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Cleansers, Face Washes, Etc.: Everything You Need To Know

A lot of people assume that cleansers don't matter since they only stay on your skin for a short period of time. I’ve interacted many who simply use soap, or whatever else they can get their hands on, to wash their face. However, few things are more important in skincare than your choice of cleanser, where cleansers include everything used to clean the face from bar soaps and face washes to micellar waters and cleansing balms.

In this blog I’m going to do a deep dive into cleansers and cover everything that you need to know about them. I’ll address the following points:

P.S. We also have a video on this topic on our YouTube channel for those who prefer watching videos as opposed to reading blogs. Here it is:

What Are Cleansers?

A cleanser is anything that cleans the skin and include a wide variety of products with variable formats and textures. Soaps, micellar waters, face washes, cleansing balms, cleansing milks and cleansing creams, are all cleansers. And yes, all of these generally tend to be suitable to use for washing your face everyday.

Image showing a range of cleansers of face washes, including AccuFix Salicylic Acid Cleanser, L'Óreal Micellar Water, Clinique take the day off cleansing milk, DHC Deep Cleansing Oil and Kaeso

How Do Cleansers Work?

Infographic explaining the structure of surfactants and how they form micelles

Oil and water don’t mix on their own. Cleansers use surfactants to dissolve and rinse away grime and other oil-soluble impurities from the surface of our skin. Surfactants allow oil and water to mix as a result of their structure, which is demonstrated in the figure.

A surfactant molecule has two parts, a water-loving head, and an oil-loving tail. Because of this structure, surfactant molecules for structures called micelles when dissolved in water. Micelles trap dirt and grime within them and are then easily rinsed away with water.

Surfactants commonly found in skin cleansers include sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES), cocamidopropyl betaine and lauryl and decyl glucoside, among several others.

How Does Cleansing Damage The Skin?

While cleansing is a necessary part of any skincare routine, it's also generally the most damaging. This is because surfactants aren’t always good for your skin.

The outermost layer of the skin - the stratum corneum - has a brick and mortar structure where dead skin cells are the bricks and the lipids, which consists of ceramides, cholesterol and free fatty acids, that surround them, are the mortar, as illustrated in the figure. The stratum corneum acts as your body's barrier against the outside world. It keeps hydration in and irritants out and its structure makes it perfect for this job. But when its structure is disturbed, skin becomes eczematic: dry, itchy, red and irritated.

The stratum corneum is generally resilient, but a harsh cleanser can upsets its structure and creates trouble, leading to, or aggravating, conditions like acne and eczema. Here’s how:

Brick and mortar structure of the stratum corneum with corneocyte bricks and a lipid matrix mortar
  • Surfactants remove important compounds from the stratum corneum. While surfactants excel at removing dirt and grime, they aren’t able to differentiate between the chemicals that make up the stratum corneum, and the chemicals that need to be removed. In addition to excess sebum, dirt and grime, surfactants also tend to remove important lipids, cholesterol in particular, thus messing up the structure of the stratum corneum so it becomes more susceptible to water loss. They also remove proteins and natural hydrating compounds from the skin so skin isn’t able to hold onto water as effectively either. These factors lead to dry, dehydrated skin and can also cause skin sensitivity and eczema. Skin dehydration also causes the skin to produce more oil as the skin tries harder to keep water from evaporating. This spells disaster for people with oily or acne-prone skin.

  • Surfactants remain in the skin resulting in irritation and skin barrier disruption. Most surfactant molecules get rinsed off after cleansing but some don't. These bind to proteins in the skin and change their structure, leading to irritation and the feeling of tightness that people often experience after cleansing. Residual surfactant molecules also disrupt the lipid matrix so the stratum corneum ends up compromised and more prone to letting water out and irritants in.

  • The cleanser changes the pH of the skin. Healthy skin has an acidic pH between 4.2 and 5.6. Maintaining this pH is essential as the biochemical reactions that occur within the skin are sensitive to changes in pH as is the delicate balance of microbes that live on the skin's surface. Alkaline cleansers - and most cleansers, especially soaps and foaming cleansers, tend to be alkaline - change the pH of the skin and this change persists for quite some time even after they've been rinsed off. This puts the brakes on essential biochemical reactions and keeps the skin from being able to repair itself. An alkaline pH also encourages the growth of the acne-causing bacteria.

Choosing A Good Cleanser

Three factors need to be kept in mind when selecting a cleanser, regardless of your skin type, age, or anything else. Accounting for these will ensure that your cleansing experience is as gentle as possible.

Surfactants are the molecules that are responsible for making cleansers bubble and foam

Factor 1: Surfactants

Surfactants are key when it comes to determining how harsh a cleanser will. Surfactants with small, negatively charged heads and tails with carbon chain lengths of 10-14 seem to be particularly harsh. Surfactants that fit this definition include the infamous sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), and soaps such as sodium laurate and sodium cocoate. Milder surfactants include sodium laureth sulfate, cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium cocoyl isethionate, lauryl glucoside and decyl glucoside, among others.

Mixtures of surfactants also tend to make cleansers gentler as the micelles formed by surfactant mixtures tend to be larger than micelles formed when surfactants are used alone.

Factor 2: Power of hydrogen, i.e. pH

pH is a measure of the acidity of a substance. It’s a scale that ranges from 1 - 14, where 7 represents neutral, the pH of distilled water. A pH of less than 7 indicates that the substance is acidic, where the smaller the number, the more acidic the substance, while a pH greater than 7 indicates that a substance is alkaline. Acids, like lemon juice, are generally sour, while alkalis like baking soda, are generally bitter.

The pH scale

As previously discussed, the pH of healthy skin lies between 4.2 and 5.6. At this pH important biochemical reactions can take place undisturbed. Alkaline cleansers however, shift the skin’s pH and disrupt the skin’s biochemical activity. Soaps and baking soda have an alkaline pH and are not good for your skin, while lemon juice has a pH of less than 2, making it overly acidic and also not good for the skin.

Cleansing oils and balms tend to be an exception to the pH rule as oils don't have a pH.

Factor 3: Moisturising ingredients

Moisturising ingredients like oils - sunflower oil and grapeseed oil are also great for people with acne (unless you’re prone to fungal acne), and humectants, such as glycerin and sorbitol, also make a cleanser more gentle on the skin and are generally good ingredients to add to cleansers.

Other Tips To Ensure That Your Cleansing Experience Is As Gentle As Possible

  • Use cooler water. Hot water increases the ability of surfactants to go deeper into the skin resulting in more damage. But also make sure that the water isn’t too cold as extremes of temperature in either direction are not good for the skin.

  • Use less cleanser and don’t cleanse for too long. 30 to 60 seconds of contact time tends to be enough for a cleanser to get its job done. If you’ve been wearing heavy makeup or sunscreen that’s hard to remove, try double cleansing using an oil-based cleanser, such as our Butter But Better Cleansing Balm, in the first step to minimise the damage from harsh surfactants.

  • Don’t overdo it. I see a lot of people, especially those with acne-prone or oily skin, washing their face multiple times a day. This will only irritate your skin and make the problem worse. Wash your face 1 to 2 times per day, not more. If you choose to wash it once, wash it only at night.

  • While products like micellar water and wipes might claim that you don’t need to rinse them off afterwards, they do contain surfactants which will irritate your skin if left on for too long. Make sure you always rinse your face afterwards if you use them.

  • Do not skip moisturiser, regardless of your skin type. This is essential so you can replenish what your skin has lost during the cleansing process. There is a moisturiser out there for you. Find it, and use it. Your skin will thank you for it. Our AccuHydra Hydrating Gel Cream Moisturiser is an excellent option for all skin types including sensitive skin and skin prone to acne or fungal acne.

In Conclusion

If you ever thought that cleansers are something that are just meant to be rinsed off and don’t have a significant impact on the health of skin, I hope this post has convinced you otherwise. In the words of Stephen Alain Ko, “Cleansers are one of the few times in skin care when we actually remove things from our skin, and a good cleanser will remove things that we don’t want on our skin, while minimizing the removal of things we do want in our skin.”

A solid skincare routine is always built on the foundation of a good cleanser, moisturiser and SPF. If you have these wrong, you’re only wasting your money on other expensive products. And yes, harsh cleansers can definitely cause and aggravate everything from eczema and skin dryness, to skin sensitivity, oiliness and acne and set you up for premature skin ageing.

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