Over 10 years ago I surveyed over 500 women between the ages of 35 and 65 about their face cleansing habits. All of these women had healthy facial skin. About half of them washed their faces with water only, never using a cleanser on their faces. I am one of those women. For decades I cleansed my face in the shower with water only.
How to Properly Wash Your Face
If you ask ten dermatologists how to properly wash your face, you’ll likely get ten different answers. The truth is, there is no consensus whatsoever on how often or what routine people with healthy skin need to follow for the best results. I’m talking about people with healthy skin, not those suffering from rosacea, acne, or other inflammatory skin conditions. There is ample research that shows using a mild soap-free cleanser twice daily can be helpful for individuals who suffer from certain skin conditions. For those lucky enough to have healthy skin, simply washing with water only is adequate. No science shows applying a soap or cleanser to your face daily is necessary or beneficial. But what if you still feel more comfortable choosing to wash your face with a cleanser? And if you choose to wear makeup, how should you safely remove it?
What’s the Best Cleanser?
The best cleanser? Good question. Let’s look at face cleansers in general. Most manufacturers formulate their cleansers with ingredients called surfactants, or surface-active agents. These ingredients surround dirt, oil, and makeup, allowing you to easily rinse them away with water.
Should I Use Soap on My Face?
Soap is a strong surfactant and a very effective cleanser. But not all cleansers are true soap. True soap is a fatty acid salt made by combining fat with a strong base, like sodium hydroxide, also known as lye. While true soap is a potent cleanser, it can also remove necessary lipids and proteins you need to maintain healthy skin. Additionally, the pH of soap is very high (pH 9 – 10), much higher than the surface of our skin. As a result, it can cause dryness and irritation, especially for people with sensitive skin. Due to its harshness, I don’t recommend using true soaps unless you tend to roll around in the mud and truly need a strong and effective cleanser. I certainly don’t recommend using it around the eyes.
What About Synthetic Detergents?
Unlike harsh true soap products, manufacturers formulate synthetic detergents, or syndet bars, with milder surfactants that remove unwanted dirt and skin debris without causing extreme dryness and irritation. These cleaners contain less than 10% true soap and have a more skin-favorable pH (5-7). Though they clean adequately, these synthetic products are not as effective at removing dirt and oil as true soap. Dove Beauty Bar is an example of a syndet bar. Keep in mind that while these types of cleansers can effectively remove makeup, they are not always formulated for use around your eyes.
What are Combar Cleansers?
Combar cleansers combine true soap with syndets to create effective cleansers that are less damaging to the skin than true soap. Many of these bars, such as Irish Spring, add fragrance to the product.
Have You Considered Lipid-Free Cleansers?
Lipid-free cleansers are another option. Formulated without fats, these mild liquid cleansers are ideal for individuals with dry skin and are best used in areas that do not require excessive cleansing. Cetaphil liquid cleanser is a good example of a lipid-free cleanser.
What About Micellar Water?
You may have seen “micellar water” on the shelves and wondered about it. In a nutshell, micellar water is a very clever marketing term for a water-based non-soap cleanser. Made with purified water, moisturizers, and mild surfactants, this type of cleanser doesn’t contain harsh chemicals or alcohol. It’s a good option for those with sensitive skin.
For those interested in the science behind how micellar water works, here’s a simple explanation. When oily dirt mixes with a surfactant-containing cleanser, the surfactant molecules arrange themselves into tiny clusters called micelles. All surfactants have a water-loving end and an oil-loving end. When oil and water mix, the water-loving ends of the surfactants face outwards towards the water and the oil-loving ends of the surfactants face inward towards the dirt or oil. The micelle is now water soluble, and water can now wash the dirt away. Micellar water is therefore a soap-free surfactant containing a water-based cleanser!
Let’s Talk About Eye Makeup Removers
What is a makeup remover? The obvious answer is that a make-up remover is any substance claiming it removes makeup. Many kinds of liquids and solvents can do this job. Most makeup removers are some sort of cleanser.
Formulating a makeup remover is not always easy. Cosmetics, such as foundations and mascaras, are sometimes very greasy and thick, formulated to be water-resistant and long-lasting. Complicating matters is the fact that we apply many of these products around the eyes, a very sensitive area. An effective makeup remover must remove heavy, greasy makeup without irritating your eyes.
There are many strong soaps and detergents that can easily remove makeup from our eye area, or anywhere on the face for that matter, but you certainly don’t want to expose the sensitive eye area to harsh cleansing ingredients. Nor would you want to risk getting those potent chemicals in your eyes as that can cause irritation, burning, or inflammation. So how are makeup removers designed?
Solvency of Makeup Removers
Solvency is a basic chemical principle. Ingredients that are similar in chemical structure to a liquid are more likely to dissolve in that liquid. The phrase used is “like dissolves like.” You can remove water-based makeup with water or a water-based makeup remover, like micellar water. Alternatively, you can remove oil-based makeup, which is heavier than the water-based variety, with oils. Different products use different types of oils, but mineral oil is probably the most common. Makeup removers also use argan oil, Jojoba oil, and others, with different products containing varying concentrations of fatty acids. Some individuals experience facial breakouts when using oil-based products. Acne sufferers beware!
Surfactants in Makeup Removers
Some makeup removers contain the very same cleansing agents or surfactants described in the cleansers above. These surface-active ingredients or detergents surround the oily makeup, allowing water to rinse makeup particles away. Generally, manufacturers of quality makeup removers formulate their products with milder surfactants to avoid irritating the eyes. These types of makeup removers are usually found as liquids, but you can also find them as makeup remover wipes or pads saturated with the cleansing surfactant.
Another type of makeup remover we commonly see on the shelves in the store combine a mixture of water and oils that also contain a mild cleansing surfactant. Classic cold cream is an example of this type of makeup remover.
When Is Using Water Alone Effective to Wash Your Face or Remove Makeup?
If you choose not to wear makeup, or to wear water-based makeup, washing your healthy facial skin with water only is adequate. As a general rule, I use only water on my face. It is simple, easy, and inexpensive, and it cleans my face and removes my water-based makeup effectively.
Some of you might feel that heavier, oil-based makeup works better for you. I get it. In that case, you likely will need to use a product with oils to remove it. As an aside, there’s a lot of chatter online about the importance of removing your makeup before going to sleep at night. So-called “experts,” say that sleeping with your makeup still on your face leads to premature aging, clogged pores, and collagen degradation. Truth is, there is no science to prove any of those allegations. The worst that can happen is you will soil your pillowcase.
The Bottom Line
There are many choices available for facial cleansers and makeup removers. Which is best? That clearly depends on the formulation of the cleanser and the goal of the user. It’s not about the length of time you spend cleaning your face, the amount of lather you can produce, or how much the product costs. Keep it simple. If you have healthy skin, water alone might be all you need. If you feel you need or want something more, I recommend you try one of the milder cleansers.
About the Author: Fayne Frey, M.D.
Fayne Frey, M.D., is a board-certified clinical and surgical dermatologist practicing in West Nyack, New York. She specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer and is a nationally recognized expert in the effectiveness and formulation of over-the-counter skincare products. As a speaker, Dr. Frey captivates audiences with her wry observations regarding the skincare industry. She consults for numerous media outlets, including NBC, USA Today, and, the Huffington Post, and shares her expertise on both cable and major TV outlets. Dr. Frey is the Founder of FryFace.com, an educational skincare information and product selection service website that simplifies the overwhelming choice of effective, safe, and affordable products available. She is also the author of, “The Skincare Hoax: How You’re Being Tricked into Buying Lotions, Potions and Wrinkle Creams”. In addition, Dr. Frey is a fellow of both the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.
Here are some commonly asked questions related to using water only to wash healthy facial skin.
Is it enough to wash my face with water only?
Washing your face with water can be sufficient for some people, especially those with normal or sensitive skin. However, others may need additional cleansing products to address specific concerns like oil-based makeup removal, acne, or excess oil.
Can I use hot water to wash my face?
It’s generally recommended to use lukewarm water for washing your face. Hot water can strip away natural oils and lead to dryness. Lukewarm water is gentler on the skin.
Can water alone remove makeup?
Water can effectively remove water-based makeup. For heavy or waterproof makeup, you may need a gentle makeup remover or cleansing product.
I have sensitive skin; is water-only cleansing suitable for me?
Water-only cleansing can be a good option for people with sensitive skin, as it avoids the potential irritation caused by some cleansers.