Cleansing and cleansing thoroughly are two very different things. Splashing water on your face and rubbing it with a towel is not cleansing at all (sorry, dudes). Korean women are obsessed with how to properly cleanse their skin because they know it’s the first step toward the final goal: a dewy, soft glow. Neglecting their cleansing routine would be akin to blasphemy. For many Korean women, a proper cleanse is a double cleanse, which means a first round with an oil-based cleanser, then a second with a water-based one. Now, I know, I know: You’re probably thinking, You’re telling me that not only do I have to wash my face every night, but that I have to do it twice? All this double cleanse business isn’t just a “Korean thing.” We spent a long time discussing the double cleanse in my esthetician classes, and a lot of stateside dermatologists recommend it, too. The old California Charlotte neglected to wash her face before going to bed a few too many times, but now I actually look forward to the time that I spend taking off my makeup and city grime every evening. Now, I know that sounds like something only an OCD person would say, but trust me, my friends (and husband) would vouch that I’m one of the least anal people they know. It’s just that I’ve learned to treat cleansing, and my entire skin-care routine, as a way to unwind after a stressful day. If I fail to wash up (like that time I forgot to bring a cleanser on vacation), I fall asleep with a nagging feeling that I left something unfinished. I can feel my makeup partying it up in my pores like a kid whose parents went out of town. So hear me out! If a double cleanse sounds like one too many, think about it this way: If you’re going to spend time and attention putting your face on in the morning, doesn’t it deserve the same care to remove it at night? If you truly want to get all that gunk off your face (and I’m sure you do), a double cleanse is the way to do it. Here’s how:
Remove Your Eye and Lip Makeup
If you don’t wear eye makeup, you’ll skip this step, but eye and lip makeup are the most stubborn to remove (and also the stuff most likely to smear on your pillow), so they’re the top priority. If I’m wearing more eye makeup than usual, or especially if I’m wearing waterproof mascara, I’ll soak a cotton round with makeup remover, then place it on one closed eye and let it sit there for a good ten to fifteen seconds. If you use cotton swabs, hold the soaked swab in place for a few seconds at a time as you work your way around your eyes. In the past, I’ve made the mistake of just rubbing the soaked cotton all over my eyes and immediately cleansing, then wondering why my eyeliner didn’t budge. When you’ve got long-lasting makeup on, you really need the remover to mingle with the oil-based products for a while so that it breaks them down and they become easier to remove. Give it time and treat it gingerly, especially when it comes to the skin around your eyes, which is the thinnest and therefore the most prone to wrinkle. The more easily your makeup comes off, the less likely you are to pull and tug at your skin. You should look for an oil-based makeup remover, and if you’re using one that stings or otherwise irritates your eyes, chuck it now! Stinging is never a sign that something is “working”; it’s a sign that your body doesn’t get along with it. Also, if you’re a contact lens wearer, take them out first.
The First Cleanse: The Oil Cleanser
Oil cleansers aren’t bad, they’re just misunderstood! In Western skin care, we’re often taught to shy away from anything with the word “oil” in it for fear of clogged pores and acne. The reality is, though, that oil cleansers can actually be a godsend for oily, sensitive, and acne-prone skin. Basic science rules apply here: Oil laughs in the face of water. Think of a parking lot on a rainy day: You can see oil pool on top of puddles, but it doesn’t dissolve. But oil likes oil, so an oil cleanser can help break down and remove excess sebum and oil-based impurities like makeup, silicones, and sunscreen. I was first introduced to oil cleansers when a generous friend in Korea gave me one as a gift. I remember clumsily slathering the oil on my face, and at first I didn’t like it at all. I felt like I was adding oil to my face, rather than removing it. But the instant I rinsed it off, I was hooked. My face was far from an oil slick. It felt cleaner and softer and even looked brighter. Over the next few months, I carefully rationed the contents of that bottle, convinced this was so good that it had to be a secret. When I finally discovered that every beauty line in Korea makes its own oil cleanser, my hoarding was replaced with total promiscuity. I wanted to try them all. Now, not a morning or night goes by when I don’t use an oil-based cleanser (I take oil cleansing cloths with me when I travel). In the morning, you’re not using an oil cleanser to remove makeup, but you still want to get rid of all the sebum and sweat that built up overnight, as well as any leftover nighttime skincare products. For one thing, it’s kind of fun, because you dispense it in your palms and then slide it over your face, which feels great. When doing so, spread it evenly over your entire face using your fingertips and gentle, circular motions. After I’ve thoroughly massaged the oil cleanser all over my face, I add a splash of lukewarm water to emulsify it. Though they sound very simple, a lot of technologies go into making oil cleansers so effective, and they usually are not 100 percent oil. When mixed with warm water, most are designed to turn milky and wash off very easily (cold water won’t really do the job). There aren’t a ton of oil cleansers in the Western skin-care market just yet, but that is quickly changing. My current favorite cleansing oils are the ones that come in solid form, which means the oil doesn’t drip down your arms or all over the bathroom sink. You just scoop a bit into your palms and then rub your hands together to liquefy it. Voilà! Most of these are also the kind that emulsifies with warm water.
Multitask with a Face Massage
While you’re cleansing and your fingers are able to slip and slide with ease, you can add in a minute or two of facial self-massage and take the benefits of washing your face even deeper. Massaging your face promotes blood circulation and can contribute to a healthier glow, not to mention that it just feels good. Think of your blood as your body’s own GrubHub: It’s what carries nutrients from your heart to all the other parts of your body. The deeper levels of your skin contain tiny blood vessels, but the top layer contains none at all, so when you give your face a massage, you’re helping to give that tiny bit of circulation a little boost. This is especially important in the winter and in colder climates, as circulation to your skin decreases in frigid weather, contributing to seasonal dry skin. When you massage your face, you want to work with the direction of the muscles, not against it. Starting just underneath your cheekbones, use the knuckles of your first two fingers (with your hands in fists) and work out and slightly up from there. Press as firmly as what feels good to you, since the oil will keep the pressure from pulling your skin. Then, still using your knuckles, trace them up the sides of your nose to the top of your forehead, then down along the perimeter of your face. Finally, use the pads of your fingers to lightly massage under your eyes, as this can help drain puffiness. Start at the bridge of your nose and move out to your temples. When you’re done, wash the oil off with warm water, then pat your face dry. Let me repeat: pat pat pat instead of an up-and-down scrubbing motion that pulls your skin every which way. You don’t want to vigorously move your face up and down, as this could lead to wrinkles. To be honest, there isn’t a ton of scientific data about repeated facial motions leading to wrinkles because it’s hard to study. Since wrinkles don’t develop overnight, you’d have to maintain a controlled environment for twenty years or more to properly measure the results. But I believe it, and it turns out that once again, this was an area where my mother knew best. I have a habit of scrunching my nose when I laugh. Whenever my mother would catch me in the act when I was younger, she’d scold me and tell me to stop. I didn’t pay any attention, but now when I look in the mirror, I can’t help but think that Mom was right: Crinkles lead to wrinkles, and there they are, right across my nose.
The Second Cleanse: The Water-Based Cleanser
This step is probably familiar to you. After you’ve washed with your oil cleanser, follow with a water-based one to banish any sweat, dirt, or water-based debris that’s still hanging around. For this step, you can use a gel or foam cleanser—whatever you prefer and feels best on your skin. When you’re using a water-based cleanser, it doesn’t matter what temperature the water is, and here’s a secret: A cleanser that foams isn’t necessarily any better than one that doesn’t. Foaming doesn’t increase a cleanser’s effectiveness or provide any extra benefits. Beauty companies just make cleansers foam to give people what they want: bubbles, lots and lots of bubbles.
Two Little Letters About Cleansing: pH
So now you know how to wash your face, but what do you use to do it? Because cleansers are an essential part of your skincare, choosing the right product is important, and it’s about a lot more than just what is going to look good on your bathroom counter. It’s about science and, specifically, pH. Understanding pH can be a bit complicated, but once you’ve got a handle on it, finding a cleanser with the right pH for you is easy. pH ranges from 0 to 14, and this number indicates a substance’s ratio of acidity and alkalinity, with 0 the most acidic, 14 the most alkaline, and 7 neutral. In its healthiest state, your skin is slightly acidic, usually 5.5. If your skin is too acidic, it can be irritated, prone to breakouts, and very oily. If your skin is too alkaline, it can look dull, feel extremely dry, and become flaky. Balance is key here. This is why you need special soap for your face and can’t just use that bar that’s in the shower. In fact, your typical fragrant bar soap is highly alkaline (usually with a pH of around 8–10) and irritating for delicate facial skin and your body. On the flip side, a cleanser that is too acidic won’t do much, because you actually need a slight alkalinity to properly dissolve dirt and be effective in cleansing. If you have normal skin, then the pH level of your cleansers isn’t that big of a deal, but it’s definitely something that people with acne-prone or sensitive skin should be aware of. It’s quite simple and inexpensive to check the pH of all your skin products (and it’s also fun and kind of addicting). You can buy a whole bunch of pH strips for only a few bucks from Amazon, any big-box retailer like Walmart, or your local hardware store. Dip the strip in your cleanser or moisturizer and the colors will start changing quickly. After a minute passes, match it to the color pH guide that comes with the strips. (By the way, only water-based products will have a pH, so there’s no need to test cleansing or moisturizing oils.)
Tonering It Up
Now that you’ve done the double cleanse, it’s time to break out the toner so you can, er, cleanse again?! Yes, but hear me out! This is your skin’s pH we’re talking about here, and well-formulated toners are designed to cleanse and reset your pH balance after using a very alkaline cleanser. Advances in skin-care technology mean that fewer companies are making alkaline cleansers. So now toners focus on hydrating and fortifying the barrier to keep skin smooth and protected. A toner by any other name is still a toner, and in Korea, the most popular ones go by several terms, including activating serum, freshener, refresher, skin softener, and even simply skin. All are very gentle and focus on protecting the acid mantle and providing hydration. They’re normally chock-full of nutrients; humectants (such as glycerin), to help the skin retain moisture; and ceramides, to help skin cells bind. You’ll want to use toner as part of your morning and night routine (that is, every time after you cleanse your skin). Think of toner as prep school for your pores: It gives them a head start for what comes next and will help your skin absorb your skin-care products. Picture your skin as a dried-up sponge. If you try to put a heavy cream on it, a brittle, dry sponge won’t accept it—it isn’t “prepped” for moisture. But if you wet the sponge, the cream will sink in more easily. That’s exactly why toners are a great addition to your skin-care routine. I’ve used a wide variety of toners and I’ve learned to shy away from ones that are astringents, the term for formulas that contain a high percentage of witch hazel or alcohol. If you have oily skin you may actually enjoy the feeling of your skin being degreased, but don’t fall into that trap. Alcohol inhibits the skin’s ability to repair itself and even triggers more inflammation and acne. Flashback to that eighty-dollar toner I bought from Bloomingdale’s: It was so full of alcohol that it smelled like something from the first aid aisle at CVS, and brought me several bouts of breakouts and skin that seemed oilier. I finally tossed it, and for a long time, I ditched toners altogether. But when my Korean friends taught me to be wary of any skin product with high alcohol content, hydrating toners became my jam, and I haven’t looked back since.