Cleansing is a lot like living. Both simply must be done. Neither should be avoided. And there are good and bad ways to do both.
Some bad ways to live involve wearing track suits in public, showing me photos of your dog more than once per month, and snake ownership. Good ways to live involve going to bed early, embracing the joys of sunscreen, and watching the Wendy Williams show.
The writing below seeks to clarify the type(s) of cleansing that I consider to be good for me.
How I cleanse
I get out of the shower and stand at the sink.
I dispense a nickel sized amount of cleanser onto my palm
I put my palms together, rotate my hands 90 degrees in opposite directions, and swipe my hands against each other. This coats both of my hands in cleanser:
I apply the cleanser to dry skin by swiping my hands:
I’ll massage that product into my face until it acquires tack, at which time I wet my hands with warm water and repeat. This process, somewhat erroniously referred to as "emulsifying," gives the cleanser a chance to lather.
I’ll continue this process of wetting my hands with warm water and massaging until I feel as though the cleanser is like, 60% of what it was.
I run a washcloth under the tap, get the water warm, and soak it.
I then remove the rest of cleanser with the cloth in buffing motions, removing the cleanser and the water on my skin as I go.
If it is the evening, I’m going to double cleanse, which means I’m going to return to step two and repeat.
So there you have it. Clean skin. The whole process takes, idk, four minutes tops. Writing about it took me a lot longer than that.
FAQs about cleansing
Do I need to wash my face?
Well, if one is interested in skincare (and I assume a reader must be) then one should be washing one’s face. It’s that simple.
I can’t believe you spend that long washing your face. Any recommendations for someone who doesn’t have that kind of time?
My recommendation is to take the time. Everyone wants everything to be fast, easy, and life-hackable. I cannot be alone in believing that most things are best done the proper way.
But isn't just using water to cleanse good enough?
In the evening: probably not. If one wants to apply any sort of treatment product to one’s skin, it is sensible that one should want those products to get onto one’s skin. If one hasn’t thoroughly cleansed, it is reasonable to imagine that the applied products have to fight through a film of grime prior to getting to the skin. This is kind of gross and also kind of wasteful.
I also don't think one should let a day's worth of New York City smog stay on one's face for longer than necessary. Cleansing is the best way of which I am aware to rid oneself of this filmy filth.
Do I need to cleanse in the morning?
Well, I do, but I don’t know that one needs to. There is a lot of debate about this. I legitimately think that not cleansing in the morning may be better for many people.
Instead of taking anyone else’s word for it, I would recommend one test for oneself. I’d recommend picking a path (cleansing or not cleansing, whichever one normally doesn't do) and sticking to it for 4-6 weeks. Take contemporaneous notes. If something alarming occurs which makes one’s opinion clear earlier, that’s fabulous. If not, one should make a determination about whether or not a morning cleanse suits them at the conclusion of the 4-6 weeks. This seems fairly straightforward to me.
I’d also discourage the kind of dogmatic thinking underpinned by this question. What works for one person doesn’t always work for someone else. There may be days in which I wouldn’t want to cleanse in the morning, and that wouldn’t like, rock my world.
It goes without saying: if one has gone to sleep without cleansing at night, one must cleanse in the morning.
What is double cleansing?
Double cleansing is pretty self explanatory: it is cleansing twice in a row.
What is the purpose of double cleansing?
Think about a dirty floor: there are a few things that need to be done to clean it thoroughly. One needs to sweep the floor to remove the big debris sitting on top, and then one can mop the floor, and then one needs to rinse the whole area, and then one needs to ensure the water is dried off. Then, one has a clean floor.
Double cleansing applies this mentality to one’s face. The first cleanse removes sunscreen and makeup (which are designed to stick to the skin’s surface: not to absorb) as well as the grime of the subway. The second cleanse cleans the skin itself, which renders it bare and prepares it to take in treatment products.
Do I need to double cleanse?
You don’t need to do anything. This is not a dictatorship.
However, I recommend double cleansing. I found it to be revelatory for my skin. It also makes logical sense to me. To return to the floor metaphor: one should sweep before one mops.
Why don’t you double cleanse in the morning?
It’s not necessary. Double cleansing is an action that I undertake when there is something on the skin which would prevent a cleanser from being able to do its job properly and thoroughly. This isn’t the case after rising.
Do I need specific cleansers to double cleanse?
No, you don’t. It is perfectly fine to have only one cleanser. While I definitely recommend more than one cleanser, if one only wants or can only afford one cleanser, that one cleanser will be fine.
I tend to use different cleansers for different cleanses, and tend to categorize cleansers as “morning cleanse,” “first cleanse,” or “second cleanse.”
Which qualities make a cleanser fit for your “morning cleanse” category?
I’ll start by writing that I am, squarely, a morning person. The morning is the time that I have the most energy and get the most done. I like a morning cleanse that is as peppy as I am. Thus, I tend towards active, zappy, bright things.
On the one hand, this is a preference based on sensory experience. I like a cleanser that meets my energy level. I also feel like I reach for active cleansers in the morning because my evening skincare is active enough already. Using an active cleanser would gild the lily.
Which qualities make a cleanser fit for your “first cleanse” category?
I tend to select emollient, lipid rich products as first cleansers. I like how they seem to get the film of the day to undo itself. I also find that their emollience prevents one from pulling or tugging on the skin. They seem to allow grime to be able to be lifted off.
Which qualities make a cleanser fit for your “second cleanse” category?
So, at night, I batter my skin within a few inches of functionality with Vitamin A. This informs the fact that I strongly prefer a cushiony, pillowy second cleanse. A gentle cream or milk cleanser preps my skin nicely for Tazarotene’s spiky sharpness. If one doesn’t feel the need to robustly challenge their skin with topical treatments, whichever cleanser one used in the morning is, more than likely, better than fine as a second cleanse.
Are these categories dogmatic?
Not at all. They are fully arbitrary. I am providing context for the purpose of clarifying what I mean when I write “I tend to reach for this as a morning cleanse.”
Why do you apply cleansers to dry skin?
I find I get the most out of cleansers this way. Applying a cleanser to dry skin allows for complete control of how much water has been added to a cleanser, which allows me to manage the texture of the cleanser more easily. If I apply a cleanser to wet skin, it tends to slide around, which makes application more difficult, and thoroughly cleansing more of a challenge.
Why don’t you wash your face in the shower?
A lot of people talk about how you shouldn’t wash your face in the shower because the water is too hot. I agree with this, but this isn’t the main reason why I don’t cleanse my skin in the shower. When skin is wet, water evaporates from it more quickly. This process, called trans-epidermal water loss, happens all the time, but is facilitated by damp skin. When my skin has been made wet, I find it imperative to begin layering nourishing, hydrating, or occlusive products right away. If I don’t, and my skin goes fully dry, I find it impossible to get my skin to be as hydrated as I’d like it to be. So, I want to be able to begin layering hydrating, nourishing or occlusive products directly after cleansing. I can’t do that in the shower, as the running water will splash the newly applied products off of my face.
This is to say, I don’t wash my face (or even get my face wet) in the shower because it extends the amount of time my skin is left bare without nourishment and occlusion.
What’s wrong with foaming cleansers?
If one is struggling with dryness, congestion, acne, you know, any issue that involves skin and oil, one should put down the foaming cleanser. People like foaming cleansers because they tend to be very efficient: they just remove everything, inluding the oil on one's skin. This gives the illusion that one has controlled oil on one’s complexion.
This is not a good idea. Oil comes from within, and drying the surface of one’s skin will trap the oil underneath, which is going to create congestion.
I’ll use another metaphor: desert blooms. In several deserts throughout the world during unusually rainy periods, water absorbs through the sand and nourishes subterranean flower bulbs, which have been lying dormant. The water causes the bulbs to germinate, and they bloom through the pliable, damp sand, bringing life to the arid landscape.
In this metaphor, the flowers represent the skin’s oil. Its release from its dermal entrapment is predicated on the surface layer being well hydrated. Without this condition being met, the oil stays trapped underneath, laying dormant, waiting for a proliferation of acne-causing bacteria to make a feast of it, and, in so doing, create congestion and flare a breakout.
There is a facialist who I really admire called Nerida Joy, who works in Los Angeles. She has a good quote: “I am not a believer in foaming cleansers. Unless you live in a climate that is really humid and you have no surface dryness and you are just a true oily skin. Then I will say ‘You know what, good for you, you can use a foaming cleanser.’ But everybody else: it’s not okay for them.” The linked video above is really good, by the way. I recommend readers watch that.
Why do you remove your cleanser with a warm wet washcloth, instead of just rinsing it off?
Well, I feel like I rinse off about 40% of the cleanser through the cleansing process described above. I like to finish with a cloth for a few reasons.
One, I don’t like my skin to be dripping wet. If my skin is dripping wet with water, the water within my skin has ample opportunity to evaporate away before any occlusion can be applied. Using a cloth to wipe and then buff the cleanser off keeps my skin from being soaked.
Two, removing a cleanser with a washcloth very lightly and gently buffs off dead skin. It provides a shade of delicate physical exfoliation.
Three, I find it pretty critical to ensure a cleanser is removed fully. A well formulated cleanser is meant to bind to grime. Thus, the removal of that grime is predicated on the thorough removal of that cleanser.
Four, leaving cleansing agents on the skin is a surefire and rapid way to obtain irritated skin.
This is to say, I like a cloth because it allows for very thorough removal of a cleanser without requiring my face to be dripping wet with water.
However, I don't think one needs to use a washcloth. I know a lot of people who prefer to just rinse away and towel dry. Some people report that cleansing with a washcloth can irritate their skins. This is another opportunity for one to test for oneself. The fact that I prefer to cleanse with a cloth does not mean everyone else should.
What about micellar water?
Micellar waters are a totally reasonable makeup remover, but I don’t recommend them on their own. If one uses a micellar water, I’d encourage the user to think of that as their first cleanse, and then clean their skin with something else after. Micellar waters leave a residue, and should be rinsed off at the very least.
What about pH and cleansing?
A good question. Traditionally, soapy, solid cleansing bars had a high pH, and alkalized the surface of the skin. This has the effect of leaving the skin xeric and really unbalanced. It sets one up for the kind of surface dry congestion I discussed earlier. An ideal cleanser has a pH of around 5.5 – mildly acidic, like one’s skin.
Are oil cleansers okay on oily skin?
Yep. They’re terrific for all skins. End of story! I tend to recommend oil cleansers which fully emulsify for oily skins, as this ensures they are removed completely.
What about cleansing balms? What is up with them?
Balms are basically spun oils and waxes, and are fine for all skin types. I like a balm every now and then as a first cleanse. I’m of two minds when it comes to cleansing balms: there are western balms which tend to be pretty rich and leave a residue. I find that balms in this style must be removed with a warm wet washcloth: most don't emulsify fully. There are also the Korean and Korean-inspired sherbert cleansing balms which do emulsify fully, and can be rinsed off completely without the help of a cloth, if that is one’s preference.
What do you think about cleansing gels?
I love them as long as they don’t foam. Cleansing gels are great because they tend to rinse cleanly and easily, without any residue.
What about cleansing creams?
I like a cleansing cream because they tend to be gentle. I’ve never found a cleansing cream that I found stripping. I don’t tend to recommend them to those who like to rinse off, as many can leave a little bit of a film.
Can’t I just use soap?
Erm, I would actively discourage one from using soap on one’s face. Soap combines everything bad about the foam of it all and the high pH of it all. I don’t put soap on my face, ever.
What is a surfactant?
A surfactant is a molecule that is soluble in both oil and water. They are useful detergents and cleansing agents for this reason.
What are sulfates?
It’s a molecule comprised of a sulfur atom and four oxygen atoms, two of which have a negative charge. In the context of cleansing, “sulfate” usually refers to two molecules in which sulfate is found: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
What is up with Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?
It is a very, very efficient surfactant. I would advance the claim that it is too efficient, by which I mean, it is pretty stripping, and takes more from my skin than I would like to to take.
Here’s a fun fact about SLS: when regulatory agencies conduct dermal irritably assays, occluded Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is commonly used as the control group for irritation. This is to say, SLS is applied to the skin to measure what irritation looks like. The researchers can compare the irritation caused by the thing being studied to the irritation caused by SLS. It is also very foamy. It is also used (in very high concentrations) as an engine degreaser.
The point is, I don’t really want an ingredient like SLS to be the ingredient on which I rely to have clean skin. It’s something that I avoid, and encourage others to avoid as well.
However, SLS is not the devil. It’s not going to kill you or cause cancer. I just find it drying. I think that most people do. I think my skin looks and feels better when I avoid it. See: foaming cleansers.
How about Sodium Laureth Sulfate?
It’s another foamy, irritating detergent. It’s generally accepted to be less irritating that SLS, but more irritating than I’d like it to be.
Are ‘active ingredients’ (alpha hydroxy acids, Vitamin C, et al) in cleansers even going to do anything?
The prevailing wisdom seems to be that the active ingredients in cleansers don’t actually do anything (there are some exceptions to this: benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid) because they are rinsed off the skin, and are therefore a total a waste of money.
Conceptually, I agree with this. In practice, I don’t at all. I want someone who believes this to use Tracie Martyn Amla and tell me it doesn’t exfoliate. It 100% does. Is it as potent as a leave on treatment? On my skin, as I can perceive it, yes, it is as potent as many leave on treatments. It also doesn't cause me any irritation, which many leave-on exfoliating products do.
However, as with all things skincare, it is about the formula. There are many cleansers with active things which don’t seem to do that much. Yet, to say cleansers with actives are, in all cases, total wastes of money is, in my opinion, wrong.
What about scrubs? What about a scrubby cleanser?
I’m personally not a fan of cleansers with scrubby bits. They are a really imprecise method of exfoliating. Use an acid to exfoliate instead.
What is the best cleanser?
That isn't possible to say. Everyone has different skin, and everyone has different skin concerns, and different preferences. I make a real attempt at specificity when I write product reviews. If one is seeking a cleanser for oneself and wants my opinion on a cleanser to use, one could read my cleanser reviews here or contact me via email.