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Soap Is Overrated

Tim Schmidt, MD, PhD, FAAD

October 20, 2020

Do you really need to use so much soap? Did you know that soap could be harming your skin?

I often see patients who suffer from chronic itch and dry skin. These symptoms are often due to one of the most common skin diseases in dermatology: irritant contact dermatitis. Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when the skin becomes – you guessed it – irritated. And the most common cause of skin irritation is soap.

I make this diagnosis every day. I am constantly frustrated that the Big Personal Product Industry has made a killing by convincing everyday Americans that their skin needs MORE cleaning, MORE products, and MORE soap. They create problems only to pitch more products (e.g. moisturizers) to solve the problems their other products have created.

Our skin has evolved over millions of years to be best cleansed by the most natural of all cleansers: water. It has not evolved to withstand daily abuse at the hands of powerful soap chemicals.

Soaps use chemicals called surfactants to remove oils and other substances from surfaces. However, our skin works hard to make oil to protect itself from the outside world. When we use too much soap, those protective oils are stripped away, leaving our largest (and most important) immune organ compromised.

Soap causes microscopic cracks in our skin’s barrier, allowing other chemicals, allergens, and bacteria to get deep into the skin. This can lead to problems beyond irritation, such as skin allergy and infections.

The most common site at which I see irritant contact dermatitis is the hands. Hands take a beating. Of course, hand washing is important, especially during a pandemic, when you come back home from an excursion. However, the most common issue I detect is people washing dishes without dish gloves. Dish washing soap is super powerful and thus super capable of damaging skin. Get a good, thick, reusable pair of dish gloves and USE THEM!

But wait, you say, isn’t soap necessary for modern hygiene? What about soaping up in the shower? I’m not going to tell you to not use soap in the shower – though I do think even that may be unnecessary. However, only use soap WHERE YOU NEED IT. Use it where you get waxy or stinky. For me, those areas are ears, armpits, groin, buttocks, and feet. I do NOT use soap on my face, back, chest, arms, or legs. If you need to remove makeup, consider using an ultra-gentle cleanser or micellar water rather than soap.

Does this sound heretical? Take the soap-is-overrated challenge and try just using soap where you need it for a week. I think you’ll find – as my patients have – that your skin will be healthier and happier for it.

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