For decades, soap was reserved for the wealthy elite, and it was not until 1884 when the introduction of sodium hydroxide as a cost-effective compounding agent made soap more of a mainstream commodity in England. By combining fats and oils with an alkali base, early manufacturers figured out how to make surfactants bind to the proteins in the stratum corneum to loosen the skin’s hold on water, thereby whisking away impurities from the surface of the skin.
Throughout the 20th century, consumers saw trends gravitate toward deodorant bars and beauty bars. But with the high-alkaline bars came high incidence of skin irritation, which paved the way for the introduction of synthetic detergents in 1948 and less-irritating cleansing bars. The use of the fatty acid isethionate and higher levels of fatty acids helped make the cleansing products of the 1960s less drying to the skin. In the 1990s, moisturizing body washes and liquid cleansers conferred the same benefits to the body. Today, cleansers do much more than remove sweat, oil, dirt, pollution and makeup. They also offer anti-aging benefits and help mitigate different types of skin conditions.
Fortunately, facial cleansers have evolved greatly, granting us more options beyond bar soap, which can be highly irritating due, in part, to its high pH of 9 or 10 compared to the skin’s surface pH of 4.7. While bar soaps often rob the skin’s water barrier of precious natural oils, liquid cleansers can help keep the skin in a more natural balance.
Modern formulators will often tweak the alkalinity of a soap’s pH to reduce skin irritation while also incorporating ingredients to help allay irritation.
To help understand the different types of bar and liquid cleansers, consider the following:
- True soaps with long chain fatty acids alkali salts with a pH of 9 to10.
- Combars, which are alkaline soaps blended with surface actives, with a pH of 9 to 10.
- Syndet, or synthetic detergent agents, such as sodium cocoyl isethionate and sulphur trioxide, as well as added moisturizers like lanolin and paraffin.
- Typically, syndets contain less than 10 percent soap and have a pH of 5 to 5.7. Most bar soaps made by cosmetic companies comprise these products. Also known as beauty bars, they are favored by the skin care industry for their less irritating effects.
Cleansers owe their core function to surfactants, which typically fall into one of the four basic groups: anionic (foaming with negatively charged ions), cationic (positively charged ion), zwitterionic (positive and negative ions) and nonionic (think: non-foaming baby products).
"Preservatives, the perceived villains of cleansers, actually serve a vital role in keeping cleansers free of bacterial growth."
Common detergents found in liquid formulations include sodium laureth sulfate, cocoamido propyl betaine, lauric acid diethenolamine (lauramide DEA), sodium cocoyl isethionate, and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate.
In addition to surfactants, or detergents, these cleansers typically contain moisturizers, fragrances and preservatives. Look for water-soluble nonionic surfactants, sulfosuccinates, isethionates and taurates to help lower irritation incidence.Other nonionic surfactants, including polyethylene glycols and acyl-polyglycoside, as well as silicone surfactants, gently cleanse while helping the skin retain moisture.
Moisturizers may simply lubricate the skin with emollients, such as lanolin, mineral oil, and ceramides, or they may comprise a class of ingredients known as humectants, such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which draw water to the skin.
While fragrances may make the cleanser smell great, they can also be highly irritating to skin. You may also find ingredients such as sodium carboxymethylcellulose and other cellulose derivatives on the label. These are foam builders and help make the lather feel creamy.
Matching Cleansers to Conditions
A good acne-fighting cleanser can play a critical role in clearing this common condition. The FDA recognizes several key actives for acne products: benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, salicylic acid, and resorcinol.
Benzoyl peroxide exfoliates the skin and kills bacteria. Resorcinol works as an antiseptic and helps break down rough, scaly skin. Like benzoyl peroxide, sulfur can also help interfere with bacterial growth, while salicylic acid helps clear blocked pores and reduces swelling and redness. Acne cleansers may also contain antibacterial agents such as triclocarban and triclosan. However, these ingredients should be used with caution as, although they may benefit oily or acne-prone skin, they can also lead to irritation.
Cleansers for Dry and Sensitive Skin Types
Sensitive skin benefits more from what is not in a cleanser than what is. People with this skin type should select cleansers that are pH-balanced and free of irritants, such as fragrance, (the number one offender for triggering allergic reactions), irritating surfactants like sodium laurel sulfate and anionic surfactants that contain carboxylate and sulfate ions. Even some seemingly benign essential oils, such as chamomile, have been reported as allergenic.
Syndets, or synthetic cleaning agents, contain chemicals such as sulphur trioxide, sulphuric acid and ethylene oxide, are often paired with lanolin or paraffin to gently treat sensitive or dry skin. For those with dry skin, emollient cleansers that are wiped off rather than rinsed are often recommended.
Cleansers for Photoaged and Mature Skin
Today, cleansers cater to a wider range of skin needs with formulations targeting sun-damaged and aged skin. In these instances, look for products with antioxidants, like vitamins C and E and alpha hydroxy acids to gently exfoliate dead skin cells. Lipid-free cleansers – that is, liquid products that clean without fats – often contain glycerin, water, cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. They can leave behind a thin moisturizing residue and are useful in removing cosmetics on sensitive or photoaged skin.
Coming Clean with Cleansers
Read the fine print on liquid soap as sodium laureth sulfate will most likely be listed. Although given a bad reputation by its closely named cousin, sodium lauryl sulfate, this foaming surfactant is not near as irritating and helps give the product its lather.
Cocoamidopropyl betaine, another common ingredient, soothes and moisturizes skin. You may also see lauric acid diethenolamine and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate on the ingredients lineup. These ingredients help the soap’s
The number of ingredients that can be used to make up a facial cleanser is as plentiful as the number of creams, lotions, pads, gels, soaps, scrubs and self-foaming cleansers stocking the shelves.
As a general rule, choose cleansers that are gentle and water-soluble; contain the bare minimum irritants or drying cleansing agents; can remove makeup without stripping skin; rinse without a residue; and contain minimal fragrance. As long as the skin continues to renew itself, there will be a need for this critical fixture on the bathroom vanity.
As lead chemist and CEO of Allure labs, Sam Dhatt directs from a place of understanding and knowledge about the multifaceted world of skin care. For over 20 years, he has created skin care products for hundreds of companies globally and also founded DermaQuest in 1999. Dhatt leads a team of accomplished chemists who have shared his philosophy and dream of developing nonpareil products since his progressive use of alpha hydroxy acids in 1992. His most recent formulations have secured his place as the leader in botanical stem cell technology, the foremost innovation in advanced skin care.
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