How to Wash Your Face for Clearer, Healthier Skin

How to Wash Your Face for Clearer, Healthier Skin

by Sue Jones
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If you’ve ever wondered how to wash your face the right way, you’re not alone. It seems easy enough—just splash on some water, rub in a little gentle face cleanser, and rinse—but figuring out how to properly wash your face takes a little finagling. In fact, certain skin types benefit from a specific face-washing routine. But it’s worth the effort to get it right. Cleaning skin thoroughly is important for washing away dirt, dead skin cells, makeup, and anything else that might clog your pores or cause general dullness. And, depending on the type of cleanser you use, it could also help treat specific skin conditions, like acne. “Proper facial cleansing prevents acne breakouts, can improve skin health, and may even reduce skin inflammation,” Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells SELF. But it’s not only how you wash your face that makes the difference, it’s also when, how often, and what type of face wash you use. To make sure you’re putting your scrubbing to good use, here are some easy ways to make sure you wash your face properly—and to make your cleansing routine even more effective. Learn them now so you’ll know how to wash your face the right way, every time.

What is the best way to wash your face?

In short: quickly, gently, and thoroughly.

It’s tempting to feel like using your facial cleansing product for a longer amount of time or with more ferocity will wash your face more effectively. But in reality, the length of time you spend lathering does not correlate to how well you cleansed your face. Keep it simple: Try to aim for 20 to 30 seconds of washing, or until the product lathers up on your face, because doing more than that could be too much for your skin. Washing too aggressively or for too long—especially if your cleanser contains any exfoliating ingredients—can quickly lead to red, irritated, angry skin.

To properly wash your face, Jerome Garden, M.D., director of the Physicians Laser and Dermatology Institute in Chicago, recommends wetting your face with lukewarm—not hot—water and using your fingertips to apply cleanser in a circular motion. “Make sure to wash the T-zone and U-zone (around the jawline), as these are areas people tend to ignore,” he adds. Once you’ve built up a nice lather, rinse and carefully pat dry with a soft, clean towel.

And about that water temperature: Using hot water in the shower or to wash your face might feel really nice, but it can actually be damaging to the delicate skin on your face.

“Extreme temperatures, such as hot, steamy showers or hot water, can cause dilation of blood vessels and breakage of delicate tissue,” Dr. Zeichner says. “Further, the hot water naturally strips skin of the necessary oil barrier that helps maintain skin integrity.” This means your skin will dry out faster and may become more itchy and flaky over time.

This is especially an issue for those with dry or sensitive skin to be aware of because their skin is already more vulnerable to drying out or reacting badly to extremes. Also, heat can be a trigger for rosacea, a skin condition that causes redness and acne-like bumps. So, it’s important to use lukewarm water to wash your face.

When should you wash your face?

For most of us, you should wash your skin twice a day: in the morning and evening. But at the bare minimum, wash your face every night.

The nighttime wash is basically the beginner’s guide to skin care when it comes to caring for your skin, and it holds true even if you don’t wear makeup. “During the day, natural oils and sweat accumulate on the skin,” Dr. Zeichner says. “We are exposed to the environment, which means that dirt and pollution build up on our outer skin layer.” Not removing all of this dirt and gunk at the end of the day can cause skin irritation, inflammation, and acne breakouts.

For most people, another rinse in the morning is a good idea. “While you’re tossing and turning at night, bacteria from your saliva and oils from your hair are easily transferred to your face and eyes,” Rachel Nazarian, M.D., dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York and New Jersey tells SELF. So even if you wash your face at night and your pillowcases often, an a.m. cleanse is best practice. Plus, if you’re putting on products like treatments, serums, moisturizers, or night creams before bed, you’ll want to wash those off in the morning before putting on your daytime products.

Just keep in mind that you may need to use a different cleanser in the morning than the one you use at night. If you have dry or sensitive skin, for instance, you may want to use micellar water or a gentle cleanser in the morning. And if you’re using a salicylic acid-containing cleanser to help manage your acne, you may find that it’s too harsh or drying to use twice a day.

Can you just wash your face with water?

If your skin is really sensitive, it might be a good idea to swap your morning cleanser for a water-only rinse.

But make sure to keep the evening a moment where you really cleanse your face. This is because people with extremely dry or sensitive skin may find that washing twice a day with a cleanser irritates or overly dries their skin. But if you do pare down to just water in the morning, dermatologists still recommend using a gentle cleanser in the evening to wash off oil, residue, and anything else that has accumulated during the day.

Here are more dermatologist-approved tips for how to wash your face to help you achieve your best, brightest, and cleanest skin ever.

Make sure you’re using a cleanser that’s right for your skin type.

What is a cleanser? Essentially, it’s soap that is made specifically for facial skin. When looking for one, you’ll want to consider things like your skin type (if your skin is generally oily, dry, normal, or combination), if you have sensitive skin, if you’re acne prone, and if you have any other skin conditions (like rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis).

If your skin tends to be dry or sensitive, a gentle or creamy cleanser is the best bet. Those with oily skin are able to use gel or foamy cleansers. And for people with normal skin, a water-based cleanser will work well. You can also try using something like a cleansing oil or balm, which tend to be more moisturizing than traditional cleansers and are able to cut through thicker makeup and sunscreens.

But if you have no idea where to start or how to figure out your skin type, it’s worth checking in with a dermatologist who can recommend a face wash for you specifically.

If you must use a bar of soap to wash your face, look for something super gentle.

If you’re lucky enough not to have sensitive skin, you might reach for a random bar of soap, lather up, and start your day. But these harsh cleansers can strip the natural hydrators from the skin, which can leave your face vulnerable to inflammation and dry skin, Dr. Zeichner says.

Instead, he recommends using gentle cleansers that respect the delicate balance of your skin. If you still want to keep it simple with a bar or solid cleanser, try using Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar ($13, Target) or the Lush Sleepy Face ($6, Lush) solid cleansers. Not only are these gentle and easy to use, they’re also great for traveling because you don’t have to think about liquid TSA regulations.

Have a separate product just for exfoliating.

It may seem like using a scrubby exfoliant is an easy way to knock out two skin-care steps in one. But the truth is that, unless you’re trying to manage acne with something like a salicylic acid-containing cleanser, you probably don’t want to be using an exfoliant every day—and there are almost certainly better cleansers out there that will be kinder to your skin.

Both chemical exfoliants (like salicylic acid and glycolic acid) and physical exfoliants (like scrubs and motorized brushes) can be very effective at removing dead skin cells, dirt, and other gunk that can clog pores. “Exfoliating can help remove dead cells that accumulate on the surface of the skin to improve skin radiance,” Dr. Zeichner explains. But when overused, they can actually disrupt the delicate skin barrier that keeps your face hydrated and protected, causing irritated, flaky, dry skin. So, most of us should not exfoliate more than a few times per week. And those with sensitive or dry skin may only want to exfoliate once or twice a month.

Only wash your face as often as you have to.

Ideally you should be washing your face twice a day (once in the morning and once at night), as well as after workouts or any other excessive sweating. But that’s the maximum.

“Washing your face more than twice a day to remove germs is not a real necessity for people, unless they are prone to skin infections,” says Dr. Garden. “Not only does too much washing lead to dry, irritated skin, but it can actually lead to the skin paradoxically producing too much oil.” So, the vast majority of us should stick to the twice a day routine—and if your skin is ultra-sensitive, just use water in the a.m.

But, yes, it’s crucial to cleanse your face after a workout. “When you work out, sweat and dirt accumulate on the skin,” Dr. Zeichner says. “If you forget to cleanse your face afterwards, it can increase your risk of developing acne breakouts.” So the next time you pack your gym bag, don’t forget your face wash.

Use your moisturizer quickly after cleansing.

The timing of your skin-care steps—especially moisturizing—can make a big difference in how effective they are. Most moisturizers contain both humectant ingredients (which draw water into the skin) and occlusive ingredients (which help seal that hydration into the skin). So, applying your moisturizer while your skin is still a bit damp from cleansing—not fully wet—helps keep even more of that moisture in. (If you have acne, you still need to moisturize, by the way— just make sure to find a dermatologist-approved moisturizer for acne-prone skin.)

“If you wait even a few minutes, the surface cells dehydrate and are actually harder to moisturize,” Ellen Marmur, M.D., dermatologist in New York City, tells SELF. Of course, that might be a little bit difficult if you have a few other steps in between cleansing and moisturizing. But if you can swing it, you’ll give your skin an extra boost of hydration.

And, remember that you should always be wearing a daily sunscreen with broad spectrum protection and at least SPF 30. If your daytime moisturizer doesn’t have that, apply a sunscreen on top. “The SPF will help protect all the hard work you’ve been putting into your skin care,” Dr. Garden says.

You may need a makeup remover in addition to your cleanser.

You probably know the perils of falling asleep with a full face of makeup (acne and dullness, for instance). But your gentle cleanser may not be up to the task of removing all that makeup, especially if your products contain mineral SPF ingredients or oil.

“Many makeup brands are smudge-proof or waterproof, so basic cleansers will not remove them thoroughly,” Dr. Nazarian says. For this reason, it’s important to use a gentle makeup-removing wipe, micellar water, or oil-based makeup remover before you wash—especially when removing long-wear makeup.

This is also the thinking behind the concept of double cleansing, in which you use an oil-based cleanser or balm to remove makeup, followed by a water-based cleanser to remove any remaining dirt. But today’s cleansers are surprisingly effective, so whether or not you want to use two separate products to wash your face every night is up to your skin type, your budget, and your general preferences.

Do not consider a makeup wipe your whole cleansing routine.

Makeup wipes are super convenient and, yes, great at removing makeup. But, sadly, that’s not quite good enough to be your go-to cleanser. “The cloths are formulated with many preservatives that allow them to be shelf-stable and sit in your bathroom without growing bacteria and fungus,” Dr. Nazarian says. So, “although they remove makeup and dirt, they also leave behind a residue” that needs to be removed. Plus, those preservatives can be irritating to people with sensitive skin.

If you want to use a makeup wipe, only use them to remove makeup first and then follow it up with an actual gentle cleanser. Also, instead of single-use wipes or cotton pads, consider trying reusable makeup rounds that can be washed and used over and over again.

You can skip cleansing after applying a mask.

The directions on most face masks and peels instruct you to apply the products on a freshly washed face. This is because these skin treatments require a completely bare and cleansed face so that the ingredients can fully penetrate into the skin. If you’ve applied any serums or treatments or any other products before the mask (especially if any of them are thick or oil-based), it might keep the mask’s ingredients from getting deep enough into the skin to have an effect.

But once you’re done with the mask, you don’t need to cleanse again. Masks can deliver incredibly strong and highly concentrated ingredients, Dr. Marmur says, “So let your skin enjoy their benefits long after you’ve taken it off.”

And when time comes to take the mask off, follow the product’s instructions. For instance, sheet masks usually don’t require any cleansing afterwards—just pat the remaining goop into your skin and let it absorb. But if you’re using something like a clay mask that needs to be removed, do so by just gently wiping it away using lukewarm water.

Make sure your face towels are clean.

It might seem like a pain to have to toss a washcloth in the hamper after just a use or two (especially if you have to hike to your laundromat to do laundry). But experts say that reusing the same washcloth over and over again is spreading more bacteria to your face, which can contribute to acne.

Instead, invest in a cheap set of basic washcloths, like this set of 24 ($26, Amazon), that can last you through much more of your cleansing routine (including day and night).


  1. American Academy of Dermatology: How to Safely Exfoliate at Home
  2. Short Hills Dermatology, Why You Shouldn’t Sleep With Makeup On


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