The Chemists' Comprehensive Guide to Cleansers PT. 1

Confession time! We’ve been sitting on this cleanser blog post for probably close to a year. Cleansing is such an important topic -- in fact, we think of it as perhaps the most underrated one of the skincare fundamental trio - cleanse, moisturize, and sun protection. Yet, cleansing is highly personal and very dependent on skin type. So we turned to our Instagram community for inspiration and polled everyone’s top cleansing questions. There are some amazing questions, and it really helped us put together this latest edition of chemists’ guide to cleansing! (thanks community!)

Why Cleanse

Everyday we accumulate sweat, excess oil, pollution, and  germs from frustrated face touching, makeup, city smog, etc. It can all really add up by the end of the day. Pollutants in particular, are not just a nuisance but can cause long term harm to your skin and can lead to inflammation, free radical generation, and eventually premature aging. In one study, they gauged skin aging in 400 caucasian women (age 70 to 80) correlating them to air pollution exposure. The study showed that air pollution significantly increases signs of skin aging such as discoloration and fine lines. Thus, cleansing your skin of pollutants daily can become a very essential part to the long-term goal of aging gracefully. Not to mention, a thoroughly cleaned face is just that much better at absorbing those fancy schmancy skincare serums, treatments, and active ingredients.

Finding Your Cleanser Balance

    The right cleanser for you is one that thoroughly cleans without overly stripping your skin. The goal here is to never overly disturb your skin’s barrier function.

This sounds simple, but can be incredibly difficult to assess, even for us! But let’s try to put some metrics on this:

Is your cleanser stripping?

“Too stripping” is a much easier metric to gauge. You want to avoid a cleanser that leaves you with that tight, “squeaky” feel. When you’re trying a new cleanser out, don’t change up other aspects of your routine. Give anywhere between a day to a week to see if you experience a change in your skin. You’re looking for any changes in ‘dryness’ or ‘oiliness’ of your skin to see if you’ve found the right cleanser for you.

*For oily skin types, there’s a common phenomenon where you change to a more gentle cleanser and skin feels a lot more oily by afternoon. Give your skin at least two weeks to adjust to the change before making a decision since skin needs time to re-calibrate and adjust.

Does your cleanser cleanse enough?

Making sure that your cleanser “thoroughly cleanses” is much more difficult to tell. One of the most common questions we got on our Insta poll is “how can you tell a cleanser is thorough enough?” A much trickier metric… in a clinical testing setting, researchers, chemists have tools that can analyze more in depth (see our ‘can a regular cleanser wash off sunscreen’ post). But there are a few ways we’d recommend testing your cleanser at home:

  1. Quick Post-Cleansing Wipe down: use a toner + cotton pad to give your skin a wipe down after and look out for any signs of residue. Even check the towel your drying your face with. If you see any residues of makeup, it might be time to add in a makeup remover.
  2. The Makeup Smiley Test: just draw a mini face on your hand using your makeup arsenal and put your cleanser directly to the test! blank slate cleanser vs makeup

Building Your Cleanser Routine

Cleansing routines can vary far and wide. Some prefer a highly minimalist approach, while for others it’s the most important ritual with a few added steps. When you’re putting together your cleansing routine, consider the following classic cleansing routines:

  1. The One and Done: You like to keep it simple. Your ideal cleanser is a classic gel or cream format that can take care of all your cleansing needs. Consider double cleansing or using a makeup remover if you’re noticing residue post cleansing.
  2. Double Cleansing: You like using an oil or balm cleanser before the classic water-based cleanser. We get a lot of questions asking whether or not this is a must. Not necessarily. We believe that a well-formulated oil cleanser should be able to clean thoroughly without leaving a residue, so double-cleansing is definitely optional! That said, if you feel any lingering oiliness, it’s a good sign that double cleansing might be for you.
  3. Quick Wipe Down: You might feel like you don’t have time for anything. You’re ready to hit the sack after a quick wipe down. Cleansing wipes are great for tough days, lunch gym sesh, or for when you’re on the go. However, this may not be the best in the long run since makeup wipes end up leaving surfactant residue on your face.
  4. Tool please!: we’re big fans of using (gentle) tools such as cleansing brushes, konjac sponges, or silicone brushes to enhance your cleanser’s performance!
  5. Just water: We should mention, there are some that only use water in the morning. A quick splash to freshen up. This makes sense for morning routines, especially for very dry skin types but definitely consider using an actual cleanser for your night routine.

There isn’t an absolute, well studied, “right” way to cleanse. In fact you may find yourself embodying each of these five types of cleansing habits at some point in your life. Ultimately it comes down to what fits your lifestyle and routine best while cleansing thoroughly. 

Cleanser Troubleshooting

If you’re not entirely happy with your current routine, and feel the need to troubleshoot your cleansing game, consider the following tips:

  1. It’s stinging. Let’s change it up. You might have recently started using heavy duty acids or retinoids and suddenly feel like your skin isn’t too happy with your cleanser. Whatever the reason, it’s definitely time to go for a different product -- a cleanser should never cause stinging. This is the time to check your cleansers ingredient list and get a gauge of what surfactants you previously were using and then adjust accordingly. 
  2. It’s drying me out. Look for cleansers with glycerin, panthenol, light oils, and even ceramides. Consider going with a gentler surfactant combination. We get a few questions on whether or not these “moisturizing” ingredients actually matter in a cleanser. They absolutely can help with post-cleansing skin conditioning! In fact, cleansers with positive TEWL (transepidermal water loss) impact is actually a big area of chemist-driven innovation.
  3. I’m still hella oily. Try to refrain from gravitating towards that squeaky clean feel. Instead, should you need a little more cleansing power, consider a cleansing brush or konjac sponge. Ultimately, managing oily skin is a more complex problem and your moisturizers, treatments, and sunscreens can all have an impact. Look to our oily skin guide coming soon!

In Summary

cleanser find your balance troubleshooting

    There isn’t an objective “best” cleanser or best cleansing routine. It all comes down to finding the right products and steps that work for skin type and lifestyle. This post is meant to be a more top level view of cleansers, how to think about the cleanser category and method of cleansing, as well as address the more general questions you may have about cleansers. Above is a little guide on how we would think about cleansers and some examples of how we would troubleshoot. Head over to Cleansers Pt. 2 for a closer look at cleanser ingredients, some top surfactants you may encounter, exfoliating acids in cleansers and more!

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