What's the difference between hand soap and hand wash?

The difference between hand soap and hand wash

We’re washing our hands more than ever, but what are we washing them with? What’s the difference between liquid hand soap and hand wash – and why does it matter?

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Liquid hand soap - the only truly natural cleansing agent 

Liquid soap is the product of a natural reaction between fat, alkaline and water. It came about around 5,000 years ago as a by-product of ash (alkaline) combining with animal or plant oils (fat) and water. Ancient civilisations quickly realised that this foamy lather could be used for cleaning their skin along with washing wool and cotton for textile manufacture. 

While the process of soap making has been refined over many years, the principles remain the same: natural oils are saponified – or mixed – with an alkaline solution such as lye (sodium hydroxide) to create bar soap, or potash (potassium hydroxide) to create liquid soap. The result is a 100% natural formulation that effectively cleans skin and breaks down bacteria.

Soap is naturally non-toxic, biodegradable and made with 100% natural raw materials. Liquid soap contains naturally-occurring glycerine, which is highly moisturising and leaves skin smooth and soft without the need for synthetic emollients or added moisturisers. 

But the natural origin of soap shouldn’t be confused with feel-good factor. Many scientific studies prove the efficacy of soap, including a 2007 study by Harvard Health which found that the unique molecular structure of liquid soap outperforms modern antibacterial hand wash while also protecting the skin’s microbiome.

A hand hygiene study conducted by Rutgers University, New Jersey found that water temperature plays no part in eliminating bacteria and other pathogens. The determining factor in hygiene was the use of soap. The same study found that antibacterial hand wash did not perform any better than liquid soap in removing bacteria from the skin. A 2015 study in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy reported the same findings. 

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Hand wash - the synthetic alternative

Hand wash is made with a basic detergent base - the same sort that you find under your kitchen sink. All hand wash (even those marketed as natural) are formulated with a synthetic surfactants, or foaming bases, like SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate), SDS (sodium dodecyl sulfate), ALS (ammonium lauryl sulfate) or SLES (sodium lauryl ether sulfate).

These surfactants are derived from petroleum or made synthetically. Either way, they are heavily processed. These surfactant detergents can be used as a base for hand wash, body wash, dishwashing detergent, laundry detergent and car cleaning detergent. 

The consumer trend away from SLS has seen it substituted for glucosides, which are foaming agents that are claimed to be 'naturally derived' but are heavily processed and synthesised in laboratories. 

Regardless of whether they are made from SLS or glucosides, hand washes are much quicker and cheaper to manufacture than liquid soaps. This is of significant benefit to the companies that sell them, but not to consumers. While hand wash mimics the function of true liquid soap, it cannot replicate the environmental and skincare benefits of natural raw materials.  

difference between hand soap and hand wash

Hand wash is known for its high foaming ability, which is the result of synthetic detergents

Does soap dry out skin? Busting soap myths

Marketing by detergent companies has seen liquid soap fall in popularity over the last couple of decades. Liquid soap has been branded as ‘drying on the skin’, while petroleum-based hand washes and shower gels formulated with synthetic fragrances, dyes and foaming agents have become fashionable. Many of these products proudly announce their soap-free status. But these washes - or detergents - can contain contact allergens that irritate the skin. The most common to look out for are synthetic fragrance, methylisothiazolinone, methylchloroisothiazolinone and cocamidopropyl betaine. 

Given its chemical structure, heavy processing and petroleum content, detergent is harsher on the skin than liquid soap. This means hand wash can cause the skin to become dry and irritated. Many manufacturers combat this by adding synthetic emollients to their formulations, which is a bandaid: the addition of synthetics to mask the effects of other synthetics is not a sustainable solution. 

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Discover Vogue Living's favourite organic hand soap

Hand soap v hand wash: the verdict

Hand soap and hand wash both disrupt and dislodge bacteria to effectively clean skin. With that in mind, the choice comes down to health, environment and the personal preference of skin feel, texture and fragrance.

Liquid hand soap is 100% natural and the only option for a truly organic formulation. Hand soap is non-toxic, biodegradable and grey-water safe, making it ideal for those who want clean products or are looking for a sustainable option. Want to to avoid animal-derived ingredients too? Look for vegan soaps that are made from plant oils, and avoid products that contain goat milk, lanolin, honey and beeswax.

Hand wash is formulated with basic detergents made up of petrochemical and synthetic materials. From a human health perspective, consumers should be mindful of products that contain harmful ingredients including sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES), sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS), ammonium lauryl sulphate (ALS), sodium myreth sulphate (SMS) , methylisothiazolinone, cocamidopropyl betaine and methylchloroisothiazolinone. Synthetic fragrances and dyes, which are very commonly used in hand wash, should also be avoided.

The wash up: if it's not soap, it's detergent

Whether your soap or wash comes from a supermarket, a chemist or a boutique - and whether it costs $5 or $50 -it’s important to know what you’re putting on your skin. If you prioritise your own health and the environmental impact of your choices, choose a natural, plant-based and biodegradable liquid hand soap over a detergent-based hand wash. 

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Shop WØRKS organic liquid hand soap and cream duo

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