Asian woman in a blue shirt scratching itchy skin on her neck

People who grow up using good old bar soap are a resilient breed. If necessary, they can survive on a few essentials with ease, no matter how extensive their skincare routine gets. It’s an admirable lifestyle until they start using soap for itchy skin and similar issues. If you’re one of them and wondering what the big deal is, this next bit of information can change how you bathe.

What Exactly Is Soap?

Soap’s interesting story is equal parts legend and science. According to the American Cleaning Institute, the ancient Babylonians would make soap by mixing animal fat, vegetable oils, and alkaline salts from wood ashes. The Greeks and Romans had their own versions of it, too. The name “soap” comes from a Roman legend about Mount Sapo, a fictional mountain where this now-ubiquitous cleansing agent was first produced. 

It wasn’t until 1971 that the French patented the soap-making process of combining soda ash (sodium carbonate) and salt (sodium chloride). Modern soap is a mix of fatty acids and an alkali such as lye. However, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, most “soaps” today, whether solid or liquid, are synthetic detergents (syndets). These are surfactants or a mixture of surfactants that create lather, emulsify oil, and disperse dirt for easy cleaning. 

The FDA also notes that soaps can be a cosmetic, a drug, or both. If it’s intended for moisturizing, deodorizing, or adding fragrance, it’s a cosmetic. If it’s for killing germs to prevent disease or treat conditions like or , it’s a drug. Both kinds can use “soap” on the label regardless.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Soap for Itchy Skin

The use of “soap” as an umbrella term can make it difficult for consumers to differentiate a cosmetic product from a drug, such as a soap for itchy skin. You may end up choosing a product with fragrances and dyes that can cause further irritation or trigger .

Moreover, surfactants that aid in cleansing can be harsh on the skin. According to the , these can damage skin protein and lipids, leading to tightness, dryness, itching, and even barrier damage. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are the most popular surfactants with strong cleansing and lathering properties.

That said, not all surfactants are bad news; some advanced formulations use gentler alternatives suitable for dry or sensitive skin. like coco-betaine can be added to SLES to create a mild formula, like in soap for sensitive skin. Sadly, you wouldn’t find these formulas in most conventional bar soaps.

A 2022 article in the scientific journal Molecules concludes soap can disrupt the skin’s structural and functional integrity, degrading properties with long-term use. If you have skin issues, read the and product claims carefully. Better yet, avoid soaps and surfactants altogether to be safe.

How to Cleanse Itchy Skin

can be a symptom of other issues, so consult your dermatologist before trying any treatment. Meanwhile, you can minimize the itching by following these tips.

Bathe with lukewarm water.

Using hot water can rid your skin of moisture and cause further dryness and itching. Switch to and keep your baths or showers short.

Don’t use soap for itchy skin.

Try non-soap alternatives like Dove Beauty Bar Sensitive and the deeply-moisturizing Dove Sensitive Skin Body Wash. Unlike conventional soaps with high pH, both have a , making them gentler on the skin. They are and fragrance-free, and have Dove’s signature ¼ moisturizing cream to leave the skin soft, smooth, and hydrated.

Pat your skin dry.

Resist the temptation to pat your skin vigorously. Instead, pat your skin dry with a that doesn’t leave any fibers that may irritate your skin further.

Treat, then moisturize.

If you have a dermatologist-approved treatment, apply it before moisturizing. Give it a few minutes to absorb before slathering cream or lotion.

Manage your symptoms.

Avoid wearing tight or rough clothing, such as those made of wool. Remove sweaty clothes immediately after a workout and . Avoid extreme temperatures and manage indoor air with a humidifier, especially if you’re prone to .

Many of us grew up loving that squeaky-clean feeling from using soap. However, it may have consequences especially if your skin is dry or sensitive. Avoid using soap for itchy skin to prevent further irritation, and talk to your doctor about treatment options if your symptoms don’t subside.