Do You Really Need To Wash Your Face?

The answer might surprise you! Investigating the case for cleansing—or not.
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Michelle Villett
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The answer might surprise you! Investigating the case for cleansing—or not.

Everyone knows that in order to have great skin, you need to start by thoroughly cleansing it—twice a day, every day.

Or do you?

Do me a favour and look closely at Alexa Chung:

Alexa Chung, ELLE Style Awards 2015

Alexa Chung at the 2015 ELLE Style Awards.

And Ginnifer Goodwin:

Ginnifer Goodwin, Disney Upfronts, 2013

Ginnifer Goodwin at the 2013 Disney Upfronts.

And Lady Gaga:

Lady Gaga, MTV Video Music Awards 2013

Lady Gaga at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

Any ideas what these celebs have in common?

They've ALL admitted to not washing their faces... and their complexions don't seem the worse for it. 

Alexa told Byrdie, "Sometimes I wash my face at night and sometimes I don’t." Ginnifer admitted to sleeping with her makeup on ("I recognize that's not best, but it's ok for me.") And Gaga, when asked how many nights per week she goes to bed wearing makeup, told People, "Seven. That is not good for your skin, but I’m blessed with good genes."

No doubt, but are they actually doing something wrong by not cleansing? 

Let's page a dermatologist over here. Or two. 

I interviewed Dr. Mark Lupin of Cosmedica in Victoria, BC, and Dr. Beatrice Wang of Carey Wang Dermatology in Montreal, and both were surprisingly "meh" about the necessity of cleansing...

Not Washing Your Face is Okay (Sort Of)

Do you need to wash your face

Washing your face might not actually be necessary. (Photo: Blaž Vizjak)

"It's nice to wash, because we feel cleaner," says Dr. Lupin. "But I have nothing terrible to say about not the trend of not washing at all. Just water itself is cleaning without adding anything to it."

Dr. Wang is on the same wavelength. "[Washing your face] is not a bad idea," she says. "But I don't think you have to be vigorous about skin cleansing. Most of us are not doing manual labour, so we're not getting that dirty."

Wait. So all of our efforts to get our skin super-clean—with countless face washes, makeup removers, Clarisonic-style gadgets, etc.—might not actually be necessary?

It sure sounds that way, at least if you've been gifted with a complexion like Alexa's, Ginnifer's or Gaga's, and are in the same age range. Washing, not washing—it doesn't really make a difference for these peeps. 

Heck, some folks even claim that not washing makes their skin even BETTER.

The Case for the "Caveman Regimen"

Caveman Regimen

Could the "Caveman Regimen" give you better skin? (Photo: Nathan Rupert)

If you lurk around acne forums, you'll see a lot of mentions of the "Caveman Regimen." (I don't know why it's called a "regimen," because it's certainly anything but.)

The concept is—just like our caveman ancestors—that you stop washing your face. Ever. 

Hard-core devotees don't even let water touch their skin, the idea being that you leave it alone for the sebum production to eventually self-regulate. Basically, you do nothing. So it's kind of like the "no poo" movement for hair, except it's your face. 

And it's hard to argue with the testimonials. Many people are claiming it made their skin calmer and clearer from blemishes. 

When you think about it, that kind of makes sense. Take most men, for example. Do they fiddle about with a dozen products and gadgets? No. They might let water run over their faces in the shower, or maybe use some bar soap on occasion, but that's about it. And often, their skin looks better than ours! 

Why the "Caveman Regimen" Can Work

Washing with water

Some "Caveman Regimen" followers won't even let water touch their faces. (Photo: nate beaty)

I asked the derms and there are a couple reasons why you might get better results from not washing your face:

You have sensitive skin: "People who have sensitive skin feel like they react to almost everything," says Dr. Lupin. "Usually, that's not true and there is something that could be found that does work. They may have tried and just given up, and are scared to try anything else." 

You were cleansing too aggressively: "Some people are just too vigorous with washing," says Dr. Wang. "They think they need that squeaky-clean feeling. Actually, that means you're drying out your skin. If you're too aggressive, it can either look drier after washing your face, or some people strip off so much oil that they actually get a rebound effect."

Sounds about right to me! If most cleansers are irritating you, then it totally follows that your skin would calm down when it's not faced with that twice-daily assault. Heck, some people even get stinging and redness from water alone! (But I have suggestions for that, so keep reading to the end!)

To Dr. Wang's point, the idea that we need to have squeaky-clean skin is a big part of the beauty marketing and spa cultures, so it's good to know that's not true. Anything that strips your skin is going to leave it MUCH more vulnerable to potential irritants and bacteria getting in. Hence, another reason people do well going "Caveman"—it leaves your protective skin barrier intact. Plus, the fact that you can end up with oilier skin than you started with defeats the whole purpose, doesn't it?

But enough about not washing. What are the actual reasons to go ahead and cleanse?

The Benefits of Washing Your Face

Cleanser

Washing your face removes makeup, oil and dead skin cells. (Photo: suanie)

If you do wash your face, here's what you're getting out of it:

It removes makeup: "I would recommend people remove makeup daily, at nighttime," says Dr. Lupin. "Otherwise, it can build up in the pores, clogging them and not allowing the skin to breathe properly."

It removes oil: "Some people do produce a lot of sebum and might want to get that off," says Dr. Wang. Adds Dr. Lupin, "if someone has a medical condition such as acne and doesn't wash their face, they may be at a disadvantage, as pores tend to fill up [with oil]."

It removes dead skin cells: "As we age, the skin tends to not be as efficient at naturally exfoliating. That's when skin tends to look dry and sallow and loses its natural brilliance. So if there's a reason to cleanse from a beauty perspective, it's to restore that glow."

It may help treat a skin condition: "Using cleansers that are medicated or that have moisturizers in them will actually do more for conditions like eczema, acne or rosacea [than not washing at all]," says Dr. Lupin.

The Bottom Line + Product Options!

Removing makeup

Makeup removal is a must. (Photo: Tamas Garam)

Hopefully it's now clear that we might not need to be so rigorous with cleansing.

No, you don't need to give it up completely like the "Caveman" people (unless you like experiments!).

But no matter what your skin type, it's worth trialling a gentler cleansing option to see if your skin likes it better. 

Only people whose complexions are very oily, very thick and very resilient can tolerate harsh cleansers. Formulas that are soap-free, low-lather and/or pH-balanced will do the job for ALL skin types with much less chance of irritation. A few suggestions...

Caudalie's Instant Foaming Cleanser is 99 percent natural, soap-free and non-stripping (I finished the bottle and would def buy it again):

Caudalie Instant Foaming Cleanser

Caudalie Instant Foaming Cleanser.

Mario Badescu's Enzyme Cleansing Gel is a great non-foaming gel I've used, which has fruit AHAs for a mild exfoliation benefit:

Mario Badescu Enzyme Cleansing Gel

Mario Badescu Enzyme Cleansing Gel.

When I was in California earlier this year, I used Neutrogena's Ultra Gentle Daily Cleanser, which is soap-free, and my skin really liked it:

Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Daily Cleanser

Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Daily Cleanser.

Joanna Vargas Vitamin C Face Wash is one of the nicest natural cleansers I've ever used—it's so hydrating yet gets everything off so well:

Joanna Vargas Vitamin C Face Wash

Joanna Vargas Vitamin C Face Wash.

I just finished my bottle of the sulfate-free Boscia Purifying Cleansing Gel, which is great if you like the feel of a gel, but not stripping at all:

Boscia Purifying Cleansing Gel

Boscia Purifying Cleansing Gel.

I adore the 100 percent natural, pH-balanced Consonant Natural Foaming Face Wash so much that I've gone through at least two bottles already, and counting! 

Consonant Natural Foaming Face Wash

Consonant Natural Foaming Face Wash.

It's even okay to skip water and use a cleanser that you tissue off instead of rinsing, like Dermalogica Ultracalming Cleanser (a.k.a. the high-end Cetaphil, which also works!).

Dermalogica Ultracalming Cleanser

Dermalogica Ultracalming Cleanser.

Or you can even use a micellar cleanser on a cotton pad (Shiseido's are the best!) and not have to rinse. Bioderma Sensibio H2O was the original cleansing water, and in my humble opinion, still the best.

Bioderma Sensibio H2O

Bioderma Sensibio H2O.

Another option if you don't want to change cleansers is to just dial back your wash to once a day, instead of twice (which is perfectly sufficient, according to Dr. Wang). Just listen to Salma Hayek:

Salma Hayek, Tale of Tales Cannes photocall, 2015

Salma Hayek at the 2015 Cannes photocall for 'Tale of Tales'.

She famously told ITV1, "Don't wash [your skin] in the morning, at all, never. Because at night your skin is rebuilding some of the oils that you need to keep your skin young, and it balances the pH. So in the morning, if you take them off—you can splash with water, do something mild—but you don't want to get rid of that. And if your skin is dirty in the morning, it means you didn't clean well at night. Always wash your face at night. You have to clean it really, really well at night."

Well, if it's good enough for Salma... I'm game! 

Have Your Say

How often do you wash your face? Ever experimented with the "Caveman Regimen"? What cleanser do you swear by?