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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
- Combination/oily skin tends to do better with gels, like:
- Dry and sensitive skin responds well to cream cleansers, like:
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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Zoe StaussMarch 20, 2020 at 8:12 pm
So many great tips! I love using the Elemis Pro-Collagen Cleansing Balm for a double cleanse!
Charlotte McGill PierceApril 1, 2020 at 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
CarinApril 3, 2020 at 6:44 am
Great guide! Perfect for sharing!
ChantelAugust 22, 2020 at 8:59 am
Thank you so much for this Lindsay and Luzanne. It’s totally one of those things I assumed I had down but learned some great tips here. And I mean OMG -how did I not put together that Japan originated the double cleanse, not Korea. These are the fun facts which set you apart. Great job
TaylorMarch 30, 2021 at 2:55 am
Is it okay to use s foaming cleanser/makeup remover in one?
Lindsay SilbermanMay 12, 2021 at 10:58 pm
yes! but i would follow up with a toner or AHA/BHA wipe to ensure that all the makeup is actually off of your face 🙂
AliMay 14, 2021 at 2:18 pm
Hi! Do you have a toner you recommend? I tried searching your site and can’t find something dedicated to this.
Lindsay SilbermanJuly 23, 2021 at 6:25 pm
I love Thayers Witch Hazel toner! So affordable and the best in my opinion!
AshlanJune 14, 2021 at 2:28 pm
Is it okay to use different brands together? For example, would it be okay to use dermatologica or Kiehls cleanser and then use a cerave moisturizer?
Also, what would you recommend for back acne?
Lindsay SilbermanJuly 23, 2021 at 6:22 pm
Absolutely! I almost never use a full routine of one specific brand. For back acne, I would try this scrub: https://bit.ly/3kN5XBx or ask your derm for an RX body wash!