'Don’t wash your face with soap’ was a common refrain when I was growing up. And for good reason; the soap bars we typically use to wash our hands are made for heavy-duty grime removal, not for the delicate skin on our faces, despite your grandmother telling you that it's 'all she ever used'.
With our skin barrier already challenged by pollution and stress (not such pressing concerns back in our gran's day), a harsh soap can add to the problem by blitzing our delicate skin of its beneficial oils and bacteria. The result? Dry, sensitive skin.
As we've moved away from soap bars over the years generally, we've gravitated more towards liquid formulas - micellar waters, foaming cleansers, jelly cleansers. These are of course less favourable when it comes to packaging, particularly plastic.
If you want to create a more minimalist or eco-friendly facial cleansing routine, that bar of hand soap might be calling your name. But step away. Instead, try a cleansing bar. It looks like your traditional soap cake, but it's actually soap-free (it may even say 'soap free' on the packaging) and is designed to work in harmony with your face rather than shift bin juice from your hands.
And the good news is, with new launches from more of our favourite skincare brands, including Cerave and Fenty Skin, we no longer need to compromise on quality when being kinder to the planet in the beauty department.
Read on to find out which cleansing bars made it into our selection of the best facial cleansing bars for every skin type.
But first, here’s everything you need to know about cleansing bars before you make the sustainable skincare switch.
Can you wash your face with normal soap? You do you, of course, but as you've guessed, a cleansing bar may be a better option, despite what your granny may have told you. Author of Great Skin, Secrets the Beauty Industry Doesn't Tell You Ingeborg Van Lotringen explains that although your granny may have glowed on just soap and water, "she may have lived a relatively stress-free life in the countryside in a moderate climate."
Inge steers well clear of traditional soap, she explains, as it's generally made 'saponified oils'. These are fats with added sodium hydroxide, AKA caustic soda, which you'll probably be familiar with as drain cleaner, she says. Yikes!
What's more, hand soap is alkaline (like those other skincare bugbears, sulphates, particularly SLS) while our skin is naturally acidic.
“Soap has a very alkaline pH that will destroy not only the bad bacteria but also the good ones,” says Dr Marie Drago, founder of microbiome-friendly skincare brand Gallinée.
Our skin is naturally acidic with a pH is around 5.5. Increasingly brands are putting the pH on their packaging, and not just of cleansers. Tiffany Masterson, Drunk Elephant skincare founder explains: “the classic soap is always at an alkaline pH level between nine and ten. Harsh alkaline products can swing the pH level of the skin in a way that isn’t healthy."
What happens when your skin's pH is out of whack? It's playtime for bad bacteria, including acne bacteria, says Dr Drago. “It might also make problems such as eczema worse than before," she says.
If you like that slightly addictive squeaky-clean feeling after you wash your face, it's a sign that your cleanser is too harsh for your skin. Take a bar of hand soap to your face and the same will result. “That’s literally the feel of a skin barrier that has had its superficial lipids stripped away,” says Masterson. Those lipids are the natural fats on our skin that help to retain moisture and act as a protective layer to stop dirt and impurities from penetrating our skin. While using a standard soap once in a while won’t do too much damage, over time it can impair skin leading it to become dry or dehydrated. Masterson tells me that this is because our skin has “lost the ability to hold on to the substances that keep it healthy."
Is a facial cleansing bar good for the skin?
Yes, if they use the mildest of detergents with a low pH, says Van Lotringen, who rates Sebamed Cleansing Bar, £3.99 (soap-free and acid-free) and Galinée Cleansing Bar, £13. Think of a facial cleansing bar as a waterless, solid cleanser. "Well-formulated cleansing bars have a skin-supportive acidic pH,” notes Masterson. Dr Drago advises looking for one close as possible to the pH of the skin, 4.5 to 5.5, “that way it won’t be stripping for dry skin.”
If you’re worried that a cleansing bar won’t do as good a job at removing dirt and makeup as your regular cleanser, don’t be. Dermatologist Dr Beibei Du-Harpur reassures me that the latest cleansing bar technologies can remove all the bits we don’t want – pollution, dirt, makeup, sunscreen – “without causing damage to the natural skin lipids that form an essential part of our skin barrier function.”
Can all skin types use a cleansing bar?
Absolutely! Although the pros do recommend choosing something gentle with moisturising ingredients.
If you have oily or acne-prone skin then Emma Heathcote-James, founder of The Little Soap Company recommends anti-bacterial and sebum-reducing ingredients such as tea tree oil or a charcoal cleansing bar.
Essential oils can trigger reactive or sensitive skin so if you fall into either of those camps, make sure that your cleansing bar is fragrance-free.
For dry or more mature skin Heathcote-James suggests a moisturising cleansing bar. skin. Ingredients such as plant-based oils such as coconut and olive oil or natural fatty acids such as avocado, which effectively cleanse the skin without stripping it of its natural oils.
Crucially, if anything you’re using on the skin is leaving it feeling dry or tight then it’s time to switch up your cleanser.
Are cleansing bars better for the environment?
All of the bars that I tried came in individual recyclable cardboard boxes with no excess packaging. None of them was wrapped in plastic, so if you're trying to cut down on plastic waste then a bar is a good alternative. Aside from shampoo, a cleanser or micellar water is probably the biggest culprit for plastic waste in our bathroom as we use them so regularly. If you want to switch to a shampoo bar, read our edit here.
Being less bulky, cleansing bars also have lower transport emissions than liquid cleansers. Since they are more compact, they take up less room in a truck so more can be transported at once, meaning less fuel and emissions are used. Bonus.
A typical bar should last you about six weeks if you're using it twice a day. On the whole, they are cheaper they an average cleanser so you're also getting bang for your buck.