Are you washing your face wrong?

Have We Been Washing Our Faces Wrong?

If I were a celebrity and forced to endure a barrage of nosy beauty editors asking for beauty tips, I would talk ad nauseam about the virtues of double-cleansing. Double-cleansing is my coconut oil, the beauty practice that I proselytize to all my friends about with evangelical devotion.

As the name would suggest, double-cleansing is washing your face twice. It sounds labor-intensive, which is why for years I rejected the idea, especially since it first came from my mother. "Washing your face once just doesn't get rid of all the dirt," she would insist. This seemed excessive, like when I travel and she tells me to print out a hard copy of my boarding pass although I've already checking in online. Whenever I visited Taiwan or other Asian countries, the ladies at the department-store beauty counters would also insist that double-cleansing was key to an effective skin-care routine. I assumed that it was a ploy to sell me twice as much product.

But a few years ago, I started noticing that my face was unclean. Despite washing my face at night and using cleansers that promised to remove all makeup, I'd wake up to see my white pillowcase stained with mascara and streaks of brown (although I prefer the term "warm beige") foundation. If I used a toner after washing once, it would remove my makeup rather than treating my face. Aestheticians, many of which do double-cleansing as part of their facial practice, would look at my skin under their glaring Light of Truth and notice tiny bumps under my skin.

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Are you washing your face wrong?

Not recommended: Pixi Nourishing Cleansing Balm

I wanted to love this delicious balm, I really did. Pixi’s Nourishing Cleansing Balm smells like fresh-cut roses. It’s a scent I’d actually wear during the day as a perfume if I could, but there’s a problem with its rinse. Without the aid of a small cloth (which the brand does not supply) and a bit of elbow grease, the balm leaves an oily film on skin. It requires far too many splashes of water for my face to feel only moderately clean, and commands too much time in my already-packed nightly skin-care routine.

Pixi Nourishing Cleansing Balm, $20 at Pixi


Not recommended: Sunday Riley Blue Moon Cleansing Balm

Many cleansing balms are solid, smooth concoctions that quickly melt when introduced to skin, and then there’s Sunday Riley’s balm. The newest launch of the bunch, the Gatorade-blue balm is dense and almost rock-solid. As it slowly melts, it takes on a grainy texture. Though exfoliating, this causes more than a few crumbs to land in the sink instead of staying on your face before rinsing. Well, at least you can see where your money is going.

Sunday Riley Cleansing Balm, $50 at Sephora


Recommended with reservations: Darphin Aromatic Cleansing Balm with Rosewood

Darphin’s version differs from the bunch in that you apply the cleanser to a wet face. It comes in a teeny jar (the size of one scoop of ice cream at best) and costs as much as my gas bill. Like any decent cleansing balm, it effectively removes makeup without leaving any sort of residue. But the balm’s earthy herbal scent is too strong and is ultimately too overwhelming to make cleansing very enjoyable.

Darphin Aromatic Cleansing Balm, $45 at Neiman Marcus


Recommended: Omoricza Melting Cleanser

Here's lies the lightest of the bunch: a fluffy gelée with the consistency of a lotion. The seafoam-green whipped formula carries the slightest tinge of a fragrance, expertly toeing the line between faint and overwhelming. Of all of the balms it was the easiest to rinse, and left my face feeling clean but not stripped.

Omorovicza Hydra Melting Cleanser, $110 at Neiman Marcus


Recommended: Charlotte Tilbury Multi Miracle Glow

This reminds me of Charlotte's light-as-air moisturizer, Magic Cream, which has served as a long-time backstage favorite. More like a gel but packing slightly more heft than Omorvicza's gelée, the glycerin-rich formula absorbs into skin like a lotion. Actually, it can be a lotion, if you leave it on dry skin as the package suggests. Or try it as a mask, and rinse after ten minutes or even after leaving it on overnight. But if you elect to use it as a cleanser, that works, too, and makes skin feel clean and not dry, but not considerably moisturized either.

Charlotte Tilbury Multi-Miracle Glow Cleanser, Mask & Balm, $60 at Net-a-Porter


Recommended: Amanda Lacey Cleansing Pomade

Do you remember when you were a kid and you had a cold so your parent rubbed your chest with a pile of gloop? In many ways, Amanda Lacey’s cleansing pomade reminds me of that. It has an ointmentlike consistency and a tinge of camphor — the medicinal-smelling compound often found in cold rubs. Its fragrance is soft and comforting and its porcelain jar begs to be repurposed for storage after the balm runs out. On the other hand, the high price point is a slight turnoff, even though the balm ushers in a wave of baby skin post-use. 

Amanda Lacey Cleansing Pomade, $110 at Shen Beauty

Recommended: Bamford Cleansing Balm

When I was young, my parents would often take me to an African market where it felt like heaps of almost-yellow shea butter were larger than me. Bamford's cleansing oil looks just like that — thick, creamy, and the color of yellow-cake batter. After you've rubbed the balm all over your face, Bamford encourages you to wait a few minutes to reap the hydrating benefits similar to a moisturizing mask. That works, and upon rinsing, my skin felt soft, supple, and freakishly smooth. The scent was slightly too earthy for my liking, but may be inoffensive to others.

Bamford Cleansing Balm, $90 at Net-a-Porter


Recommended: Elemis Pro-collagen Cleansing Balm

It’s ludicrous to expect a cleanser to boost collagen production, like this balm’s name implies, but don’t hold that against Elemis’s smooth jelly. The balm is equipped with a towel that you wet to gently emulsify and wipe away the melted wax. Comprised of mostly almond oil and beeswax, it has an herbal but non-offensive scent that is actually pleasing. It also melts away makeup and leaves skin smooth, but slightly misses the mark for superior softness.

Elemis Pro-Collagen Cleansing Balm, $60 at Dermstore


Highly Recommended: REN Rosa Centifolia No. 1 Purity Cleansing Balm

Am I a sucker for marketing? Maybe, because when I read that REN’s rose-scented balm is engineered to not only clean skin but also relieve stress, I thought, Wow, weird, I’m suddenly chill. Enclosed with the balm is a thin cloth that you wet and wipe over skin after you’ve rubbed the creamy formula all over. It melts easily, cuts through makeup, and rinses away after a few quick splashes.

Ren Rosa Centifolia Cleansing Balm, $48 at Sephora


Highly Recommended: Peter Thomas Roth Cleansing Butter

No matter how many other balms I test, the standout feature for Peter Thomas Roth’s cleansing butter is its deliciously creamy texture. It’s super-thick and shares the same texture as fancy restaurant honey butter. When it came to removing eye makeup this balm performed the best — only requiring a couple of circular sweeps around lashes before mascara melted away in defeat. The included Konjac sponge meant to gently exfoliate is a nice touch, though not particularly needed for a nearly effortless cleanse.

Peter Thomas Roth Cleansing Butter, $55 at Sephora


Highly Recommended: De Mamiel Restorative Cleansing Balm

Mango oil and the oil from a white Asian tea flower called camellia unite together in this balm that oozes luxury. Its scent is subtle but there — slightly fruity and slightly floral. The jar is tiny, like a jar of baby food, but the smooth yellow balm stretches significantly — an amount slightly larger than pea-size is all you need. It strikes the perfect balance between texture, scent, and rinse-ability, rendering each wash a virtual spa experience in my bathroom. To boot, it’s packaged in a pretty black glass jar that also doubles as a natural preservative for the balm’s mostly organic ingredients.

de Mamiel Restorative Cleansing Balm, $64 at Net-a-Porter

Highly Recommended: Su:m37 Skin Saver Melting Cleansing Balm

Su:m37 holds a special place in my heart, and the cult Korean brand’s cleansing balm is no different. First there’s the packaging, which is smartly magnetic, allowing the enclosed metal spoon to stick closely to the container. The actual formula — a mixture of oils — wipes away makeup without feeling heavy on my skin and the cleanser smells, quite literally, like fresh flowers. With each use it feels as though my skin is gliding up a never-ending escalator of clarity and softness. It’s a clear winner in my book.

Su:m37 Melting Cleansing Balm, $42 at Insider Beauty


Then I started double-cleansing and began breaking out less, going out more, and doing laundry less often. Double-cleaning felt like what I had to do to get my face clean. After all, if I put a bowl that contained microwaved cheese in the dishwasher and still find crusty cheese bits, I don't hesitate to run it through the dishwasher again. Yes, it took twice as long, but washing my face once takes about 30 seconds, so washing it twice still meant the grand total was about a minute. And I found that if I chose the right cleanser, it didn't dry out my skin.

Most experts back up what I've anecdotally found to be true about double-cleansing. It's a tenet of skin-care philosophy for the brand Dermalogica and many Korean skin-care routines. Annet King, the director of global education at Dermalogica, explains that the brand believes in double-cleansing because between dirt, pollution, subway grit, natural sweat and oil, our skin is dirtier than ever: "Twenty seconds in the shower isn't going to cut it." She explains, "We've always said the first cleanse lifts off all the surface stuff, and is more of a makeup remover, melting what you've put on your face. The second is there to dissolve deeper dirt, and more oil and dead skin cells, giving you a deeper cleanse."

Alicia Yoon, the CEO of Korean beauty site Peach and Lily, adds, "Some of the top dermatologists in Korea will say that half of one's skin-care woes (e.g., acne, excess sebum production, etc.) could be eliminated with proper cleansing."

Traditionally, double-cleansing starts with an oil-based cleanser, because they're among the best at dissolving makeup regardless of skin type. "Oil dissolves oil," explains King. "The oil from the cleanser is attracted to the fat in your sebaceous glands [the glands in your skin that produce oil], giving it a nice, deep cleansing effect that still doesn't strip away the lipids and ceramides between the skin cells." If your skin feels dry and tight after washing your face, it's usually because the lipids and ceramides are being stripped by your cleanser.

As you probably remember from middle-school science, oil and water don't mix. But oil cleansers work because they are designed to be water-soluble. An oil cleanser can look clear in the bottle, but when you add water, a molecular change occurs that turns it into a milky, non-greasy, light emulsion that you then use to wash your face. You'll also know your oil cleanser isn't water soluble if it beads up on your skin. Some of my favorite oil cleansers are here, but you could also try Cremorlab's Cremor Cleansing Gel Oil, a unique oil–gel cleanser hybrid that doesn't feel greasy, making it perfect for those who are still trying to come to terms with oil being a good thing. For a decadent version, there's also the legendary Shu Uemura oil cleanser, which practically invented the beauty category and is a favorite of Madonna.

To complete the double-cleanse, follow up with a gentle, non-foaming cleanser of your choice. Cleansers that contain beta-hydroxy acids or exfoliators are not considered gentle, says dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss of Patricia Wexler Dermatology. If you have oilier skin, a clay-based cleanser like Fresh's Umbrian Clay Purifying Treatment or Dermalogica's Dermal Clay Cleanser can help absorb excess oil. If you have normal to dry skin, you can choose more of a moisturizing cleanser. Try something like Sisley Paris Lysait Cleansing Milk, Natura Bisse's Tolerance Cleanser, or Algenist's Melting Cleanser.

When it comes to double-cleansing, dermatologists agree with the experts to an extent, but worry, like many people, that it can dry out the ski. "I'm still trying to get some of my patients to wash their faces," says Dr. Idriss. "But the Koreans are light years ahead of us and they look good! I'm not going to argue with what they are doing. If a type-A patient came in and asked me about it, I would say, 'Sure, yes, go ahead and do it, so long as it's gentle.'"

And dermatologist Whitney Bowe says, "It has more to do with the makeup you're using. For people who wear stage makeup (TV anchors, stage actors), it's necessary to use two steps to remove that heavy, oily makeup."

Even King agrees that if you don't wear makeup, you can probably get by with just washing your face once. But if you do, consider doubling up.

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