The Dirty Truth about What Loofahs Do to Your Skin

Bar soap, loofah, washcloth… what's the best way to clean and exfoliate yourself? We talked to dermatologists to settle the debate for good — and boy, I've never felt so wrong.

Soap

Every time I stay at a hotel, I’m forced to navigate a mystery set of soaps and cleaning tools — usually, a bar of soap and a washcloth. I may not be sophisticated enough to own a dopp kit, but I am a longtime member of Team Loofah, and I can tell you that merely wiping bar soap on my skin, or sponging it on with a cloth, leaves it feeling tight, dry and unclean. Especially in the bitter Chicago winter. No good!

“I like bar soap because they typically don’t have any funky chemicals,” says one commenter. “And they’re cheap AF vs. body wash.”

“I use bar soap because I have very sensitive skin,” says another, “and most body washes are too harsh on my skin.”

My editor admits he’s a frequent bar-soaper too, mostly out of pure laziness. [Editor’s note: Come on, doesn’t the loofah get disgusting? And who wants to throw a washcloth in the laundry every couple days? Also, I have great skin, thank God, and I never break out.]

Clearly, these men are misguided fools. If I understand anything about my fragile human body, it’s that it’s in a constant state of decay. I’m shedding dead skin left and right, so exfoliation is key to a proper cleanse that bar soap alone simply cannot achieve!

… Right?

To reaffirm my loofah-superiority complex, I reached out to a couple dermatologists to hear what they had to say. As it turns out, I had a lot to learn.

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Exfoliation Basics
“First, let’s take a step back and understand what an exfoliant actually is to better understand the different types and the role they can play in your skin care routine,” says dermatologist Dr. Erum Ilyas.

Ilyas explains that our skin is constantly renewing itself, and in that process, dead skin cells, oil and keratin — a protein from our skin — all accumulate on the surface. “These naturally will shed or exfoliate on their own,” she explains. “However, sometimes they will linger and accumulate in our pores or on the surface of our skin. This can result in the potential for acne or just a ‘dull’ overall appearance of the skin.”

Thus, we use exfoliants to remove the excess accumulation, “to treat and prevent acne and give the skin a ‘glow’ by revealing the skin hiding behind this layer.”

Once the excess accumulation is removed, Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a dermatologist in California, explains that this allows the products containing vitamins “to work more efficiently, as they can reach the newer, healthy cells — which may stimulate new collagen growth, and help skin appear brighter and ‘glowier.’”

The Case against Loofahs
Before you take a cheese grater to your face, Shainhouse warns against physical exfoliators like loofahs. Almost everyone’s skin type falls into a category where they should limit such exfoliation to twice a week, she says. “Harsher or stronger or more frequently does not mean better!” she says.

“Mechanical exfoliation … and other physical scrubbers can create tiny tears in the skin, irritate skin, remove the protective oils and impair the protective skin barrier, which could lead to loss of hydration and increased sensitivity to topical products.” Potentially, she says, it could “accelerate an aged appearance.”

Ilyas adds, “I realize there are a lot of devices and loofahs and skin brushes on the market, but I’m not a fan of tools. The amount of bacteria that has been shown to build up in loofah sponges alone, in studies, is enough proof that these may not be a great idea — unless you are meticulous about constantly cleaning these in a bleach solution.”

Ilyas says she’s had patients who were “so aggressive with facial scrubbing brushes and mechanical devices where they actually developed impetigo (an infection with staph bacteria) as a result.”

All right, I get it, my loofah is full of bacteria and tearing my skin apart. Where does that leave me then? Surely this is still better than just using bar soap and my own hands?

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Actually, there are different types of exfoliants out there — and it might be time for me to upgrade.

Loofahs and brushes are considered to be on the harsher end of physical exfoliants, while those soaps containing little beads and scratchy salts are on the lighter end.

“Physical exfoliants like granules, sugar, seeds or nutshells that are added to a cleanser have the feel of a physical scrub and help remove the buildup on our skin directly, while being less harsh on the skin, as they melt away in water,” explains Dr. Shainhouse.

In Defense of Bar Soap
“To get a simple wash, just use your hands,” Ilyas explains, turning my entire world upside-down. “Once you have soap and water on them, they are clean!” (Unlike, I’m gathering, my bacteria-infested loofah.)

Many bar soaps contain “chemical exfoliants,” Ilyas says, ingredients “such as alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids or enzymes … that are used to dissolve the fats or lipids in the superficial layers of skin to help shed the [dead skin cells] and the by-products of these cells, such as keratin and sebum or oil.”

Thus, Ilyas concludes, “there is nothing wrong” with simply wiping soap onto your body with your hands on a daily basis. “The detergent action of soap will also break down the oil and sebum that builds up on our skin,” she adds, and is healthier for your skin than scrubbing the living hell out of yourself with a loofah.

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That being said, direct bar soap isn’t the most ideal way to clean your skin, and some soaps can dry out your skin too much.

Dr. Fayne Frey, a dermatologist in New York, says classic bar soap “is a fatty-acid alkali salt made by combining a fat with a very strong base — lye.” Meaning it’s very acidic and “can therefore clean the skin very effectively,” but it “also removes the lipids and proteins needed to maintain healthy skin.”

The fact is, Frey says, “true soap can be very drying and irritating, especially for those with sensitive skin or patients who suffer from certain skin conditions, like eczema or psoriasis.” In other words, unless the bar soap is made specifically for sensitive skin, chances are it’s going to dry your skin out. This is the “tight” feeling you might get when using strictly bar soap.

Dr. Shainhouse says this means the soap has depleted your skin of its natural oils, which “help to create a protective barrier that helps to prevent moisture loss from the skin. Loss of these oils can lead to dry and irritated skin.”

So if bar soap will dry your skin out, and daily scrubbing with a loofah is equally damaging, what’s the answer?

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The Best Formula for Great Skin
Shainhouse adds that regular physical exfoliation should be done about twice a week. A good, occasional physical scrub “may stimulate new collagen growth, which can help slow down the appearance of skin aging and fine lines over time by removing the dead cells that sit in the wrinkles and removing darker skin cells, respectively.” It’ll also help your skin appear smoother and brighter, “because superficial, dulling dead skin cells have been removed.”

Meanwhile, bar soap alone doesn’t exfoliate your skin, Shainhouse adds. So in order to exfoliate without overdoing it, she recommends a grainy bar soap or liquid with ‘micro-scrubbing beads.’”

So using “gritty” bar soap some days, and assigning two days a week to loofah work? My life is nowhere near organized enough to start that kind of routine. Plus, I don’t know if I can just quit the feeling of a good loofah scrub, no matter how much it leaves me looking aged and decrepit.

Luckily, there’s a go-between. The dermatologists recommended using either liquid soap with dissolving exfoliants, or a scratchy bar of soap. “If you would like to use a gentle exfoliative,” Ilyas tells me,“then stick with ones that wash down the drain and are not reused, such as sugar scrubs, apricot scrubs, etc.”

Shainhouse adds some tips as well. Look for soaps with moisturizing ingredients like “hyaluronic acid or sodium hyaluronate, glycerin, vitamin E [and] Shea butter.” Moisturize within one to three minutes of showering, and pat dry your skin instead of rubbing “in order to absorb and lock in the water from washing.” And gel soaps in general are less drying than many bar soaps.

But if you’re loyal to the bar, that’s all right. The key, Shainhouse says, is to “try one that doesn’t foam up, which means it doesn’t contain sulfates.”

As for me, I can take no comfort in having been completely, utterly wrong. But you can pry my loofah out of my tight, dry hands.