Smarter: Should You Use Bar Soap or Body Wash?

Body wash and bar soap on purple bubble background Photo Illustration: Chris Griggs/Consumer Reports, Getty Images

This week I have bar soaps, shower gels, and body washes facing off in a suds-filled arena to see which will emerge from the fray awash in victory. Also in this issue: Do spare tires expire, and which is better for your oral health, an electric or manual toothbrush?

THE BIG STORY

‘Not on My Wash’

When it comes to bath products, I’m an agnostic. I was raised with bar soaps, but I’ve also dabbled in body washes and experimented with shower gels every now and then. I have no firm preference for any of the three, which means whenever I’m shopping for a new bath product, I often end up in a state of analysis paralysis.

Should I go with bar soap, an old friend, or should I slather myself with shower gel or body wash for the next four weeks? Which is better for my skin, and which is more sustainable for the environment? I hem and haw. I pace around the bath products aisle for such a long time it’s probably irritating for any store clerk who has the misfortune to watch me.

Get Smarter

It’s unlikely that I’m the only person who has wondered about which bath product to use. So to get to the bottom of this question, I asked experts about the pros and cons of each.

What are the differences among the three?
A bar soap is a solid cleanser, while shower gel and body wash are liquid cleansers. If you have a hard time distinguishing between shower gel and body wash, here’s what to look for: Shower gel has a gel-like consistency, while body wash can be creamier, says Maiysha Jones, PhD, principal scientist in the North American Personal Care Division at Procter & Gamble, a consumer goods company that includes personal care and hygiene brands.

Which should you choose for your skin?
Let’s take the pressure off first: There is no right or wrong selection in using a bar soap, shower gel, or body wash. It comes down to personal preference and understanding which form is suitable for your skin type, says Sabrina Henry, principal scientist at Aveeno, which makes skin care products.

It’s also worth noting that specific products in each of the three categories can be formulated in different ways. That said, here are some generalities about each.

Moisturizing
Body washes tend to have more moisturizing ingredients, says Nicole Negbenebor, MD, a dermatology resident at Brown University. But if you just need to get clean or prefer a squeaky clean feeling after you shower, a traditional bar soap or shower gel can be what you need, says Jones.

Just remember that depending on how they are formulated, traditional bar soaps and shower gels can sometimes strip skin of its natural moisture compared with body washes, says Jones. You can, however, look for bar soaps that contain moisturizing ingredients.

pH Level
Traditional bar soaps can be more drying than body washes or shower gels because they are more alkaline than our skin, which is an important point of consideration for those with dry or sensitive skin. Body washes, on the other hand, generally have lower pH levels, which are better for more sensitive skin, says Negbenebor.

Because the pH of our skin is slightly acidic (4 to 5), soaps with pH 5.5 and thereabouts would be best, while anything above 6 would be harsh to the skin, says Yousuf Mohammed, PhD, a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute in Australia.

Irritants
For body washes and gels, you should watch out for allergens (such as high amounts of fragrances and certain preservatives) that can trigger eczema. Bar soaps tend to have less irritating preservatives in them, but if your skin is easily irritated, make sure to avoid soaps with a lot of fragrances or harsh dyes, says Negbenebor.

Which is more environmentally friendly?
From an environmental perspective, consumers can look for products packaged in recycled materials that they can recycle after use, says Jones.

Bar soap is the greenest option because it can be packaged with recyclable paper, says Eleanor Greene, editor-in-chief of Green American magazine, a publication from the nonprofit organization Green America, which promotes environmental sustainability.

Shower gels and body wash, on the other hand, can be less environmentally friendly because they typically come in plastic packaging, says Mitch Ratcliffe, publisher of recycling database and sustainability resource Earth911.com. However, if a gel or body wash brand offers a robust refill and recycling program, as some brands are doing now, it can reduce waste and environmental impact on the environment in the long run.

If you want to make more of an environmental difference, it’s perhaps more important to consider how long you’re spending in the shower. To save money and energy, you can take shorter showers and lower your water heater temperature to around 120º F, which reduces the need for electricity or gas to heat your shower water, says Ratcliffe.

You can also switch to a low-flow showerhead that uses less water—ideally, one that has a WaterSense label from the Environmental Protection Agency, which can save at least half a gallon of water per minute of showering, says Ratcliffe. And if you want your home to be more environmentally sustainable, here are 10 quick tips to make a greener home.

Personal Vote
As someone who has oilier skin and who doesn’t feel the need for extra skin hydration at the moment (though never say never), I might go back to bar soaps for the time being because anything that reduces plastic usage gets an extra point for me. Oh, and I guess I’ll be taking shorter showers from now on. It’s been real, long showers, but this is where you and I part ways.


RANDOM SHOWER THOUGHTS

When it comes to bath products, a lot of people have their personal favorites. Some may be soap devotees, while others are strict followers of the body wash faith. We asked our social media followers which product they like using in a shower the most. Here’s what you said.

Source: Consumer Reports

On both Twitter and Instagram, the majority of people voted for bar soap, while body wash followed in second and shower gel trailed in a more distant third.

And don’t think I missed the fact that there is a tiny but undeniable representation of people who said they only use water. On Twitter, it was 0.5 percent of our voters, but on Instagram, it was 2 percent. To each their own, I say. And I fully support your right to shower however you want, as long as you do bathe.


ZERO-SUN GAME

Here’s a look at the, dare I say it, unusual way CR tests how effective sunscreens are.

@consumerreports Sunscreen is a year-round product to use ☀️. We test them each year to help you make the best purchasing decision 😎. See ratings + reviews at cr.org/sunscreen #sunscreen #skincare #skintok ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

QUIZ

Which kind of container do you think gets recycled the most in the U.S.?

A. Plastic bottles
B. Aluminum cans
C. Glass bottles

(Answer is at the end.)


THIS VS. THAT

Which is better for cleaning your teeth, an electric toothbrush or a manual toothbrush?

🦷 Here’s the verdict: Electric toothbrushes have the edge over manual toothbrushes when it comes to cleaning away plaque and reducing gingivitis, a common form of gum disease, according to clinical research.

🗑️Does this mean I should throw away my manual toothbrush? Not necessarily. There’s no need to switch if you’re getting good checkups and your dentist believes you’re doing a thorough job brushing your teeth with a manual toothbrush.

👄How often should I brush my teeth? Twice a day and a full 2 minutes each time, which is longer than you might think, because most people (me) only brush their teeth for around 45 seconds on average.


ASKING FOR A FRIEND’S CAR

Do spare tires ever expire? 

@consumerreports Pro tip: check the air in your spare the same time you check your other tires. See tire ratings and reviews at cr.org/tires. #carstok #carsoftiktok #tires ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

THE SHORT ANSWER

Can you delete 100,000 emails from your Gmail account in two days? Unbelievably, yes.


QUIZ ANSWER

The answer is B, aluminum cans. Fifty percent of aluminum cans in the U.S. are recycled, higher than the recycling rates of glass bottles (40 percent) and plastic bottles (29 percent).

What happens to beverage containers graphic

♻️Here’s a small recycling tip: Don’t crush your cans! Up to 25 percent of aluminum cans that make it to recycling centers are missorted—in part because they’re crushed so thin they mistakenly end up in the paper collections.


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Headshot of CR Author Pang-Chieh (BJ) Ho

Pang-Chieh Ho

I'm a newsletter writer who likes looking into the different ways we can live smarter. The topics I cover typically explore unanswered questions we have about the products we use every day and bridge the gaps between what owners' manuals advise and what we actually do. In my spare time, I like to take photos, critique movies out loud while I watch (at home!), and take care of my ever-increasing plant "children."