You may be thinking, how complex could washing your face really be? You splash water onto your face, squirt a cleanser into your hands and, then, rub the product all around your face: voila, you’re done. However, some of you may feel the complete opposite and wonder why facial cleaning has become so complex: double cleansing, foaming cleansers, oil cleansers, micellar water, and the list goes on.
In my opinion, understanding the cleansing process, and the tips and tricks that go along with that, is extremely important. If you had to choose to do only one skincare step, your choice better be cleansing because, at the end of the day, having dirty skin is the cause of most skin problems.
Like the name suggests, cleansing the skin is getting rid of the dirt on the skin that accumulated throughout the day. A good cleanser removes makeup, excess sebum (the skin’s natural oil), sweat, dead skin cells, sunscreen, debris, other products, pollutants, and a lot of other things that are not always visible to the human eye. So, imagine what would happen if you didn’t regularly wash your face. All that dirt would be building-up and clogging those facial pores. For those who don’t know, clogged pores lead to irritated, acne-prone skin that has no ability to shed dead skin cells and produce new cells overnight. In a more aggressive tone for the people in the back, if you aren’t washing your face, you are suffocating your skin, encouraging the growth of acne-causing bacteria and exponentially aging yourself every single day.
Now that you understand how important cleansing is, I am going to address the most commonly asked cleansing questions so you’ll have key information for making good cleansing decisions.
How does a cleanser clean your face?
A friendly reminder that water and oil do not mix. So, when you think about the face and its natural oil and dirt mixture, it makes sense why plain water is not enough to clean the skin. This is where a cleanser and its ingredients work their magic. The ingredients in a cleanser that function to rid the face of dirt and oil are known as surfactants (surface active agents). A surfactant molecule has a special structure that simultaneously allows one part of the molecule to dissolve in water and the other part to dissolve oil, resulting in a reduction of the surface tension between an oil and water molecule. These surfactants dissolve the oil and dirt on the skin with the water from the tap to create a new chemical (dirt) mixture (a mixture where oil and water become friends). This surfactant chemical mixture is insoluble in water so it can easily be rinsed off of the face with the water.
Not every surfactant has the same chemical structure and, therefore, will have different uses in the cosmetic industry. Surfactants, as cleansers, are most commonly used for:
Detergency: cleansing (lifting the oil and dirt off of the surface of the skin and washing them away)
Foaming: surfactants that stabilize bubbles in foaming cleansers (FYI: the foam doesn’t really do anything. It’s just a by-product of this type of surfactant)
Thickening: keeping solutions thick
Emulsification: mainly used for creams and lotions to make oil and water mixtures stable
I hope that I haven’t lost you with all of this chemistry jargon. If you want to identify surfactants in your cleansers, look out for some of these common surfactants found in the ingredient lists:
- Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): very foaming and can be highly irritating - I avoid this ingredient in all my skin care
- Ammonium laureth sulfate
- Sodium laureth sulfate: a derivative of SLS, but milder
- Sodium cocoyl isethionate
- Alkyl sulfosuccinates
- Coco glucoside
- Decyl glucoside
- Sodium cocoyl glutamate
What are the different types of cleansers?
Foaming Cleansers: cleansers that lather and foam when water is added. Foaming cleansers are made with a type of surfactant called a sulfate. The foaming and bubbling that occurs in cleansers with sulfates is simply a by-product (air that is trapped in liquid) and doesn’t have much to do with the cleaning process. These types of cleansers often get a bad rap due to their drying and irritating effects (the greater the foam, the stronger the surfactant). However, with advancements in cleansing ingredients, many sulfate cleansers are formulated with moisturizing ingredients to counterbalance the stripping of skin oils.
- Recommended for: oily skin and acne-prone skin (be cautious if you have dry skin)
Gel Cleansers: water-based cleansers that are thick and have a gel consistency, producing small amounts of foam. They often are not as drying as foaming cleansers, yet are great at cleaning the skin of dirt, oil and makeup. They are often made with milder ingredients that don’t strip the skin of its natural oils. If foaming cleansers are too irritating for your dry skin, try a gel cleanser.
- Recommended for: all skin
Cream Cleansers: Cleansers that are thick and creamy (also known as milks or lotions) that don’t foam (mild cleansing ability). They get their creaminess through ingredients such as mineral oil, petrolatum, waxes and water. Cleansing creams are great for people who are worried about dry skin as they add moisturizing ingredients, yet still clean the skin.
- Recommended for: all skin types, however best for dry and sensitive skin
Oil-based Cleansers: cleansers that use water-soluble oils (contain less surfactants and focus on oil ingredients). Oils are naturally attracted to other oils (skin oil, makeup ingredients) and can dissolve these similar oil substances. Oil cleansers are the super stars at dissolving sebum and makeup.
- Recommended for: everyone as a first step in the cleansing routine
Cleansing Balms: similar to a cleansing oil, a cleansing balm contains a solid oil component in combination with a surfactant (the cleaning ingredient). Cleansing balms quickly dissolve into an oil due to the heat from your fingers and are effective at removing dirt and makeup from the face.
- Recommended for: everyone as a first step in the cleansing routine
Micellar Water: a combination of purified water, hydrating ingredients and mild surfactants that attract dirt and oil. Micellar water is often used on a cotton pad, swiped across the face to pull out makeup, sebum and other dirt.
- Recommended for: a first step in the cleansing routine or for removing makeup
Why are people cleansing twice? What is double cleansing?
The simple answer is that people clean twice to make sure their face is actually clean. Double cleansing is a term (originating from Korean beauty) to describe the method of first cleansing the skin with an oil-based cleanser (cleansing oil or cleansing balm) and, then, immediately cleansing with a water-based cleanser (foaming cleanser, gel, cream).
Do not just think that double cleansing is only for makeup removal. Skincare products and sunscreen need extra help being removed and double cleansing is great at doing this.
How often should I be cleansing?
The magic number is usually two - once in the morning and once at night before bed. Overnight, your skin builds up bacteria (reminder that your pillow is nasty) and should be washed off in the morning before you add more products to your face. Similarly, throughout the day, it is important to wash off pollutants, makeup, oil, dirt and other things that have landed on your face during the day.
Like anything with skin care, there will be some variability depending upon your skin. There is no one set rule and it is important to assess your skin on a daily basis to see what it needs. If you find your skin is so dry it begins to flake, try washing your face only at night and skip the use of cleanser in the morning. However, don’t skip night time washing as it’s important for the skin to turnover during the night.
Be intuitive about cleansing. If you go to the gym, run a 10k and are dripping in sweat and dirt, go ahead and wash your face a third time with a gentle cleanser (and don’t forget to moisturize after).
What should I be looking for in my cleanser?
There are three main concerns when cleansing:
1. Skin pH: we have already talked about the fact that skin has an acidic pH (around 4.5) and you should keep it that way. Surfactants are good at increasing the skin pH which, in turn, prevents the skin from healing itself. It is important to look for cleansers that do not disrupt the skin’s natural low pH (you can find this information on Google or buy your own pH strips)!
2. Surfactants: Yes, these are great at removing dirt and grime from the face, however, they are unable to tell the difference between natural skin chemicals and chemicals that are not supposed to be there. In certain cleansing products, the surfactants can remove too many skin components such as lipids and proteins, leading to dehydrated skin. To avoid this, look for cleansers that have mild surfactants and moisturizing ingredients.
3. Moisturizing Ingredients: It is clear from this post that cleansing can be a drying process, so look for cleansers that incorporate moisturizing ingredients such as mineral oil, stearic acid, glycerine and sorbitol.