“Bring ease and comfort to your skin with soft, gentle and regular cleansing.”
Our skin is the largest organ in our body that actively interacts with the physical environment. With the amount of exposure to dirt, dust and grim, it requires daily care, attention and love to stay healthy. When it comes to inflamed, oily and acneic skin, our first response towards caring for the skin, may be to cleanse the oils off our face with a strong acne cleanser. Sometimes, we even cleanse our face more than twice a day. Indeed, if your face usually feels like an oil slick, it can feel like a temporary relief right after cleansing, for an hour or so. However this may trigger an unwelcome cycle of excessive dryness followed by excessive oiliness, exacerbating acne even further. While it may be tempting to strip the oils off your face, recognising that your skin will benefit more from gentle cleansing is the first step towards making a change in your routine and habits for a clear, acne-free skin.
What happens on an acne skin’s surface?
To know the best way to cleanse one’s acne, we first need to understand some quick science. Acne is a skin condition that occurs when excessive dead skin cells and oils stick together, blocking the hair follicles. This blockage provides a breeding ground for the growth of the c. acnes bacteria, causing inflammation and the building up of pus after a few days. As inflammation occurs and the pus gradually swells to a big nodule size, it damages the surrounding area causing scarring (1)(2). The small surface clogs are generally blackheads while the deep swollen clogs within the skin are called whiteheads.
Getting curious about the causes
Various factors such as hormones, diet, stress and environmental factors can cause acne. In particular, when our body comes under stress, androgen levels such as testosterone, cortisol and DHEA increase (3), heightening skin inflammation, oil production and acne. Consequently, acne also lessens when androgen levels decrease (4). As women generally have a lower baseline, changes in androgen levels have more impact on women (5)(6).
What does this mean for you?
It is all about clearing the oils and daily grime off our skin--in a gentle way--so that our pores are clean and our skin is balanced. In this article we’ll explore how the cleanser can play a pivotal role in reducing acne. While the common way may be to “fix” the symptoms, true effective acne healing requires an overall broad and holistic approach. Breaking down the causes of acne individually helps to make it manageable so we can take charge of healing our skin in small, meaningful steps. Here’s how to choose a good acne cleanser.
Here comes the acne cleanser to the rescue
A good acne cleanser is one that deeply cleanses the skin without stripping the skin’s surface of moisture or disrupting the natural pH of the skin (7). While cleansers for other skin types may be cream base and contain moisturising ingredients, cleansers for acne skin tend to be clay or gel base and contain hydroxy acids. These ingredients cleanse deep into the pore without over-cleansing the skin’s delicate surface. The acids help remove the top layer of dead skin cells, while the clays suck out the oils inside the pores. This means you get clean pores and still remain hydrated. We can’t stress enough how important this basic cleansing, self-care step is fundamental for healing acne.
How to choose a suitable cleanser for acne skin?
Choosing a good acne cleanser will give your skin a fresh, clean start to your day; no clogs and free of blackheads. From this fresh state, you have a good base to explore the daily healing process as you embark on your new journey.
Our skin has an average pH of 5.5. This naturally acidic level inhibits and slows down the growth of bacteria (8). This means that a good cleanser maintains the natural pH of the skin. As a rule of thumb, deep cleansers usually contain either some form of hydroxy acids (AHAs or BHAs) or are clay-base (kaolin or bentonite).
- Foaming, gel or clay - There are typically three types of acne cleansers. Foaming cleansers are traditionally stronger than gel cleansers so they are only suitable for oily type of acne skin, while gel cleansers are recommended for the dehydrated / oily type of acneic skin as they contain moisturising ingredients. Lastly there’s the clay-based cleanser which absorbs oils from deep within the pores and regulate sebum production. As they each three play different roles, which one to choose depends on your skin type.
- Low pH, neutral or alkaline - As much as possible, avoid using soaps as they are alkaline in nature as they will unbalance the naturally acidic pH of the skin, stripping precious moisture. Thankfully, most acne cleansers are typically low pH as they usually contain some hydroxy acids. This suits the natural pH of the skin and greatly helps with the healing process (8).
- AHA or BHA hydroxy acids - BHAs, especially salicylic acid are highly recommended as they are oil-based and penetrate deep into the skin, clearing out the blackheads more effectively than AHAs. Most acne cleansers in the market contain between 1 - 2% salicylic acid, which helps to slough off the top layer of dead skin cells, unclogging the pores to prevent bacteria build-up in the skin.
- Hydrating and soothing ingredients - Sodium PCA, Sodium hyaluronate (aka Hyaluronic acid) and arnica are great additions, especially for adult acne skin which tends to be dehydrated and oily at the same time. Cleansing with moisturising ingredients can help reduce the drying effect to keep skin soft and supple. Allantoin is another ingredient that promotes wound healing and soothes inflammation.
There is more to choosing an acne cleanser but if it seems like there are already too many things to look out for, an overall easy recommendation is to choose a gel cleanser that contains salicylic acids and some hydrating ingredients. The combination of these three will target the three different areas of cleansing acne skin; exfoliating dead skin cells, deep cleansing pores and maintaining hydration.
That being said, if you already use products that contain salicylic acid, a regular gel cleanser for combination skin will be good enough. Otherwise, Dermalogica’s Active Clearing Clearing Skin Wash and Obagi Daily Care Foaming Cleanser are great cleansers for your acne skin.
Are you over-cleansing your skin?
Cleansing twice a day--once in the morning and once in the evening--gives our skin a fresh start to meet the challenges of the day, while cleansing in the evening prepares and supports the healing process of our skin while we sleep at night. As most of the regeneration occurs while we are asleep, it is very important to cleanse off all makeup and dirt. A clean skin allows the body to focus on regenerating the cells, instead of getting rid of toxins.
It may be tempting to get rid of the layer of oils on your face by cleansing more than twice a day, but easy does it. Regular cleansing establishes healthy skincare habits and teaches the skin to respond in a calm manner. As you settle into your new cleansing routine, your skin will slowly feel right at home. Combined with the right toning, moisturising and masking, it will regulate its own response and heal to become clear and scar-free.