Body Wash vs. Bar Soap: Which Is Better for You?

Standing in the drugstore beauty aisle can seem overwhelming any time of year, much less when attempting to combat the rough, dry skin that comes with winter’s winds and chills.

Many of us reach to body washes over traditional bar soaps for their convenience, creamy feel, and promise of extra moisture.

However, ounce for ounce, body washes are more expensive than bar soaps.

Which leaves us asking: Do body washes really deliver more benefits to your skin or are they just extra money swirling down the drain?

Why We Started Asking for More Moisture

Tried and true soap has been around forever—practically synonymous with the word ‘clean,’ it certainly does the job.

Since soap’s always been perfectly good at getting rid of surface oil and dirt quickly and efficiently, why did we start asking for more?

Older soaps were formulated with harsher surfactants (the detergent stuff in soap), which would strip away the naturally occurring oils that are necessary for healthy skin. They often left you feeling tight, ashy, and begging for lotion post-shower or bath.

Options for getting squeaky clean changed in 1980 when Minnetonka Corporation introduced Softsoap to American consumers.

Softsoap—and all the body washes that followed—promised a more gentle approach.

Formulated to cleanse your skin with liquid forms of SLS’s (the stuff that makes lots of suds and lather) instead of naturally-occurring sodium hydroxide, liquid soap removed dirt, grime, and oils more gently.

To top things off, glycerin and other moisturizing agents act as humectants, drawing moisture to the skin and leaving behind a silky-smooth film.

Is Body Wash the Best Way to Help Skin Stay Healthy?

Many body washes, such as Dial’s Moisturizing Body Wash, claim to be ‘lotion infused.’ Dial’s formula also claims to deliver an extra vitamin boost to your skin. But, what does having a vitamin and lotion infused body wash really mean for your skin’s health?

The cosmetic experts at The Beauty Brains take a scientific approach to answer the above by first explaining how lotion helps soothe dry skin.

The key ingredients in most lotions are fatty alcohols that make skin feel smooth, occlusive agents (like mineral oil, petrolatum or silicones) that coat the skin and seal in moisture, and moisturizing agents like glycerin or hyaluronic acid that attract moisture to the skin.

When examining the ingredients of Dial’s body wash, Beauty Brains writers didn’t see any fatty alcohol or occlusive agents.

However, they did see glycerin and Sodium PCA—both of which are found in moisturizers, but it’s a stretch to say that the wash is ‘infused’ with a soothing lotion.

Similar to claims of lotion-infusion, the promised vitamin boost came up short:

“When companies talk about a “complex” it often means they mixed a couple of ingredients together so they can talk about the ingredients that sound “sexy” (like vitamins in this case) but actually provide functionality with other ingredients. So I’m guessing that the “moisturizing vitamin complex” consists of glycerin, Sodium PCA, tocopheryl acetate (which is vitamin E), and Panthenol (which is pro-vitamin B5). There is data showing that Panthenol can moisturize skin and hair.”

So, while there are technically vitamins in Dial’s formula, they don’t appear to be beneficial additions so much as pre-existing ingredients simply remarketed to imply a new formula.

Dial’s carefully crafted persuasions aside, what if there was a body wash that infused the goodness of lotions—plus maybe some extra vitamins, to boot?

Turns out, it’s a moot point: Penetration is measured in milligrams per square centimeter per unit of time. That unit of time is frequently hours, not minutes and certainly not seconds. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that anything that is rinsed off the skin will have time to penetrate.

“These ingredients are only effective when left on skin, like when they’re applied from a lotion. Body wash is only on your skin for a few seconds and then it’s rinsed away which means these ingredients will do virtually nothing.”

Why Bar Soap Is Better for the Environment 

The consensus on the relative merits of bar soap versus body wash from an environmental perspective is that liquid soaps are the losers—a growing concern for many consumers who consider the ‘green-ness’ of a product when making purchasing decisions.

Why? To remain thick, perfumed and colored, a typical body wash must contain around 20 chemicals, some man-made, others derived from plants.

Add to the equation that during a typical shower, we use almost seven times more body wash (2.3 grams) than bar soap (0.35 grams), and you’ll see that all that extra body wash means more chemicals, more processing, and more carbon emissions.

The Bottom Line

Whether you choose a bar or body wash in a bottle, many cleansers have the same effect. These products remove dirt, bacteria, and—unfortunately—some or all of your natural body oils.

However, with the advent of more synthetic detergents, many bar soaps are more hydrating than they used to be. Not to mention that regular ol’ bar soap costs less and has less of an impact on the environment than body wash does. 

The difference in budget and environmental impact is enough to get some folks lathered up. The Huffington Post published a piece comparing the two cleansers that concluded:

“Not only is liquid soap a bad environmental bet, it's a bad bet for your family budget....At a time of peril for our environment and economic hardship for so many, perhaps we should all consider washing our hands of washing with liquid soap.”

Echoing a similar sentiment after challenging herself to a body wash-free household until all bars of soap were used up, the blogger at Planting Our Pennies concluded:

“Turns out a bar of Dove functions just as well as a bottle of Dove body wash. My hats are off to you, Body Wash Marketing Professionals, for a job well done oh these many years.

“In hindsight, it seems as though I’ve spent the better part of the last seventeen years paying a huge mark-up for water… and for plastic.”

But, what about that extra moisture? The scientists at The Beauty Brains conclude by saying that there’s no way a body wash can compare to lotion as the primary moisturizer for your skin; both because lotion is a leave-on product and its moisturizing ingredients aren’t sharing the spotlight with detergents.

Bottom line? For moisturized and healthy skin, save your dollars by buying a bar of soap and spend on some good lotion instead.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.