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10 Signs You’re Not Washing Your Face Properly

a young Black woman wearing a white towel on her head and washing her face, looking in the mirror

An essential step in every good skincare routine is washing your face. Sure, you’ve got products targeted at remedying your problem areas and protecting your skin, but the simplest step in your routine could be the culprit behind your skin issues. Careless cleansing could lead to dull skin, clogged pores and aging. But how do you wash your face correctly — and how do you treat any issues caused by improper washing?

We tapped Dr. Monica Li, a Vancouver-based dermatologist and clinical instructor in the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Benjamin Barankin, a Toronto-based dermatologist and medical director of Toronto Dermatology Centre, for their tips on how to wash your face properly.

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a young white woman with tattoos applies eye makeup in the mirror

Signs you’re not washing your face properly: you still have makeup on

One of the notable signs that you’re not washing your face properly is if you see traces of makeup remaining once you’re through with your wash. Removing stubborn makeup is undoubtedly tricky, but the residue can cause damage to your skin. “Makeup residue can cause irritation to the skin, as well as clog pores which may lead to acne formation,” Li explains. She recommends double cleansing — using a makeup-removing product before washing your face to remove your makeup thoroughly. “Ideally, use a micellar water which is well-tolerated [for most skin types]. Some makeup removal cloths seem to be helpful and preferred for others,” Barankin adds.

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Signs you’re not washing your face properly: dull skin

If your skin lacks radiance and looks lacklustre, you’re dealing with dull skin. “Makeup not adequately removed from the face over time can cause skin dullness,” Li says. When you wash your face correctly, the dead skin cells on the surface of your skin are washed away, leaving the natural glow in your skin to show. That’s why Barankin recommends washing your face twice a day, especially if you have naturally oily skin, are physically active or coping with summer heat. Using a gentle exfoliant can also help dissolve dead skin cells, but those with sensitive skin should proceed with caution as it can cause irritation.

See also: Why face oils should still be part of your beauty regimen.


Signs you’re not washing your face properly: early aging

Although improper face washing may not directly speed up the aging process, the products you use and how you wash your face can lead to advanced signs of aging. The general rule of thumb is not to scrub your face when washing. Treat your skin with some TLC and delicately wash your face in circular motions. “In general, harsh cleansers should be avoided,” Li advises. Barankin agrees, explaining that cleansers with “fragrances and SLS (sodium lauryl sulfates) may be irritating to some people” and should be avoided.

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a young Black woman with her hair tied back splashes water on her face from the sink
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Signs you’re not washing your face properly: clogged pores

When dead skin cells and makeup are not removed from the skin, they can get trapped in your pores and clog them. Blackheads are challenging to get rid of, so preventing them is critical. Barankin recommends washing your face for 20 to 30 seconds to allow the cleanser to penetrate your pores and clean your skin properly. “Remember the purpose of washing the face is to remove makeup, debris, topical medications or skincare products, so the face really should be washed for the time it takes to remove these layers,” Li says.

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Signs you’re not washing your face properly: acne

“[Makeup residue can] clog pores which may lead to acne,” Li cautions. Although you can implement products into your skincare routine to treat acne, a simple way to include acne-fighting ingredients into your regimen is through your cleanser. “You can have salicylic acid or glycolic acid in your cleanser. Still, use a cleanser, not soap,” Barankin says, as it can cause dryness and irritation that can potentially make the acne worse. Li recommends using acne-fighting ingredients, but keep in mind the tolerability and sensitivity of your skin to avoid irritation.

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Signs you’re not washing your face properly: irritation and inflammation

Irritation and inflammation can be caused by under-washing and over-washing your face. Barankin says over-washing your face “can damage the natural skin barrier.” A healthy skin barrier keeps your skin healthy and hydrated while also protecting you from external threats like air pollutants and possible dirt from your hands. “Be gentle when you wash your face because you’re not scrubbing pots and pans!” Li says. She recommends using gentle cleansers and looking for products with calming ingredients like colloidal oatmeal and glycerin.

See also: Here’s how to exfoliate your face to fight dry, itchy skin.

Signs you’re not washing your face properly: skin texture

Washing your face literally removes all the dirt, debris and dead skin cells from your face. But when you wash your face incorrectly, too quickly or too long, those elements either do not get removed or build up over time. This can lead to a change in skin texture that may leave you with bumpy, irritated skin. Cleansers with chemical exfoliants can help flatten texture and even out your skin, but Li says they should generally be used no more than two to three times per week to avoid irritation.

Related: 10 skincare mistakes that could be aging you.

a young Asian woman removes makeup from her face with a wipe while looking in the mirror on her vanity
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Signs you’re not washing your face properly: dry skin and flaking

Dry skin is difficult to deal with. Makeup clings to it, and staying hydrated may not totally treat it. But the ingredients in your cleanser may be at fault for your dryness and flaking. Li recommends shying away from cleansers with fragrances as they can trigger underlying inflammatory skin conditions (like rosacea) in those with sensitive skin. Barankin recommends using a gentle foaming cleanser and immediately moisturizing right after.

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Signs you’re not washing your face properly: oily skin

A common myth about oily skin is that you should avoid moisturizers. But moisturizing could be the best thing to do to combat the oil. If you wash your face too frequently or with a product that has ingredients that cause dryness, your skin may be overcompensating for the lack of moisture in your skin by overproducing oil. On the flip side, if you do not wash your face enough, sweat and dirt will stay on your face and cause irritation. “I recommend a gel or foamy cleanser for oily skin types. For the moisturizer, a lotion or gel would be appropriate,” Li suggests.

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Signs you’re not washing your face properly: sensitivity

Some people have naturally sensitive skin, but others can develop sensitive skin by not cleansing properly. This can escalate to irritation, soreness and redness. It’s important always to use gentle products that will soothe the skin and keep it healthy and balanced. Barankin says, “Niacinamide, ceramides, hyaluronic acid are good ingredients to look for,” when shopping for a cleanser. He also recommends putting a humidifier in your bedroom to keep your skin hydrated and calm.

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