Yes, cleansing is one of the essential steps in our skincare routine but the kind of face cleanser you choose can either make or break your entire skincare routine.
Before we continue, I’ll like to clarify what I mean by ‘cleanser‘ in this post and beyond… what you use to wash your face to get rid of all that makeup, dirt, grime, and stuff, not those liquid solutions/astringents that you apply to cotton pads and clean your face with, after washing. It’s important that I bring this point to light as the term ‘cleanser’ is often mistaken for the latter in this part of the world (Nigeria).
So, let me guess? You use a bar/black soap to wash your face, it feels dry/squeaky clean afterward but it makes your skin ‘glow’ so you don’t mind.
Or a random liquid face cleanser that you grabbed off the shelf, you have no idea what the ingredient list is like but it’s fine since it foams up really nicely and makes your skin feel clean and tight afterward.
Now, if you fall in either of the categories (or similar) above, I wrote this post especially for you.
If you don’t, good for your skin! Don’t stop scrolling though, as you’re sure to find some tips to step up your cleansing game. When it comes to choosing the right cleanser, think about these two as the main factors to consider; disruption of the stratum corneum (SC) a.k.a. the outermost layer of the skin and the pH of the cleanser.
Let’s get a little science-y, shall we?
Most cleansers are formulated with surfactants. Of course, we all know that oil doesn’t dissolve in water. Surfactants are the main ingredients that get the cleansing job done because they have both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (oil-loving) characteristics that allow them to break down oil, dirt, makeup to be rinsed down the drain with water.
Example of surfactants used in cleanser formulation can be grouped into two major categories –
Fatty acids + Sodium/Potassium Hydroxide – you can find this saponification duo in most of those luxurious-feeling, cream cleansers. Fatty acids like myristic acid, oleic acid, palmitic acid are the ingredients to look out for. They could also show up as potassium/sodium- myristate, laurate … These formulations are usually not drying; however, the con is that they are not skin pH-friendly (high pH around 9– 10). Bar/black soaps also fall into this category.
Synthetic surfactants, on the other hand, are generally pH-friendly but tend to be harsh on the stratum corneum, if not properly formulated. They could interact with the lipids and protein composition on the SC, which could result in dry, irritated skin. Examples of synthetic surfactants are sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, disodium laureth sulfosuccinate…the list is a bit long and I’ll rather not bore you with that. You can find these in those rich, foaming cleansers. P.s. not all foaming cleansers are harsh, more on that later.
Why is this Important? Stratum Corneum and pH
Our stratum corneum is made up of dead skin cells, proteins, lipids, and other natural moisturizing factors. Together, they act as our first line of defense against external irritants such as UV rays and free radicals. They also provide moisture to our skin and prevent transepidermal water loss (the evaporation of water from the skin’s surface that leaves it dry/dehydrated). The pH of the SC is naturally acidic (around 4.5 to 5.5) and any displacement in the pH of the SC affects the proper functioning of the SC.
A quick recap in case you don’t remember elementary chemistry. pH measures the scale of acidity and alkalinity, 0 being the most acidic, 7 neutral (water), and 14 being the most alkaline (basic). Most soaps are basic (pun intended).
High pH cleansers are doing more harm than good
Washing your face with any kind of soap/cleanser that is not within the pH range of the SC will affect the acid mantle (acidic film on the skin that protects the SC and allows it to function properly). Healthy, acidic skin is able to revert to its normal pH levels on its own. Depending on the natural state of your skin, this should typically take less than an hour; however, disrupting the pH significantly could take longer to restore back to normal. For instance, using a product that is highly acidic (lemon juice) or highly basic (soap). Studies also found that cleansers with high pH 10 (typical pH of bar soap) caused significant alterations in the SC compared to that of pH 4 and 6.5.
Among other vital roles, the acid mantle also maintains a balance of the protective bacteria on the skin. This is important because disturbing the acidic microbiome makes it easier for harmful pathogens to flourish. What this means is that, if you’re dealing with skin concerns such as acne, eczema, rosacea; using a cleanser with mild acidity is essential for preventing further damage. Read more on this here
That bar soap might just be the reason your acne keeps worsening.
What about Synthetic Surfactants?
The same goes for the washing with cleansers that contain harsh surfactants. Think of your SC as a shield for your skin and you know what happens when Captain America’s shield is gone. More room for potential damage. Certain surfactants (e.g. sodium lauryl sulfate) while removing dirt from the skin, tend to interact with the lipids and proteins on the SC. This leads to protein swelling, inflammation, and disruption of the barrier function which in turn leaves the skin dry, dehydrated and irritated. SC hydration is essential for the proper function and appearance of the skin.
This is why I’d advice you ditch that cleanser that leaves your skin tight and squeaky clean after washing (but hey, do you— it’s your skin and you have the right to use whatever pleases you)
People with oily skin might think that they need to strip the skin of its natural moisture to combat oiliness, but doing that will only lead to excessive drying of the skin. This will result in overcompensation of the oil glands and ultimately more oil on the skin’s surface.
So, how do I choose the right cleanser?
Unfortunately, reading the ingredient list isn’t enough to tell how gentle or irritating a cleanser will be. There are other subjective factors to be considered. The level of surfactant won’t be mentioned there, besides I’m not trying to have you confused with all those botanical names on the ingredient list. Here are some tips to help you out when choosing a gentle cleanser:
- Avoid harsh surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate and soaps (e.g. sodium- laurate/stearate/ palmitate/cocoate/tallowate). Soaps are too basic (pH: 8 – 10) for your skin and can damage the acid mantle.
- Go for milder surfactants such as sodium lauroyl sarcosinate, sodium cocoyl isethionate, alkyl sarcosinates, alkyl sulfosuccinates, cocoamidopropyl betaine.
Sodium laureth sulfate is somewhere in the middle.
- Choose combo(s)! Most cleansers are a blend of surfactants. This is beneficial because when surfactants are grouped, they form larger micelles that don’t penetrate into the skin as deeply and cause much irritation. KindofStephen explains this phenomenon better here. Look out for multiple surfactants in the top half of the cleanser’s ingredient list.
- Choose low pH cleansers (below 6). Some brands mention the pH of the cleanser on their websites, while most don’t. Testing it with a pH test strip or pH meter (if you have access to one) also helps. Although, sometimes not the most accurate, it gives you an idea of the acidity or alkalinity of the cleanser. Of course, it would be heartbreaking to realize after purchasing a cleanser that it’s of high pH or harsh. I’d advise you to try samples first (if possible) before purchasing the full size.
- Read reviews! Our dear friend, Google is always here to help. If you’re trying to find out the pH or gentleness of a product, chances are, someone else has tested it and documented it on the web.
- Choose cleansers with moisturizing ingredients such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid, squalane, ceramides, and oils (e.g. sunflower oil, evening primrose oil). These will aid in replenishing whatever moisture has been stripped from the skin.
When choosing a cleanser, active ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, centella asiatica, benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil… can come after you have gotten these two (pH and stratum corneum-friendly) right.
Bonus tip: Use a low pH toner immediately after cleansing to promote healthy skin.
Lastly, don’t forget to moisturize! Yes, even if you have oily skin. More on moisturizers in another post.
This post is already long, so I’ll be making a second one where I share some gentle and low pH cleansers for different skin types.
Do you use a low pH cleanser? What kind of cleanser do you use to wash your face? Have you got more tips on this topic? Please share with us in the comments.