Should We Stop Using Soap?

A negative affect on the skin's pH is one of the reasons why some people think we should

A recent article in The Guardian reported on the potential dangers of soap.

“I first became aware of these [health consequences] when I was a touring ballet dancer and met a friend whose skin had been severely damaged by excessive use of soap products. He was condemned to treat himself with medical creams for the rest of his life.”

So, is this one case study indicative of a wider problem? If so, how might soap be damaging the skin and its microbiome? Should we stop using it?

Firstly, it’s important to clear up what soap actually is, because the word is often used casually to describe many different products. It is also crucial to note that unfortunately there’s no such thing as natural soap.

Synthesised from fats or oils, soaps are all manufactured by strong chemical reactions that create a synthetic product that does not occur naturally.

We don’t want to get too bogged down in the chemistry here, but there is one technical process that must be understood: Saponification.

In brief, saponification is the process used to create ALL soaps and detergents, and is a violent, exothermic chemical reaction between a strong base (normally caustic soda) and triglycerides (ie. fats and oils).

The result is that all soaps & detergents are highly alkaline (usually pH 9 – 11). Soaps derived from coconut, almond, castille, lard etc. therefore increase skin pH far above its natural levels.

(NOTE: Other synthetic cleaners and foamers also have similar problems with pH, including: SLS/SLES, Coco-glucoside, Cetearyl Glucoside, Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate/Isethionate, Lauryl Glucoside, Sodium Cetearyl Sulfate )

So, what is our skin's 'natural' pH...?

Scientists now appear to believe that the use of modern soap is having an effect on our microbiome. But is this effect good? Firstly, as it is an important factor in the creation of the correct environment on the skin for microbial diversity to flourish, we ask what effect soap is having on our skin’s natural pH.

“Use of cosmetic products, especially soaps, have profound influence on skin surface pH.”

“It is demonstrated that skin with pH values below 5.0 is in a better condition than skin with pH values above 5.0

“An acid skin pH (4-4.5) keeps the resident bacterial flora attached to the skin, whereas an alkaline pH (8-9) promotes the dispersal from the skin.”

It used to be incorrectly believed that natural skin pH is 5.5. However, recent scientific studies estimate that in fact the ‘natural’ skin surface is really much more acidic, with an average pH of 4.7.

Why? Because when normally measured in trials, people’s skin has had its pH altered by regular and recent use of soap and other alkaline substances used in most normal skin care products. It is now thought that, if skin is left to its own devices, the body creates an antimicrobial environment which is sometimes even below pH 4.0.

Encouraging Biodiversity

The skin’s pH value is thought to be a major contributor to acne and other immune response skin problems such as eczema and dermatitis.

“By artificially adjusting the skin’s surface acidity, we can optimize its barrier function and promote improvements in skin health”

Helping to maintain the strength and cohesiveness of the skin, an acid skin pH (4-4.5) keeps the resident bacterial flora (‘good bacteria’) attached to the skin, whereas an alkaline pH (8-9) promotes their dispersal from the skin and leads to pathogenic bacterial, fungal growth and long term immune system malfunction and allergy problems.

For instance, Propionibacterium acnes is a bacteria that normally lives on the skin, and is found on all skin regardless of the presence or absence of acne. It only becomes a problem when skin environment is out of balance and in an ‘abnormal’ state.

What do The Experts Say?

Some doctors and dermatologists state that washing with soap:

» dehydrates the skin
» irritates the skin
» depletes ‘Good’ Bacteria
» strips away the skin’s essential fats & oils (eg. sebum)
» increases the risk of infection

According to dermatologist Joshua Zeichner (assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City), parents should stop bathing babies and toddlers daily because early exposure to dirt and bacteria may help make skin less sensitive, even preventing conditions like eczema in the long run.

“People don’t realize that the skin does a pretty good job of cleaning itself...”

The Benefits of Soap

It’s important to stress that soap is used to help detach dirt, microbes and organic material from our skin. Antibacterial soaps have the extra use of eliminating microbes. They have been shown to reduce transmission of harmful pathogens and reduce the incidence of respiratory infections and fevers.

These studies are often performed in rural settlements in developing countries such as Bangladeshi villages, which are much different to the hyper-sanitised living environments in the western world where there is also access to top quality healthcare. 

In conclusion, it appears that in the western world, especially the over-use of soap, could be doing more long-term harm than good. A damaged microbiome, depleted in biodiversity, will be vulnerable to attack from pathogenic microbes. 

What do you think? Comment below.


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