The concept of cleaning the skin with soap and water has existed for thousands of years ago. But for those thousands of years, the choices have always been the same. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that the choices in cleansing options multiplied. These days, there are shelves upon shelves of cleansers available for purchase at your local pharmacy or drugstore. But clearly, there can’t be that many TYPES of cleansers, right?
Well, this section of the Ideal Routine page will answer just that, by analyzing what components constitute a cleanser and how the manipulation of these components can give rise to different types of cleansers. The short- and long-term effects of cleansers on the skin, will also be examined. Finally, a short guide on how to choose an appropriate cleanser will conclude the series.
The Types and Composition of Cleansers:
There are two primary types of cleansers: solid cleansers and liquid cleansers. Solid bar cleansers have the distinction of being hated by most of the consumer base for being overly harsh and leaving behind a scummy-feeling residue. However, synthetic detergent bars “syndet” bars are actually quite gentle and rinse without leaving much of a film behind. But because they look the same as true bar cleansers, they are typically ignored.
Liquid cleansers on the other hand, are touted to be the exact opposite of bar cleansers. They are supposedly gentle and easy-to-use. Ironically enough however, the same compounds (called surfactants) used in bar cleansers, can also be found in liquid cleansers. And with the former containing less emollients, they can actually be even more irritating than their bar counterparts. Fortunately, because there is such diversity among liquid cleansers, virtually everyone can find a suitable product. Therefore, liquid cleansers are the way to go!
The Types of Surfactants
Surfactants are typically fatty acid salts that contain a hydrophilic section (like a carboxylate) and a hydrophobic section (like a long carbon chain). By being dual-natured, surfactants possess the ability to reduce the tension between more water-soluble compounds and more oil-soluble ones, thereby allowing them to mix readily.
The four main types of surfactants are differentiated by the charge of their respective head groups–the area that contains the hydrophilic section. In order of decreasing potency they are as follows:
Anionic = cationic > amphoteric > nonionic <———————————————— Keep in mind that this is simply a trend, NOT a rule.
The Effects of Cleansers
Cleansers have many positive effects on the skin. They remove excess oil and makeup in order to reduce clogged pores and create a clean canvas. From there, moisturizers and other treatments can more easily penetrate into the skin unperturbed, which will allow for more pronounced improvements.
Like with any skin care product however, overusing it and/or using the incorrect formulation, can have negative effects. Our focus here, will therefore be on these negative effects and how to prevent them.
The stratum corneum (SC) is the very top layer of the skin–this is what cleansers act upon. It consists of about 70% proteins, 15% lipids, and 15% water.
When there are too many surfactants or too much of one in contact with the skin, they will have a meaningful effect on the proteins and lipids of the SC, which in turn, affect the water content. The proteins’s ability to retain water will be inhibited due to denaturation. The lipids will be damaged via solubilization and insertion with micelles and surfactant monomers.
The skin is remarkably resilient. All that damage to the lipid matrix and protein structures, hardly phase the skin. It’ll simply produce backups. Over time however, the skin will start to noticeably lag behind the onslaught of excessive and overaggressive cleansing.
The skin will let you know by becoming increasingly sensitive. Erythema (redness) and pruritus (itchiness) are the most common manifestations of this sensitivity. While not irreversible, a weakened and damaged SC will render the living parts of the skin more prone to external elements including climate changes, foreign infection, and even light energy AKA the sun.
A Guide on How to Choose a Cleanser
While there’s no real science to how to find the best specific cleanser for you, it is my hope that this guide will help narrow down your list of potential candidates.