It would seem like one of the most simple, straightforward routines in the book. But washing your face takes time and attention — and 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 Dr. 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, Dr. 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 skincare regimen, as well as support the skin in its overnight regeneration and renewal processes,” she says.
Ready for a clean start? Follow these do’s and don’ts from dermatologists.
Do: Properly remove all your makeup first
Use a gentle makeup remover to get the job done before you start actually cleansing — especially before bed.
“Pores are used to purge out toxins overnight and if they’re clogged, everything will be backed up and look congested,” says Dr. 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, sunflower) to remove the dirt of the day 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.
Don’t: Bust out the generic bar soap
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 Dr. Erum Ilyas, a board-certified dermatologist from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
One 2012 study confirms this, concluding that surfactants (what allows cleansers to break down oil so water can wash out the dirt) prevent your skin molecules from staying in order — natural and healthy.
Do: Use lukewarm water
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 in your reflection when you look up.
Don’t: Go straight for the washcloth
Scrubbing can strip the skin of its natural protective barrier. The best way to clean skin is using fingertips, 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 Dr. 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.”
Do: Give micellar water a shot
This is water containing micelle molecules that attach to makeup and debris and break it down.
“Some people, especially those that don’t wear makeup, can get away with micellar water as their cleanser,” says Dr. Haley. “If you’re camping or somewhere without water, micellar water can clean your face and does not even need to be rinsed off.”
Don’t: Go tool crazy
“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, who recommends simply using your hands as tools.
“After all, once you have soap and water on them they’re clean.”
Do: Give a sonic cleaning brush a whirl
However, oily skin might benefit from sonic cleansing, a technology that uses gentle pulsations to clean pores.
The Clarisonic is a popular sonic cleansing tool, with several brush head types for different goals, from radiance to acne reduction. If you have sensitive skin, you may want to limit how often you use this tool, as it can irritate your skin.
Don’t: Stop at your chin
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.
This massage component can help with relaxation and give your face a needed muscle break from a stressful day.
Do: Pat dry with a soft towel
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, after you’re done.
Don’t: Over wash
“Often people forget they’re also likely washing their faces in the shower. If you throw in other washing routines at the sink twice a day then you’re getting three in [and] this may be a bit excessive,” says Dr. Ilyas, adding that those with dry skin should consider cutting back on washes.
Do: Use the recommended amount
If you’re wondering why your cleanser isn’t working as promised (or as praised), check how much you’re using. For splurge cleansers, there might be temptation to use less than recommended in order 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 most effective (and safe) amount for general use.
Don’t: Over exfoliate
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, scrub too hard or using these products daily can damage the most outer layer of skin.
One sign of over exfoliating is skin hypersensitivity. This can cause irritation, breakouts, and even a stinging feeling when you apply products.
Watch out for daily cleansers that advocate active exfoliating ingredients like alpha-hydroxy acids (lactic, glycolic, fruit) and beta-hydroxy acids (salicylic, willow bark extracts) as these are extra powerful in sloughing away skin.
Cleansers to avoid
- bar soaps
- perfumed or dyed
- harsh, foaming cleansers
- daily exfoliating cleansers
Do: Finish with a toner
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 for fighting acne
To apply toner, just put a little on a cotton ball that you’ll swipe on all your areas of concern, like an oily T-zone.
Don’t: Miss moisturizing
In addition to toning, make sure you’re helping your skin stay moisturized. Some people like the “tight” feeling after washing their face, but it’s actually excess dryness, according to Dr. Ilyas.
“Your skin can start to feel sensitive afterward, or even peel or crack. Applying moisturizer protects your skin from over drying.”
If your skin continuously feels dry after washing, look into switching cleansers. Opt for a mild cleanser or oil-based cleanser.
Do: Experiment with your routine
Experimenting and reading — finding people with skin types like yours and trying their routines and holy grail products is one way of testing.
For example, people with oily skin will find washing twice a day keeps their acne in check. 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 — and also, genetics).
All of this is to say: washing is just the first and one step to maintaining your skin’s natural state. The rest depends all the other serums, moisturizers, mists, face masks — the list could go on forever —you want to use. And the food you eat, how you exercise, and where you put your face (your phone can be a dirty thing).
So the best way to determine how you should wash your face is figure out your cleansing goals (quick, one-step, once a day?) and limits (skin type, water cleanliness, price range, etc.) and go from there.
Your cleansing tool kit:
- A mild, gentle cleanser, or two (if you wish to double cleanse)
- A sonic cleansing brush, if you have oily skin
- Antimicrobial cloth to dry 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.