Why do we cleanse our skin?

Your skin plays an important role in your health and well-being. It carries your blood vessels, supports your nerve endings and houses your sweat glands. Your skin protects you from the harsh extremes and sharp edges of the environment, controls your temperature and shields you against a loss of fluids. Finally, it fends off bacteria, serving as your most extensive shield against disease.

Your skin is a living organ and therefore new cells are continually being manufactured and dead cells are continually being shed. Unfortunately this does not mean the cells simply drop off the body. Natural secretions from the sebaceous and sweat glands can prevent the skin from exfoliating properly, causing a build-up of these dead cells. Minute particles of dust and pollution also collect on the skin as do bacteria. If the skin is not cleansed properly, breakouts or severe dryness could result.

Skin care products and make-up must also be removed thoroughly as they can also inhibit exfoliation and encourage bacterial growth. Approximately 83% of women under the age of 65 use make-up regularly or occasionally (67% of women use make-up daily) yet only 44% use a cleanser daily. This translates to a lot of make-up not being cleansed off.

What is soap?

Soap is the oldest cleanser, usually a mixture of sodium salts and various fatty acids. Bar soaps vary in contents from brand to brand depending on the fats or oils used. So called neutral soaps actually are alkaline with a pH of up to 10 when dissolved in water. Soap is usually also found in shaving creams because the alkalinity helps to soften the beard for shaving.

What is pH and how does it affect our skin?

This is a measure of the Hydrogen ion concentration , and so the acidity or alkalinity of a solution. Expressed numerically as 1 to 14; 7 is neutral, below this is acid and above this is alkaline.

The skin produces sebum which forms a thin layer on the skin called the acid mantle. This acid mantle protects against moisture loss and bacterial invasion and has a pH of around 4.5 to 5.5. Without this protective layer the skin feels dry, can age faster and is at risk of developing infections.

The effects of acids and alkalis on the skin

a) Reduce redness - vaso constrictive.

b) Antibacterial.

c)Reduce sensitivity.

a) Increase redness - vaso dilatory.

b) Encourages bacterial growth - Staphylococcus and Streptococcus.

c) Increases sensitivity.

Ingredients of soap

Caustic soda (sodium hydroxide, soda lye): - an alkali and emulsifier, can cause irritation.

Potassium stearate: - an alkali and de-foaming agent, can cause skin sensitivity.

Sodium lauryl sulphate: - a detergent and wetting agent, can cause dryness and irritation.

Petrolatum: - an emollient, occlusive and comedogenic

Sodium cocoate: - a detergent, allergenic

Lanolin: - an emollient and emulsifier, allergenic, comedogenic and possibly carcinogenic

Propylene glycol: - humectant, can be drying if moisturising ingredients are not added.

Stearic acid: - thickener, allergenic.

FD& C colourants: - coal tar derived colourants, comedogenic and allergenic

Mineral oil: - lubricant, occlusive and comedogenic.

Fatty alcohols: - supponifier, can cause hives.

Fragrance: - disguises odours and "signatures" products, allergenic and photosensitising

Soap and bacteria

Whilst it is believed that a bar of soap will clean the skin, this could not be further from the truth. As we have seen, a bar of soap is very alkaline and our skin very acid. Alkaline, being the stronger one of the two, will completely strip the skin of its protective acid mantle for a period of two hours, leaving it dry and vulnerable to bacterial invasion.

Secondly, bacteria love an alkali environment and a bar of soap is the perfect breeding ground. The soap is kept in a dark and warm bathroom all day and most of the time in a wet or damp soap-dish. Upon touching the bar of soap, thousands of dead skin cells are transferred, giving the bacteria something to eat - Delicious!

Thirdly, do you use your bar of soap on your face only, or do you use it on your whole body? Does your whole family use that same bar of soap? If so, you have a veritable zoo growing on your soap bar.

What is recommended for cleansing the skin?

The best cleansers are creams or gels because they can easily be made the correct pH for our skin - but even here you have goodies and baddies. Here are a few tips to follow when buying a cleanser.

  1. Ensure that the cleanser comes in contamination-free packaging. Tubes and bottles that keep out dust and bacteria will ensure a healthier skin.

  2. Beware of artificial colours and fragrances as these can cause pigmentation, comedones, sensitivity and allergies.

  3. Try to use a product that displays all or most of its ingredients. In South Africa, manufacturers do not have to display any ingredient listing, so that may be a little difficult, but you are more than welcome to write to the manufacturer and request the information. If they won't give it to you, don't use the product. If you don't understand the ingredients, ask your skin care therapist ( it is their job to know what is in cosmetics and why it is there.)

  4. If you are a soap and water lover, try out a soap-free cleansing gel. The gel contains herbal foaming agents that can foam just as well as a bar of soap, without the dryness. Men can also use cleansing gels to shave with. This will help with the sensitivity that always accompanies shaving

  5. If you suffer with a dry skin, rather use a soap-free cream cleanser than a gel as you want to retain as much moisture as you can. Some people may feel that the cream does not cleanse as effectively as a gel, but this is not the case. If you have tried a cream cleanser and you still want foam, then add a tiny drop of gel to the cream and mix it together. This will give you a foamy cream cleanser that will retain essential moisture.

  6. Oily and acne skins benefit from a soap-free gel cleanser because it will help to remove the excess sebum produced by the skin and the acidity helps fight against troublesome bacteria

  7. Try to use soap-free bubble bath and natural essential oils in the bath rather than heavily perfumed and coloured bath additives that can cause photosensitivity and allergies. If you have severe skin sensitivity or have been advised by your doctor not to soak in bath additives, then avoid this type of bath product altogether.

  8. To cleanse the body, rather use body cleansing gels or shampoos. Soap- free cleansers do not leave as much scum around the bath as fatty soap bars do. A good rule of thumb is if something is called "soap" chances are it has soap in it and must be avoided. Buy a pump bottle to put at the basin for washing the hands.

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