There you are standing in the drugstore, in one hand you have a bar of soap, and in the other a bottle of shower gel. Each claim to cleanse and nourish your skin, but which one really is the better choice?
Surprisingly, the answer isn’t a clear one-size-fits-all!
There are several factors to consider when deciding between bar soap and shower gel, including skin type, personal preference, environmental impact, and cost.
So jump in and let’s dive deeper into each of these factors to help you make the most informed decision on your next trip to the health and beauty aisle.
A Comparative Overview
While both bar soap and shower gel serve the primary function of cleaning your skin, their composition and the way they interact with your skin can differ significantly.
Here is a comparative overview of both:
|Fats & oils, lye
|Alkaline (above 7)
|Neutral to slightly acidic (5.5 to 6.5)
|Squeaky clean or dry
|Soft & moisturized
|Generally more expensive
|Less packaging, fully used
|More packaging, leftover gel
Bar Soap vs. Shower Gel: What are the Differences?
From ingredients to environmental impact, consider these factors when choosing between bar soap and shower gel:
Ingredients & Skin Compatibility
The most striking difference between shower gel and bar soap is the ingredients used in their formulation.
Traditional bar soaps are made from fats and oils combined with lye (sodium or potassium hydroxide) in a process called saponification. The end product is often alkaline on the pH scale, which, according to this study, can be drying to the skin, especially for those with sensitive or dry skin types.
However, modern bar soaps often include added moisturizers and oils to counteract this effect.
Furthermore, men’s specific bar soaps often cater to other skincare needs, such as activated charcoal for detoxification or oats for exfoliation.
In contrast, shower gels are water-based and contain synthetic surfactants or detergents that lower the surface tension of water, allowing it to mix with oil and dirt for easy rinsing. Their pH is often neutral to slightly acidic (5.5 to 6.5), which matches the natural pH of the skin, making them generally more suitable for sensitive skin. Shower gels also often include moisturizing agents like glycerin, which help the skin to retain moisture.
When it comes to environmental impact, bar soaps generally have the edge over shower gels. They typically come in minimal packaging, often just a cardboard box or paper wrap, while shower gels come in plastic containers.
According to a study by the Swiss Insitute of Technology, liquid soaps (like shower gels) have a 25% larger carbon footprint per wash compared to bar soaps. This difference is mainly due to the plastic packaging and the energy consumed during the production cycle of liquid soaps.
In fact, a report from the Ocean Conservancy revealed that plastic caps and lids (like those on shower gel bottles) are among the top five items found in ocean trash.
Furthermore, bar soaps, due to their solid format, are fully used up, whereas shower gels often leave residue in the bottle, leading to product waste.
Needless to say, if there were ever a time to be conscious of our environmental impact, it’s now. Choosing bar soap can be a small but significant step toward reducing plastic waste and lowering carbon emissions.
Considering the cost factor, bar soaps are usually less expensive than shower gels.
One reason bar soap is typically cheaper is due to its simple manufacturing process. The ingredients – primarily fats and oils – are easily accessible and relatively inexpensive. Furthermore, the saponification process used in making bar soap is straightforward and has been in use for centuries – it is well-understood and doesn’t require high-tech equipment.
By contrast, shower gels require a more complex production process, involving blending water with surfactants, fragrances, and sometimes colorants. The ingredients used are often synthetic and more expensive, contributing to the higher cost.
Additionally, making and storing liquid soaps like shower gels requires sturdy, often plastic, packaging – another contributing factor to the extra cost. Moreover, considering that you often need a larger volume of shower gel compared to a small rub of bar soap for effective cleansing, the cost per wash also tends to be higher with shower gels.
Lastly, shipping costs for shower gels may also be higher than that for bar soaps. Their liquid format and heavier weight due to the water content, along with the need for breakage-proof packaging, contribute to higher transportation costs.
Bar soaps are renowned for their rich lather, while shower gels offer a more moderate foam. The “squeaky clean” feeling often associated with bar soaps can feel too harsh for some. However, this likely has to do with the hardness of your water rather than the soap itself. Hard water leaves a mineral residue on the skin, making it feel tight or dry. On the flip side, the emollients and moisturizing ingredients often found in shower gels may leave your skin feeling softer and more moisturized post-shower.
The “squeaky clean” feel might be desirable for people with oily or combination skin types as it helps remove excess sebum. For those with dry or sensitive skin, the softer, more moisturized post-shower feel from a shower gel might be more beneficial.
Fragrance and Additional Features
When it comes to fragrance, shower gels usually have a wider variety due to their synthetic nature, which allows for the incorporation of many different perfumed substances. Bar soaps can also be fragranced, but the range is typically less varied due to the constraints of the saponification process on what substances can be used without affecting the integrity of the finished product.
In addition, shower gels often contain exfoliating microbeads or natural scrub ingredients like crushed walnut shells or apricot seeds. This feature offers a physical exfoliation that can help slough off dead skin cells, leaving the skin looking brighter and feeling smoother.
However, it’s worth noting that many countries have banned the use of polyethylene microbeads due to their negative impact on marine life and the environment. This has led to many manufacturers switching to natural alternatives for their exfoliating properties.
Bar soaps also have options that offer exfoliating properties. Some are made with natural ingredients like oatmeal or loofah fibers embedded within the soap for physical exfoliation. And like shower gels, there are now many bar soaps specifically for men that contain activated charcoal, clay, or other ingredients for detoxifying or exfoliating purposes.
The Right Choice For You?
Ultimately it comes down to your personal preferences, skin concerns, environmental consciousness, and budget.
If you have dry or sensitive skin, prefer a wide array of fragrances, enjoy an exfoliating wash, or don’t mind spending a little more, shower gels might be a good fit for you. Shower gels also have the benefit of being easier to use with a luffa or sponge which can provide a more luxurious bathing experience.
On the other hand, if environmental impact is a significant concern for you, or you’re on a tighter budget, bar soap could be a better option. This choice could also be more suitable for those with oily skin due to the high lather and squeaky-clean feeling after use. Plus, bar soap is easier to travel with; there’s no risk of spillage like with shower gel.
There’s also something to be said about aesthetic preference – some people simply appreciate the old-fashioned, natural aesthetic that bar soaps provide. They can be a charming addition to any bathroom setup and are available in a wide range of artisanal varieties that can elevate your bathing experience from a daily routine to a luxe affair.