Is Your Facial Cleanser Just Soap? Checking the Ingredients in Facial Cleansers

In the movie Fight Club, there’s a scene where Brad Pitt explains to Edward Norton how to make soap:

Now, ancient people found their clothes got cleaner if they washed them at a certain spot in the river. You know why? Human sacrifices were once made on the hills above this river. Bodies burnt, water speeded through the wood ashes to create lye. This is lye – the crucial ingredient. The lye combined with the melted fat of the bodies, till a thick white soapy discharge crept into the river.

– “Okay, but what does this have to do with my facial cleanser?” you ask.

The chemical reaction Pitt describes is called saponification: fatty acids + lye = soap. This saponification process is what you see in most Asian facial cleansers, making them not the gentle foamy cleansers as advertised, but rather liquid soaps with a very high alkaline pH. The higher the alkaline pH of a product, the more it swells our stratum corneum, leading to greater water and lipid loss (resulting in dryness and irritation).

So Why Do Manufacturers Do This?

It’s cheap (the production cost of such a product is low), it produces good foam, and it cleanses thoroughly to that symbolic “squeaky clean” feeling. You might not feel dryness after washing, but know that all the beneficial elements are harshly stripped from your skin. The rest of your skincare routine with ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide goes down the drain because you are daily destroying your lipid barrier.

How to Identify Such a Product

By looking at the ingredients list. After water, you will find one or more fatty acids (Palmitic acid, Stearic acid, Myristic acid, Lauric acid) and lye (Potassium hydroxide or Sodium hydroxide). Here are some examples of cleansers with saponified oils:

  • Dr. Jart+ Dermaclear Micro Foam Cleanser
  • Hada Labo Super Hyaluronic Acid Facial Wash
  • A’pieu Madecassoside Cleansing Foam
  • Tony Moly Clean Dew Foam Cleanser
  • CosRx Triple Hyaluronic Moisturizing Cleanser
  • Innisfree Bija Trouble Cleansing Foam

Head to your bathroom and check your bottles. Generally, if you have a Korean cleanser, it’s likely made with saponified oils.

What to Do If You Find Out Your Cleanser Is Soap?

If possible, consider purchasing a different cleanser. If not, make sure to choose more gentle products next time.


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