Sorry to burst everyone's soap bubbles, but there is, in fact, a difference between soaps, body washes, and shower gels, and that difference matters, depending on your skin type and even where you live. To figure out the best product to wash your body with, we asked Ilyse Lefkowicz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist specializing in general and cosmetic dermatology, and the global dermatologist for Head and Shoulders, for all the answers.
What is the difference between bar soap and body wash?
"The main difference between a bar cleanser and body wash is the form they come in and how they interact with skin," says Dr. Lefkowicz (she prefers to use the word "bar" instead of "Soaps," since people often associate the latter with something too harsh). "Both bar cleansers and body wash will cleanse. However, certain bars may be harsher than body wash and can remove essential lipids and proteins, or alter the skin’s pH level, which can cause skin irritation."
For people with normal to dry skin, or people looking for milder product formulas, Dr. Lefkowicz says body wash is best. For people with oily skin types, living somewhere hot and humid, or people just looking for a very deep wash—like after a workout—she recommends using a bar as a quick and easy way to get clean.
Dr. Lefkowicz also finds body washes to be slightly more hygienic than Bath Bars. That's because bacteria can live on bars and remain on there from shower to shower and person to person. "To avoid bacteria buildup, always rinse it between use and allow to drain and dry completely," Dr. Lefkowicz adds. "With a body wash, it is easier to avoid bacteria buildup since it doesn't touch skin while in the bottle."
What is the difference between shower gel and body wash?
They are similar, but not identical. Both are liquid cleansers, typically made with emollients to soften the skin and mild surfactants that create a rich, foamy lather. The main difference is in their consistencies and concentration of ingredients. “Shower gel has a firmer, gel-like consistency, and typically has a higher concentration of fragrance," Dr. Lefkowicz says. "Body washes tend to be more hydrating and moisturizing, which makes it more useful in harsher, colder weather to help avoid stripping moisture away from the skin, which can open it up to damage."
According to Dr. Lefkowicz, Shower Gel & Bath Jellys are an excellent choice for people living in particularly hot, humid climates or with naturally oily skin. "Because shower gel is less moisturizing than body wash, it's better for those living in warmer climates or for people with oily skin," she says.