Washing your face is one of those things we assume everyone does the same way—until we hear someone does it differently. And then we start to wonder: Hot or cold water? Gentle cleanser or a grainy scrub? Use an expensive electronic face brush that we read about on the Internet?
Turns out we had more questions about face washing than we realized. To get some answers, we went to the experts for a step-by-step guide to getting a clean, clear complexion.
First things first: If you wear makeup, take it off with an oil-based makeup remover, says Karen Hammerman, M.D., a dermatologist at the Schweiger Dermatology Group. Makeup won’t come off with just gentle cleansing of the skin, and if it stays on too long, it can lead to blocked pores and future zits.
As for a cleanser, we know it's tempting to grab the one covered in marketing promises, but it's a better idea to go for one labeled "gentle," "pH-balanced," and "fragrance-free," recommends Yasmine Kirkorian, M.D., an assistant professor of dermatology at Children's National Health System. Something basic like Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser ($9.89; drugstore.com) is a safe bet, although she says the brand isn't as important as that it's non-abrasive (sayonara, microbeads).
Need more help navigating the face wash aisle? Read on.
If you have dry skin:
Kirkorian suggests cream-based cleansers. These provide moisture for the skin thanks to glycerin or shea butters, Hammerman says. Try Dove White Beauty Bar ($9.39 for 8 bars; target.com). Despite bar soap's drying reputation, she says it's the super-gentle way to go.
If your skin is fairly normal, or you're just not sure:
A gentle, pH-balanced cleanser like Cetaphil will do the job. Or try a cleansing "water," like Simple Cleansing Micellar Water ($6.99; drugstore.com). The oil-based components remove oil, grease, and sebum from our skin, without being harsh or over-stripping, Schlosser says.
If you have oily skin:
Foaming cleansers, like CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser ($10.80; amazon.com), will leave you feeling super clean—although only temporarily. (If you're naturally oily, a quick cleanse isn't going to change your skin type.) Somewhat counterintuitively, oil-based cleansers like Boscia Makeup-Breakup Cool Cleansing Oil ($30; sephora.com) may be a good choice for oily skin ("like dissolves like"), but it’s hard to generalize how well your skin will react. If you have seriously oily skin and don't want to pass it off as that coconut oil glow, talk to a dermatologist—Kirkorian says that's where medications like spironolactone can come in.
If you have acne-prone skin:
It’s even more important to stay gentle if you're battling acne with spot treatments, so Hammerman recommends something like Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Daily Cleanser ($9.99; ulta.com). Overdoing it with an acne-specific cleanser and other acne medications can leave you with dry, irritated skin (and more frustration than you started with).
Not using additional acne-related products? Then you can turn to chemically exfoliating cleansers, says Bethanee Schlosser, M.D., Ph.D, a dermatologist and director of the Women's Skin Health Program for Northwestern Medicine. With ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, and salcyclic acid, the effectiveness can rival leave-on treatments for acne. Look for Clean and Clear Continuous Control Acne Cleanser ($5.39; drugstore.com) or Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser ($36; sephora.com).
Once you’ve got your ammo, turn the faucet to lukewarm—no steaming temperatures or arctic water necessary. “Warm is better than the extremes of either cold or hot to remove oil from our skin,” Schlosser says. (Think about cleaning your dishes—cold water doesn’t remove grease very effectively.)
Plus, while cold water can tighten pores temporarily, it won’t have a lasting effect. Meanwhile, hot water, despite making you feel super clean, can lead to dry and irritated skin.
Most dermatologists recommend washing your face twice a day, and a small 2006 study comparing people who washed their face once, twice, or four times a day found that acne improved at twice a day. A single-blinded, randomized, controlled clinical trial evaluating the effect of face washing on acne vulgaris. Choi JM, Lew VK, Kimball AB. Pediatric dermatology, 2007, Jan.;23(5):0736-8046. While skin condition didn't get worse at four times a day, it didn't get much better—and that’s a lot of time to spend at the sink.
Splash that lukewarm water on your face and use your fingertips in a circular motion to apply the cleanser—enough to work up a good lather in your chosen medium. Schlosser recommends paying special attention to the T-zone (nose and forehead territory) and U-zone (the area around and just under your jawline), where people tend to miss.
No washcloth or grainy scrub needed: Gentle is the key word here, and washcloths just aren't as gentle as our hands, says Kirkorian. “You actually don’t need to scrub your face. If you did a Tough Mudder, that’s a different story—but for day-to-day cleansing, you don't really need to use a washcloth.”
Instead, save it for a gentle pat down to dry off after rinsing off your cleanser. And make sure to hang it in a dry place (a.k.a. not the shower): Hammerman says that any moisture can be a breeding ground for bacteria and germs that can cause breakouts.
Finally, if you've heard wonders about the $99-and-up facial brushes, relax. However tempting it is to imagine they're taking your cleansing routine to a deeper, skin-changing level, Schlosser says that's probably not the case. Since facial skin is not thick, physical exfoliation isn't required for penetration. Bottom line: You'll be fine with or without one.
Twenty-step regimens are fun if you're into them, but a simple routine can be just as effective. Gentle is pretty much always better, and although it can be tempting to exfoliate your way to a new tomorrow, chances are a mild touch will get you there faster. Just choose wisely, young Padawan: Try every topical this side of Sephora, and things might not work out as you intended.