It’s often the simplest and humblest of methods that are the wisest to adopt. With roots tracing back to ancient Babylon, soap’s been delivering the clean for literal millennia. And while the cleansing vessels have graduated from cisterns to waterfall shower heads, bricks of fatty acid salts can still be found next to their freshening brethren of body washes and beauty bars at many a local pharmacy.
While these expansion products can address the vexation of dryness, they can also contain artificial fragrances that can irritate the skin. Cedar, amber, and sandalwood are excellent after-shower aromas, but sensitive skin demands olfactory neutrality.
“Fragrances are potential sensitizing agents, meaning that your body may develop a reaction to them,” says Dr. Brendan Camp, a New York-based doctor with board certifications in dermatology and dermatopathology. “While most people tolerate scented products, those with more sensitive skin may develop signs of skin irritation, such as redness, scaling, itch, and stinging.”
Cutting out fragrance is one of the best ways to give sensitive skin a break without sacrificing clean.
The Best Unscented Soaps: At a Glance
Frequently Asked Questions About Unscented Soap
Are fragrances in grooming products bad for you?
Fragrances are not inherently harmful unless you already have sensitive skin, in which case both synthetic fragrances, which are made in a lab, and natural scents, like lavender, can be bothersome. “Those with sensitive skin may be more likely to have an allergy or irritation to products containing fragrance,” says Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at Cornell University.
Are unscented products better?
Better is subjective here but the bottom line is fragrance-free and unscented soaps could be better if you have dry, sensitive skin or a known skin condition like eczema, which could be more susceptible to irritation, Camp says. For everyone else, it’s more a matter of preference.
Are there ingredients that are common in unscented products that should be avoided?
Other than parabens and sulfates, both of which are controversial, there aren’t any deal-breakers. However, some people may also wish to avoid dyes and propylene glycol, a skin conditioning agent that has been associated with allergic contact dermatitis.
Is there a difference between soap, a beauty bar, and body wash?
A soap, by definition, is a salt from a fatty acid generated by mixing a fat or oil with an alkali such as lye, an essential chemical compound. A true soap causes a chemical and biological reaction that kills germs and makes it possible to wash those germs and oils away. On the other hand, body washes are basically just surfactants (like your household detergents) that cleanse the surface of the skin. Put another way, a soap can be a body wash, but a body wash probably isn’t a soap.
Is there a difference between unscented and fragrance-free?
Despite what is written on the label, most soaps will carry a light scent, called a masking fragrance, because the ingredients, such as aloe, have their own natural smells. However, these scents are likely to be subtle and short-lived.
Why do fragrances or scents irritate some people’s skin?
Some people are just predisposed to an allergy or sensitivity to particular ingredients, says Garshick. “Some ingredients can be irritating for anyone who is exposed to them… but this is more likely to occur in those with dry or eczema-prone skin,” she says.
What the heck does triple-milled or French-milled soap mean? It sounds fancy.
Milling is the process of refining the soap into a solid bar. Using commercial machines, the soap passes through tight meshes to break it down into small particles that then pass through tight rolling machines. This produces a more uniform soap paste that can be pressed into bars that will retain their shape and last longer. When this process is done multiple times, it’s called French milling because French soap makers pioneered the method. Because the process is more intensive and, well, French, it makes the soap most expensive.
Man or woman, the Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar is a silver bullet for those with sensitive skin and noses. It isn’t technically soap (it’s a beauty bar), but it offers all the benefits of the best unscented soap regardless. “This fragrance-free and hypoallergenic formula is suitable for eczema-prone skin and those with acne and rosacea, as it won’t leave the skin feeling dry or irritated,” Garshick says.
Formulated with moisturizing cream, it won’t dry out the skin like soap. If you want fast results for your skin, start here now.
Made For: People with sensitive skin who know they can’t stand the chemicals and fragrances common to other formulas. “This is a bar soap that’s mild enough to use on your face, hands, and body. It’s fragrance-free and ideal for dry skin,” says Camp.
ROI: It’s a little pricey for a 3.9-ounce bar but it’ll last you a while. Also, it’s safe for the face and the body.
Hot Take: Vanicream removes everything that whiffs of skin irritation, such as parabens, sulfates, and masking fragrances, leaving behind a foolproof, rich-lathering, skin-moisturizing unscented body bar.
Made For: People who aren’t sure if they would be served by a fragrance-free cleanser for sensitive skin but want to try something.
ROI: Even though the CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser Bar is slightly more expensive than some of its drugstore competitors, this is a fairly chonky brick and worth the expense.
Hot Take: CeraVe practically makes its own case thanks to its outstanding track record of fragrance-free products made for sensitive skin.
A La Maison
Made For: People who want a high-quality bar of soap that lasts a long time and offers an irritation-free clean.
ROI: The A La Maison Hypoallergenic Unscented Bar Soap has objectively great value for its price and sensitive skin-friendly qualities.
Hot Take: Of course, French people would be the ones to optimize bar soap production. If you can’t trust soap from the beauty capital of the universe to deliver on its promises, you can’t trust anything.
Made For: People who don’t need anything special in their soap as long as it skips fragrance, includes soothing ingredients, and doesn’t break the bank.
ROI: At 50 cents per bar of soap, your ROI doesn’t get much better than this.
Hot Take: Basis is the black coffee with one cream and one sugar of unscented soaps. It 100% gets the job done as far as sensitive-skin-friendly unscented soaps go.
Dr. Bronner’s Bar Soap
Made For: People who prefer ingredients they can understand and a product that works for face and body.
ROI: The Dr. Bronner’s Hemp Baby Unscented Pure-Castile Bar Soap runs above average price-wise but it’s the right price for people who want the vegan, essential oil-based formula.
Hot Take: Though oils can cause irritation for people with specific sensitivities, they feel great on skin for everybody else. Plus, the excessive number of five-star Amazon reviews don’t lie here: Dr. Bronner’s is highly trusted when it comes to gentle cleansing.
Made For: People who trust the nourishing, cleansing power of oats.
ROI: You’ll have to shell out a bit more for the unscented Aveeno Gentle Moisturizing Bar but it’s the single best option if you trust Aveeno or love what oatmeal can do for the skin.
Hot Take: Aveeno is the king of oats in grooming products and it’s a reliable strategy because oatmeal is universally known as a gentle cleanser. If other formulas haven’t been cutting it, give this a shot.
Made For: People who are sick of chronically dry and red forehead skin.
ROI: The Neutrogena Original Fragrance-Free Facial Cleansing Bar is average or cheaper-than-average compared to other unscented, sensitive skin-friendly soaps. The savings will add up surprisingly quickly in your wallet.
Hot Take: With no fragrance or dyes and a hypoallergenic, hydrating formula, this unscented soap is about as gentle as bar soap can be (without removing the actual soap in it).
Not all body washes or cleansing bars are soaps that clean in a clinical, traditional sense. When it comes to cleansing formulas, soap is basically just another ingredient that can be added to strengthen a product’s cleansing ability. That’s why some soap-free products that look like bars of soap call themselves beauty bars, bath bars, or cleansing bars and exclude the word soap from their packaging entirely.
The nature of a cleaning agent like soap is it’s also harsher than other ingredients and can cause irritation. Beauty bars may not technically qualify as “soap,” but they clean perfectly well for the average person’s day-to-day hygiene routine.