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What's a Soap-free Cleanser?

By Kaitlyn Dreyling / November 4, 2011

We've been seeing more and more products cross our desks saying they're soap-free. We were left wondering what makes soap, well, soap! We talked to two dermatologists - Dr. David Bank, who's a regular on The Today Show and Good Morning America and Dr. Neal Schultz of Beauty Rx Skincare - to figure out what we need to know about soap, or no soap, in our products.

"Soap is made of a compound of natural oils or fats with sodium hydroxide or another strong alkaline solution," Dr. Banks says. "It is mainly used as a surfactant for washing, bathing and cleaning." So that means soapless products are made without the combination of fats and alkaline products.

But taking out the soap doesn't mean there is no lather. "Most soap-free products lather just as well as soap products," Dr. Bank says. "Soap-free products have not been proven to work better than regular soap. Emulsifying agents in soap-free products work to break up fats and oils to clean the skin. You should use some form of cleanser to remove fats, oils, and proteins that build up on your skin, especially your hands which are so exposed to everything."

Dr. Schultz informed us that there are a whole lot of detergent chemicals that can be used instead of soap. "What they both have in common is that they're both surfactants - they can hold onto oil and water, so you can wash away oil with water," he says. There are many forms of soap, too. There are various combinations of fat (animal and plant sources) and alkaline ingredients (lye, sodium hydroxide, etc.) that give you solid or liquid forms of soap.

Soap-free cleansers: Aveeno Ultra-Calming Foaming Cleanser ($5.99), Beauty Rx Refreshing Cleanser ($30), Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash ($5.99)

These detergent chemicals are a relatively newer way of sudsing up, since soap has been a tried and true way to wash up for centuries (and more natural), but it brings variety to today's cleansing products. "With soap-free, you have more versatility to creating and adjusting the product because you can put a wider range of ingredients in it," Dr. Schultz explains. "You can add things to regular soap, but you don't have the versatility of soap-free. But for basic needs, there's nothing wrong with soap - particularly for your body. But for your face, where you can have a water-oil imbalance, then you can use something [soap-free] made for your imbalance."

Dr. Bank and Dr. Schultz both recommend soap-free products for sensitive skin types and those prone to allergies, since they tend to be less harsh and drying. But Dr. Schultz points out that the amount of oil a soap-free products washes away depends on its ingredients and what it's designed to do.

And in case you're wondering about cleansers that don't foam, these surfactant-free types are a combination of oil and water with an emulsifier. "The  more liquid types are known as cleansing lotion," Dr. Schultz says. "Non-lathering cleansers may be cleaned off with tissue  or rinsed off with water. The oil present in these cleansers can add to the skin's oil and if used on the face - as opposed to the hands - can cause pimples if you have oily or acne-prone skin."

Non-foaming cleansers: Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser ($9.19), Jurlique Replenishing Cleansing Lotion ($34), Weleda Almond Soothing Cleansing Lotion ($19)