Do bar cleansers really clog your pores? Tune in to this week’s show to learn the truth about soaps and other bar cleansers.
Valentines day and beauty science
It turns out that for every major Valentine’s Day meme there’s a connection to beauty science. I thought it would be fun to talk about a couple of those today.
The color of love
Red is the color of love. It’s the color of valentines hearts, of lingerie, and of red lipstick. But you might be surprised to find that some of those sexy red lipstick colorants come from crushed bugs.
Chocolate and acne
You know candy is a popular Valentine’s Day gift but you really shouldn’t give chocolate to your loved one because it could make her face break out. Right? wrong! Well, right, sort of. This controversy has been raging back-and-forth for decades. Chocolate was originally thought to contribute to acne but initial studies indicated that there is no direct correlation. Then, in 2008, a group of Australian researchers put it to the test again. They had a group of panelists eat a sugary, starchy diet while the control group ate healthy. At the end of 8 weeks they had dermatologists examined the faces of the panelists (on blinded basis) and they found of those on the crappy diet had more acne breakouts. But even this study has not definitively put the question to rest. For one thing the diet wasn’t based on chocolate alone.
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- Mermaid Cupcake
- Dr E Ranson
- Margaret Faraget
- Too Tricky
Mary Ellen says…I’ve heard bar cleansers are not good for our skin because the waxy ingredients that make the soap a bar cause plugged pores. Is this true?
When you’re talking about “regular” bars of soap I think the classic example that comes to mind is the old Ivory soap. Remember their advertising slogan: “So pure that it floats?” Of course the reason it floated had nothing to do with its purity. It was one of those accidental discoveries – somebondy left the mixer on too long and the soap became aerated so the air bubbles make it float. But it made for a memorable commercial.
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of similar soap products since then but all true soaps have one defining characteristic in common: they are made by neutralizing a fatty acid with an alkali material. That’s what “soap” means. By the way, when the first laws regulating cosmetics were created back in the 1930s, the soapmakers managed to have soap excluded from law which is why you won’t see a list of ingredients on a true soap bar. If the ingredients were to be listed you’d see things like sodium cocoate or sodium tallowate.
One of the earliest forms of soap is lye soap. No it’s not called lye soap because the advertisers make dishonest claims about it, lye actually refers to the “alkali” material that’s used to neutralize the fatty acids.
According to legend, lye soap was discovered in ancient times when animal fat from cooked meat spilled into ashes from fire. When rainwater washed the mixture away they noticed that it created lather and they eventually figured out it could be used for cleaning. So the animal fats provided the fatty acids and the alkali was pot ash specifically potassium hydroxide. (Originally lye referred to potassium hydroxide which was made by soaking plant ashes which are rich in potassium carbonate in water to make but overtime has also come to include sodium hydroxide.)
Another type of soap is Castile soap. Remember how we said soaps are made with some sort of oily, fatty acid? Well Castile soap is made with one specific type of fatty acid which comes from olive oil. Originally this was produced in the Castile region of Spain, hence the name Castile soap.
I’m sure you’ve heard of glycerin soap. That’s a type of soap bar that’s clear because it’s made with glycerin, right? Wrong! All soap bars are made with glycerin because it’s part of the natural manufacturing process. When when the oils are reacted they split apart and release glycerin. In fact all glycerin used to be produced by soapmaking before we developed industrial processes of making it.
What most people refer to as glycerin soap is really just a gelled transparent soap bar. The reason it’s transparent is that it’s heated with sugar and alcohol which prevents the soap molecules from crystalizing so the bar stays clear. Take that, you disingenous glycerin soap bar manufacturers!
Synthetic Detergent bars (aka Syndet bars)
Enough about true soap bars not let’s talk about synthetic detergent bars. The difference is that instead of saponified fatty acids as the primary cleansing and foaming agents, these bars rely on synthetic detergents.
These are known as “cleansing bars” or “beauty bars” because by law they can’t be called soap. That’s part of the 1938 FD&C act that we talked about. But why would you want to use a synthetic detergent?
Because soap has a couple of serious drawbacks. First, if you have hard water the soap can react with the minerals in the water and form and in soluble residue. This used to be called bathtub ring and it was really a big problem. Not only could it mess up your bath tub but it could leave a film on your hair and skin that was really hard to rinse away. Most of our audience is probably too young to remember that because detergents have been in use for so long now. The second issue with soaps is that they have a high pH and are harsh on skin. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
So as industrial chemical chemistry progressed in the 1940s synthetic detergents were developed and incorporated into cleansing bars. While there are many of these detergents in use, probably the most popular and best in terms of mildness and lathering is sodium cocyl isethionate. While detergents such as this are the primary active ingredient in modern cleansing bars they’re typically blended with true soaps like we’ve already discussed.
By the way, since these are not soaps they ARE subject to cosmetic labeling requirements. Therefore you will see a conventional ingredient list on the back of the package. See the show notes for an example ingredient list for a cleansing bar:
Sodium cocoyl isethionate, stearic acid, sodium tallowate, water, sodium isethionate, coconut acid, sodium stearate, sodium dodecyl benzene sulfonate, sodium cocoate, fragrance, sodiumchloride, titanium dioxide, trisodium EDTA, trisodium etidronate, BHT
Next let’s talk about how these different types of cleansing bar affect your skin.
Soap bars are harsher than detergent bars
There seems to be little question that true soap bars are more harsh than the synthetic detergent bars. That’s due to their pH as well as the nature of soap molecules. Multiple studies have proven that repeated use of soap bars can damage the skin by drying out the stratum corneum. It’s believed that soap damages the skin’s natural moisture barrier by binding to and denaturing of proteins in the stratum corneum. (Some detergents do this as well.)
For example, one test evaluated three types of cleansers. The first was a synthetic detergent bar using SCI, the second was a high glycerin TEA soap. And the third was a traditional soap based on the sodium salts of coconut oil and tallow. The degree of irritation and the amount of surfactant binding is consistently less with the SCI. Bars is based on true soaps are more binding and more irritating depending on exactly how they are blended.
But, setting the irritation issue aside for the moment how would we answer Mary Ellen’s questions about cleansing bars causing acne breakouts?
Do waxy ingredients plug your pores?
There’s a popular misconception that waxy ingredients clog pores. At face value this sounds reasonable – waxy ingredients get inside the little holes in your skin, the pore becomes plugged up and you develop acne. But that’s not what happens at all. Ingredients that contribute to acne trigger a condition called “retention hyperkeratosis” which means that dead skin cells become stuck inside the hair follicle. Excess sebum is a contributing factor to this condition. But this effect can occur with solid ingredients as well as liquid ingredients. So the “waxiness” of an ingredient really has nothing to do with how likely it is to cause acne. Regardless, once the follicle becomes plugged it turns into what is called a black head. The technical term for black head is a comedone which is where the term “comedogenic” comes from. Finally, if a certain type of baceria are present the plugged folicle can become infected and turn into a white head. And before you know it you have a pus filled pizza face. So how do we know which ingredients will cause this problem?
How to tell if your cleansing bar ingredients will cause breakouts
Unfortunately we don’t know for sure. There is a test called the Rabbit Ear Assay which is used to predict whether or not an ingredient will cause acne but there’s a lot of controversy over the accuracy of this method so at best consider this a rule of thumb test to rule out the worst offenders.
Also, not every single cleansing bar ingredient in the world has been put through this test so the effect of a lot of them are unknown.
And, to make things worse, combinations of ingredients can act differently than single ingredients so you really need to test a finished formula rather than just look at the comedogenicity rating of its individual ingredients.
So, the best we can do is point out a few ingredients that are known to be the worst offenders. If you want to know if a specific combination of ingredients has been put through this test the only way to know for sure is if the manufacturer has done the test and labels their product as non-comedogenic. But even then that’s no guarantee.
Ingredients to avoid
I don’t think any of the actual cleansing agents in either real soap bars or detergent bars show up on the list of acne causing ingredients. At least none of the published lists that I can find.
However, some of the other ingredients used in soaps in detergent bars are known to have a comedogenic potential.
The oils that are used to make soap may be comedogenic. For example: wheat germ oil is rated 5 which is highly comedogenic. Sesame oil is a 4 and olive oil is a 2 (which is moderately low.) That means I would expect Castile soap may be less likely to cause breakouts than some other oil based soaps.
Vegetable butters are are added as “super fatting” agents. That means there to counteract soaps drying effect on skin. Cocao butter and coconut butter are both rated “4” which is “fairly high” in comedogenicity.
These are the ingredients that are added to keep the cleansing bar from dissolving in the shower. They are typically fatty acids like stearic acid or fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol as well as some waxes. Some of these do have comedogenic potential.
Things misc. ingredients like certain red dyes, even fragrances have been shown to cause acne.
So the best we can suggest is to stay away from the few ingredients we have flagged here.
The Beauty Brains bottom line
First to be aware that what most people call “soap bars” are really synthetic detergent bars.
Second, true soap, while it is more natural, is harsher on skin. That’s partly because of the high pH and partly because of the way soap interacts with skins proteins.
Third, because of the ingredients that are added to super fat soap that you can be more likely to cause acne than detergent bars. check the show notes for some of the specific ingredients that we talked about.
And finally you can look for cleansing bars that are designed to be used on acne prone skin. At best this means the manufacturer has tested them for comedogenic city but even that does not guarantee it won’t cause breakouts for any given individual.
Buy your copy of It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:
- Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
- The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
- Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
- How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.
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