With so many different cleansers to choose from in the shops, it’s hard to know what makes a good cleanser. In my latest blog post, I want to examine the 5 ingredients which you want to avoid in a cleanser.

What Is A Cleanser?

Liquid soapA cleanser is a facial care product that is used to remove make-up, dead skin cells, oil, dirt, and other types of pollutants from the skin of the face. Cleansers help to unclog pores and clean the skin, typically before you go to bed.

Our skin comes into contact with all sorts of dirt and environmental pollutants. This dirt blends together with the natural oils on our skin where it sticks until we wash away the grime of the day. Many of the cleansers you buy in the shops contain stripping chemicals which will remove much of the natural oil on our delicate facial skin.

All cleansers based on soap or detergents work by a process called “micellation,” which breaks down big substances (such as oil or dirt) into smaller ones using a chemical reaction, so they can rinse off the skin easily. A fatty-acid ingredient attaches to the oils on the skin and dissolves them, while an alkaline element makes it possible to rinse it all off the skin. Micellation works best using warm water, about the same temperature as your body, simply because it’s more compatible with the cleanser and with your skin.

However, many of these detergent-based cleansers will give you ‘taught’ shiny skin which is actually a sign of skin dehydration. A good cleanser works with your skin and not against it.

5 Ingredients To Avoid In Your Cleanser

1. Alcohol – your cleanser shouldn’t have a drying effect on the skin, so a high alcohol content is a no-no. Alcohol strips the skin of its natural oils and leads to a loss of water in the skin’s upper layer. This means that the skin becomes effectively dehydrated and might start to show fine lines easier.

Even more horrifying, alcohol leads to cell death when applied to your skin. You are effectively killing off healthy cells, which can never be good. Alcohol also increases penetration of your skincare ingredients when it forms 60 to 70% of your skincare product, as in perfumes and aftershaves, because the ethanol temporarily alters skin lipids and aids absorption.

What to look for on your label: alcohol, ethanol, ethyl alcohol denat.

2. Triclosan – you may have heard of this chemical as it has been in the news recently after the FDA challenged cosmetics manufacturers last month to demonstrate its safety in their products. Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal agent and is frequently used in cleansers. As this article points out, it has very effective long-lasting antibacterial properties which means that it is used in many different products – cleansers, washes, deodorants, lotions, shaving gels, anti-acne products, toothpaste and hand sanitising gel are but a few of the products which contain triclosan.

A 1998 study in Nature warned that triclosan’s strong antibacterial properties could eventually lead to microorganisms building up resistance if it is used in so many different products on such a regular basis. Scientists have also found it breaks down very slowly. It was found in sediment that was over 30 years old which means that it persists in the environment.

It doesn’t end there though – there are also health concerns about triclosan. It penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream more easily than previously thought and has even been found in human breast milk. It has also been found to impair muscle contractions at a cellular level and it is thought to alter hormone regulation.

What to look for on your label: Triclosan

3. Soapdespite it being one of the most commonplace cosmetics, you should avoid using soap in your cleanser. Soap is alkaline while our skin is acidic. Applying alkaline skincare products to healthy skin over a prolonged period has been found to lead an increase in water loss through the skin together with a decrease in cell turnover (i.e. shedding dead skin cells).

One study found that skin which had endured alkaline products over a longer period was also a lot more sensitive to external stresses and sensitising skincare ingredients.

What to look for on your label: sodium hydroxide

4. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate – everyone has heard of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate but do you actually  know what it does? This ingredient, often referred to as ‘SLS’, is a powerful foaming agent and detergent which is why it is so frequently used in personal care products such as shampoo, toothpaste, hand soap, shaving cream, body washes, conditioners and bath foams. You will also find it in foaming cleansers where it is used because it easily cuts through grease.

If you have oily skin, you might be tempted to use a cleansing agent such as SLS because of the nice clean feeling you experience immediately afterwards. However, over-cleansing stimulates our skin’s natural sebum production, which will actually lead to more oil production (see my previous post on ‘Using Facial Oils In Your Beauty Regime‘).

A 2003 study found that SLS also resulted in an increased loss of water through the top layers of the skin, although this focused specifically on leave-on products and not rinse-off foaming cleansers. Much like soap, SLS is also alkaline.

What to look for on your label: sodium lauryl sulfate

5. Isopropyl Palmitate or Isopropyl Myristate – these two ingredients are frequently used in cleansers for their moisturising and skin softening properties. Isopropyl alcohol is synthesised with palmitic acid (derived from palm oil) or myristic acid to produce isopropyl palmitate and isopropyl myristate respectively. These two compounds reduce the greasiness of many cosmetic products and work as a penetration enhancer which means that they help other active ingredients get deeper into your skin.

Both chemicals have a very low viscosity – imagine a thick gloopy substance that doesn’t like being diluted. This is possibly part of the problem as both chemicals are said to cause an increase in blackheads and whiteheads. However, their high comedogenicity rating (the likeliness of these products causing break-outs) stems from research done in the 1960s which tested cosmetic ingredients on the ears of rabbits. Clearly rabbit ears react differently to human skin so some cosmetic chemists are rightly questioning whether it’s fair to beat isopropyl palmitate and isopropyl myristate over the head for causing pimples.

Nonetheless, I have read one or two personal accounts of people saying they break out whenever they use a product which contains this chemical. This doesn’t mean anything conclusive of course but if you think your face might be similar in make-up to the ears of a rabbit, give this one a wide berth.

What to look for on your label: Isopropyl Palmitate / Isopropyl Myristate

Let me know what you thought of this article by leaving your comment below! Do you read the labels on your skincare products?

tagged in skincare science