To Soap Or Not To Soap? How do cleansers work? What should you use?

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 How does soap work, and what kind should you use

Understand your options and choose the right cleanser for your skin.

There are so many options for keeping your skin clean.

You can choose solid bar soap, liquid soap, and a variety of hand, face, or body washes.

Deciding what’s best for your skin takes the ability to recognize a well-made product, as well as trial and error to see what you like. And if you’re making your own cleanser, it’s important to understand exactly what a cleanser is and does, so your recipe will be truly effective.

Our names are Michelle and Marissa. As instructors at Aromahead Institute, we’ve worked with students for years to guide them in choosing (and making!) the best products for their skin. In this post, we’ll give you the information to make an educated decision about what’s best for you. 

You’ll also learn about the role essential oils can play in soaps and cleansers.

And finally, you’ll get some effective recipes you can make yourself!

What is a cleanser?

A cleanser is a product used to remove dirt, natural oils, germs and other undesirables from the skin

These cleansers usually contain some kind of surfactant

Surfactant is another word for “surface active agent,” a fancy way of saying that something gathers up dirt and oils and removes them from surfaces (like your skin). 

Surfactants are used in the cosmetic industry in products that are designed to cleanse and get foamy and bubbly…think shampoos, body washes, soaps, and hand washes. They can be completely natural, naturally derived, or synthetic. 

Here’s how they work…

A surfactant substance is made of molecules with two ends:

  • One end that’s attracted to water.
  • One end that’s NOT attracted to water. This end is drawn to other substances, like dirt.

When a surfactant molecule is applied to a surface—such as your skin—one end of the molecule is attracted to dirt. But the water-loving end of the molecule is just hanging out there, not doing anything… until water comes along! 

Then the water-loving end of the molecule grabs onto the water and gets rinsed away. (Imagine the entire molecule “surfing” away on the water.)

That’s how surfactants wash dirt and other substances away from your skin.

Let’s explore some cleansers!


Soap is a very precise term, and yet we have so many varieties and ways to enjoy it! 

Technically, soap is always made from two main ingredients: fats (such as carrier oils), and an alkali (which is a material with a very high pH, also known as a “base”). Alkaline substances can be found in various places in nature. (Ash is a natural alkali that was used in traditional soap making throughout history.)

In soap making, a fat and an alkali combine in a chemical reaction called saponification.

Soap also contains a little naturally occurring glycerin, which is a humectant that attracts moisture to the skin. 

Soap can be used undiluted, so it’s easy to enjoy working with as an aromatherapist. 

Soapmakers specialize in creating different formulas to suit your needs, producing either finished bar soap, or soap that you can customize with essential oils—such as melt-and-pour soap or liquid castile soap. The specific carrier oils and butters used in a soap’s formula have a huge influence on how it feels on your skin and how it lathers, so it’s fun to find the ones that fit your skin best! 


SPOTLIGHT: Liquid Castile Soap

Where it comes from: Naturally occurring chemical reaction between
an alkaline agent and (typically plant-based) oils or fats. 

When to use: When you want to make a fast and easy liquid cleanser
without a complex formulation process. 

Benefits: Liquid castile soap is easy to find, affordable, safe to use
undiluted, and is helpful in reducing the spread of germs.

“Soap Free” Cleansers 

Hand or body washes labeled as “soap-free” include surfactants with a different chemistry and manufacturing process than soap. 

How natural are these surfactants?

Some are direct plant extracts, such as yucca extract, quillaja bark extract, and soapberry saponin extract.

Others are naturally derived, where a component of the plant is modified into a surfactant.

And some surfactants are fully synthetic.

There are many types of natural (and naturally derived) surfactants used in cleansers. 

Some examples you might see in a cleanser’s ingredients list include:

  • coco betaine
  • coco glucoside
  • caprylyl/capryl glucoside
  • decyl glucoside

Each surfactant has different chemical properties and foaming abilities, and a different skin feel. They can even be mixed together to customize their performance and texture. 

When properly formulated, cleansers made with these surfactants are ideally pH balanced between a range of 4.5 and 5.5, and often contain other ingredients such as skin softeners (emollients) to keep your skin in good shape. 

Oil-Based and Lotion Cleansers

Oil-based and lotion cleansers work in a similar way as surfactants—they bind to dirt and other molecules, allowing them to be easily removed from skin.

Oil-based and lotion cleansers are remarkably gentle, and are popular with people who have very dry or sensitive skin, who don’t want to rely on soap or surfactant cleansers. They’re often made with light, non-pore-clogging oils (such as hemp seed oil or argan oil).

Using them involves massaging the cleanser into your skin, then rinsing or gently rubbing the cleanser away.

What type of cleanser is right for you? 

Each has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on what you want to achieve and how comfortable you are with each category. 

We’ve outlined some of these for you below!


True Soap

Non-Soap Surfactants

Oil Cleansers





Reduces spread of germs




Easy to make your own cleanser, no formulating knowledge required



x *

Extra benefits, such as added ingredients for skin care




* Oil-based cleansers are easy to make and can have long shelf lives, assuming that no water-based ingredients are added.

Do essential oils enhance cleansers?

Cosmetics and cleansers enhance our well-being and make us feel more attractive.

There are plenty of ways essential oils can support this!

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Essential oils offer a range of emotional benefits. Some can help you feel more relaxed, while others pep you up and sharpen your mental clarity. Essential oils can inspire peace, confidence, playfulness, and more.

Inhaling the aromas of essential oils while you wash is a great way to enjoy their benefits.

As for helping you feel more attractive… who doesn’t feel more beautiful when they’re happy?

What’s more, when we enjoy a product, we look forward to using it. Think of a wonderfully uplifting, energizing hand wash with a fresh, lovely scent. It’s more fun to use, so you’re more likely to wash your hands often throughout the day. Or imagine a calming, floral “sleepy time” body wash for an evening shower as part of a relaxing bedtime ritual!

Aromahead’s Recommended Recipes

Note from Karen: At Aromahead, we’ve shared lots of recipes for foaming soaps and cleansing oils. We’re including a few of our most popular recipes here (to complement Michelle and Marissa’s post) so you can make your own effective blends.

Foaming Castile Soap

Foaming castile soaps are easy to make. Use them as body wash, shower or bath soap, facial cleansers, and hand soap. In addition to the recipe below, you’ll find lots of recipe ideas on the blog! 

Conifer and Citrus Foam Soap

  • 6 oz (177 ml) Castile soap

  • 1.5 oz (44 ml) Vegetable Glycerin

  • 20 drops Sweet Orange oil (Citrus sinensis)

  • 10 drops Douglas Fir oil (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

  • 10 drops Norway Pine oil (Pinus resinosa)

Directions: Add all ingredients to an 8 oz foaming soap PET container. Gently shake, blending all ingredients. 

Conifer and Citrus foam soap

Substitute any citrus oil for the Sweet Orange, and your favorite conifer essential oil for the Douglas Fir or Norway Pine.

Cleansing Oils

Some areas of skin can be very sensitive, such as the face.

If you find surfactants such as soap too harsh, you can use a cleansing oil or lotion, such as the “Resins and Petals” recipe below, or this one from The Aromahead Blog.

The important thing is to gently rub it into the skin as you wash, and then rinse off these products.

Resins and Petals Soap-free Face Wash

  • 1 oz (30 ml) Rosehip Seed oil (Rosa rubiginosa)

  • .75 oz (22 ml) Aloe Vera Gel (Aloe barbadensis)

  • 2 drops Elemi essential oil (Canarium luzonicum)

  • 2 drops Frankincense essential oil (Boswellia carterii)

  • 2 drops Rose absolute (Rosa × damascena)

Directions: Add all ingredients to a 2 oz pop-up PET container. 

Resins and Petals foam soap recipe

Substitute another oil distilled from a resin such as Opoponax (Commiphora guidotti) or Rock Rose (Cistus ladanifer) for Frankincense or Elemi. To substitute the Rose absolute, use an essential oil distilled from petals such as Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Rose otto (Rosa x damascena), or Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata).

Your Skin is Unique

Finding the right soap-based (or soap-free!) cleanser for your skin may take experimentation.

But now you’re “armed” with the knowledge of how an effective cleanser works. 

You can identify high-quality natural products, and make informed choices about what you’re putting on your skin. 

And if you’re making your own soaps and cleansers, you have a science-based background for understanding how they work.

Have fun keeping clean!

Further Reading

About the Authors

Michelle Gilbert, CCA, APAIA, R.SPE.P. is an instructor at Aromahead Institute, where she mentors aromatherapy certification students through their case studies and provides support on the student forum.

Michelle-Gilbert-CCAWhile working at a stressful job in health care in the 1990s, an aromatherapy spray got her hooked on the benefits of essential oils.

She went on to become the creative director of a successful natural bath and body company, and eventually a clinical aromatherapist, practitioner, writer, and business consultant.

Michelle is passionate about helping students bust through the knowledge gaps and creative blocks that keep them from feeling confident.

In her free time, Michelle enjoys finding new life in old stories, whether renovating her historic home or writing love letters with vintage fountain pens.

Marissa Berghuber, CA is a certified aromatherapist and medical laboratory scientist from Perth, Western Australia. She is a case study and forum instructor for Aromahead Institute, where she helps to guide students through their course work.

Marissa BerghuberSince Marissa’s first aromatic encounter, she was fascinated by essential oils and understanding how they work.

This initial curiosity has led her on an enriching path in fostering relationships with essential oils, herbs and other plant life.

Marissa takes great joy in working with students and supporting them in their own journeys, knowing that their studies are creating strong advocates for the safe and effective use of aromatherapy.

Outside of work, Marissa enjoys spending time with her family, gardening, growing herbs & vegetables, and formulating skin and body care products.

Beginner's Guide to Essential Oils


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