Cleanser 101: clean your dirty face

Cleanser 101: clean your dirty face

One of the biggest myths about cleaning your face is that the process should leave your face feeling squeaky clean. That tightness we associate with our face being clean is usually a sign of your cleanser drying out your skin more than it should. Finding the right cleanser is a crucial step in anyone’s skincare journey because it’s usually the most damaging step.

Damaging as it may be, it’s also required – dirt, makeup, and excess oils need to be removed from the skin for it to be healthy. Plain water is not enough for this purpose and a key ingredient that helps clean our skin is a family of chemicals called surfactants. Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) and sodium stearate are some of the most common surfactants used in cleansing products. Your choice of surfactants should always veer towards gentler ones. Repeated use of harsh surfactants such as SLS can easily damage your moisture barrier and age your skin faster.

Now that I’ve managed to significantly alarm you, let’s look at the bright side. The market is flooded with cleansers that won’t cause undue damage to your skin while cleaning it.

A good place to start in this process of trial and error would be to evaluate your current cleanser. Never a good idea to fix something that isn’t broken, right? To diagnose whether your current product is suitable for your skin, you need the answers to two basic questions:

  1. Does your skin feel tight and dry after cleansing? If yes, you need to switch to a gentler (perhaps non-foaming) cleanser
  2. Is there unwanted debris (makeup, oil, dirt) left behind on your skin after cleansing? If yes, you need to use an additional cleansing product (more on that later)

If neither of the above apply to you, then you’re already off to a good start. But if your skin is left feeling tight after cleansing, refer to the section below on choosing a gentler cleanser.

How to choose a gentler cleanser

While surfactants may be a necessity in cleansing products, it’s possible to incorporate gentler surfactants into the product without limiting its effectiveness. Some common, natural surfactants include coco glucoside, decyl, glucoside, lauryl, glucoside, sucrose cocoate, capryl/caprylyl glucoside.

An argument is usually made for the gentleness of Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES; different from SLS) but I personally find it too drying.

So, look for the above ingredients when picking your next product and if it doesn’t break you out – it is the right fit for you.

How to choose a harsher cleanser

If you’re on the hunt for a ‘harsher’ cleanser because your current product leaves makeup or sunscreen behind, the solution is not to use a harsher cleanser but two different gentle cleansers. This method is called double-cleansing, where you use a pre-cleanser followed by a regular cleanser (which could be your current product).

A pre-cleanser, aka a first cleanser in the double-cleansing method is a product that you apply to your dry skin before you use your regular wet-skin cleanser.The good news is that you can incorporate a first cleanser into your routine without breaking your bank. A first cleanser can be as cheap as drugstore petroleum jelly. The three common types of first cleansers are oils, micellar water, and balms. Apply to dry skin, massage, and then wipe gently with a cloth or rinse your face with water. You can choose to follow up an oil-based, first cleanser with a gentle, second cleanser but can also skip a second cleanser if your skin feels clean.

As always, the products and method that you use will be unique to your skin type and conditions. Happy experimenting!


Meet the Writer: Iffat


Iffat is a Chicago resident trying to find a balance between enjoying the outdoors and not freezing her face. A lifelong battle with acne and an academic interest in chemistry are the driving forces behind her skincare nerdiness. She loves to talk about tennis, history, and all things skincare. She was made in Allahabad, India.