Facial Cleansing: Cleaning Up Our Act

Washing your face: how can something so simple be so complicated?


I’m reading (well actually listening to) a terrific new book on women’s health by a double-board-certified doctor in the areas of internal medicine and immunology.  In a chapter about inflammation, the author advises avoiding endocrine disruptors to whatever extent possible and suggests cleansing with a natural bar soap. Of course avoiding endocrine disruptors is absolutely a good idea. However, even though soap is not known to be an endocrine disruptor, it’s generally not the best choice of cleanser when it comes to healthy skincare. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you, or even safe for that matter. Soaps are excellent for cleaning some things; your face just doesn’t happen to be one of them.

Fun fact: an old trick in the skincare industry is to compare cleansers to the soap that has been a hygiene staple for over a century and was, for decades, promoted as 99 44/100% pure. But pure soap is a combination of fatty acids and alkali that disrupt skin’s acid mantle and related moisture barrier function, so it’s quite drying. If you want to make your product look less irritating and less drying than a “market leader,” simply compare it to pure soap!


Newsflash: You can’t scrub away your skin concerns.


Through the years, I’ve worked with some of the world’s most highly recognized dermatologists and have been surprised by the extent to which opinions about daily skincare practices vary. Such is the case when it comes to regular use of physical exfoliators such as scrubbing grains, motorized brushes and even washcloths for cleansing. When it comes to cleansing, I firmly stand in the “first do no harm” camp. Many years ago, one of my favorite (and cheekier) derm advisors said, “scrubbing is for pots and pans, not for your skin.” I’ve taken that to heart in my personal practice because the science supports it. 

For those of you who subscribe to the no pain, no gain aspect of skincare, proceed with caution; you may want to rethink your approach for the simple reason that scrubbing can be pro-inflammatory and inflammation is at the epicenter of the very issues you’re attempting to prevent or correct. For instance, if you’re struggling with breakouts and trying to unclog pores, scrubbing can lead to a follicular response and further clogging. If you’re dealing with dulling pigment changes associated with sun damage and trying to scrub your way to enhanced cell turnover, the resultant low-grade inflammation can actually lead to further dulling over time. If you’re trying to age as youthfully as possible … and who isn’t? …  the tradeoff for the short-term benefits of physical exfoliation may be accelerated signs of aging in the long run. And if you have sensitive skin, well, you already know better. 


 A double take on double cleansing.


The practice of immediately following the use of a facial cleanser with a second facial cleanser has been popular for some time in Japan and Korea and is now being adopted by beauty cognoscenti in Europe and America. The idea is that you use a first cleanser, typically a cleansing oil, to cut through make-up, sunscreen and other impurities, and then use a second cleanser to actually clean your skin.  While for some people with super oily skin, this double cleanse helps to mop up excess oil, including any oily residue left from the cleansing oil, for most people a single step should be sufficient to remove the remains of the day and leave skin sufficiently clean without over-stripping essential fatty acids from the skin.  

However, one thing that seems to be rarely addressed by either the dermatology world or the beauty industry is why we have different moisturizers and serums for daytime Vs nighttime use, but generally use the same cleanser morning and night. Afterall, what could be more different that the cleansing needs of skin at the end of day Vs the needs at the start of a fresh day?


The mindful double cleanse: a relevant new approach for all skin types.


At the end of the day (literally), all skin types can benefit from a rich cleansing butter that emulsifies makeup and other impurities and cleanly rinses away without disrupting skin’s natural barrier function. This helps create an optimal microenvironment for application of moisturizers for face or skin firming treatment serums to support skin’s recovery and resilience during restorative sleeping hours.

At the start of the day, all skin types can benefit from a clay-based cleansing mask to absorb remaining residue from nighttime products and to gently lift away dead skin cells for a refined finish that reflects light beautifully. Natural kaolin clay swings both ways, absorbing excess oil from oily skin while being mild enough for dry, sensitive skin. Unlike other forms of cleansers, a natural face cleanser mask allows for a couple minutes of contact time so that infused ingredients like pre-biotic and post-biotic nutrients, antioxidants and other adaptogens can provide additional benefits. The result is incredibly smooth, soft and fresh-feeling skin.

Smart cleansing – it’s not complicated. 

The goal of facial cleansing should be to create an optimized microenvironment to support skin’s overall health and resilience. What you choose as your cleanser affects the impact of everything else your skin encounters, including the benefits and tolerance of other skincare products.   

At night, use an oil-based cleansing balm. In the morning use a clay-based cleanser. Oh, and to help control exposure to unhealthy bacteria, wash your hands before washing your face. 

Try it for a couple of weeks and see how beautifully your skin responds. 

It really can be just that simple.

Dr. Varma is the cofounder and CEO of Phyla and Phi Therapeutics, a microbiome company based in San Francisco. Dr. Varma is a trained microbiologist and synthetic biologist with a background in organic chemistry.

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