Cleansing is essential for getting rid of the beauty products, oils, dirt, germs and dead skin cells that have accumulated on your face. However, cleansing is actually pretty damaging to your skin. Cleanser contains ingredients called surfactants that help oils and grease dissolve in water so they can be rinsed away, but they also dissolve the oils that are meant to stay in your skin. They also bind to proteins in your skin and make your skin barrier leakier, so it becomes more sensitive and more prone to losing hydration. Look for the gentlest cleanser that leaves skin clean.
Soap is not suitable for your skin, no matter how natural it is. I’m referring to the soaps that are made from a strong caustic alkali like lye and natural fats or oils. They work at high alkaline pH, above 9 or 10, while your skin naturally has a low acidic pH of about 5. Low pH is vital for the enzymes inside your skin to work, and to keep the microorganisms on your skin in the right balance. Soaps are also very slim molecules, so they can easily enter the skin and stay there, causing irritation.
Sodium lauryl sulfate, also known as SLS, is not a soap, but it’s also a very slim molecule, so it can stay in the skin for longer. It does not irritate everyone, but if your skin is sensitive, it might feel tight and itchy after using an SLS-based cleanser.
Ideally, your cleanser should be free of soap and SLS, and at a low pH, preferably below 6. Other skincare products at higher pH are not your as big an issue, but because of the surfactants in cleansers disrupting the barrier of the skin, higher pH cleansers can lead to skin problems. In studies, higher pH cleansers have made acne worse. After cleansing, your skin doesn’t need to feel “squeaky clean”, good cleansers should leave some of your natural sebum on your skin. It can take a little while to get used to your skin being the right amount of clean, rather than over-cleansed.
A couple of other things to bear in mind is that the amount of foam isn’t related to how harsh a cleanser is and not all solid cleansers are harsh - it’s only a problem if they contain soap or SLS.
If you have dry skin, you will probably want to go for cream cleansers as they tend to be gentler and put oil back into your skin. Cleansing oils and balms can work well too as a single step. If you have oily skin, you can use any cleanser (as long as it’s not soap or SLS based with a high pH!), but if you’re dehydrated, you might want to try a cleanser that contains humectant ingredients (we’ll talk about them in the moisturiser section). If your skin is sensitive, you’ll probably want to avoid fragrances. If your skin is dry or dehydrated, you might like to try washing with just water in the morning instead of a cleanser. If you cleansed your skin correctly the night before, your skin should be clean enough that water will be sufficient for you to proceed with your morning routine.
You might also want to try double cleansing if one cleanser isn’t enough, but you don’t want to go harsher. Double cleansing is when you use two cleansers, one after the other. Most people use a cleansing oil or balm, or micellar water as the first cleanser, then follow up with a regular cleanser.
A skincare routine can get as complicated as you want - some Korean skincare routines include more than 10 steps! However, it’s always best to start off simple and slowly build up to a more complicated method. This allows you to work out what your skin likes and doesn’t like, and what actually works for you. Over the long-term, it will save money and help to avoid reactions.