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Washing your face is seemingly the easiest step in a skincare routine. But this step has legs that spread out into every single step in your routine. That’s why knowing how to wash your face properly is the key to maintaining healthy skin. It’s the foundation that keeps the whole system in place. There’s a reason why we always go back to our cleanser whenever something’s wrong with our skin. It’s the first thing we want to rule out to find out what caused that pimple or flare-up.
Think about it: if your face were a red, bumpy crime scene, your cleansing step would be the subject of your primary investigation and your cleanser would be the main suspect. Don’t worry, I may be watching too many documentaries on Netflix, but I based this face-washing guide on science and research.
During cleansing, you remove dirt, makeup, sweat, dead skin cells, bacteria, and oil. But in this step, you also wash away some of your skin’s own oils, which are the primary components of a healthy skin barrier (1).
That’s why cleansing requires caution. Because you don’t want to do anything that might compromise your skin’s integrity. And it’s not like there’s a rear sensor that starts to beep when you’re rubbing against the gatekeepers of your skin barrier.
But no worries. Here you can find how to correctly cleanse your skin while maintaining an intact skin barrier.
Keep reading to find out how to wash your face properly.
1. Choose the right cleanser.
Even though we’re always advised to use “clean” cleansers, choosing the right cleanser for your skin type is the most important rule of cleaning your face properly. Ideally, a cleanser should be free of fragrance, alcohol, and SLS. But there’s always an exception to any rule.
And formulation can make a huge difference! Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost Gel Cleanser contains fragrance, but it’s one of the gentlest cleansers out there. So, focus on finding the right one for your skin type.
Because the wrong cleanser can open up a whole new can of worms. The wrong cleanser can either leave your skin too clean or too dirty. When it’s too cleansing for the skin, it can cause redness, sensitivity, and irritation.
And that will cause you the trouble of altering your skincare routine until your skin barrier is healed. When your skin is not clean enough, you may have to deal with acne, clogged pores, and congestion. And that’s never fun.
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2. Remove your makeup first.
There may be 100 ways to put on your makeup. But there’s only one way to properly remove it: double-cleansing. Stubborn makeup, sunscreen, and waterproof mascara aren’t easy to wash off with a simple cleanser. They can stay on the skin.
Use an oil-based cleanser, no matter your skin type, to remove your makeup first. Work the balm or cleansing oil into the skin to melt away your makeup. Once you start looking like a sad clown, rinse your face. Then move on to your second cleanser.
3. Use lukewarm water.
Wet your skin with lukewarm and get a small amount of your cleanser into your palms. Rub your hands against each other and then start massaging your face. Temperature is key!
A study was done to determine the effects of water temperature on the skin barrier regarding skin hydration, redness, and stripping. 10 people used a surfactant to wash their forearms for 4 days at different temperatures.
According to the results: “Skin damage was higher in sites treated with warmer temperatures” (2). And it suggests that water temperature during washing has an effect on irritant contact dermatitis.
So hot water is out. How about cold water? It’s common knowledge that oils dissolve better in warmer temperatures. It’s also widely known that extreme temperatures can cause irritation, especially for people with sensitive skin and rosacea.
To play it safe, use lukewarm water to wash and rinse your face. That’s what The American Academy of Dermatology Association suggests too. However, we can’t deny the invigorating effects of a splash of cold water in the morning. Do that when you’re done cleansing.
4. Gently massage your face.
Use your fingers to massage the cleanser in. Be very gentle with it. Aggressively rubbing your skin with your cleanser won’t make it penetrate deeper or your skin cleaner. It just means irritation.
Remember that your hands aren’t the ones cleaning your face, your cleanser is. You’re just spreading it. So allow your face wash to interact with your skin and dissolve the oils.
Pulling your skin or pressing your hands harshly might leave you looking red and feeling sensitive afterward. Plus, it’s not the best practice if you want to have smooth, wrinkle-free skin.
5. Wash for 60 seconds.
The effect of a product is closely related to the time your skin is exposed to it. You might already know this from washing your hands for about 30 seconds. Well, your face cleanser is (hopefully) not soap. It’s not 60% alcohol either!
So it needs a little bit more time to actually work. Even though I couldn’t find a proper study that provides a universal time frame for how long to wash your face, 60 seconds is enough for your cleanser to work.
Taking longer than that may cause irritation and dryness whereas cutting it too short may not get the job done. If you see makeup coming off on your toner wipes, this might be the reason why.
6. Pat dry with a clean towel.
Once you’re done cleaning, use a clean towel to pat your face dry. The key here is to keep the towels clean. You just washed your face, why would you want to put the bacteria residing on the towel from 10 days ago back on your skin? It just defeats the purpose.
Also, it’s just a couple of water drops. There’s no need to rub the towel against your skin, which might cause irritation from friction. Let the towel soak it up.
7. Be careful with what you put on.
There’s a widely accepted rule around moisturizing your skin right after cleansing. It’s because of the fact that your skin starts to lose moisture as it dries down and you need to rehydrate.
Another important reason is that wet skin is more permeable (3), so your skin products will work better. What’s often overlooked is the fact that this applies only to a moisturizer and not your other skincare products.
If we can get real for a second, most of us use serums and toners these days before moisturizers. And applying something with an active ingredient on wet or damp skin can cause real problems.
So here’s what you do. Only apply a basic moisturizer on wet or damp skin. You can also apply a hydrating serum on the condition that you lock it in with a moisturizer. Anything other than that needs to be applied to dry skin, especially if you have sensitive skin.
You can’t apply a retinol serum or an exfoliating toner on wet skin! Because of increased penetration, your otherwise gentle products will irritate your skin. This happened to me with The Ordinary’s Resveratrol + Ferulic Acid. It was not pleasant.
To recap, after you’re done cleansing, apply your moisturizer on damp skin for maximum plumpness and softness. If you have a whole skincare ritual you need to complete, wait for your skin to dry for just a few minutes until it doesn’t feel warm or wet anymore. Then start doing your skincare routine.
So this is how to wash your face properly. Mastering this step will help you cover all the bases of a proper foundation for an effective skincare routine.
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- Walters, R. M., Mao, G., Gunn, E. T., & Hornby, S. (2012). Cleansing formulations that respect skin barrier integrity. Dermatology research and practice, 2012, 495917. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/495917
- Berardesca, E., Vignoli, G. P., Distante, F., Brizzi, P., & Rabbiosi, G. (1995). Effects of water temperature on surfactant-induced skin irritation. Contact dermatitis, 32(2), 83–87. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0536.1995.tb00751.x
- Ogawa-Fuse, C., Morisaki, N., Shima, K., Hotta, M., Sugata, K., Ichihashi, T., Oguri, M., Yoshida, O., & Fujimura, T. (2019). Impact of water exposure on skin barrier permeability and ultrastructure. Contact dermatitis, 80(4), 228–233. https://doi.org/10.1111/cod.13174