Soap, Salves, and Balms - Oh My!

Soap, Salves, and Balms - Oh My!

There are so many hand crafted products out there.

How do I know what I need? 

When shopping for skincare or bath and body products you are faced with an almost unlimited selection in not only fragrances and colors, but also in type of product. A google search for ‘types of handmade skin care’ doesn’t help. You’ll find everything from DIY recipes to ads for giant corporate name brand products – everyone of them different in some way.

Scrolling through product ads looking for the right product can be a bit overwhelming, and buying different products over and over again to find the best solution is really frustrating (and can be super expensive!).

This article will help you understand the basic types of handmade bath and body products – what they can do for you, and what they can’t do for you. We’ll also look at a few popular ingredient choices.

There's a lot of info here. TL;DR (too long; didn't read)? Scroll down to the important bits at the bottom.

Wash off, leave on, and not for skin contact products - which is best for you

Handcrafted bath and body products can be divided into 3 basic groups based on their intended use – wash off products (soaps and scrubs), leave on products (balms, lotions, salves, and body butters), and non-skin contact products (shower steamers, for example).

Wash off products are in contact with your skin for only a short period of time.

Almost all wash off products serve to either clean or exfoliate. Some do both. You’ll see these products labeled as soaps, beauty bars, exfoliating soap, sugar scrubs, salt scrubs, on and on.

These recipes go on your skin. You lather them up and/or scrub them around. Then you rinse them off. Really, they are barely in contact with your skin. Think about it – even if you wash your hands correctly that soap is in contact with your skin for less than a minute.

We often get asked which of our soaps are more moisturizing. This is a common misconception about soap - a result of popular advertising campaigns for big corporate beauty bars (that aren't actually soap). True soap is never moisturizing.

Each soap molecule has a water loving piece and an oil loving piece. The oil loving side binds to dirt and oil. The water loving side binds to water and pulls the oil loving side (with all the dirt and grime it has collected) right down the drain. For this reason, these products are never moisturizing.

They can, however, be gentle cleansers. This means that they don’t work so hard at binding all the oil on your skin leaving some behind. If you’re looking for a cleansing product that won’t be harsh on your skin, choose the soaps that are formulated to be gentle on skin. Coconut oil can be on the label because it makes the bar last, but it shouldn’t be the first ingredient. It makes a hard bar of soap with lots of cleaning power.

Since wash off products are not on your skin for very long, you might wonder if the ingredients are really that important?

Well, yes, but maybe not as important as some people might want you to believe. You can find soaps and scrubs with salts and muds, expensive essential oil blends, infused oils, and botanical blends with descriptions telling you how these ingredients will solve your skin care problems. If you are buying a product for its therapeutic ingredients (essential oils that soothe skin, for example), wouldn’t it be better used in a product that sticks around for a while?

If you love the essential oil blend, visual appearance of the soap, or even how it lathers or exfoliates, by all means, buy the product. Just be aware that wash off products don’t stick around. Would you find a better or more cost-effective solution if that ingredient sticks around? Would a leave on product be a better choice?

Leave on products are created to stay on your skin and are often formulated to absorb into the top layers of your skin quickly (lotions) or dry down on your skin rapidly (fragrance sprays).

I’d like to take just a quick pause here to discuss the elephant in the room.

I repeatedly see articles on the internet saying that anywhere from 60 to 95% of what you put on your skin is absorbed into your bloodstream within 26 seconds. Statements this broad and black and white are just simply not true. What if you slapped a slice of pizza on your skin? Would 60 to 95% of it be gone in 26 seconds? I’m being a bit dramatic here, but really – things are just a bit more complicated than 60-95% in 26 seconds. This isn’t the main focus of this article, but it is worth a brief discussion here.

In short, chemistry is complicated and so is your skin. There are so many different types of chemicals, and your skin has lots of layers and its own chemicals to protect you from bad things in your environment.

It’s more important to understand the individual ingredients in your skincare and how you’re going to use the product than it is to understand a very general statement created and spread around to sell a ‘natural’ product or malign product from a big corporation.

Here is an excellent reference if you want to dig into this further.

So, back to leave on products. These products are created to stick around on your skin usually to protect and/or moisturize.

When we say “protect” here, we are not talking about sunscreen products. You will rarely see handcrafted sunscreen products because they are regulated as a drug in the US. To meet the drug regulations, the company must provide solid, statistically accurate research to prove the ingredient claim, and this is time consuming and expensive. Most small makers can’t afford to do it.

Be suspicious and ask questions if your local small business tells you that the product is a “natural sunscreen” or provides an SPF value on the product but can’t explain the US FDA labeling requirements for drugs to you.

Instead, we are talking about protecting your skin from becoming that dry, flaky, winter mess. Soap can play a part in preventing dry skin (using a gentler soap in the winter, for example), but it will not work alone.

Let’s start with a quick refresher on how your skin becomes dry in the first place. You probably already know that your skin has three layers – the inside layer (hypodermis), the middle layer (dermis), and the outer layer (epidermis). Blood vessels in your skin mainly supply moisture to the middle layer. The water then evaporates through the outer layer, the dermis.

It’s not a myth. The amount of water you drink can affect how dry your skin becomes because that’s where a lot of the moisture comes from.

Simply put, products that are created to moisturize or protect your skin can add moisture back to that outer layer of skin, or they can slow down evaporation, protecting the skin from becoming dry and uncomfortable. Some products can actually do both.

In general, if the product contains water (lotion), it was created to bring moisture to that top layer of skin. If the product contains a blend of butters and waxes (solid lotion, body bar, whipped body butter), its primary function is preventing or slowing down moisture loss.

A water-based product is a good choice when skin is dry and itchy. A wax, oil, and/or butter-based product is a great choice after showering or washing your hands when you want to lock all that moisture in.

Since we put these products on our skin and intend them to stick around for a while, leave on products are a much better choice when you are looking to get the most benefit from luxurious butters and therapeutic essential oil blends.

But buyer beware!

As we’ve learned before, anyone can make anything.

Do your homework and make sure that you aren’t going to have a poor reaction to something in that essential oil blend. Check the ingredient list or ask the person who made the product. Just because it is an essential oil doesn’t mean it is safe for you. Some essential oils are contraindicated for certain health conditions and age groups.

Please, if it has water as an ingredient (like a lotion) or you intend to keep it in your tub or shower area where water can get into the container (large jars of sugar or salt scrubs) make sure the product also contains a preservative. Water based products will spoil. And while you would probably like to avoid preservatives, it might be best to avoid spending money on products that will go bad due to yeast, bacteria, or mold growth. If that lotion you bought at the farmer’s market starts bubbling – throw it away, please, and don't buy it again.

A final, and much smaller group of bath and body products are created with the idea that they will almost never come in contact with your skin.

Shower soothers (or shower melts) are a great example. These little pucks of goodness are created to dissolve on the shower floor releasing fragrances that can sooth stuffy noses and sinus headaches or can simply create a super indulgent shower experience with amazing aromas.

Never use these products the same way you would a bath bomb or shower melt. The amount of fragrance and/or essential oil in these products are often much too high for skin contact. Essential oil blends in shower steamers are usually not diluted with a carrier oil and can be quite damaging to skin if applied directly at the concentrations found in these amazing little products.

Be especially careful if the shower soother or shower melt contains any kind of butter or wax. These get slippery in the shower. Use them wisely and follow the directions.

Speaking of ‘melts’, you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned bath melts, bath oils, or bath bombs in any of the categories above. I have to admit that I left them out a bit on purpose.

These products fall somewhere between leave on and wash off products. We intend them to stick around on our skin for some time, but we aren’t applying them to a specific area of our skin intentionally. In fact, we often rinse them off before getting out of the bath. The ingredients in these products also vary so much, that they really deserve another article entirely. I’m working on demystifying these products for you and will link that article as soon as it’s completed. In the meantime, read the product label and think about what those ingredients will do for you based on how you will use the product.

We often spend a lot of time looking for the most natural or the trendiest ingredients in products. These ingredients can also cost us the most money when it comes to bath and body products. I think you can see now that we should be spending just as much time thinking about how we want to use the product.

If the ingredient needs to stick around to provide a benefit, choose a leave on product. If the ingredient doesn’t need to stick around, a cleaning or exfoliating product is a great choice. I love the way an oatmeal soap feels. The lather is thick and creamy, and the bar slips through my hands nicely. If I’m looking to soothe dry skin, I’ll always pick an oatmeal bath soak or lotion over an oatmeal soap. The oatmeal just works harder for me in a product that stays on my skin longer.

Blog Post - How to pick the best bath and body product


  • Most bath and body products fall into 3 categories – wash off, leave on, and don’t put them on your skin.
  • Wash off products don’t stay on your skin for very long. These products are good for cleaning and exfoliating.
  • Leave on products have lots of residence time on your skin. These products are good for moisturizing and protecting, and the best choice for ingredients that need to stick around to be effective.
  • If they are meant for the shower floor or to be diffused in the room, don't put them directly on your skin. Follow the warnings and directions on the label.
  • Knowing what ingredients you want isn’t enough. In order to spend your money wisely, it’s best to also take into account how you will use that product. Buy the soap with the essential oil blend because you love the way it smells. Buy the skin balm or shower soother with the essential oil blend because you are looking for some kind of therapeutic benefit.

Do you feel a bit more confident in your ability to find the right product in all of those search results? Do you have a question we didn't answer in this article?

Drop your thoughts in the comments below and let me help you find the best bath and body product for you.

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