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Skin School  >   Skincare

Cleansing 101: The Right Way to Wash Your Face, According to Dermatologists

Everyone wants the best product for the first step in their skincare routine – here's how to choose the one.
In this article:
01 Why do we need to cleanse?02 What a cleanser does03 How to cleanse properly04 Choosing a cleanser that's right for you05 A tip when finding the right product

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We all know the cardinal sin of skincare, skipping the before-bed cleansing and makeup removal. But beyond that, face-washing rules can get a bit, shall we say, murky? How often should you wash your face? What is the best type of cleanser? What temperature should the water be? There’s so much more to cleansing than a quick pump, lather and rinse. 🧼

To clarify the ins and outs of proper face washing, we consulted two dermatologists. Keep scrolling to find out what they said and learn how to cleanse your face the right way.

First, why do we need to wash our face?

“It's important to cleanse daily in order to remove makeup, excess oil, pollutants and other impurities that can clog pores and lead to free radical damage,” explains Dr. Susan Bard, an NYC-based, board-certified dermatologist. Even if you don’t wear makeup, the skin on your face is constantly bombarded with bacteria, viruses, dirt and dead skin cells, which piles up through the course of a day. Daily washing not only removes these impurities, but also makes skin look fresh and bright and gives you a clean slate so skincare products can easily penetrate the skin. 

What does a cleanser do?

“A cleanser is like a detergent for our face, except gentler and formulated specifically for facial skin, which is much more sensitive than the rest of the body,” says Dr. Anna H. Chacon, a board-certified dermatologist who serves on the advisory board for Smart Style Today. These detergents are called surfactants, which are surface active agents that degrease and emulsify oils and attract unwanted particles in the outermost layer of skin, so they can be easily rinsed away. “Cleansers also help to prevent microbial infections, maintain skin health, and remove makeup and impurities,” continues Chacon.

How often should you wash your face? And what’s the right way to do it?

Ah, the million dollar question. The short answer is daily. Beyond that, it’s really going to depend on your skin type and concerns, and what sort of products you are using.

“You should cleanse daily, ideally at the end of the day,” recommends Bard. “Moisten the face, apply cleanser to the finger pads and gently work your way around the face. Rinse off with lukewarm water, pat dry with a clean towel and apply moisturizer.”

The lukewarm water is key here. As good as it can feel to wash your face in a steamy, hot shower, high-temp cleansing can cause dryness and weaken your skin barrier function. Extreme heat strips the skin of its natural oils, exacerbating dry patches and highlighting wrinkles on the skin’s surface. Um, no thank you! 

And don’t overdo it with cleanser either. A dime- to nickel-sized amount should do the trick, and you’ll want to move in circular motions for 30 to 60 seconds. If you feel that’s not cutting it, you may want to use a makeup remover before cleansing or even try double cleansing, which involves first washing with a cleansing oil and then a second time with a cream or gel-based formula.

Shouldn’t you wash again in the morning?

If you’re using a night cream or acids that instruct you to wash in the morning, then yes. If your face looks like an oil slick every morning, absolutely. If you can’t remember the last time you washed your pillowcase, that’s another yes. And if you used Mighty Patch or Micropoint to tackle pimples overnight, then you’ll want to wash your face to remove any pus or gunk on the skin’s surface. But otherwise, you may not need a full morning cleanse.

A quick splash of water or a swipe of micellar water is really all that most people need in the morning to prep their skin for skincare products, SPF and makeup.

RELATED READ: Are You Washing Your Face The Wrong Way?

What’s the best face wash to use?

There are 272 “Face Wash & Cleanser” options on Sephora.com and 2000+ results on Amazon, so it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the choices. Knowing the difference between each type is a great starting point on your hunt for the perfect cleanser.

Gel cleansers

Clear, with a gel-like consistency, this cleanser type has antiseptic and exfoliating properties for deep cleansing. “Personally, I like gel-based cleansers, as I lean towards more oily skin, and the formulation of gels permits drying of the oily skin and excess sebum,” says Chacon.

Best for: Oily and combination skin

Cream cleansers

Milk and lotion cleansers also fall into this category of creamy, moisturizing cleansers. They gently wash the surface of the skin without stripping natural oils.

Best for: Dry and sensitive skin

Foam cleansers

If you love bubbles and a soapy lather, this is the cleanser for you. It comes out of the pump as a liquid, cream or gel but foams up once you apply it to wet skin. Foam cleansers typically help with oil control.

    Best for: Oily and combination skin

    Cleansing oil

    As we mentioned, oil cleansers are a great first step for a double-cleansing routine. Instead of using surfactants to attract makeup, oil and dirt, oil cleansers provide a gentler way of removing debris. “It can help bind certains impurities better (i.e., makeup) and certain oils can help break down clogs in pores,” says Bard

      Best for: Most skin types, but those with acne-prone skin should steer clear of any oil cleansers that contain isopropyl myristate

      Cleansing balm

      A cross between an oil and a cream, a cleansing balm is a thick, creamy, oil-based formula that removes makeup and unclogs pores without leaving your skin dry.

        Best for: Most skin types

        Cleansing bar

        Once banished to the not-suitable-for-face category, a new breed of facial bars are having a moment. Most contain very little actual soap, offer skin-friendly pH levels and contain moisturizing ingredients that feel just as luxurious as liquid cleansers.

          Best for: Oily and combination skin

          When it comes down to it ...

          The best face wash for you is the one that works best for your skin. And that might mean having a few in rotation, depending on the weather and what’s going on with your skin. “I use multiple cleansers and simply pick which one works best for the particular purpose it is trying to serve,” says Chacon. “I always suggest trying a few items, initially on areas you don’t really care much about (such as the foot) prior to progressing to your face. It is also important to look at reviews and consult with your dermatologist to see which product may be most suitable for you.”


          Oh, and one last thing. Skin should never, ever feel squeaky clean after cleansing. That sensation is a sign that your skin is dry or dehydrated and your barrier may be damaged. Time to switch to a cream- or oil-based cleanser and slather on some moisturizer, stat.

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