I used to think my mum’s 20-minute skin care regimen was overkill, but maybe she was onto something. Her face looks amazing and her skin is healthy in her older years. And now that I’m older and have researched the topic, I realise that the way you clean your money-maker now makes a difference in your skin’s health and looks, even years later.
Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
The world is filthy and gross. As you go about your day, your face gets coated with all sorts of gunk, including dirt, bacteria, dead skin and oil that you naturally produce (called sebum). So, the purpose of washing your face is to clear all of that up and maintain healthier, good-looking skin. But hey, if you ignore or overlook proper facial hygiene, what’s the worst that can happen?
Well, you probably won’t look like the Cryptkeeper, but for most of us, proper face washing prevents clogged pores (that goes double for those of you who wear makeup, as makeup is notorious for that) because backed up pores are where the trouble begins.
Underneath your skin are sebaceous glands that excrete sebum, and as this paper in the Journal of Lipid Research explains, sebum has many functions. It binds to dead skin cells and travels out via your hair follicles and through your pores as a way to protect your skin, but also possibly as a way to deliver antioxidants, like vitamin E, to the skin’s surface. The delivery of vitamin E through sebum, the research paper’s authors hypothesise, may play a role in maintaining skin health.
If your pores are clogged from a mixture of sebum and outside pollutants, the process backs up and builds up, potentially along with bacteria. The result? Whiteheads, blackheads, cysts, blemishes and acne. So, for those of us who have oilier skin, sweat a lot, have skin conditions that require it, or wear makeup — there’s no other way to skin it — we need wash our faces right.
Choose the Right Facial Cleanser for Your Type of Skin
The point of a face-washing cleanser is to remove dirt, sweat and makeup without also completely drying out your skin. When navigating the health and beauty section, your safest bet is to go with descriptors like fragrance-free and gentle (unless you’ve been instructed otherwise by your dermatologist), but oh, the choices! Do you go with a cream or a gel? Do you buy oily or acne-specific washes?
First, note that many products are created for specific skin types. Some help with heavier-duty cleansing, and others are better at safeguarding delicate skin. Here’s how to choose based on your skin type.
For People with Dry Skin
Dry skin has a hard time hydrating itself because it lacks lipids (fats), water or both. Your skin may feel tight and look flaky. Oftentimes winter exacerbates the dryness or symptoms of skin conditions like eczema. I have eczema myself, so I personally fear winter as much as the Game of Thrones world does because it means much more careful management to fight off breakouts. So when Winter Is Coming, I switch to an oil-based cleanser and a heavier face cream for moisturising multiple times throughout the day, as needed.
Of course, not everyone with dry skin has to go to the same lengths or use the same products. If you have dry skin, look for cream- or milk-based cleansers to keep your precious oils and prevent further drying. Specific brands like SkinCeuticals or my current (non-winter) favourite Caudalie could work.
For People with Oily Skin
Oily skin overproduces sebum and is more prone to breakouts, but holds moisture pretty well. You probably think your oily skin has sealed an acne-filled fate, but as this paper in Clinics of Dermatology explains, we’re not quite clear on the relationship between sebum and development of acne. Acne is influenced by many factors, including genes and hormones, so the best thing to manage it is to work with a dermatologist and properly wash your face.
For oily skin, Dr Badreshia-Bansal, MD, a fellow at the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), noted on this AAD page that an oil-free foaming cleanser that doesn’t block pores but also contains salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can help to prevent breakouts.
For People with a Combination of Oily and Dry Skin
For many people, different areas of your skin may be normal, dry or oily. The most common oily areas are the forehead, nose and chin (nicknamed the “T-zone”), whereas the cheeks, neck and area around the eyes tend to be dry or normal. Badreshia-Bansal recommends a mild cleanser, like Cetaphil or if you stretch the budget a bit more Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cleanser, that isn’t too harsh on the skin and doesn’t remove much sebum. You’ll know if you’ve scrubbed away too much if your face is left feeling “tight” after washing.
For People with Sensitive Skin
This is, for lack of a better word, a sensitive category. Most people will have reactions of varying severity to specific cosmetics, soaps, lotions and other common household products, and then think they have sensitive skin. That’s not necessarily the case, however. Sometimes irritation is a matter of overusing a specific product, or just using the wrong product for them. Check with your dermatologist or immunologist to run patch tests to see what may be irritating your skin if you’re unsure, or think you might have sensitive skin.
In most cases, people with true skin sensitivity also have skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea and psoriasis. They tend to have a thinner outer skin layer which is easily irritated and reacts readily. I feel you, sensitive skin-sufferers. Luckily for me, the right cleanser and moisturiser for my skin (along with not eating foods that triggered my eczema) were game-changers.
Dr Badreshia-Bansal suggests staying away from products that contain fragrances or alcohols, and look for “calming” ingredients such as green tea polyphenols, chamomile and aloe. She adds that in general, the fewer the ingredients on the label, the better. Some active ingredients, such as lipoic acid, glycolic acid, and salicylic acid are well-known skin irritants. People with darker skin may want to pay extra attention to those ingredients because their differences in skin anatomy (such as having more skin pigments called melanin) could make them especially sensitive, according to the AAD.
For People with “Normal” (Not Especially Dry or Oily) Skin
This skin type doesn’t get very greasy nor very dry. Bust out the confetti because you have the least problematic skin type! Most cleansers will work for you, but as with the combination skin type, look for mild cleansers that remove dirt and grease, but preserves the natural sebum you have. The usual recommendation is a neutral cleanser like Cetaphil, but I encourage you to try different gentle-cleansing products — whether it’s gel, a cream, or a foaming wash — to find out what gives you the best clean, non-drying feeling.
The video above, from Glamrs.com, shows you how to figure out your skin type. As it notes, using the wrong products could worsen skin issues you may already be prone to. For example, if you have dry skin, as nice as an “exfoliating” wash sounds, it will likely make your skin even drier and dull-looking.
If you’re trying to tell if a product jives with you and your skin type, Refinery29 has an excellent guide that will help you out.
Improve Your Face-Washing Technique
There are better, less harsh techniques to clean your delicate facial skin. To be clear, these techniques apply to both women and men. (In fact, there aren’t gender-specific regimens or products, per se — only gender-specific product marketing.) While we all don’t need a 10-step process, here are important things to keep in mind:
- Start with clean hands: You don’t want to introduce more dirt and bacteria to your face, or undo the work you’re about to put into cleaning it.
- Use lukewarm water: Water temperature is important, but not for the reason you think. Pores don’t open or close in response to hot or cold water. Rather, hot water dilates blood vessels, which can irritate or dry out your skin, and cold water is less effective at loosening dirt. What about washing your face in the shower? Don’t do it unless your showers are quick and lukewarm, Dr Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist, told Marie Claire.
- Gently massage your skin in circular motions: After rinsing your face, apply your preferred cleaning product to your fingertips and massage in small, circular motions. Pay special attention to your T-zone, where there tends to be more oil, and areas where you sweat, like along your jawline and hairline, as beauty vlogger Michelle Phan writes.
- Take your time: After you work the cleanser into your face and it foams up, it’s tempting to cut this process short, but Phan recommends lathering between 30 seconds and up to a minute.
- Use your fingers: When washing your face, easy does it. Among the face-washing tips provided by the AAD, they say to avoid scrubbing or using anything other than your fingertips. Facecloths, scrubbing pads or other rough fabrics will probably irritate your skin.
- Pat your face dry: Be gentle. Use a clean, soft towel to pat your face dry, and don’t focus on getting every drop of moisture off.
Once you have the technique down, how often should you wash your face? Well, the jury is still out on that one. Most people stick with the oft-repeated twice a day rule, once in the morning and once at night. Of course, that recommendation isn’t for everyone, and too often will dry out your face. For others, too infrequently will leave their face oily and dirty. How often you wash your face depends on your skin type as well. Those with oily and acne-prone skin generally should wash twice a day. People with especially sensitive or dry skin would do just fine once a day, preferably at night to remove the day’s grime.
Don’t Overdo It, Your Skin Only Needs a Little Help
For those of us with problematic skin, it’s easy to hate on sebum and want to wash our way to a clearer and cleaner tomorrow, but some sebum is healthy and helpful for keeping our skin hydrated.
We mentioned that sebum forms a protective layer, but in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Menas Kizoulis, a member of the Johnson & Johnson Consumer R&D team, explained that in the process of removing debris, cleansers also stripped away this oily ally, which can over-dry your skin and lead to irritation. What’s more, over-washing can actually lead to increased oil production, noted Badreshia-Bansal.
Meanwhile, exfoliation, which scrapes away dead skin cells, can also lead to really dry skin or worsen irritated skin, especially in the midst of an acne breakout. For most people, once or twice a week of exfoliation is more than sufficient, and even then you don’t need to be rough. It’s a bit befuddling because we want clean but not squeaky clean, when there’s no more oil. The saying “Too much of a good thing can become bad!” applies to face-washing, too.
Who knew that washing your face was as deceptively complex as the right way to care for your teeth or maintain your ears? You probably don’t need to spend nearly as much time on your own regimen as my mum does on hers, but a proper one that takes your skin type into account is better for your skin health and your looks than the old-school splash and scrub, regardless of whether you’re a dude or lady.