The Truth: Bar Soap vs. Liquid Body Wash

I remember as a child, my whole family used the same bar of soap. Gradually though the bar of soap seemed to disappear and was replaced by liquid hand and body wash. Using bar soap had come to be considered to be unhygienic and a source of bacteria. The strange thing is even though we shared soap, we seldom got sick and had no diseases. In the last decade, I’ve switched back to bar soap again and am still reasonably healthy. So I am just incredibly lucky or have makers of personal care products been masterfully manipulating of our fear of germs?

The switch from bar soap to liquid has been driven by a fear of bacteria lurking on bar soap. Companies encouraged the notion that using liquid soap was more hygienic.

This NY Times article which asked “does each member of the family need an individual bar of soap to prevent spreading germs, or do we have to switch to liquid soap?” came to a very different conclusion. It cites studies that concluded washing even with contaminated bar soap is unlikely to transfer bacteria, especially if the bar gets rinsed off between uses. According to the NY Times:

“… soap bars were inoculated with E. coli and P. aeruginosa bacteria at levels 70 times as high as those reported on used soap bars. Then, 16 people were told to wash their hands as usual with the inoculated bars.

“After washing, none of the 16 panelists had detectable levels of either test bacterium on their hands,” the researchers wrote. “These findings, along with other published reports, show that little hazard exists in routine handwashing with previously used soap bars and support the frequent use of soap and water for handwashing.”

So how can a bar of soap have bacteria on it and yet not spread germs? Simply, washing is a two step process. When you lather up the oil attracting end of the soap molecule picks up grease and oils on your skin. When you rinse, the water attracting end of the molecules follow the water, letting you rinse the soap molecules — and their attached impurities — away.

This leads us to the next question “if liquid soaps provide no hygiene benefit, why have companies been so aggressive in marketing liquid body washes?” This article on US website DailyFinance may provide a clue. Their comparison showed bathing with the recommended amount (2 teaspoons) of Olay body wash cost HK$ 1.33 per wash while bathing with Ivory bar soap cost just over HK$ 0.09, providing a significant profit motive  for companies to get us to switch.

Another often cited advantage of liquid body wash is that it allows manufacturers to add moisturizers. While a complaint against bar soap is that it may be harsh and drying. In fact, there are many varieties of bar soaps in the market that contain glycerine and natural oils that moisturize the skin. These soap can be just as gentle and mild on the skin, negating any advantage of body washes. If body washes have no advantages, do they have any disadvantages? It turns out there are many. 

Firstly, using liquid soap also involves guesswork about the right amount to use. Many people end up using more than twice the recommended amount. This in addition to the moisturizers in liquid soap, that leave a residue, require extra time to rinse off. Every extra minute in the shower results in another 19 liters of water going down the drain. With bar soap, it’s pretty easy to tell when you’ve got enough suds, so not only is bar soap more convenient but it saves water.

Containing lots of water, body washes are also much heavier than bar soap, resulting in a significantly higher carbon footprint for transportation. Packaging for body washes are made of plastic that ends up in the landfill or our oceans (see picture below). Bar soap has a clear edge in transportation, packaging and disposal.

Lastly, lets take a look at what’s inside. Most liquid body washes are made of petroleum, while many traditional bar soaps are made of saponified animal fat and plant oils. Liquid soaps need the addition of emulsifying agents and stabilizers to maintain their consistency. Although these chemicals may have been approved by the relevant authorities for use on humans, the  testing procedures do not include the consequence of long term use or interactions between these and the myriad of other chemicals in our environment. For example, diethanolamine (DEA) is commonly added to confer a creamy texture and foaming action. It inhibits in baby mice the absorption of choline (not to be confused with chlorine), which is an essential nutrient necessary for brain development and maintenance. High concentrations of DEA were also found to induce body and organ weight changes, and mild blood, liver, kidney and testicular systemic toxicity in mice. A 2009 study also found that DEA is potentially toxic for aquatic species.

I can only conclude then that liquid body washes really provide little or no benefits to the consumer, create significant profits for manufacturers, and are tremendously harmful to the environment. So are you ready to switch back?

48 thoughts on “The Truth: Bar Soap vs. Liquid Body Wash

  1. This is very attention-grabbing, You are an overly skilled blogger.
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  2. I switched back to bar soap 3 years ago. I developed psoriasis & the bar soap with exfoliation (Dove White for Sensitive Skin) quickly became my fave. It’s not always easy to find but I stock up. The psoriasis was brought on after bad reaction to a certain medicine and is gone now. There’s no way I’d switch back to liquid though. Not only is it a danger to our environment but could be to our health too. I use to think liquid soap was much more moisturizing on my skin compared to bar soap. Now I can’t think of a single positive reason to use liquid.

  3. Thank you for this post, it seems that everyone, everywhere is against bar soap and all for the liquid. Thank you for the different view!

  4. nice article…have been thinking about this from quite sometime ….this just put things in perspective..

  5. what kind of filth do people get on their bodies, that require daily application of harsh chemicals with un-known long term implications. Dry brushing, warm water, baking soda and apple cider vinegar work great for me, cheap, effective and safe.

  6. Great article. Check out your store bar soaps and avoid those with synthetic ingredients, also. Most of what is sold in the store is synthetic or part synthetic. Support your local handcrafted soapmaker!

  7. Thank you so much for this article. I’ve gone back to using bar soaps because of environmental issues (plastic; petroleum etc). A friend recently refused to use our bar soap in the bathroom, saying it was covered in germs and worse to use it than not to wash his hands! The brainwashing is complete – commercial interests overriding common sense (yet again!). Until the last ten years or so, I used bar soap for almost everything, and I was no sicker than I am now. A doctor told me, during an outbreak of gastro, that washing your hands – doesn’t matter WHAT type of soap – is the best defence.

    1. Actually,before doing research about this matter,I too was thinking that bar soap is dirty and that it has germs that can harm you and I was using liquid soap because of this.Now after researching I am planning to switch back to bar soap.

  8. Brilliant article – so informative and interesting. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been a victim of the brain-washing but no more!! I’m totally sold on bar soap.

  9. I love bar soap! It’s so creamy and lathers so well! I have been making my own bar soap for decades, and will keep on doing so! I do sometimes buy Yardley bar soap and make it into liquid soap, that is also nice. With such a push to be “green”, it’s funny so many others are still using liquid! I wonder too about the foaming agents and the affect they have on our water ways!

  10. I agree with the point that liquid soap is nothing superior as compared to bar soaps . It is just easy to press the knob and have liquid soap come out , that’s all . Having said that even I use bar soap , it is a habit and nothing more about which more safe etc as all these are chemicals . What I disagree is the whole family using the same soap !! Yucks !! It is about personal hygiene . You rub the soap all over the body parts and keep it on the sink . Even though you wash it with water many times isn’t it dirty as the soap never dries so soon ? The father of the house uses the soap (male) and then the daughter in law ( female) goes to take a bath and uses the same soap?? Yucky!!!! Then why have multiple toothbrushes at home. Have one toothbrush and let the entire family of 7 use it turn be turn. Family, germs don’t spread so why bother right?

  11. I use bar soap all the time and have never thought to change to liquid soap however my 4y old granddaughter calls bar soap ‘grandma soap’. I doubt she will ever use it!!

  12. I see this is an old thread but would like to add my support to this subject. I am a bit older so have been through several “green movements” that have come and gone like fashion. It is time to think about environmental issues as a value or moral issue rather than a fad or trend. To this end, I am horrified by the increase in the number of new disposable products. (single serve coffee pods?)

    Pump soap has also been marketed as easy to use and convenient. One isn’t left with a soapy puddle where the soap sits after use. These are small problems that previous generations dealt with without much difficulty. It is much easier dealing with a soapy puddle than it is to deal with the environmental impact of both manufacturing and disposing of pump dispensers. Growing up, I don’t remember hearing any adults in my life complain about how inconvenient bar soap was.

  13. My family switched back to bar soap some years back. liquid soap doesn’t clean as well. I bought some rice bar soap from Bangkok for facial use, it has reduced my pigmentation. Another tip for stain on clothes, use ‘grandma soap’ the hard yellowish brown (labour brand). Rib it on the stains before putting into the washing machine. It works wonder. Cheers.

  14. I’ve noticed that people use hand sanitizer now instead of washing their hands. I don’t understand this – it’s chemicals and can’t replace washing with old-fashioned bar soap and water. We’ve been using handmade bar soaps at my house for the past three years and the bars last longer and we use much less soap and water. No plastic packaging either. Better for the environment and saves money. Great article – thanks for posting!

  15. Hey! Your article is music to my ears…
    I switched back to soap bars years ago, for pretty much the reasons you stated.. it helped to find shops like”lush”, where the soap smells and looks so good, you are tempted to take a bite, but normal soap will do most days.
    Thanks for your article.

  16. Excellent article. I never made the transition to liquid for some of the reasons given but also I realised instantly that the dispenser itself is way more unhygienic than a bar constantly being rinsed clean. But my real angry rant is that in fitting new basins I cannot find one with integral soap recesses simply because of this mindless following fashion. I don’t want a dish a few inches away or the soap sliding in the bowl. I think I will send this link to a couple of UK sanitary manufacturers to remind them of our needs.

    1. Hi
      I’ve bought (on eBay) some magnetic soap holders which screw to the wall above the sink. They have a metal disk which you stick into the soap. As long as the soap isn’t too heavy, they work fine, keeping the soap dry and within easy reach.
      In addition, the French have large egg shaped soaps with a screw through the middle. This connects to a wall bracket. Replacement soaps are available. Find brackets and soaps on eBay.

  17. I notice that certain some liquid soaps don’t even seem to contain potassium based soaps in their ingredients list. They have detergents such as SLS. Are there benefits of replacing saponified fats with detergents? Where I live, there’s no concerns with hard water.

  18. Not only everything mentioned above, but I have found that I get through bar soap a lot slower than liquid soap. A bar of soap lasts longer, and as I make my own and buy the supplies in bulk, it is cheaper in the long run. As a university student with little to no money for buying a new bottle of soap every month, it is a more economical solution.

  19. I was so very happy to read all the above comments. I personally have not converted to Body Wash for showering but was using liquid for hand washing. That is going to stop as soon as I finish the liquid. I posted the above info to FB. Hopefully some sensible folks will see the tremendous benefit of not having more plastics fouling up the planet.

  20. I live on my own and find Bar soaps dry out and crack, shower gels and liquid hand washes are so much better, i just wish there was a variety of Liquid hand soaps like there is with the shower gel.

  21. I’ve never understood the attraction of liquid soap. The biggest impact is the price, next the price to the planet. Nuff said really

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