Are You Washing Your Face Wrong?

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She's double-cleansing.
She's double-cleansing.

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 though I’ve already checked in online. Whenever I’ve 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 whom 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.

Then I started double-cleansing and began breaking out less, going out more, and doing laundry less often. Double-cleansing 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 one of Madonna’s favorites. 

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 MilkNatura 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 skin. “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.