Will the Clarisonic Help Your Skin—Or Harm It?

For some, it's the ultimate grooming gadget. For others, a potential skincare hazard. Here's why!
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Michelle Villett
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For some, it's the ultimate grooming gadget. For others, a potential skincare hazard. Here's why!
Clarisonic colours

Chances are, if you're reading this post, you've either purchased a Clarisonic already—or have at least thought about it at some point. Amirite?

Maybe I live in a bubble, but it feels like they're fast becoming as common as iPhones amongst a certain skincare-savvy female demographic—which would be YOU GUYS. And that's pretty major, because they aren't cheap: the starter one, called Mia, will still set you back over $100.

Then again, I can totally see why everyone is fangirling. The claims are extremely impressive:

  • that it removes six times more dirt, oil and makeup than regular cleansing;
  • that it increase the absorption of your skincare topicals;
  • that it reduces the appearance of pores and wrinkles; and
  • that it helps clear up dry patches and even acne.

Who wouldn't want all of that?!

BUT. (There's always a but.) Not every beauty product can be 100 percent sunshine and rainbows. Even though the Clarisonic transports many (most?) peeps to skincare heaven, there are a few lone rangers out there that are struggling. Like a an editor friend I was chatting with the other week, whose normally flawless skin broke out when she started using it. Or other folks I've read testimonials from online, whose skin got all dry and irritated.

So what's the deal? Well, the purpose of this post is to clear things up. Get it?

The Clarisonic isn't an exfoliator—or is it?

This is the number one most confusing thing about the Clarisonic. People think it's an exfoliator—but nowhere does the manufacturer actually claim that it is. In fact, the device is more accurately categorized as a cleansing system. It uses sonic technology, at a rate of 300 movements per second (!!) to clean your skin, but those movements are so crazy-fast that it just feels like a gentle vibration. You certainly don't get any pulling or tugging, and the bristles are so soft, especially if you use the "delicate" or "sensitive" brushes, that there's nothing harsh or scratchy happening there either.

That said, according to Dr. Neal Schultz, you'll still get a slight physical exfoliation because it's a brush instead of your fingers. So if you're not exfoliating at all, then even that alone can make a huge difference in your skin. It'll feel smoother and look more glowy, and your products will probably penetrate better (and therefore give you even MORE benefits) since they don't have to get through as many dead skin cells on the surface.

Why the Clarisonic might clear your acne... or break you out

Again, if you're not exfoliating—but you get breakouts—then even the Clarisonic's mild sonic action can be helpful in removing potentially pore-clogging dirt, bacteria and dead skin cells.

Another reason it clears some people up quite dramatically is because they were, quite frankly, going around with dirty faces. Sorry, but it's true. Ever wash your face the regular way, and then run a cotton pad (preferably these ones) doused with toner across it? Does it not blow you away how much makeup it picks up? Dude, it's crazy. And gross.

That's where Mr. Clarisonic comes in. I'm convinced he's more effective at removing stuff from your pores, so you get much cleaner skin in one step. I always, always Clarisonic myself (yep, I'm making it a verb now) after I've been wearing a lot of foundation or sunscreen because I'm freaked out about that stuff setting up shop in my pores. So depending on how thorough (or not) your existing cleansing routine may be, that's one way it could help with acne.

Clarisonic woman

But how come some people have the opposite reaction? Well, let's go back to Dr. Schultz again. He says: "[T]hat slight physical exfoliation won't be anywhere as effective as if you used a chemical exfoliator like glycolic or salicylic acid or a physical exfoliator like microdermabrasion."

This was the downfall of my editor friend. She was on a chemical exfoliation routine, but stopped it when she began cleansing with the Clarisonic because she thought that'd be overkill. Well, turns out her skin was relying on the hydroxy-acids to stay clear—and the Clarisonic alone doesn't have enough exfoliating powers to act as a substitute.

So keep that in mind when you're introducing a Clarisonic (or frankly, ANY skincare product) into your existing regimen. To do a proper test, you want to only change one thing... not multiple things, because then you won't know which product is the one that's working.

Does the Clarisonic over-stimulate your skin?

Here's another consideration if you're having a reaction like acne or irritation. For some people, even the gentle vibration of a Clarisonic can be pretty stimulating if their skin isn't used to it. Especially if they're pressing too hard into the skin when using it. (You actually shouldn't press at all, but I totally get that it would be your instinct to do that, in order to "help" it work.)

I've been a victim of over-stimulation myself, not with the Clarisonic but with that damn oil cleansing method. Part of the protocol was massaging the oil in for far longer than I'd ever touched my face before. (Like, 10 minutes long.) I'm convinced that this method was half the reason I ended up reacting so badly—my face just couldn't handle all the movement and the pressure.

Is there a solution? I'd say go slowly. If you know your skin freaks out easily from too much manipulation, then gradually build up your usage frequency from once a week, to two or three times, and then eventually as often as twice daily if you want to. I'm not a believer in the whole "purging" theory—that you have to suffer through a horrible reaction first before your skin adjusts. To me it makes more sense to back off for a while if that happens. Slow and steady wins the race!

The deal with the Clarisonic and sensitivity

Should you use the Clarisonic if you've got sensitivity? I don't have a solid answer for you here because I've spoken to dermatologists on both sides of the fence. Some say that you should avoid it, or only use it once a week max, if you have sensitive skin. (Which could include conditions like rosacea, eczema and acne... or like me, just a general predisposition to redness and irritation.)

Woman using Clarisonic

Others say it actually helps these concerns, and won't be a problem even if you're using the device twice daily like the manufacturer recommends. One of my favourite derms that I've interviewed told me the Clarisonic is surprisingly well-tolerated by sensitive skin types, and is a much better choice for them compared to potentially harsh cleansers and/or traditional exfoliants. He says there aren't any studies yet to specifically measure WHY it's good for inflammatory rosacea, acne and dryness—but he's definitely observed that it IS. (And he's a trusted source, so I believe him.) He suspects the reasons are the deep pore-cleansing action coupled with the mild exfoliation to help other topicals to penetrate.

Still, I don't want to be responsible for any skin freak-outs, so it's a good idea to check with your derm first if you've got one of these issues.

Can the Clarisonic really help with pores and wrinkles?

I think the pore claim (that they'll appear smaller) is probably stronger than the wrinkle one. I wouldn't say it's anything dramatic, although perhaps it would be if your pores were very, very congested to start with. Personally, I think I've noticed a slight benefit with milia, but not with the size of regular pores around my nose.

With wrinkles, I'm not sure. This is how it was explained to me at one of their press events. They're claiming that when you don't thoroughly cleanse away dirt, oil, makeup and dead skin cells, the weight of them can actually settle into your lines, making them look deeper. Hmmm...

I'm much more open to their other wrinkle claim, which is that it reduces them by helping your topicals penetrate better. So, for example, your anti-aging serum of choice doesn't have to work its way through a stubborn barrier of leftover makeup or whatever, in order to work its magic. Make sense?

The difference between Clarisonic and other skincare brushes

Well, besides the fact that it's the most expensive—sigh—the difference is that the Clarisonic is more gentle. You can buy hand-held, non-oscillating skincare brushes like this one. And actually they're not bad—I wouldn't recommend them for sensitive skin, but they're a wallet-friendly way of powering up your cleanser and getting more exfoliating benefits.

Sephora Face Complexion Brush

You can also buy electric "power brushes" like the Wave from Neutrogena:

Neutrogena Wave Power Cleanser

They work similarly to the Clarisonic and are less expensive. But according to this New York Times article, the drugstore brushes only rotate at a rate of four to five movements per second—compared to the whopping 300 I told you about for the Clarisonic. And the more movements per second, the gentler on your skin the gadget is.

The best way to start with the Clarisonic

Now that you're aware of the benefits and potential pitfalls, if you do still think you want to hop on board this train, here's what I recommend. I feel like a bit of a jerk admitting this, but I think I probably have around five Clarisonics that I've received as review samples over the years. They've come out with a bunch of different versions—Mia, Mia2, Aria, Plus—so that's how I've happened to accumulate so many.

Does it matter which one you invest in? Personally I think the starter one, the Mia, will do you just fine. Just make sure you use the right brush for your skin type... if you're sensitive, you may want to splurge for an Aria or Plus, since they come with different brush options.

Clarisonic Mia Sonic Skin Cleansing System

The difference between the Mia, above, and the Mia 2, below, is that you get two speeds instead of just one, and it comes with a travel case.

Clarisonic Mia 2 Sonic Skin Cleansing System

The Aria has three speeds and comes with a drying stand and a sensitive brush head:

Clarisonic Aria Sonic Skin Cleansing System

And finally, the super-deluxe model, the Plus. It can be used on the face or body, has three speeds, and comes with a sensitive brush head and cleansers.

Clarisonic Plus Sonic Skin Cleansing System

Don't feel like you need to use it with their cleanser—it works just the same with your regular one, as long as it's gentle and doesn't have anything gritty in it (which could be too harsh). And just glide it lightly across your face—don't press. It's the bristles that are doing the work for you.

Like I said, go slow on the frequency. Unless you've got very resilient skin, I'd build up from once a week to more often. And just because they say you can doesn't mean you have to do it twice a day either. I really only do it myself a few times a week and whenever I've worn a lot of makeup; it's more often in the summertime because of the sunscreen factor.

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Have your say

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this gadget, so tell me: Have you tried the Clarisonic yet? What changes did you notice with your skin (good or bad)? Got any more questions about it that I can hopefully help you with? Ask away!