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Why You Shouldn't Use a Washcloth to Wash Your Face

Using a Washcloth Can Physically Irritate the Skin. Anything that Physically Irritates the Skin can Lead to More Acne. Use Only Your Bare Hands.

By: Dan Kern, Acne.org Founder & CSO
Last updated: April 12, 2020

The Essential Information

It is well known that physically irritating the skin can lead to more acne. In fact, dematologists have a name for acne that is created by irritation: acne mechanica. Since washcloths physically irritate the skin, they should be avoided if you have acne.

So, how should you wash your face? To reduce the chance of acne mechanica, always use bare hands and a gentle cleanser. And even then, remember to stay gentle.

Tip: When drying your skin, gently pat dry with a towel. Don't rub. This will also help you avoid irritation.

The Science

People with acne often wrongly believe that aggressively washing or scrubbing the skin will help to improve their acne, but the opposite is actually true. Acne-prone skin prefers to remain as untouched as possible, and staying gentle is best. Almost any cleanser you use will be more than powerful enough to remove surface oil, dirt, and pollution from your skin, and that is all that is needed.

Dermatologists know that physically irritating the skin through too much friction, tension, rubbing, or pressure to the skin, especially for an extended period of time, can lead to more acne. In fact, this is so well known that it has its own medical term: acne mechanica.1

Washcloths physically irritate the skin. This physical irritation is not necessary to clean the skin, and can lead to acne mechanica. Therefore, don't use a washcloth when washing acne-prone areas of your skin.

The Right Way to Wash

Avoid using washcloths or any other bath tools, like loofas, bath mitts, or facial cleansing brushes. Instead, lather up only your bare hands using a gentle cleanser. Then, using gentle, circular motions, wash your face for only 10 or less seconds. This may seem like a very short time, but that is all that is needed.

It is important to always be extremely gentle when washing your face. Even when using your bare hands, washing too aggressively can physically irritate the skin. So, even when you are using your bare hands always be as gentle as possible.

Wash with Only Bare Hands

Using a Proper Cleanser is Also Important

In addition to avoiding physically irritating the skin, it is also important to choose a cleanser that will not irritate the skin. There are two main substances used to cleanse the skin: (1) soaps and (2) cleansers. There are several studies that show soaps irritate the skin and should be avoided. Instead, use only gentle cleansers.

First, let's look at why soap is not a good option.

Soap: Avoid

Soaps are made with harsh chemicals and oils that can damage the fragile skin barrier, and can lead to clogged pores and acne.

You can spot a soap by checking to see if it has ingredients like these. Notice they start with either "sodium," "potassium," or "triethanolamine," and all end with "-ate":

  • Sodium talowate
  • Sodium cocoate
  • Sodium palmitate
  • Sodium palm kernelate
  • Potassium olivate
  • Potassium castorate
  • Triethanolamine sterate

Choose a Mild Liquid or Bar Cleanser Instead

There are mild liquid and bar cleansers available that cause much less skin irritation than soap.

Guidelines for choosing a mild liquid or bar cleanser

The easiest way to choose a safe liquid or bar cleanser is to choose one that is made specifically for the face. Look for terms like "mild," "gentle," "ultra-gentle," or "for sensitive skin" when choosing a mild cleanser.

Always avoid cleansers that contain the ingredient sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). This is the harshest cleansing ingredient used in cleansers. Although some cleansers do contain SLS in very small amounts and are not overly irritating, it is simplest and safest to simply avoid this ingredient when choosing a facial cleanser.

Mild facial cleansers may also sometimes contain various extracts, moisturizing ingredients, or skin-calming ingredients, and normally these ingredients cause little to no irritation and can even sometimes prove beneficial. So, don't worry too much about these extra ingredients. Most importantly, choose a mild cleanser made for sensitive facial skin.

How to Choose the Right Cleanser

Conclusion

Physically irritating the skin can lead to acne. Washcloths physically irritate the skin. When washing the face, use only your bare hands and wash gently and briefly with a mild cleanser made specifically for the face.

References:

  1. Mills, O. & Kligman, A. Acne mechanica. Archives of Dermatology 111, 481-483 (1975). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/123732

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