Hannah's Epic Cleanser Quest
I believe that good skin starts with a proper, gentle cleanse. There are many things to look for and consider while cleansing, so today I’m covering everything I can think of!There’s also a list of cleansers that tick all my boxes at the end.
I don’t like to be too much of a zealot when it comes to ingredients I will or won’t put on my face. Unfortunately, my face is a picky b***h, and some of my skin issues can be helped with careful curation of products.
My skin, for example, is easily inflamed for a few reasons – I have allergies, including hayfever and some nuts.My skin is acne prone, reactive, and dehydrated. Suffice to say, selecting a cleanser is a process. There are a few qualities I would like in an ideal cleanser, so let’s talk about those:
I worry when a cleanser foams too much, as this can be an indicator of a harsh surfactant. Surfactants are the ingredients in a cleanser that break surface tension, thus separating excess dirt, oil, and makeup from your skin. They’re what make it foam. Some surfactants can interrupt the skin’s natural barrier though, removing too many oils or interrupting the structure of the top layer. This is one of the reasons we see many products labelled “Sulphate free,” or “NO SLS” – because the sulphates referred to are on the harsh end of surfactants found in skincare. Thus, ideally, we want the surfactant in our cleanser to refrain from penetrating too deeply, or cleaning with too harsh of a mechanism. That tightness after cleansing is NOT, I repeat NOT, what I’m going for here.
Cleansing can easily be the most stressful step of a routine for your skin, so I like to focus on giving back to my skin rather than taking from it – a mindset I picked up during my very first facial with Kelly at Made By Self, in Melbourne.
I need a cleanser that will destroy makeup and the sunscreen I wear daily. Sunscreen, in particular, is designed to form a film that will STAY IN PLACE. I need to disrupt this film at the end of the day, so I clean my face twice. I love a good oil cleanser for the first cleanse - you will come to understand which texture you prefer but I have a few; a balm to oil, a gel to oil, and a less viscous and more liquid type oil. These work on the chemistry principle that “like dissolves like,” and if you’ve not tried putting an oil on your face and watching the makeup just melt off, you haven’t lived.
One way to alleviate barrier disruption by a cleanser is to fill it with ingredients that soothe and condition, in a moisturizer type cream. I love it when cleansers say “replenishing” on the label! That’s exactly what I want!
Ingredients I will look for are inert but conditioning, moisturizing ingredients. Glycerin is good, some fatty alcohols and acids like cetyl alcohol or stearic acid (these are waxy type molecules that give a formula its creamy texture), capric/caprylic triglyceride (fatty acids derived from coconut),sunflower oil, you get my drift.
I also look for soothing ingredients. This might be aloe, chamomile, calendula, algae, centella/gotu kola, allantoin, green tea, white tea.You might already have an idea of what calms your skin, and I would encourage you to stick with it but also to not conflate a calming smell, like lavender, with a calming effect on your skin. These are two very different concepts.
As much as I enjoy a carefully curated aromatherapy blend and its impact on my sense of calm and wellbeing, it is important to recognize that positively impacting areas of the brain through scent is a world apart from positively impacting the direct health of the skin and its functions. I’m so sorry to be the fragrance grinch! On that note,
We’ve touched on excessive foaming, and it’s also handy to keep an eye out for things that disagree with your skin. Given that the surfactants in a cleanser can act as a delivery system, I want to be sure I’m not delivering anything that would cause problems. For me, often this can mean essential oils. Essential oils are an extraction (from a plant) of the fragrant and volatile compounds, many of which are bioactive for better or worse. An example of a healing bioactivity would be the antimicrobial properties of tea tree oil for acne. As with any compound though, the dose makes the poison.
My list of “tread lightly” essential oils includes; citrus!! (lemon, lime, orange, mandarin, tangerine, grapefruit, bergamot), lavender, spearmint, peppermint, menthol, geranium, eucalyptus, ginger, cinnamon, clove. I’m sure there are others I missed here but for now, I’ve made my point. If it feels spicy on your tongue, what would it do to your face!? Yep.
I also keep an eye out for “fragrance,” because as Dr. Sam would say, if you want fragrance while cleansing, light a candle. I’m not going to fear-monger here but fragrances are deemed proprietary information and thus their components may be undisclosed (with the exception of some known irritants that must always be declared). When you see “fragrance,” it could mean anything, hundreds of compounds even, and you only have to react to one of those, and only on a molecular level, to potentially further your inflammatory situation ie, acne (or rosacea, or whatever you’re experiencing. Time and free radical damage, perhaps). If you like a product and don’t react to it, great! But if you find something doesn’t feel right, or you’re experiencing more inflammation since using it, try avoiding fragrance for a while. I personally use a few other products (moisturisers, mists) with “fragrance” in the ingredient list if, and only if, I know my skin tolerates it well. Like you, I can easily be seduced by something that smells nice. It’s just biology, but in a perfect world… I would prioritise my skin’s happiness.
As far as know irritants that must always be declared go, I will list a few here; geraniol, linalool, limonene, eugenol, menthol. These compounds are the fragrant molecules involved in the scent of some essential oils – geraniol, for example, is present in geranium essential oil. In the European Union, there are 20 such ingredients that MUST be included in the ingredient list as they are the most common known irritants.
Plant extracts are another thing to look out for – I know if I see “lavender extract,” I am likely to react… I can’t tell how it was extracted or whether the irritating compounds were filtered out so I do best to just avoid it on a sensitive day. I would do the same for “lemon extract,” for example. I hate lavender!
It is also of note that the preservative system is a potential irritant.
I don’t want you to worry too much about the hard science around this one but pH is important for physiological function. Proteins and enzymes need to be at the right pH to function and to reach the right conformations. Skin pH is not easily imbalanced but we want to support our skin to be its best self so, if you want to keep this in mind, here are some simple facts;
Fact 1. Skin’s pH is about 5.5
Fact 2. The pH of water is 7
Fact 3. Acne bacteria thrive in the skin when the pH is imbalanced toward the higher side.
Based on these facts, and some background research, I like my cleanser to be at 4.0 - 5.5, and never higher than 7. It’s pretty easy to google your proposed cleanser’s pH, for example, type “Mad Hippie Cream Cleanser pH” into Google. Easy. Some kind soul has usually found the pH using their own pH meter and posted it on a blog. Bear in mind, pH is applicable to aqueous systems and thus will not be available for anhydrous (ie, oil) formulas.
We want an oil, jelly, milk, or cream texture with some soothing ingredients, we want gentle surfactants, we want no potential irritants, and we want a skin-friendly pH. We want to feel clean, but never tight. NEVER. TIGHT. We want to remove the last traces of makeup and sunscreen where applicable. Oh, and for me it can’t be tested on animals, which rules out most of the inert sort of pharmacy brands. The search continues.
My current list of Hannah approved cleansers is as follows, at several price points;
You know how some oil cleansers can leave a residue? I know, right, it never ends. This is where your actual method of cleansing would come in handy, so my tips for that are;
1. Massage the cleanser in for 1 minute (thanks, Dr. Sam). Don’t miss any spots!
2. Try removing it with a washcloth. Gently! Do not scrub hard at your skin. Microfibre is great because it acts like a magnet and pulls the dirt out of your skin. Fun fact, that’s how those face halo cloths work.
3. Double cleanse with the same or another cleanser to be sure.