After years of research, self-experimentation, medical education and clinical experience, I have achieved some clarity around a question that has plagued me and so many others who have struggled with their skin - how do you properly wash your face to promote a radiant, healthy complexion? Healthy skin encompasses so much more than skin that just “looks good”. Healthy skin is thriving, alive, and balanced.
First things first, why do we wash our faces?
Throughout history and around the world, humans have always been interested in beauty and skincare. However, early humans did not wash their faces the same way we do today. There were no foaming soaps, cleansers, acids, multiple step routines, or skincare “products” as we know them today. The skincare that was used was directly extracted from nature. Herbal poultices, tea washes for skin ailments, honey and yogurt masks for moisture and exfoliation, fruits and their juices as ‘toners’, and oils for cleansing - to name a few.
As society became more industrialized and cities became more densely populated, sanitation technology and hygiene practices developed, which lessened the spread of disease and spared many lives. However, the obsession with cleanliness extended beyond delivering cleaner water to homes, safer disposal of wastes, and more hygienic medical practices. An obsession with personal hygiene began. Being “dirty” was associated with disease and “the cleaner the better” was a philosophy adopted by many. With greater accessibility to bathing and soaps as we know them today, individuals began to cleanse their skin differently.
Currently, the beauty industry sells us the idea that our skin is being “cared for” when we cleanse it and apply layers of lotions and potions with long ingredient lists. It’s implied that our skin will become problematic if we don’t adopt multi-step routines. Or perhaps we have skin concerns like breakouts, fine lines, pigmentation or irritation, and we are told that these products are the solution.
Don’t get me wrong, some products could be very helpful and certain modern skincare ingredients absolutely have their place. However, in most cases, I opt for a more simple approach that is grounded in ancient wisdom and uses ingredients that are as close to nature as possible to support a healthy, clear, and radiant complexion.
My favorite skin “cleansing” method is oil cleansing. This sounds scary to some because we have been conditioned to associate oils with breakouts and irritations. When the right oils are selected and used properly, they will not clog the pores, but instead, help to harmonize oil production and keep the skin strong and resilient. It can actually help to clear irritations and breakouts. This simple and ancient method can help the skin recover after the use of harsh products or ingredients. I typically recommend oil cleansing to patients suffering with inflammatory skin conditions like acne, eczema, and any form of dermatitis however, anyone can use this method as long as the oils selected are appropriate to your skin type.
There are many oils on the market; some are blends and others are single. For a novice oil cleanser, I recommend starting with organic jojoba oil which is both affordable and gentle. Jojoba oil is is almost identical to the skin’s natural sebum, which means that there is a very low risk of causing irritation or breakouts.
In general, organic is always preferable and if you are using a blend, I suggest opting for formulations with a jojoba oil-base and ones with few or no essential oils as these can severely irritate the skin long-term. One brand I am fond of is called Living Libations which has a line of oils called “Best Skin Ever” that are designed for oil cleansing and moisturizing.
I recommend oil cleansing to be done every evening in place of other cleansers. It can be done as a standalone practice or before other products are applied. In the morning, cleansing is not a must; simply rinsing the face with cool water and applying moisture if needed will suffice. Some opt for oil cleansing a few times a week and continue using other skin care products or routines on alternate days to give the skin a “break”.
For a step by step guide on cleaning the face, see below.
1. Start by dampening the skin with a hydrosol, thermal spring water or mist of choice.
2. Dispense approximately 1/2 tsp of oil in the palms
3. Using light, circular motions, apply the oil to the face, neck, and decollete. This is not a massage - use light pressure to distribute the oil and work it into the skin’s surface.
4. Dampen a fresh cotton round or clean wash cloth (I prefer organic cotton rounds) using tepid or slightly warm water
5. Move the cotton round or cloth gently, but quickly, over the skin using light circular motions, re-dampening the round or cloth throughout the process as you work your way around the face. Re-dampen between moving from the cheeks to forehead, to opposite cheek, to nose, chin, jawline, neck, and decollete.
6. Repeat the process, starting with step two and a fresh cotton round or another section of the cloth.
7. Rinse with cool water
If done correctly, this process should take you at least five minutes. If done too quickly or not thoroughly enough, it may cause bumps or breakouts long-term. If you are using a washcloth and notice your skin is not reacting well over time, switch to a disposable organic cotton round, as the detergent used to wash the cloth may irritate the skin.
My preference is to leave the skin as is after this process. I sometimes apply a few more drops of oil and perform a face massage to lift and tone. If you prefer, you may layer on other products as needed after oil cleansing.
Here are some additional tips I generally recommend to patients who are dealing with skin concerns or who are looking to promote healthy skin that is radiant, has longevity and ages gracefully.
1. Cut-back on the number of products that you are using. Products often contain a variety of ingredients that have not been tested for their long-term effect on the skin, or how they work together. The skin is a delicate organ that is prone to damage by ingredients and harsh methods.
2. Stop cleansing in the AM. Iinstead, splash the skin with cold water to tighten the skin, and pat dry with a fresh washcloth. If needed, apply day time products to damp skin.
3. Consume a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables, protein, healthy fats and that is low in processed ingredients and sugar. These nutrients will support healthy skin cells from within. If you want healthy skin, you must eat a healthy diet.
4. Limit caffeine and consider eliminating alcohol. Eliminate nicotine and recreational drugs. These all add a burden to the liver and can wreak havoc on hormones, which then impact skin.
5. Hydrate with 2-3L of filtered water or spring water daily.
6. Get out in nature. This will improve the diversity of your microbiome (i.e. the bacteria in your body that promote health) which will balance your immune system and keep the skin barrier strong.
7. Sleep! Like diet, sleep is integral to the health of your skin. If possible, aim for 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night. This will help with cellular repair, keep skin resilient, and maintain balance.
Remember, each person is unique and the needs of the skin will differ. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. One’s skin health and appearance is a delicate interplay between environment factors and genetics. The ingredients and methods that work for you may not work for someone else, and the foods that support your skin may not support someone else either.
Skincare is not a superficial matter, it is about internal health and healthcare as well. If you are suffering from a skin imbalance, it is pertinent to take stock of your diet and lifestyle habits, and see your doctor for regular screening testing in order to rule out underlying disease that may be causing or contributing to skin issues.