Image of girl in shower illustrating an article on not using soap to wash

It may come as a surprise to find an article about something as commonplace as soap in our drug-free lifestyle series but if you read the advertising materiel for many skin-cleansing products, they make as many therapeutic claims as most licenced medications, and like medications, soap has side effects.  Most commercially available products including body-wash, shampoo and shower-gel work in the same way as soap and so should be considered to be the same.


We buy soap to remove our natural skin oils, then moisturisers to put them back!  Read on to reduce soap use and enahance your skin health naturally.



So, what is soap, and how does it clean?

Soap is designed to remove oily substances.  Oil and water do not normally mix because in order to dissolve in water a molecule needs to carry a small electric charge.  Oils are neutral and so form globules on the surface of water, rather than mixing with it.  Soap molecules consist of two parts - a charged 'head' which can dissolve in water and a non-charged 'tail' which can dissolve in fat.  The tails stick into oil globules with the heads on the outside, creating small spheres which can be suspended in water. has a great article on how soap works if you would like to know more.

First made in about 2800 BC, soap is manufactured by combining an alkaline substance and fat which creates the necessary molecules.  Generally the alkali used is Sodium Hydroxide which was isolated from Lye (a mix of water and ashes) and is today known as caustic soda.  Baking soda (sodium carbonate) exerts its cleaning action in much the same way, converting oils into soap and then allowing the soap created to clean off more oil.  You can feel a little of this yourself - just dissolve a small amount of baking soda in water and dip your fingers in it - your fingers will feel slippery (far more so than if dipped in plain water) as the baking soda converts your sskin oils into soap.  Further reading about soap manufacture can be found on wikipedia.

Detergents are soaps that are made by synthetic processes - they were first developed in World War Two when natural fats were scarce and have a slightly more complex chemical structure.  Soaps combine readily with the dissolved minerals in hard water, forming an insoluble scum.  Detergents also combine with minerals but generally remain soluble so do not form scum - this is why most laundry products consist of detergents.  From the point of view of how they work, however there is no difference.  Quora has a scholarly discussion about the lack of significant difference beween soap and detergent.

Common detergents found in skincare products include Sodium Laureth Sulphate, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (popular as they make a very satisfying lather and present in almost all major branded products), Cocamidopropyl Betaine and Glucosides (eg: Decyl Glucoside) There have been health concerns raised about Sodium Laureth Sulphate as although the product itself does not combine with DNA and is considered safe, it is made with ethylene oxide (also used for sterilising surgical instruments) and some traces of potentially carcinogeninc compounds may be present as a result of the manufacturing process.  The risk is, however, considered to be very low.


What is good about Soap?

Soap is very good at what it does - removing oily residue from the skin.  It is very difficult to remove motor oil or any greasy residue from the skin without soap of some kind.  You can of course use baking soda, but that is just soap, really - you are  making it on your own skin.

Soap also dislodges bacteria from the skin and good hand-washing with soap is a great way to prevent transmission of infection.  Removing harmful bacteria from the hands before cooking, eating and after examining patients are good ways to ensure that infection is not so readily transferred from person to person.

Without soap it is very ddifficult to remove stains from clothing, to clean skin oils off the bath and believe it or not, most grease used on your car contains some soap.


What's not to love about it?

Funnliy enough, it is exactly the good properties of soap that are also it's Achilles' heel. image of soap bublles illustrating article on avoiding soap when washing

Skin oils:  Your skin secretes oils from sebaceous glands.  This oil is designed to keep your skin healthy - it moisturises and preserves the skin and helps to resist undesired water penetration.  This 'barrier function of the skin' is absolutely critical to the function of your body's largest organ (yes, the skin is considered an organ)

Bacteria:  Your body is covered in bacteria and it is supposed to be.  Most of these are known as 'skin commensals' meaning they live there all the time and never cause problems in healthy individuals.  They may even be beneficial, consuming reisdue that would otherwise feed pathogenic (harmful) bacteria.  A fascinating project looking at the bacteria to be found in the navel (belly button) of volunteers has found over a thousand bacteria and yeasts living naturally and harmlessly on our skin.  Check out the belly button project for more details and pictures of the cultures obtained.  Contrary to advertising (especially for antibacterial products) these bacteria do not need to be removed and doing so may actually be harmful.

Eczema:  Those who suffer from eczema almost always find their skin improves when they stop using soap.  This is certainly because the damage to the surface oils ceases and may be related to the preservation of a more natural bacterial population.

Dandruff:  Although dandruff is actually caused by a fungus infecting the scalp, it is soap that lets it get a hold.  Shampoo residue left on the scalp after imperfect hair rinsing irritates the skin and causes inflammation which allows the fungal infection to get a hold.  This is in part aided by scratching - irritated skin is itchy, scratching makes it inflamed and can introduce pathogens under the skin.

Allergies:  Some people are more sensitive to chemicals than others and a few get really bad reactions to soaps.  Generally this is not a problem for the majority of people.


What about Odour?

We have all at times shared space with someone who's attention to personal hygiene is perhaps not what it should be and no-one wants to be a smelly social pariah.  It is in part this concern that leads us to use so much soap in our daily lives.

When you look at the evidence though, soap does not really help prevent odour.  Most body odour is caused by:

  • Underarm sweating
  • Smoking
  • Foods (raw garlic, spices)
  • Unwashed clothing
  • Clothing that has been dried improperly
  • Hair

Very little of this can be removed by soap on the skin and none of it needs soap to remove. 

It is quite possible not to smell at all without the use of any soap on your body and in fact, soap can make the problem worse.

Top Tips for Soap and Odour-Free Living

Finally, we come to the useful part of the article - how to live without soap on your skin and yet not smell like a goat.

1.  Stop Smoking.

Smoking leads to a pervasive odour and a sour, unpleasant smell hanging around your body and clothing.  Non-smokers rarely smell bad.


2.  Use an anti-perspirant.

Anti-perspirants prevent or reduce sweating in the armpits and are the best way to prevent unpleasant odours - even if you wash with soap you still need these products.

Although chemical in nature, most anti-perspirants are well tolerated and seldom cause problems.  There are prescription-strength variants available for those with an excessive sweat problem.


3.  Shower or bathe daily.

Washing most days is a necessity.  Just use water - no soap, body-wash or other products.  A scourer/exfoliator can be a good way of removing odour from your armpits - residual odour needs more water.  Never put soap around your genitals or anal area.  These are very sensitive and soap will actually INCREASE odour, especially from female genitals as it increases discharge and harms natural bacteria in the vagina.


4.  Wash your clothes.

Most people who smell bad wash every day but wear dirty clothes.  The more you sweat, the more you need to change your clothing!

Laundry detergent rarely causes harm to your skin if you use it as directed.  Consider an extra rinse cycle if needed.  If you wish to be soap-free completely then you can get clothes clean with longer washes, preferably in hot water where the clothes will survive it.

There are a number of products on the market claiming to be as effective as soap, usually a ball or similar shaped item placed in with the clothing.  There is solid evidence that these are not effective and do not get clothes cleaner than water alone.  They are a waste of money and should be avoided.


5.  Dry your clothes properly.

image of clothes on a line explaining that drying clothes indoors leads to bad odours and condensation

Drying clothing indoors, even in winter is unwise.  This leads to slow drying and often encourages the growth of odour-forming bacteria such as Pseudomonas, which may also be pathogenic.  In addition, it does not save money as the water given off makes the air harder to heat, requiring greater heating expense and leads to condensation causing damage elsewhere.  Drying in front of the fire is a high fire-risk and considered very unsafe.  Often part of the clothing will remain damp which again causes odours.





6.  Separate your shoes and wear socks.

Shoes smell because of odour-forming bacteria in the shoes which pass from pair to pair on your feet.  Avoid putting dirty feet in clean shoes. Either wash your feet or at the very least change your socks before putting your feet in clean shoes.  Wash your socks every day.

The smelliest feet of all are found in shoes worn without socks as there is nothing to absorb sweat so try not to do this - the bare-foot look can be achieved with a very small sock over the sole of the foot.


7.  Watch your diet.

Regular consumption of aromatic spices such as are common in Indian cooking leads to a pervasive odour of the spices, both from the body and the clothing.  Garlic, especially consumed raw will also cause a sour odourin the breath, sweat and urine which only time will remove - it goes away when the chemicals work their way out of the system.  In both cases, soap does not help the problem - you have to decide whether consuming the product is worth the smell!


8.  Don't do it all at once.

If you are used to a regular wash, it can be quite hard to give up the lather.  Try just washing feet and armpits with soap before taking the next step and losing the soap altogether.  There is noting wrong with the occasional use of soap if there is heavy soiling but try to keep it to the parts that are grubby.


8.  Be Patient with your hair.

There has been a 'no-poo' movement gathering pace of late.  This takes the end of soap use further and proponents stop using shampoo altogether.

The result is generally healthier hair and of course the elimination of more soap from your body but it is a lot harder than giving up washing the body as our hair looks unwashed and greasy at first and may smell a little.  It takes time for this to settle, so be patient. One of the best tips is to use less shampoo gradually until eventually you are hardly using any, or just washing the hair well away from the scalp, slowly weaning yourself off the need for detergents.

The internet is full of alternatives including most popularly baking soda with a vinegar rinse and perhaps second goat's milk soap - these are both just soap so there is little point.  Unless you particularly like the effect these give, you may as well use your regular product.

Generally, there is no need to use any product on hair.  Water is all that is needed to clean the hair - just massage very well into the scalp.  A little vinegar (it makes not difference whether you use cider, malt or white vinegar) may help and the use of raw egg or even mayonnaise (itself a mix of raw egg and vinegar) has been advocated to get dust out and as a conditioner.

In truth, from the point of view of skin damage, modern hair conditioner generally contains no soap and does little or no harm to hair.  It may be used as a cleansing agent and detangler whether or not you have used shampoo and often has the advantage of smelling somewhat better than natural alternatives.

Whatever product you use, make sure you wash it out thoroughly.


A Word on Antibacterial Soaps

There is a profusion of antibacterial soap products on the market and we strongly encourage you NOT to purchase these.  There is robust evidence that these products DO NOT remove any more bacteria than ordinary soap products but their use leads to more antibacterial products in the drains.  This is not a good thing as bacteria are needed to break down waste into harmless products and there is some evidence that pathogenic bacteria can become resistant to the antibacterial compnoents of these products.  As the products are not beneficial and potentially harmful, they are best avoided altogether.




Girl in Shower:  Aqua Mechanical

Soap Bubbles:  Jo Naylor

Hung out to dry;  Bruce Guenter

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