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Why Does Bar Soap Make Your Skin Feel Sticky?

Crummy bars with questionable drinks, and cheap bar soap with weird after-sensations have a lot in common—namely, both have us asking, “Why does bar soap make your skin feel sticky?”

The answer for bars is probably an easy one (you stuck your elbow in someone’s spilled drink again). But the reason that bar soap leaves your skin feeling gross, sticky, and tight is more complicated.

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Why Does My Skin Feel Sticky?

The short answer is residue. Most soap bars are basic—the opposite of acidic—which means they strip the oils from your skin and leave behind a clean film whenever you use them. That’s the point of soap, right?

Well, not really. That’s what the average bar of soap does, but the average bar of soap isn’t that great for your skin. Just like a bad bar hookup, it’ll dry you out while still managing to leave you sitting in a sticky mess.

The longer answer might be a combination of the water you’re using and how it’s interacting with the chemicals in your soap. Hard water, with lots of calcium and magnesium, loves to pair up with soap to create a thick, skin-drying film.

Not only will it leave this residue all over your body, but it will coat your shower and even clog your drain faster. As an added bonus, by the time you try to fish the scum from the drain, the soap scent will have turned rancid from sitting in a dark, moist environment for so long.

So, to sum up here, it’s either your soap, water, or a combination of the two that’s making your skin sticky. The quickest way to get rid of that gross residue is by switching soaps.

Why Does Bar Soap Make Your Skin Feel Tight?

You may notice that right after asking yourself, “why does bar soap make your skin feel sticky?” that it also feels tight. That tight skin feeling usually comes right after the sticky feeling. It means your soap has successfully ransacked your skin’s usual natural moisture, leaving behind nothing to keep you hydrated.

Without any natural oils and fats resting on the surface of your skin, you lose supple-ness, creating that unnatural tight feeling. 

The easy way to combat this is by using a separate moisturizer after you wash your hands or your body, but doesn’t that seem like a ripoff? Shouldn’t your soap be able to do all the work?

Plus, there’s a downside to using a dehydrating soap, then a moisturizer directly afterwards. Maybe you’ve felt that weird, burning, tingling sensation when you apply lotion to dried out skin. Or perhaps you’ve had a lotion that never seems to actually hydrate your skin, but just rests on the surface, making everything slippery.

That happens because you’re swinging wildly between product pH levels, which measure how acidic or basic a substance is. As we said earlier, soap is basic. But lotion tends to be acidic, to match the acidity of our skin.

And, if you still have soap residue on your hands, that lotion isn’t going to work like it’s supposed to. Either it’s going to sting because of the shocking chemical difference, or it simply won’t absorb into your skin, leaving you with uncomfortably dry but cream-covered hands.

Does Bar Soap Leave Residue?

It depends, but on the whole, yes. Your bar soap is probably leaving residue on your hands, your body, and all over your sink or shower.

Like we talked about, it’s residue that’s causing clogged drains, sticky skin, and hard-to-scrub tubs. If you find yourself facing any of these problems, the culprit is likely soap residue.

Some of you may be thinking, “Hold on, I use bar soap, but I don’t have any of those issues…?” Congratulations! You’re probably using a nice handmade soap, or something with a low pH level, meaning your soap isn’t basic or acidic, but closer to neutral.

That’s the trick to avoiding residue. Commercially produced soaps, with very few exceptions, will leave scum everywhere because of their high pH. If you want to avoid the scum, you have to find a low-pH brand.

Or, if you don’t really mind cleaning up some shower scum, but want to avoid the sticky, tight feeling against your skin, you can buy a handmade artisan soap. It will leave residue, but because of its natural additives, it won’t dehydrate you.

How Do You Make Soap Less Sticky?

Now that you understand why does bar soap make your skin feel sticky, the next step is to fix it. The bad news? There’s no way to make a bad bar of soap less sticky, but you can find an affordable bar of soap that doesn’t strip moisture from your skin.

Lots of people find that the most affordable and accessible alternative to regular, residue-leaving soap is glycerin soap. It’s easy to spot—if you’re walking down the soap aisle, all of the translucent soap bars are likely glycerin soap.

Glycerin soap should cost about the same as any other bar. The big difference is in its name: manufacturers don’t extract the soap’s high glycerin content. This ingredient is what gives soap its moisturizing properties, which keeps your skin smooth and supple.

If you’re looking for something even more effective than a glycerin soap, you can try a handmade artisan option. Some grocery stores stock artisan soaps, but they’re easier to find and order online.

Artisan soaps are handcrafted by soap makers. Most of them use all-natural ingredients, as opposed to “regular” soaps that contain detergents and synthetic agents that amplify that “sticky” feeling.

What Happens If You Leave Soap On Your Skin?

Nothing good. This is why soap residue is so problematic: left on your skin, it’s going to continue to dry you out, causing flakiness and irritation.

You’ve probably experienced that sensation first-hand at some point in your life. Lots of people make the mistake of trying to wash their skin a second time, or applying lotion to the irritated area, only making it worse.

In the long-run, soap residue can actually trigger eczema.

This is why it’s worth it to invest in a nice handmade soap with lots of glycerin. It won’t leave residue on your skin.

Also, monitor how often you’re washing irritated patches of skin. If your face or hands tend to get oily quickly, washing more often won’t help. Your skin will actually start to panic and produce oils faster because you’re stripping it of its natural moisturizers.

Does Bar Soap Dry Out Skin?

Cheap bar soap—yes. The layer of residue that soap leaves on your skin interacts with your natural oil producers in inconvenient ways. Soap is meant to rinse the sebum (oils) from your hair and skin, but the residue it leaves behind clogs up your pores.

This creates an extra fun scenario where bar soap can simultaneously dry out your skin by clogging your natural moisturizers, AND fail to completely rinse the oils from your skin.

Hence, you’ve probably felt that strange “oily but dry” skin sensation. Even if you think of yourself as someone who simply has “bad skin,” your soap probably takes quite a bit of blame in that equation.

Is Bar Soap Bad For Your Skin?

The good news is that not all bar soap is bad for your skin. Cheap, commercial soaps will leave behind residue, dry out your skin, and run the risk of causing an allergic reaction. However, handmade soaps and gentle glycerin soaps do the opposite.

That’s the perk of increasing your soap budget by a bit: you’ll find something with a much nicer scent, natural ingredients, and a moisturizing residue—or, better yet, no residue at all!This is why when it comes to handmade soap vs commercial soap, you always want to opt for the handmade, natural soap.

So there’s no need to quit bar soap entirely. Choose to be pickier with your soaps, and don’t settle for something that’s going to ruin your skin in the long run. 

Frank Edwards is a men's grooming & style expert who is "internet famous" for being able to simplify complicated grooming routines into easy, yet effective rituals any man can do. As a professional analyst, he has spent years researching the biggest brands, products, experts, best practices, and breaking news in the space. He takes this analysis, tests it out on himself, and then documents everything in his writing. As a result, his experience-based articles are considered by some to be the gold standard in men's grooming and men's style.