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  • Hannah Hanson

What's Inside: Facial Cleansers



Hello! You have landed yourself on our latest series What's Inside? We take a look inside common products found on your bathroom shelf and dig deeper to what's inside them.


You can gain an understanding on formulations, ingredients and, a few things to look out for - so you can buy and apply with confidence. There are tidbits where we dip into chemistry ideas - don't get too hung up on the technicals if it's not for you!


This week we are looking at cleansers, the first step in your skincare routine.


A facial cleansers focal job is to clean the skin by removing dirt, oil, sweat, makeup, skincare and other debris such as pollution particles. Cleansers walk on a tightrope - the ideal cleanser has high cleansing power yet doesn't compromise the skin barrier. Cleansing without stripping is the ideal outcome!


Today we cover double cleansing, types of cleansers, ingredients, and formulations. So, buckle up as we lather into this one!



The Double Cleanse

Double cleansing is the idea of using two facial cleansers to clean your face.


The first step is an oil cleanser (in oil, balm, or gel form). As strange as it may feel to use something oily to wipe your face clean, oil is the best at breaking down oily substances. Like dissolves like. This is why - though it may feel counterintuitive - oily skin types may benefit from using an oil cleanser. Excess sebum, makeup, sunscreen and daily build-up of pollutants/dirt/grime are removed with this step - all of which can cause congestion and inflammation if left to stew overnight.


There are two forms of oil cleansers: self emulsifying (SE) and non-self emulsifying (NSE) oils.


To emulsify simply means to combine two compounds that don't usually mix (e.g. water and oil) - to create an emulsification. Your kitchen is home to many emulsifications - salad dressings are a good (and tasty) example where oil emulsifies with vinegar.


SE cleansing oils have a rinse-off capability, in other words - the oil can emulsify by turning milky upon contact with water and wash off. NSE oils don't have this ability, so they need to be wiped off with a warm cloth.

For this reason, reading the instructions on your oil cleanser is important. Not wiping away an NSE cleansing oil will mean there’s still residual debris left on your skin.



So, what's inside an oil cleanser?

Depending on your cleansing oil (oil, balm, gel) it can consist of a lipid base, antioxidants, a thickener, and other additives like active extracts, fragrances, and preservatives. Although anhydrous (water-free) formulations generally don’t require a preservative, the packaging may make it susceptible to contamination (e.g. an open lidded jar). Therefore, a preservative may be added for additional stability. An SE oil will also contain an emulsifying system (to emulsify water and oil together) and a super-fatting agent (to promote rinsability). The formulation may or may not include a surfactant. While this is incredibly simplified, this is the gist of what goes inside an oil cleanser.



Water-Based Cleansers

A water-based cleanser is the next step in a double cleanse regime.

Its job is to rinse off any remaining residue and to address other skin concerns.


Water-based cleansers contain surfactants (surface active agents). Surfactants are everywhere in cosmetics! Have a cleanser that foams when you lather it with water? That's usually thanks to a surfactant. They are commonly seen in cosmetics for their lather (foaming) and cleansing abilities but they exist in many other places too! Even your lungs contain a type of surfactant to prevent walls of the alveoli from sticking to each other.


Surfactants have both hydrophilic (water-loving, oil-hating) and hydrophobic (oil-loving, water-hating) properties. Therefore, they can multitask to wash away oil and water-based substances from your skin. Surfactants kick up a lot of sand for being "harsh" or "stripping". In reality, surfactants come in many forms, some more gentle than others.



Types of Surfactants

Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) is a commonly vilified ingredient as it tends to irritate more than other surfactants. On the plus side, it has high cleansing power and foams well. Continual exposure to a cleanser containing SLS could leave the skin feeling stripped and dry - this is a particular issue for those with sensitive skin or who are prone to dryness.


In saying that, chemists are clever - they can manipulate their formula to reduce the irritancy by way of altering the pH, adjusting the concentration, creating a gentler blend of surfactants, adding hydrating or moisturising substances and stabilising the micelle structures. Micelles are very gentle on the skin, yet powerful cleansers.

Credit to those chemists out there!


SLS is just one type of surfactant, others are inherently less irritating. However, this usually goes hand in hand with their cleansing power being weaker (as well as their lather properties). Again, formulations can be tinkered with to improve their cleansing power - making them excellent surfactant choices. A popular example is coco glucoside and cetyl alcohol.



A Foamy Dilemma

Who knew bubbles could be so misunderstood? There are two pretty heavy misconceptions around foaming skincare products.

Firstly, that foam ability correlates to cleansing power. In reality, foaming ability is often taken into account during the time of formulation due to consumer expectations. Skincare users generally expect their cleansers to foam. It’s like a deodorant with no scent - we expect it to smell, right? This is now changing a bit with the introduction of milk cleansers (and others) but generally, this is the expectation. Chemists' jobs are to create products that meet these expectations (and hopefully exceed!), so it sells well in the market.

In saying this, I find foaming useful in shampoos to see where the product has spread to.

In the end, foaming isn’t inherently bad or good, it comes down to the overall formulation, your personal preference and whether it works for your skin!


Our second misconception is foaming cleansers are inherently harsh on skin. I guess this comes from certain surfactants which have a high foam ability and a higher tendency to irritate skin. Like we mentioned before, SLS falls under this category when it isn’t formulated with care. However, not all surfactants that foam are inherently harsh - decyl glucoside foams well yet is mild on the skin. So, there is no real one way rule with this one.



Other Ingredients

On top of this, other actives can be included in cleansers too. More commonly chemical exfoliators like glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid ... we could go on. It’s the sprinkling on the cupcake and can help address certain skin concerns. I love using a salicylic acid cleanser in the lead up to that time of the month - to help battle the incoming congestion and hormonal breakouts.


While cleansers may feel like a simple product - there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes! I've found that properly cleaning my skin has been a game-changer in my quest against congestion. Test your own cleansing method by swiping your face (particularly around the hairline) with a cotton pad - is it clean or are there makeup smudges?


Overall, the perfect cleanser and cleansing routine is a personalised choice depending on taste, skin type and concerns. A double cleanse may not be suitable for your skin - your skin is totally unique to you, there is no one routine or product to fit all! If you are feeling unsure where to start, Skin Ritual offers free consultations, so you can chat with one of their experienced practitioners and discuss your skin’s individual needs. Be sure to get in touch to get you on your tailored path to healthy, happy skin.


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