As more of our favourite skincare brands launch cleansing bars, we round up eight of the most effective that won't strip your skin
'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.
The best facial cleansing bars for every skin type
Best for all skin types: CeraVe Hydrating Cleansing Bar, £6.40
This is the bar that will completely change your mind about cleansing bars drying out your skin. As with all CeraVe products it contains 3 ceramides that help prevent moisture loss in the skin as well as hyaluronic acid which drenches the skin in hydration. Basically, this is giving your skin maximum moisture whilst cleaning it in the convenience of a bar.
I love CeraVe cleansers, they are great value for money, contain skin-caring ingredients and always do exactly what they say on the tin/ bottle. And I have been a fan of the liquid form of this one from the minute it hit UK shores from the US. And I'm happy to confirm that the solid version is exactly the same in terms of efficacy. I think I actually enjoyed lathering it up in my hands more than when I pump it out from the original bottle, I'm not entirely sure why! It doesn't sting your eyes and leaves skin feeling hydrated and plump and it is fragrance-free (like the original). You might choose the solid version over the liquid format if you're travelling but also if you want to make a slightly more considered environmentally friendly purchase but otherwise, you're getting exactly the same brilliant product, just in a different delivery mechanism.
Best for all skin types and for head-to-toe cleansing: Fenty Skin Cocoa Cleans’r Soothing All-Over Cleansing Bar, £15
Designed to be used from head-to-toe, this creamy bar has been designed with all skin types in mind however it is fragranced so sensitive skins may want to steer clear. There is also a standing reusable and recyclable Fenty soap dish (sold separately at £11) which not only drains any water away, preventing it from going slimy, but you simply slide to open and shut the lid so your soap remains clean in the shower — according to RiRi, this is her favourite part of the Cocoa Cleans'r.
What I really liked about this solid cleansing bar is that it has a hint of oiliness and creaminess about it - it contains coconut and baobab oil as well as shea and coconut butter - that stops the skin from getting dried out but also doesn’t make oily skin, like mine, greasier. It also cut through SPF and makeup with ease so there was no second cleanse required. It smells like a deserted tropical island which I absolutely loved and the soap dish is a stroke of design genius.
Best for removing makeup: Sbtrct Gentle Foaming Cleanser, £22 and Makeup Melt, £22
Out of all the cleansing bars I tried this was the most effective for removing makeup. This is down to the coconut-based surfactants which help to break makeup down as well as clear skin of dirt and grime. I've since discovered that the brand also has a specific remover called Makeup Melt, £22, which GTG digital writer Melanie Macleod described as 'excellent' and reported that it didn't sting her eyes.
The Gentle Foaming Cleanser is made with geranium and rose, using this felt (and smelled) more luxurious than some of the other bars. Plus, it comes with a porcelain soap dish which not only looks super chic but helps to keep it free from contamination from other bathroom sink inhabitants. Sbtrct is a zero-waste brand so naturally, the packaging here is plastic-free, minimal and the cardboard box the soap comes in is fully recyclable.
Best for sensitive skin with breakouts: Skin Sapiens Cleansing Bar, £11.99
This fragrance-free beauty bar created the least amount of lather when it came into contact with water. The pore-cleansing charcoal removes any dirt, while moisturising jojoba oil nourished my complexion enough to leave my skin feeling bright and hydrated rather than tight and thirsty. The INCI list contains just 13 (natural) ingredients, in fact, the entire brand was created with the ethos that fewer ingredients mean less chance of irritating even fragile skin. Plus, there's less impact on the environment that way. It's vegan too!
Best exfoliating cleansing bar: Drunk Elephant Juju Bar, £24
Very fine bamboo extract and purifying thermal mud create a subtle grainy effect for a mega gentle manual exfoliation, and I did feel that it worked to buff away dead skin and unclog pores. My skin certainly felt very clean after using it.
Because of the exfoliating benefits, I didn’t use this to remove my makeup but instead used it as a second cleanse. I also found it ever so slightly drying so would only recommend it to those with more oily skin types.
Best budget buy: Eco Warrior Sensitive Facial Bar, £3
Made with calming chamomile and calendula essential oils this cleansing bar smells truly great (although very sensitive types may wish to avoid essential oils). It was a tiny bit drying but did help clear up some spots and didn’t cause me to break out further, so I’m not complaining. The only downside was that it did sting a little when I got it in my eyes.
Best for sensitive skin: Galinée Prebiotic Cleansing Bar, £13
Formulated with microbiome boosting lactic acid, Galllinée claims that this fragrance-free cleansing bar is so gentle that it can be used on the most delicate areas (yup even your vulva) and is safe for babies.
This left my skin feeling clean and soft and wasn’t drying in the slightest. Although I don’t have sensitive skin (which this bar is actually formulated for), the cold weather has left me with some dry, red patches and this helped to clear them up. It also mopped up the slight oiliness I have around my nose and forehead, hence why this works for combination skin. It smells like that delicious scent of a baby’s head (just me?) which is weirdly addictive. I preferred using this in the morning since I found that it didn’t quite get rid of all my makeup so I had to follow up with a makeup remover.
Best for dry or mature skin: Eau Thermale Avène Ultra-Rich Cleansing Bar with Cold Cream, £7.74
Sometimes you just can’t beat basic. French pharmacy skincare brand Avène is well known for formulating products specifically for sensitive skin, however, there is also a light powdery scent so if you're looking for something unperfumed then this isn't for you.
It felt pretty creamy to use, and although it lathered up quite a lot it left my skin feeling soft rather than squeaky-clean. It did a good job of removing my makeup (except for mascara). Like the pots of cold cream of old, it leaves a creamy feel, which leaves dry skin supple.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed using cleansing bars. Using them was incredibly easy, you literally wet the bar, lather up the soap and massage into your face and rinse off. I found that the act of having something solid in my hands meant that I was more #present and I really thought about my cleanse.
My favourite was the Sbtrct cleanser, it smells great, looks pretty and did the best job at properly ridding my face of makeup and dirt. Although, if you’re a heavy makeup wearer then I’d say you’d want an additional eye makeup remover.
I’m not sure I’m quite yet ready to part from my more heavy-duty cleansers (all of the bars were pretty gentle) but I would absolutely use these as my travel cleanser, no more chucking liquids out at the airport.
More gloss: Is a cleansing pad the most eco alternative to face wipes?