How (and why) to cleanse your face properly

How (and why) to cleanse your face properly

Posted by Team Maelove on

How best to wash your face? This seemingly simple question gets a lot of different answers.

Some people will go so far as to say cleansing your skin at all is bad for you while others suggest a double or even a triple cleanse.

But what does science say on the matter?


1. Yes, you should cleanse your face daily. But why?

If you don’t wash your face, this lets sebum, sweat, dead skin cells, bacteria, and viruses build up on your skin. Water alone can wash off some of these elements. But, water is not good at dissolving sebum and other oily substances. Nor will water alone kill microbes. That is why cleansers which are surfactants are recommended (AAD).

Surfactants are compounds that have an oil loving end, and a water loving end. They can absorb oily, fatty substances with their oil-loving end. Then, you can rinse it off with their water-loving end. Surfactants such as soaps have been used since ancient times. Recently, synthetic detergents have become more popular. We will go into the reasons why.

Surfactants kill germs. Viruses, bacteria, and other microbes are contained within structures known as lipid membranes. Lipids are fatty, waxy, or oily compounds. Surfactants can interact with lipid membranes using their fat-loving end. They rip away the protective membranes and kill the microbes.

Surfactant cleansers are more effective than alcohol-based disinfectants against germs. Washing with soaps reduces germs on hands. It also stops the spread of viruses like noroviruses or H1N1. Surfactant cleansers also help kill bacteria and prevent diarrhea (Coiffard and Couteau 2020).

Keep in mind that face mites also eat the oily sebum on your skin. They, too, can cause a type of rosacea (Rather and Hassan 2014). Cleansing also removes excess oil that can lead to a face mite infestation.

Figure: A face mite (Image from BBC Reel)


So cleansing regularly is good for your skin appearance and your skin health. Especially if you have a skin condition like acne or eczema. Not washing your face will worsen acne, eczema and other skin conditions (Choi et al. 2006).



2. However, you need to choose the appropriate cleanser. Because the wrong cleanser is worse than nothing.

Soaps are a harsh, alkaline surfactant. They cleanse and kill germs, but will also harm your skin and reduce its natural defenses. In fact, studies show that using soaps can increase skin bacteria. They do this by harming the skin’s natural acidity. This leads to more acne lesions (Korting et al. 1995).

This is maybe where the myth that not cleansing your skin was beneficial. Indeed, it is better not to cleanse at all, than to cleanse your skin with soap. However, there are good alternatives.

The alternatives to soaps are called synthetic detergents, also known as ‘syndets’. Many popular cleansers, including Dove Beauty Bar, are actually syndets, not soaps. 

Some syndets, such as certain sulfates, are also harsh and also damage your skin. That’s why some people will tell you to avoid cleansers with sulfates.

Basically, harsh cleansers, both soaps and syndets, are what give cleansers a bad wrap. Harsh cleansers interact with the proteins and lipids in your skin that form the skin barrier . This interaction can harm the ability of your skin to protect against the environment while holding in water. It can strip your skin of natural moisturizing factors. All of which can lead to chronically dry, irritated skin.

Modern cleansing technology combines blends of milder and more environmentally friendly syndets that avoid harming your skin barrier (Ananthapadmanaban et al. 2004, Gfatter et al. 1997, Mijaljica et al. 2022).

How can you tell if your cleanser has soaps, sulfates or these newer and milder syndets? One strategy is to get very good at reading labels.

For example, sodium cocoate, sodium tallowate, sodium olivate and potassium cocoate are all soaps. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) - also known as sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) - and sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) also known as sodium laureth sulfate are sulfates. Milder cleansers include isethionates and sarcosinates.

With this label reading strategy however, it can get pretty complicated. In general, a mix of milder syndets at the right amounts is key. Adding moisturizing elements is also crucial to modern cleansing.

So another strategy is just to see how your face feels after cleansing. After cleansing, if you feel tightness or get dry, scaly, or rough skin, or if you have redness, itching, or irritation, then your cleanser is harming your skin barrier. You should switch to a different cleanser (Ananthapadmanaban et al.). 2004).

Our advice for most people is to choose a wash-off cleanser with an acidic pH. It should have mild syndet surfactants that are sulfate-free. It should also have moisturizing agents. These things help cleanse the skin without harming the skin barrier or leaving skin too dry. 

We recommend our Sheer Silk cleanser for most skin types but particularly for dry skin.

[ Click here to check out Sheer Silk cleanser ]

If you have acne-prone skin, you will want to additionally look for add-ins to your cleanser such as hydroxy acids. We recommend our Refresher cleanser which is a triple-AHA cleanser that is particularly beneficial for acne-prone skin.

[ Click here to check out Refresher Clarifying cleanser ]

Anyone can use both of these cleansers however, as they will safely cleanse your skin without damaging the skin barrier.


3. Double cleansing can help take off water-resistant makeup and sunscreen but is not necessary.

Skincare enthusiasts often talk about the benefits of double cleansing. Double cleansing is when you start with an oil cleanser and then follow-up with a second rinse-off cleanser.

Oil cleansers have a larger volume of oil than water-based cleansers, so they can dissolve stubborn sunscreen and makeup better. Studies show that cleansing with an oil cleanser is beneficial if you wear a lot of waterproof or water-resistant products such as sunscreen and makeup (Chen et al. 2020). 

So, if you find that your rinse-off cleanser does not remove all the water-resistant makeup and sunscreen from your face, you can consider double cleansing with an oil cleanser first to dissolve that makeup and sunscreen, and then following that with a rinse-off cleanser.

A hybrid cleanser with higher oil content can be a substititue for the double cleanse method. It dissolves makeup and sunscreen while moisturizing. Our Sheer Silk cleanser offers an all-in-one solution. It's easier and simpler, yet still very effective, for skincare.

[ Click here to check out Sheer Silk cleanser ]



American Academy of Dermatology Association. “Face Washing 101”

Ananthapadmanabhan KP, Moore DJ, Subramanyan K, Manoj M, Meyer F (2004). “Cleansing without compromise: the impact of cleansers on the skin barrier and the technology of mild cleansing.” Dermatologic Therapy 17: 16-25.

BBC Reel. “There are thousands of mites living on your face.”

Chen W, He M, Xie LMM, Li L (2020). “The optimal cleansing method for the removal of sunscreen: Water, cleanser or cleansing oil.” J Cosmet Dermatol 19(1): 180-184.

Choi JM, Lew VK, Kimball AB (2006). “A single-blinded, randomized, controlled clinical trial evaluating the effect of face washing on acne vulgaris.” Pediatr Dermatol 23(5): 421-427.

Coiffard L, Couteau C (2020). “Soap and syndets: differences and analogies, sources of great confusion.” Eu Rev Med Pharmacol Sci 24: 11432-11439.

Gfatter R, Hackl P, Braun F (1997). “Effects of Soap and Detergents on Skin Surface pH, Stratum corneum Hydration and Fat Content in Infants.” Dermatology 195: 258-262.

Korting HC, Ponce-Poschl E, Klovekorn W, Schmotzer G, Arens-Corell M, Braun-Falco O (1995). “The influence of the regular use of a soap or an acidic syndet bar on pre-acne.” Infection 23(2): 89-93.

Mijaljica D, Spada F, Harrison IP (2022). “Skin Cleansing without or with Compromise: Soaps and Syndets.” Molecules 27:

Rather PA, Hassan I (2014). “Human Demodex Mite: The Versatile Mite of Dermatological Importance.” Indian J Dermatol. 59(1): 60-65..

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