Foaming Cleansers: The Good, The Bad, and The Sudsy.


If you're like most people, you probably love that fresh out of the shower "squeaky-clean" feeling. So did ancient Sumerians - who were using soap made from animal fats and plant ashes as early as 2,800 BC. Cleansing with soap and water has proven to be an important part of maintaining proper hygiene and reducing the spread of disease, but are we overdoing it in today's society? Never before has there been such an obsession with using harsh chemicals and artificial detergents to cleanse and sanitize our bodies and environment to the point of sterility. Not cleansing at all or cleansing too much can both have negative consequences. Let's discuss how to find the right balance that keeps us healthy and glowing from the inside out.

The Biological Necessity of Hygiene Practices

We are all familiar with the satisfying feeling of scrubbing away all the dirt, sweat and grease that has accumulated on our skin and hair, but do you ever wonder why the urge to feel clean is so strong? It's not just personal preference, it's coded into our DNA. Billions of years of evolution have favored the passing on of genes from living organisms that followed certain hygiene practices which allowed them to outlive organisms that didn't. Although humans are the only species to use soap to clean ourselves, every living organism (single cell or multi cell) instinctively follows some type of parasite avoiding behavior or hygiene routine to protect itself from disease. A study published by the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology in 2007, discusses the natural history of hygiene and lists examples of hygiene practices of bacteria, tadpoles, lobsters, fish, ants, birds, monkeys, other mammals - you name it. If you're alive, you want to stay that way, so maintaining good hygiene to avoid disease is an essential part of life.

Back to Basics: What Exactly is Soap?

Chemically speaking, soap is a type of surfactant and is the end result of combining an alkaline substance with some type of oil or fat and heating it to induce a process called saponification. During saponification, the fats and oils are transformed into free fatty acids, which then bind with the alkaline substance to form what we refer to as soap. The type of alkaline substance used will determine whether the soap is solid or liquid. Traditionally, the alkaline substance was formed by mixing various plant ashes with water and the fats and oils were obtained from animals and plants.

Oils and fats are hydrophobic substances, meaning they are repelled by and won't mix with water. This is why water alone won't get the grease stain out of your new shirt or clean the oils from greasy hair. Soap works due to its ability to suspend oil molecules in water, allowing the oil to be removed from a surface. It can do this because soap molecules contain hydrophobic "heads" and hydrophilic (attracted to water) "tails" making it able to attract both oil and water at the same time. The foaming from soap, which we generally associate with the cleaning properties of soap, actually occurs due to the way the "heads" and "tails" arrange themselves in an orderly pattern in the presence of air. When the soap is shaken or friction is introduced this arrangement is disturbed. As the molecules try to reorient themselves, pockets of air form that are coated by soap molecules and which we recognize as bubbles and suds.

The History of Soap: 2,800 B.C. - Today

When exactly did humans start using soap? A Roman legend claims that soap was named after Mount Sapo, where animal sacrifices were made. The animal fat and the wood ashes leftover from the sacrifices were thought to have been washed down the mountain by rainfall into a nearby river where local women washed laundry. They would apparently notice that the clothes would come out cleaner in that part of the river near the mountain and thus a natural soap was discovered. Unfortunately, no evidence of this was ever found, but it was likely that soap was invented from some sort of accidental discovery of the mixture of ash, water, and animal fats whether from cooking or sacrificial offerings.

Ancient Evidence

The first actual evidence of humans using soap comes from inscriptions of soap recipes on stone tablets written by ancient Sumerians who ruled Mesopotamia around 2,800 B.C. They used wood ash, animal fats and water to create their soaps - which at first were mainly used for washing wool and by priests for cleansing rituals. According to the Ebers papyrus written around 1,500 B.C., the ancient Egyptians were using soaps for medicinal purposes as well as general hygiene. Around 77 A.D., an ancient Roman called Pliny authored a booked titled Historia Naturalis in which he discusses how soap was used mainly by Germanic people and was made from tallow and ashes. Romans at the time preferred to clean themselves with the use of essential oils, sand for exfoliation, and a tool called a strigil to scrape off dirt and grime. It appears that it wasn't until around 200 A.D. that soap was regularly used by the Romans - which was when Galen, a famous Greek physician, wrote that soap was great for cleaning clothes and the body and the best ones were apparently of Germanic origin.

After the Roman Empire

After the fall of the Roman empire, around the 5th century, there was a decline in the use of soap. It was rejected by European Catholic churches because they associated soap and bathing with the pagan ways of the Roman empire. By the 8th century, soap making was popular and well-known again in Italy - particularly under Charlemagne's reign, who always made sure that his stewards kept a tally of soap in his royal estates. In the Middle East, the use of soap had remained steady since the fall of the Roman empire and their soaps - such as the popular Syrian Aleppo soap - also became very coveted by Europeans for the "exotic" ingredients. An Islamic document written in the 12th century also mentioned the important ingredient "al-qaly" which is the origin of word alkali or alkaline in today's soap-making terms.

The Industrial Revolution

Even during the industrial revolution in the 18th century, soap was still pretty expensive and made in smaller quantities due to the need for animal fats and plant oils and exotic extracts as ingredients. It wasn't until the British fought in the Crimean war in the 19th century that a larger scale, mass-produced soap was called for because their soldiers suffered many losses due to widespread disease from poor hygienic conditions. Future armies were instructed to use soap more frequently to avoid disease and when the soldier returned home, their families also picked up these hygienic habits. By the 20th century, soap finally became a commercial product and was widely advertised and sold by the company P&G. P&G is still a major soap manufacturer today and is responsible for why TV dramas are referred to as "soap operas" since they were often sponsored by P&G.

Modern Soap Science

Today's modern soaps no longer require the use of plant ashes, but potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide are used as the alkaline substances instead and are actually manufactured from salt. The first person to discover this process this was Nicolas Leblanc in 1790. Shortly after, another chemist, Eugene-Michel Chevreul, was researching the chemical properties of fats and found that a substance called glycerin is formed as a by-product during the saponification process. Glycerin coats the skin and is a humectant, meaning it attracts moisture to it, so it can have a moisturizing affect on the skin. Today, many soap manufactures will purposely remove the glycerin from their soaps, making them more drying, and then use them in their lotions that they market to their soap consumers. After the glycerin is removed, the plain soaps are then mixed with fragrances, dyes, and other additives to create the final products that you find in stores.

Many of today's cleansers aren't even "soaps" in the traditional and scientific definition. Artificial detergents are being created from processes that don't include the saponification of fats and alkalies, and are then incorporated into skin care products being sold and labeled as "body washes", "shower gels", and "cleansing bars" because they are not true soaps. Detergents can be derived from either petroleum-based hydrocarbons (a small fraction of the full fatty acid required for true soap) or fat and oil-based hydrocarbons. These hydrocarbons are reacted with chemicals such as sulfur trioxide, sulfuric acid, or ethylene oxide, to create a completely synthetic acid. This acid is then reacted with either ethylene oxide, or potassium or sodium hydroxide to create the artificial detergent.

These processes do not produce glycerin, so they are very drying to the skin. Also, if the hydrocarbon used at the very beginning of the process came from coconut oil, for example, then a company will often list the detergent's chemical name in the ingredients list followed by "derived from coconut", even though none of those properties remain and coconut oil was never an ingredient to begin with, only a chemically-extracted hydrocarbon from the coconut oil. This often misleads consumers into thinking that they are using a natural product, when it is in-fact synthetic.

Here are some examples of ingredients you might find in true soaps:

  • Saponified oils of olive (or other oils)

  • Olive oil, palm oil, (or other oils) with sodium or potassium hydroxide also listed

  • Sodium or potassium palmate

  • Palm kernelate

  • Olivate

  • Cocoate

  • Etc.

Here are some examples of ingredients you might find in detergents:

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate

  • Lauramide DEA

  • Cocoamido propyl betaine

  • Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate

  • Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate

  • Etc.

Harmful Chemicals in Today's Cleansers

Although detergents are synthetic and are generally more drying and irritating to the skin than naturally made soaps, they both are often combined with chemical-laden preservatives, fragrances, and dyes to create products that are more "appealing" to consumers. I already discussed the harmful effects of fragrances in my previous post and I will be discussing artificial dyes and preservatives in upcoming posts. Right now, my intention is to explain the harmful health effects of some of today's manufactured detergents. In another of my previous articles, on toxic beauty products, the following three detergents were listed as part of the David Suzuki Foundation's top 12 "Dirty Dozen" ingredients to avoid when reading skin care ingredient labels: sodium lauryl sulfate, DEA, and triclosan.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate/Sodium Laureth Sulfate

This detergent is petroleum-based and is often contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane. Ethylene oxide is a known cancer-causing agent and can also harm development and the nervous system. 1, 4 dioxane is a possible carcinogen and both chemicals are environmental hazards as they do not degrade easily and accumulate in the environment. Sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate is also a known skin irritant and is often used in animal testing to purposefully cause irritation on the skin of the animal subjects to then see if the skin products they are testing heal the irritation.

DEA, Cocomide DEA, Lauramide DEA

Diethanolamine (DEA) and any of its derivatives have been shown to cause skin irritation, precancerous changes in skin and in the thyroid, and liver cancer in laboratory experiments. DEA is also known to react with the nitrates that are often used as preservatives in cosmetic products. The reaction creates nitrosamines, which are classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. DEA is also similar to monoethanolamide (MEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), which can both react with nitrates to form harmful nitrosamines. Make sure to avoid buying products with DEA, MEA, and TEA listed in the ingredients.


This is an ingredient that has been widely used in soaps and cleansers marketed as "antibacterial" or "antiseptic". Studies conducted on triclosan show evidence of hormone and thyroid disruption in animals, as well as decreased muscle and skeletal function. In 2008, a study published showing that 75% of 2,517 people tested positive for triclosan in their urine samples. A different study in 2008 found that triclosan does exhibit effects on the activity of estrogen and testosterone in human breast tissue cells, meaning it could potentially play a role in hormonal disruption in humans leading to breast cancer.

In 2016, the FDA actually announced that soaps and cleansers containing this ingredient can no longer be marketed over-the-counter to consumers as having antibacterial properties due to insufficient evidence proving this and also due to a lack of studies proving the safety of this ingredient for long-term daily use. However, triclosan can still be found in products in wipes, hand sanitizers, and products used in medical settings, so it's still important to keep an eye for triclosan in the ingredients list.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Putting aside the differences between soaps and detergents, and whether or not they are synthetic or natural, they both have actions (unrelated to toxic chemicals) that can contribute to poor skin health, aggravate skin conditions, and even make us develop wrinkles faster. What makes them so good at cleaning is that they strip the dirt, oils, and bacteria from our skin - but that is also the problem. They strip our body's natural oils, dry out our skin, alter our skin's pH, and harm the beneficial bacteria on our skin. This leaves us needing a plethora of other products to fix the imbalances that the soaps and detergents have caused in the first place.

Understanding the Skin Barrier

To understand how cleansers damage our skin, we have to understand how our skin barrier works in the first place. The outer-most layer of the skin is called the stratum corneum and is actually made up of dead skin cells. These dead skin cells (called corneocytes) are full of keratin molecules, which like to bind to water to keep the skin moist. The corneocytes are held in place and surrounded by our bodies' natural oils. The combination of the corneocytes and the oils create a protective barrier against the environment and also prevent the water evaporating from our deeper body tissues. This protective barrier is pH sensitive and holds together best at a certain pH range, usually around 5.5 because the skin prefers an acidic environment. This acidic environment, in turn, is a favorable environment for beneficial skin bacteria that can improve our immunity, lower inflammation, and improve body odor.

Skin, pH, and Bacteria

Let's walk though what happens when we shower with soaps and detergents. If you shower with super hot water, then you are already at risk of drying out your skin with the heat and damaging the temperature-sensitive healthy bacteria on your skin. When you use a foaming cleanser, you raise the pH of your skin and completely wash off all good and bad bacteria. The typical pH of cleansers range from 9-10, so they are very basic, but your skin prefers an acidic pH around 5.5. Already, this is weakening the strength of your skin barrier, but also the low pH encourages the growth of bad bacteria. For example, the strain of bacteria known to cause acne (propionibacterium acnes), thrives in a high pH environment, so using soaps could be contributing to or even worsening your acne. Not only have you just washed off all the good bacteria, but now you might even develop body odor faster because bad bacteria are typically the odor-causing ones and they are thriving on your high pH skin environment and there is no good bacteria to crowd them out or prevent them from over-reproducing. Numerous studies such as this one, are in agreement that there is a strong correlation between pH and good skin bacteria playing a large role in maintaining healthy skin.

We Need Our Natural Oils

By using a foaming cleanser, you have also damaged the protective layer of the skin by removing too much of your body's natural oils, which is what hold your skin cells in the proper arrangement to create an effective barrier. Imagine a brick building where the bricks are your skin cells and the mortar in between the bricks are your body's natural oils. Now imagine the mortar crumbling away due to wear and tear and the bricks becoming uneven. That is how cleansers are affecting your skin barrier when too much of your natural oils are being stripped away. When there are cracks and openings in the skin barrier, then you lose moisture more easily, you are more prone to skin irritations and infections, and you will likely develop fine lines and wrinkles sooner because your skin is having trouble staying hydrated.

Lotion Is Not the Answer

You might be thinking, "Doesn't putting on lotion afterwards fix all those moisture and skin barrier problems?" My thought process is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" or "less is more" depending on the day. Our bodies are producing what we need for our skin to work as it should, so why take so many steps and so many products to ruin it and then put a band-aid on it every day? It's extra time, energy, and resources that are being wasted. Would you take the time to cook a healthy and delicious meal, throw it in the trash, and then order pizza instead? Probably not.

Let's work with our bodies and not against them and use non-foaming soap-alternatives that keep us feeling fresh and clean, but that don't strip away our natural oils, alter our skin pH, or damage our skin. Not to mention, most lotions and moisturizing products on the market today are filled with toxic ingredients. Let's stay away from those and encourage our body to moisturize itself the way it already knows how. You'll be amazed at how much money you can save from using less products and how much better your skin will look and feel when you support it instead of fight it

Finding the Right Balance For You

You might be thinking, "What was the point of explaining the difference between soaps and detergents and all that chemistry if they both can be harmful to my skin and my overall health anyway?" I felt the need to explain that science because in order to make properly informed decisions about our skin care and health, we need to know all the facts about all our options in the skin care market. In the same way that people research the credentials of their physicians, read the ingredients in their food products, and read the fine print before signing any contracts, the same consideration should be put into what products we are putting on bodies. Once you know all the and options available to you, then you can make the right decision for your needs at that time, which is not the right decision for another person. Finding the right balance is unique to every individual.

From my experiences, I have learned that everyone is at different point along the skin care products spectrum, ranging from "hippie health nut" to the "corporate Sephora junkie" and everywhere in between. Every day I seem to inch a little close to the "hippie health nut" extreme, but I know that doesn't work for everyone. My goal is to educate and hopefully influence you to take even just one small step towards changing your skin care routine for the better - because a small change towards a healthier lifestyle is better than no change at all. Below are a variety of actions you can take depending on where you are on that spectrum right now.

Switch Up Your Routine

So maybe you are not ready to give up or change any of the products you are using right now. Here are some simple suggestions for altering your skin care routine to minimize the effects from the products you are using:

  • Shower less often (depending on your activity/exercise levels) or take "sink showers" to focus on privates in between full-body showers.

  • Use warm or cold water instead of scalding hot showers.

  • Use less soap in the shower and don't lather it up as much.

  • Take shorter showers - try to limit it to 2-5 minutes.

  • Stay hydrated and eat healthy fats to keep your skin moisturized from the inside-out.

Use Less Toxic Soaps

If you are not ready to give up soap, here are some great options for natural soaps, which have not had the naturally occurring glycerin removed, and some gentle cleaners that have been scientifically proven to not disturb your skins beneficial bacteria and even help replenish it:

  • Black African Soap is a true soap that is made traditionally using the ashes of banana leaves or coconut husks to saponify with palm oil and shea butter. Try making your own or purchasing from a fair trade source.

  • Make your own soap using more modern alkalies such as sodium or potassium hydroxide

  • Buy natural soaps at local farmers markets where you can get to know the person that makes the soaps and ask them about their processes and ingredients.

  • Motherdirt is company that sells gentle cleansers that don't disrupt your skin bacteria and they also sell a probiotic skin spray to help replenish any lost bacteria.

  • Natural soaps still change your skin's pH levels, so adding some raw organic apple cider vinegar (ACV) to a weekly bath can help re-balance your skin's pH. You can also dilute some ACV in water in a spritzer bottle and use it as a face toner or to help soothe sunburns too!

Soap Alternatives*

What if I told you that you don't need soap to wash yourself and you can still smell clean and fresh without stripping all the things that keep your skin healthy? If you're ready to take the plunge and try eliminating soap from your skin care routine, here are some options for you:

  • Try washing yourself as you normally would, but with a non-foaming clay-based product instead, such as the ones from Morrocco Method Int. or Terressentials. I use these clay washes as an all-in-one for my hair, face, and body.

  • Try making your own clay wash.

  • Try the oil cleansing method, where you actually massage oil onto your wet face to clean it - based on the idea that "like dissolves like" in chemistry. My Revitalizing Face and Body Oil would be perfect for this.

  • Wash your face with cleansing grains. Usually made of ground oats, herbal powders and clays, just mix a little bit with water to create a paste and massage onto your face to gently exfoliate and rinse off with water. Try making your own. They can also be left to dry on your face for 10-15 minutes for a gentle face mask.

  • Just wash with water only. Some people swear by this and that all they need is the friction from washing with water to clean themselves well.

*Although I no longer use soap on my face and body while showering, I do still make sure to wash my hands with a natural, non-toxic soap (such as Dr. Bronner's Castille Soap) after using the bathroom, and before and after handling food. Thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water is hands-down the best way to help prevent the spread of germs and disease (even better than hand sanitizer which can also contain harmful ingredients!).


Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or medical professional. This post is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical conditions or diseases. If you or a loved one are suffering from any symptoms or illness, please seek proper diagnosis and treatment with a physician.


Marisol SalomonComment