Cleaning your face is the most boring part of skincare WHILE ALSO, paradoxically, having almost infinite variations. I don’t know how both of those things can be simultaneously true, but welcome to the wonder of skincare, where mystery abounds.
The awesome thing about it is that the easiest and best place to save money is on cleanser. So there’s that.
The bad thing about it is that cleansing your face is the harshest thing that you have to do to your face every day. You can’t just skip it, but it’s always at least a little harmful even as it’s helpful. It’s just the nature of the beast. The goal is to get the most clean while doing the least amount of harm. So… I hope you enjoy a challenge, I guess?
I will be honest with you all: I’m already finding myself thinking of this newsletter as A Chore. Now keep in mind that everything eventually feels like that to me (including actually eating, okay) but I thought it would take longer! As a result (a) I will probably start the paid subscription version of this sooner rather than later, as motivation to keep going, and (b) the following may be really sloppy because structuring this info feels like So Much Work, so I’m just gonna blurt Stuff I Know About Washing Your Face.
The #1 Thing You’re Probably Doing Wrong
You’re probably not washing for long enough. The typical person gets their face wet, coats the face in the cleanser, rubs for about exactly as long as it takes to say “rub rub rub”, and then rinses.
That is not enough. Sorry. You know how you’re supposed to sing Happy Birthday twice as you wash your hands, to make sure they’re really clean? Same goes for your face. This one simple act can be a game-changer, trust me. This should only be skin on skin - your palms on your face, no washcloth or scrubbing device involved. Just you and the cleanser, bonding over how you will soon rule the world with your blindingly fresh face. Seriously, you will immediately feel how much cleaner your face is.
Of course, singing two happy birthdays is boring and I personally sing the chorus of No Scrubs to keep things on brand in all possible ways. Feel free to hum 20-30 seconds of the song of your choice.
ALSO: Your face should not feel tight after washing it. Or sore. Or be red from rubbing. Or itchy.
ALSO ALSO: Your face wash should not tingle or burn or sting or feel “minty”.
It should be boring! It’s supposed to be boring!
So there’s this thing with your skin that we call the moisture barrier (or acid mantle). It’s a protective layer that keeps moisture in and bacteria out, and disrupting or damaging it is the cause of very many skin woes. Just imagine it as this magical force field that you want to keep as strong and stable as possible.
One of the chief ways people - even those with the most basic of routines - mess up their moisture barrier is in the cleansing process. And it’s usually because they are being too harsh in one of these ways:
Using hot water
A cleanser that is too stripping (high pH, harsh surfactants)
Gritty facial scrubs
Other harsh manual exfoliation tools
Washing too often
I dunno, should I talk a little about each of these? Okay, I will try.
Hot water is bad. Bad bad bad. I love hot water so so much. I live in a place where it is very cold much of the time, and I often have horrible sinus pain that is soothed by heat on my face, and my GOD but a hot shower is one of the top human inventions, right up there with penicillin and fresh baked chocolate croissants, so it pains me to to speak of hot water with anything less than unqualified praise bordering on worship. But sadly, it really is not good for your skin. It assaults the moisture barrier and strips off the natural oils and is responsible for the rapidly growing population of broken capillaries on my face. So if you’re taking a hot shower (bad for your whole skinsuit, not just your face, but we all have our weaknesses), keep your face away from the steamy stuff. When you’re washing your face, test the water temp like you’d test a baby’s bottle.
Cleansers are too stripping usually because either the pH is too high or the surfactants are too harsh, while also not having enough hydrating/soothing ingredients to replenish your skin. The pH issue is actually easier to avoid than it used to be, because there just aren’t a ton of cleansers with super high pH anymore. (It should ideally be between 4.5 and 6, and never above 7.) Here is a handy dandy database of the pH of many cleansers and if yours isn’t on it, then just ask google - because skincare junkies loooooove to pH-test their cleansers. As for harsh surfactants, generally you can feel it in a cleanser as soon as you use it, because it leaves your face feeling tight and itchy and dry.
Gritty facial scrubs have some sort of sorceress-like hold on many people and if you cannot resist, then all I’ll say is you have to use a very mild one, you have to use it very gently - as in, don’t vigorously scrub your face with it - and you should NOT be using it every day. (Als I believe it’s downright dumb to choose a scrub over a chemical exfoliant, but we’ll leave that for the Exfoliants edition of the newsletter.) Most people seem to cling to scrubs out of some sort of psychological dependence more than anything else, and if you won’t let it go then there’s probably little I can say to stop you. I just beg of you NOT to use one with actual ground shells in it - or, lord help me, pumice. Try a gommage or peeling gel, those are gentle AND fun. They’re big in Asian skincare, and elf has one that’s supposed to be great.
Other manual exfoliation tools are things like the Clairsonic brush, Foreo, little silicone scrubbies, konjac sponges, and even washcloths. Basically anything that you rub against your skin is manually exfoliating. The gentlest of these that I have no problem recommending to any not-sensitive skin are konjac sponges and microfiber washcloths. (Honestly, nothing makes my face feel cleaner than when I use a microfiber cloth. I love it - but it is moderate exfoliation, and it can be irritating for some people.) If you absolutely must use some fancy-ass tool, try to steer clear of brush devices like Clairsonic and its knock-offs. Even the gentlest brush on its gentlest setting is harsh on your skin, and very easy to over-use. Plus they are stupid expensive, you could buy enough washcloths to have a fresh one for every day of the month for 1/10th the price of a Clairsonic ffs.
Washing too often is something that usually only people with a history of severe acne or extremely oily skin do. Like I said, even the gentlest washing is by necessity a harsh thing to do to your moisture barrier, so doing it more than you need to is just abusive. If you’re wash-happy because of oil or acne, you’re making the problem worse by washing too much (because harshness leads to irritation leads to excessive oil production and/or inflamed acne.) You should never cleanse more than once in the morning and once at the end of the day.
A few years ago I was shocked - and I mean SHOCKED to learn that many people do not wash their face in the morning. (Presumably they wash at night only.) I personally cannot imagine feeling ready to face the day with just a splash of water, to say nothing of how I feel about putting product on my face without actually washing it first. Even if I thoroughly clean my face at night, I can’t get past the morning remnants of eye goo and mouth-corner drool and just that layer of sleep on my face.
But plenty of people do, and they swear by the night-only cleanse. The fact that skin keeps producing sebum and shedding dead skin cells even in your sleep doesn’t deter them, and they just wipe some water or micellar over their face and move on to the sunscreen or whatever. I shudder, but this approach seems to work fine for many, especially useful to those with very sensitive or dry skin - which makes sense, since (as I’ve said multiple times now) cleansing is harsh and drying by its very nature.
So if you’re wondering whether you should skip the morning cleanse, all I can say is: you do you.
I really don’t like this term and I also don’t think cleansing twice is always a good idea. So here’s what I think:
No, you don’t have to double cleanse. But…
If you’re wearing makeup or a very heavy or tenacious sunscreen (water/sweat-resistant ones especially), you might need to go in twice on the cleanser, depending on the cleanser.
The best - easiest and gentlest - way to get makeup off your skin (and especially your eyes) is an oil-based cleanser.
Very often, pairing a microfiber washcloth with mild cleanser (and one cleanse) is enough to take off all of your makeup.
Just as often, increasing your washing time to the aforementioned 20-30 seconds will be enough unless you’ve really grimed up your face.
You can cleanse twice with the same cleanser instead of using two different ones, to great effect.
Personally, for those days when I’ve put on makeup or a super-thick sunscreen, I like having an oil-based cleanser on hand to do a preliminary get-the-gunk-off. This means I “double cleanse” maybe a couple of times a week, as necessary, and I don’t call it a double cleanse. It’s just makeup removal.
If you haven’t guessed, I dislike the term because it just makes it sound like extra work you’re obliged to do. Like how they say “clean and disinfect” your kitchen counters (bitch, don’t you just mean clean? If I clean it right, it’s disinfected, GOD.) Recently I’ve been hearing assholes out in these skincare streets trying to normalize the idea of a triple cleanse and I swear to god I will punch a motherfucker.
Things to Consider In Choosing A Cleanser
Hyped Ingredients: Just remember that the whole point of a cleanser is to get washed off your face. That means that if a cleanser is actually cleansing, the ingredients that get hyped on the label will very literally go down down the drain. This is why I say you can really save money in the cleanser category. Like, I am not paying $30 more for a cleanser because it has lactic acid or vitamin C or something - those are things that need to be left on your face to do any good.
Bar Soap: Pretty much don’t bother with bar soap. Drunk Elephant has one that is good (and absurdly expensive) and probably there are some other pricey options out there that maybe aren’t the worst, but for the most part: nah. Bar soaps tend to have a too-high pH and are typically made with harsh surfactants, and apparently 99.9% of the ingredients that allow it to be in bar form are pore-clogging in a clinically proven way. I read all about it forever ago in this article by a chemist but a single google didn’t find it for me and I am too lazy to hunt it down for you, sorry. Just trust me on the bar soap = bad thing. Or don’t, it’s your skin, man.
Face wipes: Yes they are convenient but please just stop it. Please. They are so unfuckingbelievably bad for the environment. They clog sewer systems (see: fatberg) and put plastic in the ocean and are the very definition of wasteful. Yes, sometimes they can be useful, in very specific circumstances. I have a single packet of 50 I bought a year ago for travel. I have 44 left. I still regret the purchase. Also please know that the only difference between face wipes and baby wipes is nothing but fragrance. They are such a fucking scam, man. Also, even more important is this: you have to rinse your face after using a face wipe, because the ingredient that actually cleans your skin (a.k.a. the surfactant) is the same ingredient that is in soap - and you shouldn’t leave it on your skin any more than you should leave any other soap on your skin. If you have to rinse your face anyway, just use a cleanser ffs.
Micellar Water: This is actually the best alternative to wipes, if you really can’t be bothered to stand over a sink. If it’s a good one, you can just wipe it over your face with a cotton pad (note: still environmentally not great, don’t fool yourself) and it doesn’t have to be rinsed. BUT not all of them are good ones, so if you’re not 100% sure then you gotta rinse - and you can’t trust the label claims, you have to analyze the ingredients list. So (not) fun. What I know is that you can trust Bioderma Sensibio, Garnier SkinActive, and Simple brand.
Oh and one more thing: soap that works into a lather is an indicator of a harsh surfactant. That’s why the good "foaming” cleansers don’t actually foam that much, and why you shouldn’t be alarmed if you never see bubbles when washing your face. A lack of bubbles is a good sign; an overabundance of bubbles is cause for alarm. (Those ones that come in pump dispensers that cause it to be foamy when dispensed are fine, because it’s just pumping air into the product. Or so I presume, I am really dumb about just thinking I know how something works and moving on. But I mean it’s possible for a good cleanser to be in a foaming pump, see.)
This is where I tell you that even though cleansers are kind of boring to talk/think about, I am slightly addicted to buying & trying them. It’s TOTALLY a justifiable thing to have 6 cleansers and yet still buy another, because (a) there are sooooo many great cheap options, and (b) my skin legit needs different levels & types of cleaning from day to day and season to season.
So I’m just going to list my handful of faves, and divide them up into categories. My biggest deal-breaker is anything that stings my eyes, so none of these do.
For Dry/Sensitive Skin
CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser: gentle, hydrating, cheap, an absolutely perfect product and if they ever change the formula I would join the mob of smooth-skinned citizens storming the CeraVe Headquarters with pitchforks.
Dove DermaSeries Face Wash: so gentle, so creamy, so very great. I keep seeing it on clearance lately which scares me into thinking they might be getting rid of it? But also maybe just changing packaging. Or maybe just my Target and Walgreens are changing up the products they carry, who knows.
Simple Moisturizing Face Wash: It doesn’t feel moisturizing, but it does leave your skin feeling very clean and hydrated, which is what we like.
For Oily/Acne Prone Skin
CeraVe Foaming: It’s really great. Really really great. It’s a lot like the much beloved Hydrating version, but is just a bit more thorough with the oil-cleaning.
Clean and Clear Foaming for Sensitive Skin: I mean I don’t know about sensitive, but it cleans very well and is cheap and basic and I used it for YEARS before deciding I wanted something more hydrating. Be sure to get the one in with the dark purple cap.
Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Face Wash: I just love it. It washes away oil cleanser with no problem, and with just a very little bit of product. I only wish it came in a pump instead of a tube. They stopped selling it at YesStyle, sigh.
Cosrx Low pH Good Morning Gel: Especially beneficial if your having A Moment with pimples. I like having it around when my monthly skin freak-out happens.
Oh! And clay cleansers can be nice when you’re oily. I hear the Shea Moisture Matcha Green Tea Clay-to-Cream is fantastic and I realllllly want to try it.
Very Acneic Skin
Since acne really comes down to bacteria, this is one of the few places where specific special ingredients in a cleanser are not bullshit. Those ingredients are salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and glycolic acid. (There was another but it’s been banned most places because it was creating mutant fish or something. It started with a T. Anyway.) These things help kill/control the acne-causing bacteria (benzoyl peroxide), unclog pores (salicylic), and un-glue dead skin cells that will clog pores (glycolic). They also tend to dry out your skin so finding a good cleanser with one of these is not easy - and you should only bother if you have a real acne problem. ALSO please note that if this ingredient is in a cleanser, it does not count as treatment and if you have an acne problem, you’re gonna want the relevant ingredient in more than just your wash (which, again: goes down the drain.)
I don’t have an acne problem, so I can only recommend one I used long ago and liked, Paula’s Choice Clear cleanser. I also hear the La Roche Posay Effaclar is great, and I would give the CeraVe SA Cleanser a whirl. But really, PanOxyl is the affordable and effective go-to for anyone suffering with acne.
And that thing I said about washing your face for at least 20 seconds? No one will benefit more than someone with an acne problem. That, and please don’t scrub the shit out of your face. Don’t hate on your skin.
Clinique Take The Day Off: a balm texture, and yes it’s relatively pricey but honest to god, there’s nothing it won’t take off your face and it’s rightly beloved by people who wear a full face of makeup every day.
Clean It Zero: this balm gets an honorable mention as I’ve never tried it but have no doubt it’s as wonderful as everyone says. I think the Clinique is slightly more wow when it comes to makeup removal, but this one is half the price and still an excellent product.
Pond’s Cleansing Balm: extremely rose-scented but also extremely effective. Mineral oil based so steer clear if your skin hates mineral oil (although if you’re like me, you’ll wash this off anyway so who cares.) It’s affordable and in the drugstore, yay.
Hada Labo Gokujyun Cleansing Oil: This is actually the only cleansing oil I’ve tried (aside from just using straight grapeseed oil to take off my eye makeup, anyway) and it’s shockingly good. It just immediately melts your makeup, and it washes right away.
Also: The Face Shop Rice Bright Cleansing Oil, DHC Deep Cleansing Oil, Softymo Speedy Cleansing Oil - haven’t used them, but based on trusted others’ feedback, I am comfortable recommending them.
Okay I think that covers it? If you care to know, I have a gentle face wash for the morning, a couple of different makeup removing cleansers, a really extra-gentle one for when my skin is irritated or super dry, and one that’s really good at getting the oil off. And I use a microfiber washcloth sometimes.
The big rule of cleansing is: just be gentle. And save your money for more exciting products.
Until next time, I remain