Is a face cleanser better than bar soap?

Learn what dermatologists have to say about the pros and cons of face cleansers and bar soap, including which is best for your skin.

Last updated: Apr 9th, 2024
Face Cleanser vs Soap Bar

If you're new to skincare, it may be a surprise to learn that there’s actually a correct way to wash your face — and it involves multiple steps. Simply splashing water on your face and rubbing a cleanser or soap on your skin isn’t enough to clean your face thoroughly. And, depending on your skin type, you may need specific products and routines to ensure you get it right.

But, with so many skincare products available, it can be difficult to know what will work best for you. To try and keep things simple, many people stick to bar soaps and facial cleansers, but there are a few differences between the two that may not be obvious. We spoke with dermatologists and other skincare experts to gather all the details on face cleansers versus bar soap, as well as the best products for each skin type.

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Face-washing fundamentals

Before delving into the similarities and differences between bar soap and face cleansers, it’s important to establish the basics of proper face washing.

Our experts suggest you wash your face twice daily with a step-by-step skincare routine using your hands. Ian Michael Crumm, celebrity esthetician and co-host of the BeautyCurious Podcast, explains, "Using hands is generally recommended as it is gentler on the skin. Washcloths can be too harsh and may irritate the skin."

Prior to washing your face, however, it’s important to wash your hands with soap — your hands carry bacteria that can be easily spread by touching your face. Once that’s done, it’s recommended that you wet your face with lukewarm water and apply a non-alcoholic facial cleanser using your fingertips. Then, rinse your face with lukewarm water and pat it dry with a small towel; rubbing your face with a towel instead of patting can lead to irritation.

It's also important to remember that different skin types may require different ingredients to work effectively. Dr. Christopher Chu, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist, and the co-founder of Pure Dermatology, explains the variations of facial cleansers. “Cleansers can help address specific skin concerns like acne,” Dr. Chu says. “Cleansers can come in various forms including gels, creams, foams, and oils, and most facial cleansers are designed to be gentler because facial skin is more sensitive and delicate than body skin.”

It’s essential to thoroughly cleanse your skin at night to remove dirt, oil, and makeup. This can help prevent clogged pores and breakouts, allowing for proper skin repair and regeneration while you sleep.

Differences between facial cleansers and bar soaps

There's some overlap between cleansers and bar soaps, but the formulation is where they start to differ. According to Dr. Chu, cleansers are often formulated to be more hydrating and moisturizing for the skin with ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and ceramides, whereas bar soaps are designed to cleanse the skin of oil, debris, and pollutants — and bar soaps generally don’t have the same moisturizing ingredients as cleansers.

“Bar soap can be harsh and strip the skin of natural oil,” explains Andrei Gherghina, a board-certified dermatologist, Mohs surgeon, cosmetic injector, and cofounder of Oceans Dermatology. “It's not ideal to use regular bar soap on the face as it can be too harsh and drying for the delicate facial skin.”

Compared to bar soaps, facial cleansers are softer and designed to clean the skin without stripping it of its natural moisture. These facial cleansers are often pH-balanced to prevent potential skin barrier damage and can contain beneficial ingredients for specific skin concerns, such as acne, dryness, or aging. Remember, your skin is constantly exposed to external contaminants and stressors (like dirt, sweat, and UV rays); therefore, appropriate cleansing is essential to properly remove any unwanted debris or excess oils and maintain skin health.

Your body naturally produces sebum, an oily substance of fat molecules and squalene. Sebum moisturizes your skin by locking in moisture and protecting it from harmful UV radiation. However, sebum is mainly concentrated on your face and scalp. While it can benefit your skin, maintaining a healthy balance of sebum is important — having too much can result in oily skin or acne, but having too little can result in dry, itchy, flaky, or irritated skin. The need for a proper balance of sebum is where buying products for your specific skin type becomes of particular importance (and we’ll cover those in the following section).

“Facial cleansers often contain ingredients meant to moisturize, nourish, and gently remove dirt, oil, and makeup without stripping the skin of its natural oils,” Crumm explains. “Bar soaps may contain harsh detergents that are effective for cleansing the body but are too harsh for the face. Bar soap can be drying and disrupting to the skin's natural pH balance, leading to irritation and other skin issues.”

Ingredients to look for (and avoid) in facial cleansers

The experts we spoke with suggest looking for certain ingredients in facial cleansers to benefit your skin. These ingredients include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, glycolic acid, and salicylic acid. Let's take a closer look at these ingredients and how they can improve skin health.


Glycerin is a moisturizing humectant that provides hydration and protection to your skin. It penetrates deep into the skin barrier and helps to retain moisture for several days. Furthermore, this ingredient may stabilize collagen, plump the skin, and reduce wrinkles and fine lines, making the skin appear more youthful. Despite its suitability for all skin types, glycerin is particularly effective on dry skin.

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is a humectant that can moisturize your skin, regardless of skin type. It can also help to balance the moisture barrier. This ingredient is also known for helping prevent moisture loss and potentially delaying or reducing the signs of aging.


This is a form of vitamin B3 that can help minimize enlarged pores, improve uneven skin tone, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and strengthen the skin barrier. Those with hyperpigmentation, scars, or dark spots may benefit from using a niacinamide cleanser.

Glycolic acid

A form of alpha hydroxy acid that removes dead skin cells, glycolic acid can help exfoliate and hydrate your skin, as well as reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Dermatologists recommend patients use products with glycolic acid only 1-2 times a week, as it can lead to increased skin sensitivity if used too frequently.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that can help treat acne. This acid helps reduce swelling and redness and unclogs skin pores via deep exfoliation. People with acne-prone skin may benefit from salicylic acid, as it can potentially prevent the blockages that lead to whiteheads and blackheads.

While these ingredients can offer benefits to your skin, there are others that can harm your skin — and these outcomes depend on your specific skin type. Here’s a quick rundown on what those with various skin types should avoid or limit in facial cleansers and other skincare products.

Sensitive skin

Dr. Chu shares that sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) can easily irritate sensitive skin. “Some people can even develop an allergic contact dermatitis [from SLS], which is sometimes the culprit in individuals who try a variety of cleansers and continue to have bad reactions. Keep in mind for most people these ingredients are well-tolerated, but opting for a skin formulation with hydrating ingredients may reduce the risk in your skin.”

Dry skin

People with dry skin should be careful with facial cleansers that contain alcohol, menthol, fragrances, and strong surfactants; these ingredients remove natural oils, which dry out skin even more over time.

Acne-prone and oily skin

Luat Duong, Head of Search at Scandinavian Biolabs, clarifies which ingredients can irritate acne-prone and oily skin. “Fragrance and menthol can further irritate blemishes,” Duong says. “Minimal formulas work best.”

Normal skin

Duong also notes that anything with alcohol, fragrance, or dye can “increase the risk of sensitivity over time” for normal skin.

Best practices for different skin types

Dr. Michael I Jacobs, board-certified dermatologist and Associate Professor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, suggests that those just starting out with their skincare routine look for facial cleansers with ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, glycolic acid, and salicylic acid. “For the best results, opt for a gentle cleanser that is appropriate for your skin type,” Dr. Jacobs says. “While all cleansers may clean your skin, ensure to use one specifically formulated for your skin type to see the best results.”

To help you figure out your skin type, the chart below provides insights into their unique characteristics and details the ideal cleanser for each type.

Normal skin

Normal skin has a balanced state with small pores, a smooth texture, and a reduced tendency to develop blemishes or sensitivity. Although normal skin doesn't have significant issues or concerns, it still requires a proper skincare routine to maintain its optimal appearance and feel. Most cleansers should be suitable for this skin type as long as you avoid harsh ingredients like alcohol, fragrance, and dye.

Dry skin

If your skin appears dull, rough, flaky, or scaly, it could be a sign of dryness. Dry skin is dehydrated, causing itchiness or irritation. To combat dryness, experts recommend that you use a hydrating facial cleanser to restore your skin's natural protective barrier; this includes cleansers with hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and niacinamide.

Oily skin

If you have oily skin, your face may look shiny and greasy throughout the day, especially on the “T-zone” (forehead, nose, and chin). This skin type is prone to enlarged pores, acne blemishes, blackheads, and whiteheads. “If you have a more oily skin, opt for a foaming cleanser that is better at removing oil,” Dr. Chu says. “If you have acne, finding cleansers that have active ingredients like salicylic acid can help.”

Sensitive skin

When exposed to environmental factors, sensitive skin may experience mild irritation accompanied by redness and itchiness. This sensitivity may be natural or caused by topical treatments, like retinol or acne products. A foaming cleanser with ceramides can help soothe the skin’s sensitivity, restore the protective barrier, and lock in moisture.

Combination skin

If you experience oiliness in the T-zone and dryness on the cheeks, chances are you have combination skin. You may experience changes in your skin due to seasonal changes, hormones, or stress. Those with this skin type will need a cleanser that both cleans and hydrates the skin. Look for a cleanser that contains ceramides, salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide to help exfoliate, moisturize, and rejuvenate the skin.

The skincare routine dermatologists recommend

Dermatologists advise starting your skincare routine with a cleanser, serum, moisturizer, and sunscreen every morning. Sunscreens (of at least SPF 30) can benefit your skin by protecting it from UVA and UVB rays. These rays can cause skin cancer, wrinkles, dark spots, and sunburns. So, apply sunscreen every morning to keep your skin healthy and protected, and reapply every two hours.

To take care of your skin at night, removing any dirt or product buildup that accumulates on your skin during the day is important. Additionally, it’s recommended that you moisturize your skin to keep it hydrated throughout the night. You can use products similar to your morning routine and incorporate a toner, face oil, and acne treatment for additional effects on your skin, depending on your goals. For example, a vitamin C serum stimulates collagen production and promotes cell turnover, which can help reduce signs of aging.



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