Here’s a myth I’ve been seeing around skincare communities: that you have to use a special cleanser to remove water-resistant sunscreen. For example:
“Keep in mind that most of these sunscreen actives are also oil-soluble (only dissolves in oil, not water), which gives sunscreens their water-proof and sweat-proof properties. Therefore, in order to completely remove sunscreen, you have to use an oil, cleansing oil, emollient cleanser, or makeup remover of some kind.” (Source: Skinacea)
Have we all been leaving sunscreen on our faces before we discovered the magic of double cleansing??
How Do Cleansers Work?
Luckily, the answer is no. A regular cleanser will remove waterproof sunscreen! The reason for this is surfactants.
Surfactants are a special class of chemical I’ve mentioned quite a few times before. They look a bit like a tadpole, with a lipophilic (oil-loving) “tail” and a hydrophilic water-loving) “head”.
Because of this special structure, surfactants can help oil dissolve in water and vice versa. The tail binds to oil while the head binds to water. The surfactants help the oil lift off the skin, forming little oil droplets that end up dispersed in the water as an emulsion (surfactants are also known as emulsifiers for this reason). The droplets can then be rinsed away, leaving your skin clean.
The same mechanism is at work when you’re washing the dishes. Even the oiliest plate can be cleaned using dishwashing detergent, which doesn’t contain any oil, but has lots of surfactants. For example, here’s what’s in Dawn Dishwashing Liquid (in case you’re wondering, the “active ingredient” is triclosan since it’s antibacterial).
Traditional cleansers contain surfactants with water, and little or no oil. Micellar water also contains surfactants, but unlike traditional cleansers they’re mild enough to be left on the skin without rinsing for most people.
Cleansing oils and balms contain surfactants along with large amounts of oils – the oils help lift the oil-based grease and sunscreen off your skin so the surfactants can emulsify them better. Without surfactants, the mixture of oil and grease and sunscreen would just stay on your skin! A cleansing oil or balm, if used alone, can actually be worse at removing oil-based products than a traditional cleanser. The tails of the surfactants are already partly “used up” by the extra oil in the product, so if the proportions aren’t right, there might not be enough surfactant to emulsify the oil on your face.
Here are some popular cleansers and their top 5 ingredients, with the main surfactants in bold:
- Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser: Water, Cetyl Alcohol, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Stearyl Alcohol
- CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser: Purified Water, Glycerin, Behentrimonium Methosulfate and Cetearyl Alcohol, Ceramide 3
- Cosrx Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser: Water, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Polysorbate 20, Styrax Japonicus Branch/Fruit/Leaf Extract
- Philosophy Purity Made Simple (somewhere between a traditional cleanser and a cleansing lotion/oil): Water, Disodium Lauroamphodiacetate, Limnanthes Alba (Meadowfoam) Seed Oil, Coco-Glucoside, PEG-120 Methyl Glucose Dioleate
- Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water: Aqua / Water, Hexylene Glycol, Glycerin, Disodium Cocoamphodiacetate, Disodium EDTA
- Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micellar Water: Water (Aqua), PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides, Propylene Glycol, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Mannitol
Cleansing oils and balms
- Clinique Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm: Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Sorbeth-30 Tetraoleate, Polyethylene
- DHC Deep Cleansing Oil: Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Sorbeth-30 Tetraoleate, Pentylene Glycol, Phenoxyethanol
There are a few cleansers that don’t contain any surfactants, like Lush Angels on Bare Skin and Avene Tolerance Extreme Cleansing Lotion, which won’t do a good job of removing sunscreen. With these, you’d have to either use a surfactant-based cleanser, or cleanse multiple times with the same product.
(Related posts: A Month Without Facewash)
Double cleansing is awesome for gentler cleansing (for more on the benefits of gentle cleansing, check out: All About Cleansing & How to Choose a Gentle Cleanser). But it isn’t the only way to remove water-resistant sunscreen! A regular cleanser will do the job.
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