It’s not as Insta-worthy as applying a clay mask with a teeny tiny paintbrush. Or as sexy as patting some exotic oil onto your skin (#glowup, anyone?). But washing your face is nonetheless crucial to caring for your complexion. Daily cleansing removes pore-clogging dirt and grime, helping to stop breakouts in their tracks and setting the stage for your power products (think toners, essences, serums) to do their heavy lifting.
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But with cleansers that bubble, cleansers that melt, ones that start out as powders, and others that contain strange-sounding things called ‘micelles,’ what once seemed so straightforward has now become…complicated. With so many new options lining store shelves, it's easy to be baffled by even the basics, like how often you should actually wash your face. And while it's hardly an exact science, there are a few things that can help clear up the confusion. That's why I spoke with two top dermatologists to create this simple primer—the lowdown on scrubbing up.
Here’s what they want you to know about face washing frequency.
You should wash your face twice daily.
Washing at night makes sense—all that sweat, oil, dead skin, and sunscreen needs to get the heave-ho. But even though the following 8 hours will be occupied by nothing but sleep, it’s still essential to give your face another cleansing in the morning. “Night is a period of restoration for the skin, and while it’s restoring itself, you’re perspiring and your complexion is shedding skin cells,” says Michelle Henry, M.D., clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
And your morning skincare products will work better when applied to a primed surface: “It’s a great way to rejuvenate your skin and start with a clean slate before you do you entire morning routine,” adds Rita Linkner, M.D., clinical instructor in the department of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
Alternate a treatment formula with a gentler one.
For those with normal skin, both Linkner and Henry recommend using a treatment cleanser with salicylic acid (if you get the occasional breakout) or glycolic or lactic acids (to give skin a glow boost) once a day and then taking a milder approach for your other cleanse. “Using a mild wash like a non-foaming milk or cream once a day will help you to avoid over-stripping your skin and drying it out,” Linkner says. “It’s a nice balance to strike.”
Henry recommends sudsing up with the more active product at night, saving the gentler formula for the A.M. “Using more aggressive active ingredients before bed will really get in there and remove all the things clinging to your skin throughout the day,” she says.
Gentle cleansers for morning
Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
Now 10% Off
This classic formula is the ultimate in soft-touching cleansing.
Infused with aloe and cucumber to calm easily-irritated skin.
This one gently removes makeup without overdrying.
...Unless you have oily or sensitive skin.
Is your T-zone a reflective surface by noon? Very oily types should consider using an active acid-based cleanser both morning and night. “Just make sure you’re wearing your sunscreen religiously,” Henry is quick to add. Some treatment actives can make your skin more sensitive to damaging UV rays, so this point is crucial.
On the flipside, if your complexion turns red at the mere mention of the word lather, you’ll want to forgo potentially irritating ingredients altogether and go with the gentle product for both washes.
Treatment cleansers for evening
The INKEY List Salicylic Acid Acne + Pore Cleanser
The salicylic acid in this foaming wash battles acne.
This resurfacing wash has antioxidants that protect skin from damage.
Tiny jojoba beads delicately remove dulling dead skin cells.
60 seconds of washing should do the trick.
Unlike the two-minute rule for brushing your teeth, there’s no clear-cut time limit here. But both Linkner and Henry think a minute will be sufficient. “You can’t just put something on your skin and rinse it off,” insists Linkner. “You’re not going to see much improvement with that.” Instead, she recommends massaging the cleanser into your face with your fingertips in circular motions, focusing on the areas where you’ve applied makeup.
Exfoliate for added benefits.
Hello, my name is Brian, and I'm an exfoliating junkie. And I'm not alone. “I’m devoted to exfoliation, even in sensitive types, so I like to use some sort of tool when I'm washing my face—and I consider a washcloth part of that,” says Henry. It's a safe bet for everyone as it provides a gentle amount of physical exfoliation without irritation.
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Henry recommends alternating exfoliating with a cloth every night and using your fingertips in the morning. “It really helps with any residual acne as well assisting your skin with shedding dead cells and allowing your skin to look more luminous,” she explains. “It will also help to stimulate a bit of collagen production.”
Yes, you can wash your face too much.
It’s something Henry sees often in her acne-prone patients. “One of the biggest myths about acne is that it’s related to poor hygiene,” she says. “I see some people who are washing their faces four to five times a day. They’re compromising their skin barrier, they stop using their acne medications, it’s just a big vicious cycle.”
Stick to the twice-a-day rule and you should be A-OK.
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Brian Underwood is the beauty director of _O, The Oprah Magazine. Underwood is a New York-based journalist with more than 13 years of experience covering beauty and style for dozens of national publications. He was the launch Beauty Director of Dr. Oz THE GOOD LIFE, the magazine partnership between Hearst and Dr. Mehmet Oz, establishing the “True Beauty” section as a highlight of the magazine’s editorial package. After joining the brand prelaunch in 2013, Underwood used his smart, astute editorial eye to help the DOTGL achieve record success: In just 10 issues, it became the number one selling-women’s health and lifestyle title on American newsstands and one of the top ten best-selling American magazines on newsstands overall. Work that he commissioned for the magazine received multiple industry accolades, including recognition from the Skin Cancer Foundation and the Fragrance Foundation, which awarded a piece he edited the 2016 Editorial Excellence Award in the Short Article category—the first time a non-fashion magazine was recognized by the Foundation in nearly 30 years. Underwood has held editorial positions at Fitness, Organic Style, Good Housekeeping, Life & Style Weekly, and Woman’s Day and has written for Women’s Health, Self, Shape, Seventeen, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and many more. As beauty director, Underwood combines his passion for beauty and lifestyle journalism with a keen sense for hard-nosed reporting and a commitment to uncovering science- and evidence-based solutions for O’s diverse readership.