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Facial Cleansers | The Basics

Facial cleansers can play an important role in your basic skincare routine and are a little different from bar soap. Facial cleansers are pH balanced for your facial skin. Learn more...

 

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face cleanser

Photo: Wix


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Which ingredients are common to most facial cleansers?


Since facial cleansers are designed to help remove oil, dirt, and debris from the facial skin, they tend to have different classes of ingredients in common. Most cleansers will have:


  • Surfactants: Agents designed to dissolve oil, dirt, and debris

  • Preservatives: Agents intended to maintain the shelf life of a product and sustain freshness

  • Thickening agents: Agents designed to add some substance to the product to make it easier to apply, spread, and rinse

  • pH balancing agents: Agents designed to adjust the pH of the product since most cleansers do need to work at a pH that varies from your normal skin's pH in order to be effective.


Video: Techei



Are facial cleansers different from bar soap?



Washing your face with bar soap is reasonable but recognize that bar soap and liquid soap are different from a chemistry perspective. The pH of bar soap is higher than liquid soap. Our skin is somewhat acidic (pH of 5.4 ish) while bar soap can have higher pHs making them more alkaline. Many bar soaps have a pH in the 10-12 range. When these come into contact with our acidic skin, the result is a drying or dehydrating effect on the skin. They may also tend to leave somewhat of a residue on the skin.


Facial cleansers are formulated with pH-balancing agents to be less drying and irritating to the skin. In the 1980s and 1990s, toners were introduced to balance the pH of bar soap and facial soaps that did not have these agents as a part of the product. Facial cleansers have evolved to no longer require the use of a toner in the traditional sense.



How do you choose between different varieties of facial cleansers? What makes them different from each other?



The areas where cleansers will tend to vary, especially based on marketing claims are based on the presence of

  • Sulfates

  • Parabens

  • Fragrance

  • Foam

  • Active ingredients for specific skin challenges (discussed in different posts!)


FACIAL CLEANSER

Table 1: Facial Cleansers broken down by ingredients. Copyright 2023, Erum Ilyas, MD, MBE, FAAD.

Note that ingredients listed under humectant/viscosity/emollient category can serve dual functions as surfactants depending on the concentration in the product.





FACIAL CLEANSER

Table 2: Facial Cleansers broken down by ingredients. Copyright 2023, Erum Ilyas, MD, MBE, FAAD.

Note that ingredients listed under humectant/viscosity/emollient category can serve dual functions as surfactants depending on the concentration in the product.


FACIAL CLEANSER

Table 3: Facial Cleansers broken down by ingredients. Copyright 2023, Erum Ilyas, MD, MBE, FAAD.

Note that ingredients listed under humectant/viscosity/emollient category can serve dual functions as surfactants depending on the concentration in the product.



What is the story behind sulfate-free facial cleansers?


Surfactants, as the workhorse of a cleanser, are intended to pull dirt away from the skin. The challenge faced by surfactants is in their ability to remove this buildup while trying to reduce the tendency to pull too many natural oils from the skin and disrupting the skin barrier.


Sulfates are something everyone loves to hate. They got mislabeled as ‘bad’ for our health. The real issue when it comes to cleansers and shampoos is that they are aggressive at removing oil and diet. Sulfates are strong and cheap so they are an easy thing to add to products for their ability to clean. It’s true that they are likely too strong for daily shampoo use because they can leave the hair feeling excessively stripped of natural oils.


Remember, there is going to be a surfactant in your cleanser because this is how they work. If it is not sulfate based then the alternative will likely still work in a similar manner but perhaps be less harsh.


Another reason to consider sulfate-free facial cleansers is if you get burning or stinging in your eyes when washing. Many baby shampoos or cleansers then claim "tear-free" tend to avoid sulfate-based surfactants

.


Let's talk parabens. What's the deal with parabens in skincare?



Most products you purchase from a store that sit on a shelf will have preservatives. They need to. Preservatives are necessary to maintain the freshness of a product and reduce the tendency for bacteria and other microorganisms from overgrowing in the product.


Parabens are a type of preservative. They are commonly found in cosmetic products as preservatives. The maximal concentrations used in these products is limited by guidelines in place by the FDA for best practices in manufacturing. At this concentration, parabens are considered safe. There is a study from 2004 that attempted to link paraben use to breast cancer. Subsequent studies have not confirmed this.



To foam or not foam. Are foaming cleansers ok to use?



The foam in cleansers tends to serve a couple of purposes.


The first is that foam can add to the ability of a cleanser to degrease the skin. This can enhance both the ability of a cleanser to clean but also its ability to overdry the skin.


The second role of foam in a cleanser is a bit more personal for some cleanser users. Some people will feel as though their cleanser only works if it foams. A cleanser does not need to foam to work but sometimes if this is your familiarity with these products, then it is hard for some people to believe that they are really getting "clean" unless their cleanser foams.



If your skin tends to run on the drier side, it may make sense to avoid foaming cleansers.

If you love the foam and cannot live without it, then follow up your cleansing routine with a moisturizer to counteract the excess drying.



Are there any facial cleansers that are best to consider and why?




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*Note: The claim "soap free" indicates that the product is free of alkaline ingredients that could impact the pH of the product to make it function more like a bar of soap.

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