Cleansing, the foundation of great skin

How we cleanse our skin can make or break an effective skincare routine and ultimately our skins protective barrier. Over scrubbing, lots of suds, drying soaps, hot water and too frequently are just some of the issues surrounding how to effectively cleanse our skin.

If you are not cleansing your skin effectively with the right product for your skin condition, then it’s likely that all the following steps in your routine won’t be working effectively for you either. You will ultimately be wasting product and not achieving the best results for your skin health.

The epidermal barrier. Protector of all that is good

It’s important that when you cleanse your skin, you perform it in a way which helps preserve your skins natural protective barrier. This protective barrier (epidermal barrier) is located in the upper layers of the skin (the stratum corneum) and is predominantly composed of compacted and permanently differentiated keratinocytes, called corneocytes. These corneocytes are imbedded in a lipid layer composed of cholesterol, fatty acids and ceramides. It’s this heavily keratinised and protective lipid layer that helps our skin to physically protect itself from infection, mechanical stressors and dehydration via a process known as trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). TEWL is understood to be significantly elevated in skin with a compromised protective epidermal barrier, so by maintaining a healthy epidermal barrier we support our skins natural moisture levels. There is also a structural element to this protective layer, composed of proteins such as flaggrin, protease enzymes and antimicrobial peptides. Any aggravating factors (either physical or chemical) toward any of these structural elements, could potentially trigger inflammatory skin issues such as dermatitis, eczema, rosacea and acne conditions. The research behind many of these processes is extensive with some strong evidence to provide insight on how to best to nurture our skin health. Let’s now move on to how we can best care for our skin by using our new found knowledge of the skin’s protective epidermal barrier.

Cleansing to maintain healthy skin

Keep in mind when we cleanse our skin, the integrity of our epidermal barrier. We know we need to help support it and keep it intact to help prevent dehydration, irritation and inflammation, which will eventually lead in the majority of cases to unwanted skin complaints. This lipid rich protective layer has an optimum pH range in which it maintains is most robust structure, this optimum pH is actually slightly on the acidic side, from around 4.0 to 5.5. As an example, traditional bar soap is much more alkaline with a pH of 8 to 10 and it has been suggested that this raised pH could be a causative factor in ongoing disruption to the lipid barrier by breaking down its associated lipid constituents resulting in inflammation. All natural bar soaps will have this more alkaline pH level due to the nature in which is produced and formed (alkali salts +fats), there are lower pH soaps on the market and these are achieved by using emulsifiers and adding moisturising agents, but still many are around a pH of 7. This is a strong indication that natural soap is not and effective medium to wash your face and therefore best avoided to prevent unnecessary drying and disruption to your skin barrier and ultimately your skin health.

Let’s look at how we can effectively cleanse yet actively avoid the skin health pitfalls of over washing.

The mechanics of the cleanse

We cleanse to remove the day! By ‘The Day’ we mean, debris, pollutants and excess oils that have built up onto our skin over the course of our daily activities. It is important we keep our skin free of these surface contaminants to prevent their build up and potential to congest our skins pores/follicles, inhibit the epidermal barrier and healthy functioning of our skin. The whole process just needs to be a gentle removal exercise and this is where many of us fall down with our over-zealous rubbing techniques and use of water that is far too hot and exposing our skin to water to an extended period time such as washing our face whilst in a hot shower.

For most of us a gentle evening cleanse with a low or no fragrance hydrating cream, gel cream or mild foaming cleanser, using hand warm water and a clean soft cloth or flannel is sufficient. Massaging our chosen cleanser gently into dry skin (or damp if using a foaming wash) for around 60 seconds then gently removing with a clean rinsed cloth is often all that is required to achieve an effective and beneficial cleanse. If you wear make up on a regular basis, then it is advisable to add in an additional light touch ‘pre-cleanse’ using an oil or cream balm to gently remove the surface make up before proceeding with the second skin cleanse as detailed above. The best oil or cream cleansers are those that emulsify effectively on contact with water. When using a foaming gel type cleanser low foam, gentle surfactant formulations are better for not stripping the natural protective oils from your skin.

When to cleanse. Start the day right

Your morning cleansing routine and how you perform it can be based on at least three factors

  1. Your skin type/condition
  2. How effectively you cleansed the night before
  3. Your previous evenings treatment products

For a few of us an additional cleanse the following morning when we wake isn’t needed, especially if we have a dryer skin type. After all we are trying to preserve and maintain our protective epidermal barrier, not bashing it with unnecessary washing at every given opportunity, however if you have an oilier skin type it may be beneficial to gently remove excess oils and dead skin cells from the surface of the skin before applying daytime products and makeup if worn. If you fall into the camp of not cleansing before bed, then a morning cleanse is essential. Not cleansing your skin before you go to bed is a big skin health issue. We know that during the day our skin is exposed to and is required to manage potential bacterial exposure, UV exposure temperature fluctuation and water loss and research tells us that the majority of the skins reparative physiological processes are modulated during the evening hours and to enable our skin to optimise the benefit of these self-repair mechanisms, it is best that is it free from contaminants whilst we rest.

The skincare products we use in the evening can also influence how we cleanse our skin the following morning. If active ingredients are used that may increase sun sensitivity, these should be gently cleansed away in the morning before your morning products are applied, preventing any unwanted skin irritation or inflammation from subsequent UV exposure during the day

Hopefully this small insight into the way our skin exercises it protective and regulatory functions will help you choose an effective gentle daily cleanser that can support your skin hydration, is simple and effective to use with a light touch and can easily be removed with a soft cloth and warm water.

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