Washing your face sounds straightforward enough. You head to the sink, turn on the tap, splash water on your face, and then? Do you need a cleanser? Or is water enough?

It sounds straightforward but there's a little more to it than that.

If you're new to the skincare world, it might not be all that clear to you why a cleanser is a must when washing your face.

Especially if your face has been fine for years with water alone, it's perfectly valid to ask if you even need a cleanser to begin with.

Let me tell you right now that yes, you need to wash your face with a cleanser. Just water is not enough.

But we won't stop there.

To eliminate any doubt you may have about this step, we'll ask four questions that can help you figure out whether cleanser is a must or just optional for you.

So, without further ado, let's look at those questions, shall we?

Are you washing your face with quality water?

Washing your face - water quality

Countries like Denmark, Greenland, and Canada are all known for their clean tap water. In fact, I’m living in Denmark right now and the water here is amazing.

Question is: Is it clean enough?

It's hard to say because we do have a lot of limescale in the water.

And while regular amounts of limescale in tap water is perfectly normal and safe, their existence in the water supply does tell us that we may have hard water at home.

The easiest way to tell whether you have hard water or soft water at home is when you wash your hands. If after using soap, you feel like a film forms on your hands, then you have hard water.

Hard water will make you feel like you need some extra soap to properly clean your hands.

Now, yes, it is safe to consume hard water. It's actually a good source of calcium and magnesium according to the World Health Organization.

But the same can't be said when it comes to skin. The downside to having hard water is that these concentrated minerals can mess with the skin.

Two dermatologists, Dr. Talakoub and Dr. Wesley, discussed what hard water can do to skin, in their article Hard water versus your skin. Here are the key takeaways from their discussion:

  • Hard water can disrupt the skin's proper barrier formation. Having a damaged skin barrier can greatly affect your skin's health, even giving way to acne.
  • Hard water can cause skin reactions, commonly atopic dermatitis, xerosis, and pruritus.
  • Lesser defined effects of hard water include clogged pores, acne, and altered sebum production.
  • Minerals left on the skin, specifically calcium and magnesium cations, can form free radicals. Over time, free radicals can breakdown collagen and elastin (key elements in making our skin firm) and result in increased fine lines and wrinkles.

If that's not enough to convince you that hard water is bad news for skin, here are some relevant studies:

  • This study done by researchers from the University of Sheffield and King’s College London revealed how "calcium and magnesium ions in hard water, surfactants, and filaggrin interact to damage the skin barrier" and that "exposure to hard water could potentially contribute to the development of eczema."
  • In this systemic review and meta-analysis, the authors concluded that there's a positive association between living in a hard water area and atopic eczema in children.

So, if you do have hard water at home, it can't be enough to properly clean your face. Take note that water filters aren't enough to remove the minerals (calcium and magnesium) that make hard water.

If you have eczema or chronically dry and irritated skin, water softeners can be worth looking into. Because even when you do use cleanser, these minerals can still cause a disturbance on your skin.

Are you often exposed to pollutants or dirt in your daily life?

Washing your face - pollutants

We all have different living conditions, environments, and daily routines. Do you live in a big city or a small town?

I remember back in 2015, I traveled to Paris with 3 of my girlfriends. As the tourist we were, we would stroll the city to get the full experience.

While we got that and it was a wonderful trip, we also got something else from Paris:

When I removed my makeup at the end of the day, my face was full of black dirt. 

When I blew my nose, black filth would be on the white paper.

When I shook my blue denim jacket, heavy dust would fill the room.

Washing your face with water alone in this scenario, as you can imagine, wasn’t enough.

And if your day-to-day activities involve exposing yourself to dirt and pollution, then you'll want to have a proper cleansing session at the end of the day.

Because let me tell you, pollution isn't just bad for the environment. It's bad for your skin too.

In this expert analysis from the World Congress of Dermatology 2011, chronic exposure to soot and other airborne particulates generated by motor vehicle exhaust (aka traffic soot) was identified as an important cause of extrinsic aging (aging caused by outside influences).

The study discussed in the analysis assessed the skin of 400 German women aged 70-80 years. Aging observed on their skin included pigmented spots on the cheeks and forehead and facial wrinkles.

A more recent annual congress of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (2019) highlighted the novel factors influencing acne. 

And guess what's one of those novel factors? Air pollution.

Particularly in this multicentre study, the investigators studied 189 residents of Mexico City (heavily polluted) and Cuernavaca, Mexico (less polluted).

They observed that those in Mexico City have increased sebum excretion rate (making skin oily), lower levels of vitamin E and squalene in their sebum, and a less cohesive outer skin layer.

They also had higher cases of atopic skin and facial seborrheic changes.

Not only do these findings tell us to avoid pollutants as much as possible. These also remind us that we need to be vigilant in keeping our face clean of pollutants.

And in that case, water alone won't be enough when washing your face.

Is washing with water enough if you wear sunscreen and/or makeup?

Washing your face - makeup sunscreen

Washing your sunscreen and/or makeup off with only water won’t work at all. Especially if you're wearing anything that's water-resistant or waterproof.

You could argue that most of its been dissolved by oils and sweat throughout the day. So, washing with water could be enough to remove the remaining sunscreen and makeup, right?

Wrong! The products mixing with oil and sweat should actually make you more inclined to wash with a cleanser.

Remember in science class that water and oil do not mix.

So, you've got these face products that may or may not contain oil mixing with your skin's natural oils.

Even if you scrub your face the hardest after splashing tons of water, you won't be completely removing those products.

You need a cleanser to thoroughly remove any layers of products (and pollutants) that may still be on your face.

What makes cleansers so special is that they contain surfactants.

These compounds make it possible for cleaning agents (cleansers, shampoos, body washes, dish soap, detergent, etc.) to lift oil water, so they can go smoothly down the drain.

With extra stubborn makeup and sunscreen (water-resistant, waterproof), it's even recommended to cleanse your face twice. So, water simply isn't enough.

You can read more about double cleansing in the Double Cleanse Masterclass post.

Is washing with water in the morning enough?

Washing your face - morning wash

So, okay, washing your face at night with a cleanser is given. But what about in the morning?

Surely, since you just got out of bed, water is enough to wash your face, right?

Well, it's a lot more complicated than that.

Water in the morning is not enough if:

  • You have oily skin. Your face continues to produce excess oils overnight. Washing with just water in the morning won't be enough to keep excess sebum in control.
  • You use occlusive products at nightBy "occlusive" products, I'm referring to any oil-based, heavy skincare products you use at night. So, let's say your nighttime moisturizer is oil-based or you're a fan of using sleeping masks from time to time. Then you'll need to use cleanser in the morning to wash everything off.
  • You can still see and feel your nighttime skincare products after washing with water. Even if your products are not occlusive, it's still possible for some of them to remain on your skin come morning. You'll want help from cleanser to completely remove them.

Now, when is water enough in the morning to wash your face?

For those with dry to very dry skin, and/or sensitive skin, as long as you don't use occlusive products and you can easily remove any remaining skincare products with just water, you won't need a cleanser in the morning.

With that, I hope we're all clear now on why in most circumstances, washing your face with water is not enough.

With the help of a gentle cleanser and a gentle hand, you'll certainly be keeping your skin properly clean and healthy.

If you have any questions, don't be a stranger now! Ask away and let me know what you think in the comments.

Stay tuned and take skin care!

All Acne Questions Answered

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