How to Wash Your Face Properly: A Step-by-Step Guide to Cleansing

how to wash your face properly
By Luzanne Otte

In our current complexion-obsessed culture—where multistep routines reign supreme and medicine cabinets are piled high with products—it’s easy to lose sight of the cornerstone of every meaningful skincare routine: cleansing.

If you’ve forgotten how to wash your face properly, not to worry. This step-by-step guide will tell you everything you need to know.

Remember: spending money on fancy anti-aging serums and creams serves no purpose if you’re applying them on a dirty canvas.

Proper cleansing is needed to eliminate irritants, pollutants, and makeup, as well as prepare the skin for maximum absorption of potent (expensive!) treatments.

Below, you’ll find eight FAQ’s that cover everything you’d ever want to know about washing your face the correct way.


1. How often should you wash your face?

Cleanse in the morning and evening, as well as after heavy sweating—an absolute must if you want to prevent acne.

For the morning cleanse, you can opt to wash your face with just water if you choose. However, a mere splash is not best practice for skincare.

girl washing face at sink

If you have acne-prone or oily skin and tend to over-wash, be mindful that—counterintuitive as it may seem—frequent washing strips the skin of the oil required to maintain a healthy pH.

Your already meddlesome oil glands will respond by going into overdrive and produce even more oil than they would have with twice daily cleansing.


Our favorite (and dermatologist recommend) cleansers:


2. Is it better to wash your face with your hands or a brush?

It depends. Tools like the Clarisonic Mia Prima cleansing brush and the Foreo Luna 2 definitely offer deeper exfoliation and a deeper level of cleansing than your fingers alone. But you should only choose tools if you plan to be extremely diligent about keeping the devices clean.

For people with sensitive skin, however, cleansing brushes—and even washcloths—might be too abrasive for daily use. If you must use a washcloth, opt for a baby washcloth or muslin cloth, but be gentle.

The light and open-weave design provides a less aggressive way to remove impurities, and the quick dry time staves off bacterial growth. Damp cloths are a bacterial breeding ground, so ensure you use a fresh one every time.

clarisonic mia foreo luna

Ultimately, your fingertips will always be the safest, most tried-and-true method.


3. Should you wash your face in the shower?

By all means, yes! The truth is—it doesn’t actually matter whether you wash your face in the shower or outside of it—as long as you’re doing it twice a day.

Just keep in mind that hot water can dehydrate the skin, so if you tend to take super long showers, that’s something to be aware of.

should you wash your face in the shower

Should you decide to wash your face in the shower, here’s how to do it: treat your face to the hairline, under ears to neck, and décolleté. Once the face is clean, move to the neck. Once the neck is clean, move to the décolleté.


4. What is Double Cleansing?

The Korean beauty world popularized the double cleanse method that was developed by Japanese geisha half a millennia ago. Geisha would first cleanse with an oil to remove their white face paint, and then wash a second time with an antibacterial.

elemis pro collagen cleansing balm

Today, many women practice a similar method of cleansing twice: first using an oil-based cleanser or balm (like this best-selling Elemis Cleansing Balm) to remove makeup, sunscreen, and oil; second using a water-based cleanser to remove environmental pollutants and sweat.

If you have tried oil without success, you can also double cleanse with a micellar water —like the cult-favorite French brand Bioderma.

bioderma micellar water

Remember: no one knows your skin better than you. Even if what you like defies logic and flies in the face of your favorite experts, use what you think works best for you–as long as what you think works best is not a makeup wipe on its own.

For what it’s worth, if you don’t wear makeup or sunscreen, a double-cleanse might be considered overkill.


5. Should you use a cleanser or a face wash first?

In the “double cleanse” method described above, you can consider step 1 to be the cleanser, and step 2 to be the face wash.

Cleanser is used first to remove makeup, dirt, and oil; face wash second for a deeper clean that’s akin to washing your face with soap (only gentler.)


6. How to Wash Your Face Properly

1. Keep your hair out of your face.
Pull your hair back into a ponytail, or use a spa headband. (This one is a favorite, and it sells on Amazon for less than $2 each.)

girl washing her hands at sink

2. Wash your hands.
While that might sound obvious to some, it’s arguably one of the most crucial steps in the face-washing process. You do not want the germs from the subway ride home mixing with your cleanser, then transferring them to your face.

3. Start your “double cleanse” with an oil-based cleanser. (You can skip this step if you typically go makeup-free.)

    • Warm a teaspoon of the product in your hands
    • Gently massage the product onto a dry face, neck and décolleté using circular, upward motions
    • Work from the inside to the outside (e.g. nose to hairline) avoiding the eye area
    • Wet your fingertips in lukewarm water to emulsify the product and continue massaging into the skin
    • Wipe residual product off with a soft cloth or cotton pad
    • Rinse with lukewarm water.

4. Next, use a water-based cleanser.

  • Rather than add lukewarm water to the cleanser or your face, apply the product directly onto dry skin. Cream cleansers are most effective with a dry cleanse.
  • Massage in light, circular motions.
  • When your face is covered in somewhat of a paste, add water to emulsify.
  • Continue massaging, then rinse off with lukewarm water.

It’s important to note that cream cleansers are formulated to leave emollients on the skin to moisturize.

belif cream cleanser squeezed into palm of hand
While this residue might be beneficial to dry skintypes, those with sensitive skin might want to incorporate a toner or micellar water after cleansing to help make sure the product is completely removed.

5. Pat dry or air dry.
Use a clean towel to pat dry. Rubbing and wiping tug at the skin, which will damage elastin over time.

Acne prone or dry skin may benefit from air drying. While skin is damp, proceed to the next step of your regimen to maximize absorption of potent ingredients.

girl drying her face with a towel


7. How long should you wash your face for?

The entire process—including facial massage—should last between 30-60 seconds, and not longer than 90 seconds. (Cleansing for under 30 seconds is unlikely to give the cleanser an opportunity to work.)

Note that cleansers are formulated to be on the skin for a maximum of 2 minutes. Unless directions explicitly state a cleanser may be used as a mask, leaving it on for longer than the designated period isn’t recommended.


8. What’s the best facial cleanser?

Given the brief time cleanser is in contact with the skin, spending a lot of money on a pricey cleanser is quite literally washing money down the drain. 

The ideal cleanser is gentle, non-foaming (more on this below), non-abrasive, and free of alcohol, fragrance, soap, parabens, sulfates; particularly harsh sulfates are sodium laureth and sodium lauryl. If you see those ingredients on the back of a product, choose something else.

best cleansers to prevent acne

While foaming cleansers might give your skin a squeaky clean feeling, the reality is that most are too harsh. If your skin feels tight or aggravated (red) after washing with a foaming cleanser, then experiment with a gel or cream to see the difference.

No one wants to buy a bottle of a product they may not finish, so don’t be shy about asking for samples at department stores, Blue Mercury, Ulta, Sephora, etc.

I would venture to guess you have any number of friends who would gladly fill up a contact lens case with their cleanser so you may test prior to purchasing.

Do you have questions about cleansing that aren’t answered here? Drop them in the comments below!

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how to wash your face properly

Luzanne Otte is a skincare-obsessed LA-based attorney who minored in chemistry during her undergrad at Harvard. Her expertise in skincare comes from her own research, as well as years of struggling with acne and rare topical allergies. You can find her on Instagram here: @Luzanne.img  

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3 Comments

  1. March 20, 2020 / 8:12 pm

    So many great tips! I love using the Elemis Pro-Collagen Cleansing Balm for a double cleanse!

  2. Charlotte McGill Pierce
    April 1, 2020 / 9:47 pm

    Thank you for this step by step. I typically use a facecloth twice a day, but I got thinking the other day…I wonder what Lindsay would say about this…Thanks again for your expert advice. I will step up my cleansing game…I mean honestly, what else have we got to do? Right

  3. Carin
    April 3, 2020 / 6:44 am

    Great guide! Perfect for sharing!

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