How many times do I have to say it?
Stop. Using. Soap. On. Your. Skin.
(Even if it’s ‘natural’)
This feels a little bit like I’m putting a huge target on my back. I’m know that I’m taking on a skin care behemoth and picking a fight against hundreds or even thousands of people out there. But I’ve got to do what’s right in the name of healthy skin. And if you’re using these products your skin is probably calling out for some backup.
Why is African Black Soap so popular?
I love the internet – I do. And that includes social media and everything it’s given us. One thing I don’t love, however, is the proliferation of trendy ignorance and misinformation.
The current popularity of African black soap – be it from companies like Shea Moisture or through local sellers or even homemade – is no less than a social media frenzy. Log onto Pinterest, instagram or Twitter and you’ll see post after post claiming that black soap (alongside Witch Hazel, but that’s another issue) is solely to thank for the poster’s immaculate skin. Everyone from well-known celebrities to alarmingly young girls next door are claiming that this product is all you need.
Traditionally, black soap was and still is made by a variety of groups in Africa due to its cheap and locally-available nature and effectiveness as a cleaning agent.
The claims surrounding this type of soap as part of a skin care routine are vague, but seem to centre around its alleged ability to dry out acne and lighten pigmentation. I’ve also seen mention of exfoliation, soothing irritation and rashes, Vitamins A and E, caffeine and even that it offers UV protection (!).
What’s black soap made of?
Soap is made using a combination of oils and lye – a highly alkaline hydroxide usually produced from ashes. Mixed together, they form a product which cures over time, and the resulting solid suds up on contact with water, with an incredible and counter-intuitive ability to cut through the skin’s oils.
What gives black soap its name is the kind of ash that goes into it during processing. A mixture of plantain skins (similar to bananas), palm tree leaves, shea tree bark and/or powdered and dried cocoa pods are thoroughly roasted to create the ashes used for the lye. Olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil and/or shea butter are mixed with this dark lye base and cooked for a long period to create the final product. It’s left to cure and forms a dark or brown-hued soap over the coming weeks.
So what’s the issue with black soap?
There are some major drawbacks to African black soap which make it bad for your skin’s health.
Any soap, due to the nature of lye, ends up as a final product with an incredibly high pH. While the formulations can vary wildly, it usually sits around a 10 on the pH scale – that’s 1000x more alkaline than pure water, and similar to many household cleaning products. Our skin naturally hovers around an acidic pH of 5.5, which is primarily to keep infections and bacteria out through a protective layer that is referred to as the acid mantle. Regularly using such a high pH product will damage the acid mantle and irritate and aggravate the skin. Soaps like this can actually cause burns if left in direct contact with your skin for too long.
Not to mention that removing the skin’s oils so completely and harshly every day will lead to dehydration. Some natural oils should be allowed to remain on the skin to, again, protect the pH balance and keep microflora in check. Many reports say that this soap results in your skin feeling raw, cracked and peeling.
The final kicker is that black soap doesn’t ‘unclog’ pores any more than a normal cleanser. It lacks active ingredients at the proper concentration and formula to cause real improvement. It’s not special in any big way.
But how can you explain the real results people see?
If black soap is so objectively pointless and dangerous and bad for your skin, then why do people seem to like it at all?
Explaining that you’ve found the solution to acne and hyperpigmentation that’s something so simple and easily available, and guaranteeing it’ll work for everyone can not only earn virality and views, but also a sense of purpose and helping others. You provide them hope through sharing your experience – even if you have to gloss over the bad parts (which include tingling, tightness, dryness, irritation, sensitivity, oil compensation and more). It’s a good feeling.
There are studies showing that people report benefits of using the soap. The key word here is report. Self-reported studies are notorious for being weak to the placebo effect. People want to believe in the simple solution, and will often feel pressured to offer a positive opinion or show some sort of improvement or change. They’re looking for it, so that’s what they see.
At its core, this is just a soap. A soap with extra ingredients, sure, but a soap nonetheless. Oftentimes people who claim big things about this soap start with a fairly minor skin issue, and the mere implementation of any kind of routine – even a shitty one with a dangerous product – is the final push it needs to clear up entirely. For many people, this is the first product they’ve tried routinely and consistently. And any product could offer improvement in that scenario. It’s not the ingredients or the product or magic, but the presence of the routine itself.
You’ll know if you’ve been around my blog that skin care is complicated. It’s individual, it’s finicky, it’s ever-changing and it’s not perfect. And trust me when I say I know what it feels like to want a simple solution. Some people are desperate and impatient and have cystic acne and sensitive skin, and may use this soap on someone’s ill advice at a great detriment to themselves.
So, should you use African black soap?
That choice, as always, is totally yours. Science tells us that African black soap is bad for your skin. I believe there are better, more research based and gentler options to improve your skin’s appearance and health. But if you swear by black soap, who am I to tell you to stop. If you can’t live without it, consider dialing back on the frequency to avoid overcleansing and leading to dehydrated skin territory.
But let me say this: Cleanser isn’t the place in your routine to make miracles happen. Your actives, serums and treatment steps are where the real magic happens. Technology has come so far – those products are carefully formulated and stringently tested to adhere to skin’s pH and deliver effective ingredients to tackle certain issues like congestion or cystic acne to where they need to be in a safe and gentle manner. They can remain on your skin safely and do their work without the same risks. And you’ll be able to tailor your routine and find the perfect fit for your skin no matter what your issues are.
Blasting your skin with incredibly unpredictable, potent, drying soap as a cure-all is highly risky. And especially when you don’t mention those risks, or make it clear that skin care is individual and to exercise caution, you are willfully misleading others.