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Are You Using the Right Cleanser for Your Skin Type?

By Dena Schupper

Note: Article references are posted on the forum, in this thread.

First of all, there is no perfect skincare regimen for everyone. What’s right for me may not be right for you.

Start by figuring out what you want to accomplish. Are you looking for acne control? Help for dry, flaky skin? Sun protection? There are so many products out there that you may need to narrow the selection down before you even start looking.

What are the general products? Again, you probably won’t need every item in the following list (but it should help you get started): cleanser, exfoliator, toner, serum or hydrator, other anti-acne or anti-aging treatment, moisturizer or oil, and sunscreen (I’m not getting into each one for now—like I said, narrowing your focus is important at first!).

OK, let’s focus on the first item for this article: CLEANSER. Now, not everyone needs to cleanse his or her skin both AM and PM. There are some people who have such sensitive skin that over-cleansing is actually detrimental.1


Why might cleansing very often cause a problem? Because everyone’s skin has a lipid barrier that coats the skin with a thin layer of ceramides, free fatty acids, and cholesterol, and using a product that strips this protective lipid barrier off makes the skin more vulnerable to pathogenic bacteria (breakouts!). Removing the lipid barrier with a cleanser may also lead to dry, dehydrated skin since that protective cover is no longer there to trap moisture next to your skin.

What kind of cleanser would do such a thing? Typical soap, for example, is not a good cleanser because it is too alkaline for skin. Although the inside of your body is happiest at a neutral-to-alkaline pH of 7-9, your skin needs to maintain the lipid barrier (also known as the “acid mantle”) at a neutral-to-acidic pH level of just below 5.

Cleanser ingredients that are too alkaline, like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), may trigger an allergic reaction that shows itself as dry, itchy skin. After cleansing, the lipid barrier typically normalizes to a neutral-to-acidic pH about an hour and a half later, but repeatedly washing with an alkaline cleanser can hurt your skin’s ability to repair itself. And, if you’re using a medicated cleanser that contain benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, or another antibacterial, try not to use them every day since their alkaline pH of 9-10 can cause skin irritation with too-frequent use. In a lab setting, acne bacteria grows at a near-alkaline pH of 6 to 6.5, but grows less when the pH is reduced to under 6—so don’t trigger more acne by accidentally raising the skin’s pH with the wrong cleanser.

So, what are some examples of brands that produce cleansers with a skin-friendly pH? Cetaphil, Avene, Aquaderm, Dove, and Elovera all offer cleansers that supposedly won’t disrupt the skin’s pH. BUT don’t just run out and buy their products. You need to know more.

This is something that can drive even a person with a neutral disposition crazy: ANY cleanser, even one with an appropriate pH, might STILL not be right for you. And what works on your facial skin will probably be fine for your body, but not the other way around. Why? Let’s take a look at what’s in a typical cleanser: water, surfactants (to break up debris), moisturizers, binders (to stabilize the formula), lather enhancers (sudsy!), fillers, preservatives (to prevent the growth of bacteria), fragrance, and dyes or pigments. Any one of those things could potentially irritate your skin. Even water! And that’s not even including the natural ingredients intended to appeal to seekers of green products everywhere. Do not assume that an ingredient is safe because it is natural. For example, lemon or lime oil, parsnip, parsley, celery, and figs all contribute to photo-toxicity in the presence of UV light. That means that squeezing out some all-natural lemon juice on your skin can cause you to develop patches of irritated or darkened skin if sunlight hits your face. Lavender oil, which generally has a reputation for being mild, is cytotoxic to human skin cells in a lab environment at concentrations of 0.25%. Catch that? Toxic. Basically, never try to make your own cleanser at home with ingredients found in your kitchen unless you research them thoroughly first (and by research I don’t mean that you read about a famous actress using it in an interview, or heard that your sister-in-law’s cousin swears by it). A small amount at the bottom of your ingredient list probably won’t hurt, but using undiluted essential oils in your skin care may lead to increased sensitivity or worse. Other natural things can be both good and bad for your facial skin, depending on what your particular skin type can handle. For example, unrefined shea butter and coconut oil can make wonderful moisturizers because they create an occlusive barrier over the surface of the skin, or they can lead to terrible breakouts because in some people that extra barrier will clog their pores and lead to breakouts. The key is to do your research, then test it on a small area of skin before trying it out on the whole face.

So, let’s say you are at the beauty counter, or the supermarket, or you are shopping online and you see a cleanser that says “non-comedogenic!” or “dermatologist-recommended” or the sales associate praises:“how effective yet mild!” her product is. If a product is recommended by someone you trust or (even me), should you buy it? Not necessarily. Google the item, or turn it around in your hand, and check the ingredient list! But…what are you looking for? You now know that any number of potential cleansing ingredients could cause irritation. Do you keep a spreadsheet of everything you’ve tried and chart out potential triggers? You could, sure. You could totally memorize a long list of ingredients (all well as all their derivatives) that don’t agree with your skin. Or, if you are looking for a quick way to determine what’s potentially irritating or comedogenic while standing in the store, you could pick up your smart phone, type in, and choose the “analyze cosmetics” tab. Copy and paste the ingredient list and it will give you a breakdown of what each ingredient is used for (if it is a foaming agent, a preservative, a bonding agent, etc). More importantly, it will tell you how likely that ingredient is to cause an acne breakout or irritate skin. Amazing! Now you can actually verify those “non-comedogenic” claims. And one other thing about ingredient lists. Very often, the ingredients appear in order from the ingredient that makes up the bulk of the product to the ingredient that is so tiny, that you can hardly tell it is there. If there is one ingredient that ranks as mildly irritating in Cosdna but it appears as the very last ingredient in the list, there’s a chance that it won’t bother your skin too badly, since the amount should be small.

OK, so let’s pretend that you have just found a great cleanser that doesn’t contain harsh ingredients. Think about how you want to apply it. Do you douse your face with water, rub in the cleanser, and scrub it off? Not exactly. Avoid really hot water or steam, which causes broken capillaries, redness, and irritation. And avoid excessive rubbing (or using a facial brush too often) because irritation can lead to cracks in skin, which may allow more pathogenic bacteria in. Try to pat the skin dry (or let it air dry) and apply a hydrator or moisturizer while the skin is still slightly damp to help trap moisture near your skin.

What else can you do in the interest of improving your skin’s barrier function? Applying a lactic acid treatment (an alpha hydroxyl acid with a pH of 3.7-4.2) can reduce sensitivity to SLS (that too-alkaline component found in many cleansers) after 4 weeks. And an occlusive barrier cream can help keep dry skin from cracking. Please just remember that not everyone can use lactic acid or a rich moisturizer. If your lipid barrier is compromised, you may not be able to tolerate a chemical exfoliant like lactic acid. If your skin is oily, acne-prone, or dehydrated, you may want to try a cleanser that contains a humectant like hyaluronic acid or glycerin to add hydration (but not oil) to your skin. If your skin is oily or acne-prone, you may want to find a cleanser that contains beta hydroxy acid to help clear out pores, or pre-cleanse with astringent oil, like grape seed or possibly hazelnut, before following with a mild cleanser. Dry or sensitive skin types may benefit from reducing the number of times they cleanse and switching to a very moisturizing cleanser, or even cleansing oil like mineral or extra virgin olive on damp skin. Common sense says not to introduce more than one new product at a time and not to use a new product all over your face right away. Patch testing products will help you discover what works for your particular skin type and what doesn’t, whether your skin is dry, oily, acne-prone, sensitive, dehydrated, or your own combination of all of them.

Good luck! Hopefully, you now have the tools to find a cleanser that works for you.