Soap vs shower gel vs body wash: what’s the difference between these shower-time favourites?

We give you the lowdown the best type of body cleanser for you

Man in the shower using a body wash
(Image credit: Getty)

People have been scrubbing their bits clean in the shower for donkeys' years; it’s a customary tradition that goes back millennia. One thing that has changed over that time, however, is the type of soap we use. It's rare to come across someone who uses the exact same type and brand of cleanser to wash with their entire lives. That's probably because, as humans, we like to mix things up from time-to-time; try different things and see how it works out for us. The same goes for showering.

Nowadays, there are three main types of wash products to choose from: shower gels, body washes and your more conventional soap bars. Each has its very own benefit and will appeal to different people, which we'll go into soon. But firstly, it's worth discussing their ingredients.

You've probably never really thought about it, but the product you use to wash away yesterday's filth is pretty important. Our skin is an absorbent; a living organ, so what you rub into it daily should be of good quality and well thought through. This is because the way these ingredients are experienced differently depending on whether you're using a supermarket-bought shower gel, one of the best body washes for men, or a soap block you stole from a hotel. 

But what's the real difference between the three, exactly? And which kind is the best to wash with? Read on to find out...

Soap vs body wash

(Image credit: Carbon Theory)

Soap bars

It’s pretty obvious what sets a bar of soap apart from its liquid siblings, the shower gel and body wash. Despite somewhat old school associations with cheap hotels and grandmas, soap has seen a bit of a resurgence in recent years, made more desirable by brands who have adopted it as a product of sophistication. High street beauty company Lush certainly helped make soap cool again, and many have followed suit. 

Still, you need to be cautious when buying soap bars as the cheaper options might not have the same nourishing or moisturising qualities as their high profile counterparts, as certified dermatologist and LovelySkin CEO Dr. Joel Schlessinger notes.

“Bar soap can be somewhat harsh on the skin, because the high alkaline nature of traditional soaps strip skin of moisture and throw off pH levels,” Schlessinger says. “However, advanced bar soap formulations are much more sophisticated and some, in fact, don’t even contain soap. I recommend choosing bar soap vs. body wash if you have very oily skin or if you live in a humid climate.”

He adds that bar soaps should be rinsed thoroughly in between uses to avoid a build-up of bacteria.

Some of our favourite soap products include Carbon Theory’s Charcoal and Tea Tree Oil Break-Out Control Facial Cleansing Bar, which is only £6 from Boots, and Gruum’s söp

Solid soap bar, which comes in mandarin, aloe vera, coconut, or honey and oatmeal flavours.

Dr Teal’s

(Image credit: Dr Teal’s)

Body washes

One of the most popular, modern-day alternatives to a soap bar is body wash. Although you might be surprised to find that body wash doesn’t actually contain liquid soap as you’d think. 

The main point of difference between solid soap and body wash is the base ingredient that provides the foaming, cleaning element. According to British eco-friendly retailer Kankan, the pH level of a “normal” soap is usually around 9-10 pH, which is considerably higher than the skin's normal pH levels of 6-7. However, body wash tends to have a much lower pH level of between 3-5, making it more gentle and non-drying for all skins, especially the sensitive kind. 

“Body washes are - for the most part - more hydrating and gentler on skin,” the company says. “People with eczema or psoriasis need to ensure they're not changing the pH of their skin too much to avoid irritation. Avoiding bar soaps that aren't specifically moisturising can help, as does using gentler body washes that are neutral or below the normal pH levels.

Not sure which body wash to go for? One of our favourite products in this market is Nuasan’s Active Body Wash, which boasts a formula of natural ingredients that help relieve and repair sore, tired muscles after exercise. Another is Dr Teal’s Pure Epsom Salt Body Wash with Lavender, which is super soothing on the skin and nice and relaxing before bedtime.

Check out our best body wash for men buying guide for some more ideas.

Soap vs body wash

(Image credit: Original Source)

Shower gels

While most people won’t be able to tell apart a shower gel and a body wash, they aren’t the same thing. Yes, they both serve the same purpose, to clean the body, but the way they do it and the additional benefits they provide tend to differ. 

Skincare and beauty giant Johnsons says that while both are liquid cleansers used on the body, the main difference between the two is textural.

“Shower gels have a firmer, gel-like consistency and are more fragrant and pleasing to the senses, while body washes are more moisturising and hydrating than shower gels,” the company notes.

Shower gel is usually cheaper and of a thinner consistency when compared to body wash, akin to the Radox or Lynx products that you find on supermarket shelves for 99p. This is probably why body wash is generally more expensive. It tends to be more viscous and concentrated with ingredients, such as essential oils, which are usually more potent and nourishing. 

While those with oily or combination skin tend to see benefits from using a shower gel over a body wash, those with drier or mature skin find a body wash works best.

Some of our top shower gels include the long-time favourite Original Source Mint and Tea Tree for an early morning shock to the senses, and Sanex’s Sanex Dermo Moisturising Shower Gel, which is specifically developed for normal to dry skin.

Lee Bell
Lee Bell

Lee Bell is a freelance journalist & copywriter specialising in technology, health, grooming and how the latest innovations are shaking up the lifestyle space. From national newspapers to specialist-interest magazines and digital titles, Lee has written for some of the world’s most respected publications during his 11 years as a journalist.