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Cleansers, emulsifiers and surfactants.

Cleansers are a diverse and dividing topic. They range from really simple single oils all the way to complex emulsions with added actives and exfoliators and range just as drastically in results and impact. Some people love that ‘squeaky clean’ feeling and some love a little residue left of the skin. Researching and developing cleansers was actually one of the reasons I started getting interested in skincare to begin with. I would often find my skin would feel tight, dry and itchy after washing. 


I was using traditional foaming cleansers, designed for that super clean feeling. When I discovered cleansing oils, I began to actually enjoy the process of washing my face, and I was no longer left with tight, dry skin. I find cleansing oils and balms are great for sensitive skin or problematic skin. To understand why cleansers may leave your skin feeling angry, we need to understand how they work. 


So, what's a cleanser for? Removing dirt, sweat, SPF and makeup. And generally, any impurities lurking on the surface of the skin. We want to clean the skin to reduce the likelihood of breakouts. All the while increasing, the efficiency of our actives. 


However, if your skin is sensitive or prone to imbalance, problems can arise when there are harsh ingredients used to remove either the surface impurities or the product itself such as emulsifiers and surfactants. Generally speaking, if you're using a flannel to remove a cleanser (which is always advisable to make sure you're not leaving residue) you don't necessarily need an emulsified product as the flannel will do the hard work. So what are these ingredients and what are they doing in your skincare? 


There are two types of ingredients added to cleansers to improve the wash off experience, emulsifiers, and surfactants. But actually, an emulsifier is just a type of surfactant. You may have come across emulsified cleansing oils and balms, these are simple oil and butter cleansers with an added ingredient to help remove the product. Surfactants are used, because of their useful attribute of being able to mix an oil and water phase - notoriously hard to do, and impossible without a surfactant for any length of time. When cooking, you may be able to mix your vinegar and oil if you mix it vigorously enough, but more often than not, the oil and vinegar will separate before it reaches your salad. Well, not if you added a surfactant. They contain both water-loving and oil-loving molecules and allow the two phases to stay mixed creating an emulsion. This is desirable in a cleanser because it will then easily was off with water. Surfactants can also be used to add the controversial foaming effect that has divided the skincare community. 


These ingredients can be problematic when they are too good at their job. They can be too effective at attracting the oils on your skin, and can strip away the natural sebum that protects your skin and stops it from becoming dry and sensitised. Sebum is the glue that holds skin cells together washing away too much of the sebum will tell your skin to go into overdrive and produce more oil to rebuild it’s defenses. 


Surfactants can also be too alkaline, raising the pH of your skin above the healthy level that your skin needs to be in order for the barrier function to work. 


Fun fact: toners were originally invented to bring the pH back down to normal (about 4.5) after washing your face with soap which can have a pH of as high as 10! 


I have another post about the barrier function which you can find here. However, surfactants and emulsifiers can be used cleverly and add a real enjoyable and sensorial element to a cleanser and each skin type will respond differently. 



If you do find your skin is uncomfortable after cleansing, it would be worth trying a pure oil cleanser which won’t interfere with the way your skin produces sebum. If your skin has a tendency to become oily or irritated I always recommend paring back your routine to a simple cleanser and moisturiser. 

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