If you really don’t know what’s in your cleanser, it's possible your skin troubles stem from one or more of the ingredients. It’s also possible that you aren’t taking enough time to wash your face. When you race through this essential step, you risk leaving your skin half cleansed with unhealthy residue clinging to the surface cells. For healthy skin that looks and feels great, you’ll want to use good product and good technique.
First, lets talk about the type of skin cleansers out there. It's important to choose one that suits your skin type. Many people have a pretty good idea what skin type they are but if you aren’t sure or are having trouble distinguishing, visit our article on skin types to decode your type.
Cleansers should be chosen based on skin type as well as skin condition. It's a good idea to have at least two types of cleansers on hand at all times, one for your overall skin type and one for when you get super dry or acne-prone (these are skin conditions).
If your skin type is dry, you should be looking for milky cleansers or cleansing oils. These cleansers do not foam, they are modern day “cold creams” that your grandmother probably used to have in her bathroom. Milk, lotion or oil type cleansers will emulsify makeup and dirt on the surface of the skin without stripping the barrier that drier skin types need to stay balanced. When your skin is feeling ultra dehydrated (a skin condition), these kind of cleansers are good to have on hand for when you only want to clean makeup and surface dirt off. They’re also great to use after being in the sun all day or after swimming, as the sun and chlorine have drying effects on the skin.
If your skin type is generally normal or combination (medium to small pores with few breakouts), then a gel like cleanser is the way to go. These type of cleansers do not foam, so they DO NOT contain sodium lauryl sulfate. SLS is a detergent and emulsifier that strips virtually ALL the oil from the skin. SLS is usually found in laundry detergents and dish soap because of its ability to break down oil in water. SLS cleansers also remove dirt and makeup effectively but can potentially alter the pH balance of the skin’s surface, leaving your skin dry and susceptible to breakouts and other irritation. Gel cleansers are mostly water based with gentle emulsifying ingredients that will leave your skin feeling clean without feeling overly tight.
If you have an oily skin type, a gel cleanser is good to keep on hand for when your skin needs a break from the harsh foaming cleansers that disinfect and emulsify surface oils. This kind of cleanser is also great for sensitive skin because it leaves virtually no residue while protecting the surface from irritation. Many people with oily or acne prone skin are drawn to foaming cleansers with a medical ingredient in it, such as salicylic acid, glycolic acid or benzyl peroxide. This kind of cleanser is ideal for acne prone skin because it kills surface bacteria, removes most the oil from the skin, and leaves you with a very tight and clean feeling. Be mindful are careful with cleansers that make your skin feel tight and "squeaky clean", as they can sometimes lead to over-drying of the skin which would actually promote breakouts due to pH imbalances. I always tell my acne prone clients to substitute their medicated face washes at least twice a week with something more gentle like a gel cleanser (note: most face washes for oily or acne prone skin will contain SLS).
Now, let’s talk technique. Your cleansing routine is just as important as choosing the right face wash. Are you taking less than 30 seconds to lather before splashing it with water to remove? If so, you are not effectively washing your face. If you are an all-natural girl (or guy) who doesn’t wear foundation, then one wash two times a day is probably sufficient. Each wash should take about 1.5 to 3 minutes: a few seconds to wet the skin, at least one full minute of small circular motions with finger tips all over the face (and neck if you want to keep that looking young), and then about 20-30 seconds to thoroughly rinse your skin. You can use your hands, disposable sponges, or a washcloth. It is important to use a balancing toner after cleansing to bring your skin back to its homeostatic pH. While a neutral pH is 7, skin pH is more acidic, ranging from 4.5 to 5.5. The acidity of the skin is what keeps bacterial infections at bay and is also responsible for preventing foreign particles from penetrating the epidermis (which could cause sensitivities, irritation or unintentional cell death). When we wash with harsh cleansers or strip all the oil from the skin, we effectively raise the pH to a more alkaline state. Common irritations from pH imbalances include eczema, acne, rosacea, dryness, flaking and collagen breakdown.
If you tend to wear makeup daily then you have double duty. You’ll need to cleanse your skin twice at each wash: once to remove the makeup, and again to clean the skin itself. One of the most common things I see in my practice are makeup-wearing women only doing one wash and then wondering why they are breaking out or starting to “look old.” One wash/rinse is simply not cleaning your skin. All you are doing is washing off the makeup (and probably not all of it because makeup tucks itself neatly into pores). Grab a milky cleanser, or even plain coconut oil, to remove makeup first. Then your skin cleanser can actually do what it is supposed to do…clean the skin. All told, if you’re removing makeup at night, your cleansing routine should be taking you about 5-6 minutes, certainly not less.
We are all different, and it’s important to tune in to what your skin needs. If using only one cleanser works for you, day after day, then stick with that. But if you’re like most people, your skin condition will vary with seasons, stress, diet, and the time of the month. In general it is important to cleanse your skin based on the condition of your skin for that day. In some cases it may even be fine to skip cleansing altogether. For example, if you washed your face well at night and wake up feeling fine, then skip cleansing. There is no need to do it purely to stick with the daily routine. Be flexible and focus on gaining an understanding of what your skin needs to be its beautiful best.