How to Pick a Cleanser
By Kate Fleming
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Any good skincare routine begins with three products: cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen. As such, facial cleansers are arguably one of the most important parts of any regimen. A cleanser that is too harsh on the skin can lead to a compromised moisture barrier, overproduction of oil, and acne, whereas an ineffective cleanser can lead to the buildup of dead skin cells, oils, and therefore can contribute to unwanted skin conditions.
Picking a good cleanser can seem like a daunting task, but it is really quite simple. To understand how to pick a good cleanser, we need to understand a bit of how the skin functions and how products affect the pH of our skin.
pH stands for Potential of Hydrogen or Power of Hydrogen and measures the activity of hydrogen in a solution. The pH scale measures how acidic or alkaline a solution is in comparison to distilled water, which is considered neutral at a pH of 7.0. Only wet solutions have a measurable pH.
When researching the value of skin pH you’re going to find a ton of different ranges and answers, the consensus seems to be that the skin’s pH can normally range from 4.5-6.5 with healthy levels at or below pH 5.5.
So what does this mean for skincare? When we measure the skin’s pH, we’re really measuring the skin’s surface and the moisture within the skin and the outermost layer of the skin.
The outermost layer of the skin is what we’re talking about when we talk about the “moisture barrier.” The skin has an acidic barrier, also known as the acid mantle, made up of dead skin cells, sebum, and sweat.
The thing about the acid mantle is that bacteria, contaminants, and harmful elements are often alkaline in nature and thrive in alkaline environments. Therefore, when your skin is brought to a more alkaline pH, you’re opening the door for a number of skin issues, including dry skin, dehydrated skin, oily skin, acne caused by excess oil or thriving bacteria, and dermatitis, among others.
The most important thing to remember about the pH scale is acids vs. alkalis and how the units of measure work:
- Acids are pH values under 7
- Alkalis are pH values over 7
- Value of 7 is neutral
Regarding the unit of measurement, one pH represents ten times the change. For example, say my cleanser is pH balanced for skin at 5.5, a cleanser with a pH of 6.5 is ten times more alkaline than my pH 5.5 cleanser—a few units of pH can make a gigantic difference.
Maintaining a healthy pH is crucial to overall skin health. As the skin’s pH creeps closer to 7, the harder it becomes to fight acne and the easier it becomes for bacteria to grow and multiply. Having too high of a skin pH can also affect aging, product effectiveness, and sensitivity of the skin. Did you know that most drugstore cleansers have a pH of 7 or higher, with some big, well-known brands ranking as high as pH 9.0!? One bad cleanser can completely change the pH of your skin.
To pick the perfect cleanser, you should look for one that is pH balanced for the skin at about pH 5.5. Maintaining a balanced pH should allow your skin to function properly—keeping moisture in and bacteria out. When picking a cleanser, it’s important to try to find as much information online or in-store as possible as to the pH of the cleanser. If you are unable to find this information prior, you can always test for pH at home.
Testing Product pH is Incredibly Simple
The easiest way to test the pH of any product is to grab some pH test strips. I like to use pH strips that have a range of 1-14 because when testing acids you’ll likely see values below 3.
- Grab a pH test strip.
- Dip or swipe the strip in the product.
- Observe the colors of the pH test strip in comparison to what is provided on the box they came in, looking for values around 5.5.
Other Considerations in Choosing a Cleanser
When considering cleansers, you should also factor in the different properties of cleansers based on your skin type. For example, if you find your skin does well with physical exfoliation you might want to (at least a couple of days a week) add in a cleanser that has exfoliating properties (such as microbeads or a scrub). If you find you are prone to dry or dehydrated skin, you may want to opt for an oil cleanser or double cleansing (using an oil cleanser first, followed by a gentle low pH foam cleanser second.) Lastly, when selecting a cleanser, be aware of active ingredients like vitamin C or salicylic acid that can be either too harsh or just ineffective in the first place. For example, vitamin C needs to sit on the skin for at least 10 minutes to be effective as a treatment, making a cleanser a less than ideal delivery system for it.
One of my favorite cleansers of all time is the Cosrx Low pH Morning Cleanser. The Cosrx morning cleanser is a perfect option because its function is to restore the skin back to optimal pH levels, It does a wonderful job of cleansing, controlling oil, and softening the skin. The Cosrx Morning Cleanser features tea tree oil to keep pores clear with antibacterial properties, beta hydroxy acid to also keep pores clean by removing oil and dirt, and primrose oil to soften and hydrate the skin. This cleanser is perfect in any AM or PM routine and can be used alone or as the perfect second cleanser in a double cleansing routine.
A “do it all cleanser,” the Banila Co Clean It Zero cleansing balm is a miracle product. It effortlessly removes makeup, dirt, and oil without stripping the skin or disturbing the moisture barrier. This balm can be used in place of a makeup remover, a first cleanser, a second cleanser, or all three. This is a perfect cleanser for those who incorporate a cleanser into their AM routine as it leaves the skin soft, supple, and perfectly primed for a skincare routine and then makeup. This product features a soft rose scent and a pH of 6.1.
A cult-classic cleanser, the CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser has been praised for its gentle cleansing efforts and superb price point. The cleanser is for normal to oily/dry skin and was formulated to deeply cleanse without stripping the skin or making it feel tight and dry. Key ingredients include ceramides to help restore the skin’s natural barrier, hyaluronic acid to help retain the skin’s natural moisture, and niacinamide to help reduce inflammation and redness. This is a great option for a second cleanser. For dehydrated skin, I would recommend only using this in the PM after an oil cleanser to ensure the moisture barrier is not disturbed.
Understanding how the skin’s pH works is the necessary first step in choosing the cleanser that will most benefit your skin. The second step is taking that knowledge and combining it with your unique skin type and skin concerns to find the product that will not only cleanse your skin, but nourish it as well, leaving you with a healthy, beautiful glow.