I never thought this was weird until I went to college. My roommate was absolutely stunned that I didn’t cart any cleansers, masks, or exfoliants down the hall to the bathroom—especially since my skin was blemish-free. Later I learned that when she went home for winter break she told her family: “I made a new friend at school, but she doesn’t know how to wash her face.”
After posing this question to several dermatologists, it became clear the answer wasn’t cut and dried. Some refused to jump on the no-face-wash bandwagon: “Our skin is constantly exposed to bacteria, dirt, sweat, and pollutants,” said Gary Goldenberg, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist who said he sees no benefit in using water alone without a cleanser. “If not washed off, these can irritate skin, clog pores, cause acne and blemishes, and increase the appearance of aging.”
Others, however, were a bit more lenient about laying off the products: “Cleansers can effectively remove dirt and oil from the skin, but the wrong cleanser can disrupt the outer skin layer leading to inflammation,” said Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Unless you’ve been sweating heavily, have visible dirt on the skin, or have used heavy cosmetics, in some cases washing just with water is adequate.”
In addition to what products you do or don’t use, dermatologists say healthy-looking skin depends on a subtle alchemy of factors including genetics, skin type, age, hormone and activity levels as well as your environment. This makes a one-size-fits-all skin solution impossible, says Fayne Frey, MD, a dermatologist in West Nyack, New York. “Our culture has us believing that cleansing morning and evening is best, but there is no consensus on how often a woman with healthy skin should wash her face with a cleanser,” said Frey. “I’ve visited parts of the world where there is no running water and women never wash their faces. They have no increase in skin infection or other skin conditions, and many have beautiful, soft, moisturized skin.”
With so many conflicting opinions swirling about, we find ourselves asking: To lather or not to lather? To help you make a decision, read on to learn why ditching the cleansers may benefit some people’s skin.
The benefit of a water rinse is that your skin won’t dry out, and this can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, says Kally Papantoniou, MD, a New York-based dermatologist. (Remember though, a cleanser-free rinse may have the opposite effect if you’re wearing makeup. When makeup is trapped against your skin, it can cause oxidative damage that prematurely ages the face. Try washing with a mild cleanser in the evening to remove your makeup and simply splashing your face with water in the mornings.) “Rinsing with warm water will accomplish a reduction in some oils, and lifting of buildup and dead skin cells,” she says. However, “It will not remove makeup very well, and will not be adequate for oilier skin types, or those who are treating acne.”
By the time we hit 30, our bodies start producing less oil, says Papantoniou. In turn, you may start noticing that you can’t handle the cleanser you used in your 20s and that “your skin is getting dried out even though you are using the “best” moisturizers.” If you’ve noticed any of these things, it may be time to lay off the cleansers.
Age 30 is also the time when natural exfoliation begins to slow down, which can leave the skin looking dull, says R. Sonia Batra, MD, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist and recurring co-host on the talk show The Doctors. While face washing with warm or cool water can help slough off dead cells and keep the skin radiant, if you use an exfoliator and scrub until your face feels squeaky clean this means you are likely stripping the lipids that help keep the skin’s barrier intact, Batra says.
Sometimes, even your skin needs a break. If it becomes dry from overuse of products or anti-aging ingredients such as retinol, it’s okay to wash with water for a few days, says Papantoniou. The same goes for skin care conditions such as eczema, she says, in which case, washing just with water once during the day can allow the skin to maintain the necessary oil content.
“Some people may just not be genetically predisposed to breakouts or may produce less [oil],” says Batra. If that sounds like you, you may actually find your skin looks better when you ditch your cleanser.
Most dermatologists agree that for those seeking a low-maintenance plan, using a cleanser at night and just water in the morning is a reasonable option. “This is the most common recommendation I provide,” says Papantoniou. “I think it’s very logical to remove makeup and buildup of oils and bacteria in the evening [with a mild cleanser], and in the morning a gentle rinse with water should be enough to start the day.”
But ultimately, it’s up to the individual. “In terms of whether we should stop washing our faces altogether, the answer will most likely always be no,” says David Lortscher, MD, a San Diego dermatologist. “But washing your face with a cleanser can be skipped every once in awhile. Some people prefer to simply rinse their face with water and no cleanser. If this works for you, then no harm done: It’s not necessary to use a cleanser every time you wash your face.”
Tell that to my college roommate.