Do Active Ingredients in Cleansers *Actually* Provide Skin-Care Benefits?
Derms set the record straight.
Here's a fun fact about the beauty industry—although it might not seem like it, hundreds of innovative products are released every single month (and yes, we log all of them). With a market that is already so saturated and continues to grow, it is imperative for beauty writers and editors to scrutinize each product to determine whether it's effective and safe for consumers. Of course, it can become difficult to sift through the trendy clutter to get to the golden products.
One product type that seems to see a new release every month are cleansers that contain active ingredients. Many people think these types of cleansers might be a sham due to their immediate wash-off nature. But does this theory hold any merit? Dr. Marina Peredo, a board-certified dermatologist, and Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, debunk the myths around the efficacy around cleansers with active ingredients.
How Do Cleansers with Active Ingredients Work?
As a conscientious beauty consumer, you might wonder how a hydroxy-acid cleanser can even be effective if you'll end up washing it down the drain just moments after application. According to Dr. Peredo, "Active ingredients that are found in cleansers or wash-off products typically work soon after the application," meaning that moments after you begin lathering your face in sudsy foam, these active ingredients penetrate the skin to deliver their specific skin-care benefits.
Here's a brief on the science behind this phenomenon: "While this does not apply to all cleansers, many cleansers contain a higher concentration of the particular active ingredient as opposed to serums that are left on the skin," says Dr. Zeichner. Unlike serums that have lower percentages of active ingredients in them to work over time, many cleansers contain higher percentages of active ingredients to ensure that they remain effective during the little time they spend on your skin.
Dr. Zeichner explains that cleansers containing active ingredients "need enough contact time with the skin to allow the active ingredient to penetrate through the outer skin layer." He shares that a good rule of thumb for making sure that your cleanser has enough time to do its job correctly is to sing the alphabet to yourself while cleansing your skin.
Are Certain Active Ingredients More Effective in Cleansers Than Others?
Sometimes there are ingredients that just work better when they're not in a cleanser. Dr. Zeichner states, "It is unclear whether cleansers that contain ingredients like vitamin C or retinol truly offer any beneficial effects on the skin. For these ingredients to be effective, there needs to be extended contact with the skin."
But there are a ton of active ingredients that do a fine job in cleansers. "Salicylic acid is one of my favorite actives. It is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), which is great for acne-prone skin since it decreases oil production, unclogs pores, and decreases bacteria due to its antibacterial properties," says Dr. Peredo. "I also like ceramides, which are lipids that are natural and serve as a barrier from the outside environment. It protects skin from irritants and pollution."
Along with BHAs, Dr. Zeichner also recommends trying out cleansers formulated with alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). He adds that benzoyl peroxide is an amazing active to use for acne-prone skin: "It lowers levels of acne causing bacteria and subsequently reduces inflammation in the skin. I personally recommend maximum strength benzoyl peroxide cleansers that use 10 percent benzoyl peroxide."
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