It might seem simple, but washing your face takes time and attention. Doing it the right way could make the difference between beaming skin and an acne breakout.
“Many believe that you need to only wash your face to remove makeup or when it looks dirty. In actuality, it’s recommended you wash your face twice daily,” says Jennifer Haley, a board certified dermatologist from Scottsdale, Arizona.
However, the amount of times you wash your face may be less important than how the job is done.
No matter your skin type, texture, or current condition, Haley stresses that a nighttime cleansing routine is especially important.
“Removing makeup, dirt, and grime from the day will help prepare the skin for your skin care regimen, as well as support the skin in its overnight regeneration and renewal processes,” she says.
Ready for a clean start? Follow these face washing steps from dermatologists.
Use a gentle makeup remover to get the job done before you start actually cleansing, especially before bed.
“Pores are used to [purging] out toxins overnight and if they’re clogged, everything will be backed up and look congested,” says Haley.
FYI, this applies to all skin types, even if you’ve got quite the resilient outer layer.
Makeup removal guaranteed
For clogged pores, try the double cleansing method. This two-step routine uses natural oil (i.e., castor, olive, or sunflower) to remove dirt and then requires a mild face wash to help wash away the oil.
Dip a cotton swab into micellar water, makeup remover, or natural oils to remove makeup around the eyes. A cotton swab helps you gently tackle tightly lined areas without tugging on your skin.
Unless they’re specially formulated for the face, bar soaps can alter the pH balance of the skin, which allows for more bacteria and yeast growth.
No surprise: Facial cleansers, especially cleansing balms, are made for delicate skin.
“There’s a tendency for people to look for ‘foaming’ ones, because they think if it doesn’t foam it’s not cleansing. But foaming can actually strip your skin of more natural oils,” says Erum Ilyas, a board certified dermatologist.
Let’s dispel a myth: Pores aren’t doors. Hot water doesn’t open them, and cold water doesn’t shut them.
The truth is: Water temperature extremes can cause irritation, so it’s best to stick to a middle ground. You don’t want to see flushed skin when you check your reflection.
What does a cleanser do for your face? It can help rid the skin of dirt, debris, and oil.
Scrubbing can strip the skin of its natural protective barrier. The best way to clean skin is with your fingertips, gently massaging for at least a minute or two.
“To exfoliate, look for ingredients in your cleansers that contain salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid or fruit enzymes,” says Haley. “Letting these products work their way into the skin for 60 to 90 seconds will do the job, or clearing pores and removing dead skin cells to provide a healthy glow.”
Don’t overdo it
Your skin has a natural barrier that protects it and helps it retain moisture.
While using a scrub or cleanser with beads might feel soft on day one, scrubbing too hard or using these products daily can damage the outer layer of skin.
One sign of over-exfoliation is skin hypersensitivity. This can cause irritation, breakouts, and even a stinging feeling when you apply products.
Watch out for daily cleansers that contain active exfoliating ingredients, like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) — lactic, glycolic, fruit acids — and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) — salicylic, willow bark extracts. These ingredients are extra powerful in sloughing away skin.
Cleansers to avoid
- bar soaps
- perfumed or dyed
- harsh, foaming cleansers
- daily exfoliating cleansers
Micellar water is water containing micelle molecules that attach to makeup and debris and break it down.
“Some people, especially those [who] don’t wear makeup, can get away with micellar water as their cleanser,” Haley says. “If you’re camping or somewhere without water, micellar water can clean your face and doesn’t even need to be rinsed off.”
“Studies show the amount of bacteria that builds up on loofah sponges is proof that these may not be a great idea, unless you are meticulous about constantly cleaning them in a bleach solution,” says Ilyas.
She recommends simply using your hands as tools.
“After all, once you have soap and water on them they’re clean,” she adds.
Your jawline and neck are prone to dirt and debris buildup. And they need love, too.
When giving your face a cleansing massage, gentle rub your fingers in an upward motion to get the circulation going and encourage your skin to stay tight and naturally lifted.
Time to rethink that air-dry.
Leaving water dripping on your face doesn’t hydrate it; in fact, when the water evaporates, it could lead to dryness.
Remember to pat gently with a soft, antimicrobial towel, being extremely cautious around the sensitive under-eye area.
“Often people forget they’re also likely washing their faces in the shower,” Ilyas says. “If you throw in other washing routines at the sink twice a day, then you’re getting three in. This may be a bit excessive.”
Those with dry skin should especially consider cutting back on washes.
While we’re on the topic, if you’re wondering, ‘What time should I wash my face at night?’, earlier might be better.
Research suggests that maintaining your skin’s circadian rhythm may help protect it from damage. Consider cleansing when the sun goes down, not after.
If you’re wondering why your cleanser isn’t working as promised (or as praised), check how much you’re using.
For more expensive cleansers, there might be temptation to use less than recommended to extend use or save money. Don’t!
When in doubt, read the label to find the recommended amount. Products often go through trials and tests to find the safest, most effective amount for general use.
Although not technically a step in face washing, many often miss the importance of what comes after: rebalancing your skin.
Toners are light, liquid formulas originally used to reset your skin’s pH, so it can protect itself from bacteria and harm. Now, many toners come with extra benefits that target specific concerns.
Look for ingredients, like:
- rosewater, which has anti-aging properties
- chamomile, known for its calming qualities
- salicylic acid or witch hazel to help fight acne
To apply toner, dab some on a cotton ball that you’ll swipe on areas of concern, like an oily T-zone.
In addition to toning, make sure you’re helping your skin stay moisturized.
Some people like the “tight” feeling after washing their face, but this is a sign of excess dryness, according to Ilyas.
“Your skin can start to feel sensitive afterward, or even peel or crack. Applying moisturizer protects your skin from over drying,” she says.
If your skin continuously feels dry after washing, look into switching cleansers. Opt for a mild cleanser or oil-based cleanser.
Finding people with similar skin types and trying their routines is one way of experimenting.
For example, people with oily skin will find washing twice a day keeps their acne in check.
Some people who don’t dabble in skin care or makeup swear by water only, likely because they never damaged their skin barrier with acids or exfoliants. Also, genetics play a major role.
All of this is to say: Washing is just the first step to maintaining your skin’s natural state.
The rest depends on all the other serums, moisturizers, mists, face masks — the list could go on forever. Plus, the food you eat, how you exercise, and your stress levels all play a role.
The best way to determine how you should wash your face is to figure out your cleansing goals. Do you want it to be quick, one-step, once a day? Then determine your limits, like skin type, water cleanliness, and price range, and go from there.
Your cleansing tool kit
- mild, gentle cleanser (or two if you want to double cleanse)
- antimicrobial cloth to dry your face
- optional micellar water for traveling and makeup removal
Kelly Aiglon is a lifestyle journalist and brand strategist with a special focus on health, beauty, and wellness. When she’s not crafting a story, she can usually be found at the dance studio teaching Les Mills BODYJAM or SH’BAM. She and her family live outside of Chicago and you can find her on Instagram.