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Solid bar cleanser or liquid face wash - which is better?

Is a Solution for:
Dull Skin, Oily Skin
Reviewed by Copley September 12, 2011 12 Comments
Even though the variety of face cleansers seems to go on forever in the cosmetics universe, they all share the same intrinsic function. The purpose of a cleanser is to emulsify oil, residue, and microorganisms on the skin’s surface so that they can be easily eliminated. No matter if a face cleanser is constructed as a solid bar or formulated as a liquid, all cleansers are essentially surface-active substances that lower the surface tension of skin and remove dirt, sebum, bacteria, and exfoliated cells in an emulsified form. If their basic DNA is roughly the same, then what sets cleansers apart and makes one type better than the other?

Years ago, Cetaphil was recommended to me by a dermatologist to rein in my rebellious adolescent skin. I used to experiment with all the different kinds of Cetaphil cleansers that the drugstore carried. The liquid gel cleanser left a film on my skin and the creamy cleanser for sensitive skin felt too heavy any time of year except winter. The only variety that seemed to agree with my skin consistently was the cleansing bar. It has tamed red patches, wiped out dry flakes, and mitigated breakouts. To this day, I still bring a travel-size Cetaphil bar with me on trips to serve as back-up if my skin exhibits early signs of going haywire. Based on this (albeit limited) experience, I wondered why liquid face washes are more prevalent than bars and which one delivers a superior cleansing for skin.

Those are the questions I cogitated as I browsed the product line of Pomega5. Instead of seeing the usual suspects of cream, foam, gel, or scrub cleansers, I found three basic “beauty bars” specifically formulated for balancing, clarifying, and moisturizing skin. I chose Pomega5’s Bulgarian Rose Moisturizing Beauty Bar, targeted for dry, mature, and sensitive skin, to see if it would brighten up my increasingly dull complexion and soothe some areas of inflammation. I pushed aside my regular line-up of liquid cleansers, which included L’uvalla Hydrating Milk Cleanser, SenZen Age Away Cleanser, and Mango Madness Exfoliate Me, and I adopted a new regimen that alternated between the Bulgarian Rose Beauty Bar (in the AM) and the Aqua Glycolic Toner (in the PM).

I stuck with this revised regimen for the past month. Like a recent TIA reader-reviewer, I was impressed with the effects of Pomega5’s Beauty Bar on my skin. Within minutes of washing my face, I usually reach for my face moisturizer by force of habit, presumably thanks to a long history of sub-par cleansers. With the Bulgarian Rose Beauty Bar, my skin didn’t immediately beg for a drink and my face didn’t develop flakes hours later. Though my skin felt moisturized, there was no sense of a residual heavy layer that I sometimes get following creamy cleansers. Instead, my skin looked calm, smooth, mattified, and balanced.

“Balanced” is a term that tends to be tossed around a lot when dealing with cleansers. What this term refers to is the pH system. On the acidity-measuring scale of 0 to 14, skin usually has a pH between 4.5 and 6.5. Water by itself removes about 65% of oil and dirt from the skin, but the remainder - mostly made up of cosmetic oils and environmental pollutants - requires the intervention of a cleanser. During cleansing, there is a complex interaction between the cleanser, the skin’s moisture barrier, and the skin’s natural pH. The ideal cleanser is designed to have a specific pH that is close to that of the skin so that it doesn’t irritate or disrupt the skin’s moisture barrier, which protects against transepidermal water loss, chemical insult, and penetration of foreign organisms.

Traditional soap is often alkaline, meaning it has a higher pH than skin (around 9 to 11). Creating an alkaline environment on the skin removes its natural acid protection and extracts protective lipids, thus leaving the skin more vulnerable to irritation and infection. When the skin has an elevated surface pH level and its moisture barrier is compromised, skin conditions like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis can arise. According to a 2006 German study, the skin barrier repair process proceeds more slowly at neutral pH (7.2) than at physiological pH (5.5). And when cells don’t regenerate properly, signs of aging set in.

If you’ve ever stayed at a hotel and didn’t bring your own toiletries, then you know what lathering up with a cheap bar of soap feels like. The words harsh, dry, and thirsty spring to mind. You might smell better afterward, but your skin instantly screams for a drop of moisture. The effect is dramatically different from washing your body with a shower gel, which usually conditions your skin while it cleanses. As the simplest anionic surfactant, soap forms salts in water that emulsify whatever is on the skin surface while increasing the pH of the skin. Soap salts also provoke stratum corneum swelling and loss of natural humectants.

To alleviate the drying effects that result from this process, soaps (such as Dove) are often enriched with glycerin, lanolin, or natural oils. As its commercials advertise, Dove’s Beauty Bar incorporates 1/4 pure moisturizing cream so that it doesn’t strip skin of its natural moisture like regular soaps. Just because a cleansing product is packaged as a bar does not necessarily mean that its ingredients will leave your skin parched and uncomfortable like hotel soap.

Liquid face cleansers are generally gentler than soaps due to their acidic pH. Unlike soaps, which are by definition the alkali salt of fatty acids, liquid detergents vary in composition and surfactant type (i.e. anionic, silicone, amphoteric, cationic, non-ionic), as well as pH. The least irritating liquid cleansers contain a non-ionic or silicone-based surfactant combined with moisturizers (emollients and humectants), to cause the least disruption to the skin’s moisture barrier and normal skin flora. It sounds like liquid cleansers are the clear winner, but there’s more to consider.

Liquid cleansers supply a more inviting environment for icky additives that would make sensitive skin crawl. Because most liquid cleansers are water-based, they generally require more microbe-blasting preservatives more than a solid bar might. As a result, you’re more likely to find commonplace chemicals like parabens, phenoxyethanol, BHT, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and tetrasodium EDTA in a liquid formula. Take, for example, Cetaphil’s Gentle Skin Cleanser (liquid) vs. Gentle Cleansing Bar. While the liquid cleanser is laden with the surfactant sodium lauryl sulfate, the petroleum derivative propylene glycol, and three paraben preservatives, none of these baddies rear their ugly heads in the bar formula.

Liquid facial cleansers are often more complex, employing a combination of surfactants, moisturizers, binders, and preservatives which form a product that will agree with the skin. There is also more room for fragrances (to mask the odor of the surfactants), fillers, and dyes in a liquid formulation. Based on the generalized pH trend within soaps vs. liquid washes, the skin seems to fare better with liquid options. But based on the particulars within the formula, sometimes soap bars prevail.

A third category has been omitted from this cleanser face-off: the “beauty bar” or dermatological bar/cake. There is an important distinction between standard soaps (which are composed of anionic surfactants, raise the pH of skin, and typically irritate/dry), as opposed to beauty bars and dermatologic cakes  (which are composed of a variety of surfactants, don’t necessarily raise the pH of skin, and contain emollients to reduce dryness). It is within this latter realm that Pomega5’s Beauty Bars reside. The Bulgarian Rose Beauty Bar’s blend of olive oil, pomegranate seed oil, essential oils, and plant extracts are safe enough to leave on the skin without rinsing off (which cannot be said for most liquid cleansers). Other non-soap cleansers, formulated to be far gentler on the skin than standard soap, include the Basis Sensitive Skin Bar and the Theraneem Organix Cleansing Bar.

These solid beauty bars contain undiluted active ingredients that offer cosmetic benefits (clarifying, hydrating, balancing) beyond clearing the skin of bacteria. Whereas traditional bar soap strips the skin of its natural oils and disrupts the acid mantle, dermatological cleansing bars can have the opposite effects, preventing instead of causing breakouts and premature aging. Alas, there is a happy medium between soap bars and liquid cleansers that is nonalkaline and non-drying. I like to think of it as a promising compromise in the clash between face cleansers.

Ingredients in Pomega5 Bulgarian Rose Beauty Bar:
Olea Europaea (Olive) Oil, Punica Granatum (Pomegranate) Seed Oil, Prosopis Cineraria Bark, Citrus Aurantium Bergamia (Bergamot) Fruit Oil, Eucalyptus Globulus (Eucalyptus) Leaf Oil, Myrtus Communis (Myrtle) Oil, Commiphora Myrrha (Myrrh) Oil, Cymbopogon Citratus (Lemongrass) Leaf Oil, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil, Aniba Rosaeodora (Rosewood) Wood Oil, Vanilla Planifolia (Vanilla) Fruit Oil, Trifolium Pratense (Red Clover) Flowers.
  • September 13, 2014

    by Marta

    Hi Lisa, Nutra-Lift does a cleanser for acne prone skin that is organic:

  • September 13, 2014

    by Liza

    can you recommend organic soap/regimen for acne prone skin. Thanks!

  • August 8, 2013

    by tiffany

    I love your website! I have a skin care line myself and so I always refer to your website when I'm doing research. I had a question about the Pomega 5 beauty bar. I am not understanding the ingredients. You have to have something like sodium hydroxide to make the bar hold it's form. The ingredients only list oils. Is this the full list of ingredients? Thanks so much!

  • September 16, 2011

    by mrsfitz

    Thanks for the interesting post and lively discussion. I have rosacea and had been using a Mario Bedescu cleanser. After discovering this web site I tried the Hydropeptide cleanser that Marta recommends, which has the bonus of acting as a toner as well. I am very satisfied and would recommend it for those who don't want to use a bar or are sensitive to oils(as I am).

    Vintage Pearl....I have discovered a glycolic acid toner by Reviva at my health food store and had great results with some sun damage on my arms. You may want to check them out on the web (plus their products are extremely reasonably priced!).

  • September 16, 2011

    by Julie Kay

    Timmy- I think if it works for you, and you like the results- use it! For a long time I used (and still do, just not everyday on a dedicated basis) Burt's Bees orange essense facial cleanser which is basically orange (and other) oil. I'd apply it to my face, neck, arms, chest and let it sit while I washed my hair then rinse it off. I soon discovered I adored an oil based cleanser! That's my input. ~jk

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