bryant-Winston at the 2017 MidAtlantic Women’s Herbal Conference

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