Shower gel and body wash sound as though they're synonymous with one another, and while yes, they both cleanse the skin from the neck down, they technically aren't the same. In fact, depending on your skin type, you may want to steer clear of one or the other to avoid exacerbating conditions like body breakouts or excessive dryness. Of course, it's not as simple as choosing between categories (ingredient label sleuthing is key, always), so to help break down the difference between the two (as well as bar soap, because that's a whole other beast), we spoke with two top dermatologists for their thoughts.
Meet the Expert
- Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in Manhattan. She is also an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Cornell - New York Presbyterian Medical Center. Dr. Garshick specializes in a wide variety of cosmetic and medical procedures and services including treatments for acne, eczema, hyperhidrosis, moles, psoriasis, rosacea, signs of aging, skin cancer, skin tags, vitiligo, and wrinkles.
- Kaylan Pustover, DO, is a board-certified dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology in Manhattan. She provides treatment for a full range of dermatologic conditions including acne, rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, and skin cancer. She also offers cosmetic procedures including botox, fillers, and lasers.
Shower Gels, Body Washes, and Bar Soaps: What’s the Difference?
While the obvious difference comes down to texture, the more meaningful nuances have to do with the levels of hydration and the ingredients in a given formula. All of these products are "cleansers that use mild surfactants to help clean the skin," explains New York City-based, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick. Texturally, shower gels tend to be "firmer," she notes, while body washes are thinner liquids. While not every product in the category is the same, Garshick notes that bar soaps are generally "known to have a high alkaline pH which is thought to disrupt the natural skin barrier and strip the skin of its natural oils." (Translation: dry skin types might want to steer clear.)
In summary, "bar soap is great for someone who needs a quick lather and rinse, but it is the most harsh and can strip your skin's natural oils, leaving it dehydrated and irritated," says New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Kaylan Pustover. "Shower gel is also dehydrating to the skin and contains more fragrance compared to body wash, which can be irritating for those with sensitive skin. Body washes are the most moisturizing and hydrating out of the three."
These aren’t however, hard and fast categorizations. As you’ll see below, there are hydrating bar soaps and purifying body washes, so there’s definitely room to play around and find a product that’s both efficacious and sensorially enjoyable for everyone.
Body wash, shower gel, bar soap, and everything in-between all effectively cleanse the skin, but the right one for your skin type will effectively deliver actives to address breakouts or hydrating ingredients to help moisturize.
The Best Body Cleansers For Dry Skin
If you have dry, sensitive skin, or live in a cold, dry climate, it’s best to look for body washes—these tend to be creamier, more moisturizing formulas (you can specifically shop for ones with hydrating ingredients too). For example, both doctors recommend looking for a body wash with ceramides, which Pustover explains "will help keep the skin barrier intact and retain moisture." Hyaluronic acid and glycerin are also good ingredients to look for. For the most sensitive skin types, it’s often best to look for entirely fragrance-free formulas.
Dermatologist-selected picks for dry skin:
Fortified with all the good stuff dry skin needs, Dr. Pustover is a fan of this classic body wash. It’s enriched with ceramides to restore and maintain the skin’s natural barrier and hyaluronic acid to attract hydration and help skin retain and maintain it.
Looking to try something different? Even sensitive skin types can enjoy this uniquely textured shower oil. With seals of approval from both the National Eczema Association and the National Psoriasis Foundation, this one is a safe bet for even irritated skin. Made with vegetal biolipids (from coconut and sunflower esters), skin is left soothed, hydrated, and never tight.
Enriched with hero hydrators like lipids and glycerin, this ultra-nourishing body wash gets to work smoothing and softening skin in one use.
The Best Body Cleansers For Oily Skin
Oily skin types can use bar soaps and shower gels with less concern about drying their skin out. It’s best for acne-prone skin to look for many of the same ingredients used to combat facial breakouts. (Think: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.) If you have acne-prone skin but prefer a body wash, or want to be careful to avoid drying out your skin, Garshick recommends looking for products marked non-comedogenic or oil-free to “prevent pores from getting clogged and leading to worse breakouts.”
Dermatologist-selected picks for oily skin:
This soap-free cleanser is a shower multitasker (you can use it on your body and your face) that works to cleanse the skin with gentle surfactants while helping eliminate excess oil. The French pharmacy brand’s signature thermal spring water soothes, softens, and calms skin while zinc helps soothe inflammation.
The hero ingredient here is dermatologist-favorite salicylic acid, which helps fight current breakouts and prevent future ones. Garshick recommends salicylic acid-based body cleansers for people "who are very oily and notice clogged pores."
10% benzoyl peroxide in this formula acts as a powerful topical antibiotic to help address two key causes of acne: the growth of bacteria, and excessive oil. Dr. Garshick suggests this product for those who are suffering from “larger, red, deeper breakouts.” The benzoyl peroxide delivers oxygen to the pores, making it a bad environment for acne-causing bacteria, and effectively exfoliates, sloughing away dead skin cells and sebum so they can’t block the pores.
The Best Body Cleansers For Balanced Skin
Balanced (or "normal") skin types have it a little easier when it comes to shopping for their body cleanser of choice, as they will usually be able to select from any texture or type of cleanser. Still, like any other skin type, it’s best to look for products that "won’t strip the skin of its natural oils," something to beware of when it comes to cleansers in general, Garshick says. "It is always best to use a cleanser that will thoroughly cleanse, so the skin feels clean, but won't leave the skin feeling dry or tight," she says.
Dermatologist-selected picks for balanced skin:
Balanced skin types can generally indulge in an aromatherapy-enhanced formula sans irritation. Garshick is a fan of the Fresh shower gels, which come in a variety of scents. The Hesperides Grapefruit variation has grapefruit and lemon extracts which help tone and stimulate skin, shea butter to hydrate, and antioxidants from vitamins C and E to help protect skin.
Aloe vera, glycerin, and vitamin B5 are just a few of the hydrating ingredients that work to nourish the skin’s moisture barrier in this gentle, non-stripping body wash.
This iconic product cleanses and moisturizes at once, making sure the skin’s moisture is never depleted in the cleansing process. It contains a quarter of the brand’s moisturizing cream, which leaves skin soft and smooth. Garshick recommends this product because of how it nourishes and cleanses simultaneously.
Kawashima M, Nagare T, Doi M. Clinical efficacy and safety of benzoyl peroxide for acne vulgaris: Comparison between Japanese and Western patients. J Dermatol. 2017 Nov;44(11):1212-1218. doi: 10.1111/1346-8138.13996.