How to cleanse skin, effectively, sensitively and respectfully

The most effective skincare routines begin with well-thought out foundations. Often, it is the steps that take just one minute, that have the biggest impact on your skin’s health. What you remove from skin, is just as important as what you give to it – especially if you live in a built-up area, work in the city or commute by motorway.

Cleansing can leave skin feeling moisturised, conditioned and supple. It can leave skin primed to absorb moisturiser, to retain hydration and to rebuild its natural biology.

Cleansing can also leave skin feeling, dry, tight, squeaky and irritated. It can leave skin vulnerable to attack, to dehydration and to sensitisation.

In just one minute and with a sensitive or overly harsh cleansing routine, skin can be taken down either avenue.

Why is it important to cleanse?

The act of cleansing is to remove collected, non-skin identical impurities from the skin. The art of cleansing is in doing this without negatively impacting a person’s skin flora, barrier function, and pH level.

Daily, skin attracts many invisible to the eye particulate particles. These ingredients or contaminants are predominantly formed by fossil fuel combustion – a process that happens at a small scale in all petrol-based vehicles, factories and gas powered appliances.

Pollution particles range in size from nano to micro. It is nano-pollution particles that pose the greatest concern to a person’s skin. Particles of this size are easily able to adhere to, absorb into and penetrate through the skin. It has also been proposed this process is likely to ‘pull-through’ additional organic based pollutants able to create damaging reactive oxygen species in-situ1.

Pollution particulates are an extrinsic ageing factor whose effect may be lessened with a well thought through cleansing routine.

Studies show people living in areas with moderate to high pollution levels have a 20% greater incidence of facial pigment spots – also commonly known as liver or age spots2. These effects can be exasperated by UV rays, the sun, and heat.

Designing an effective skincare routine helps to target and tackle pollution as a cause of skin inflammation, reduced barrier function, and ageing.

How to cleanse skin respectfully

The skin has a very important function – to lock-in hydration and to lock-out bacteria, viruses, and irritants. It performs both as a direct consequence of its biology, of which 2 factors are important to remember when choosing a suitable cleansing routine;

  1. A defensive acid mantle based on an acidic pH – between 4.5 and 6
  2. An oil based layer of tightly packed dead skin cells

Both factors are easily and quickly influenced by a person’s cleansing practices. When either of these factors becomes teased from normal, healthy skin becomes dry, dehydrated, aged and inflamed.

The Importance of skin’s pH levels

pH is a measure of an ingredients acidity, neutrality or alkalinity. pH is a logarithmic scale travelling from 0 to 14. Measures falling between 0 to 6.9 rate as acidic, 7 as neutral and 7.1-14 as alkaline. Healthy skin, free from cosmetic application for 24 hours averagely measures at a pH of 4.7. Bathing, cleansing and showering all raise skin pH towards less acidic levels. The higher the skin’s pH levels are artificially raised, the longer skin takes to recover.

An optimal skin pH helps to form what is referred to as skins acid mantle. A thin acidic film that defends against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Recent dermatological research has also linked a healthy acid mantle to the ability of skin’s natural microflora to adhere to and remain on the skin3.

Applying cleansing products with pH levels close to neutral has a significant and negative impact on skin pH4. It is therefore surprising that the majority of traditional cleansers rank a pH in excess of 7, with some even reaching an alkaline pH of 125.

The Importance of skin’s lipid barrier

Skin locks-in hydration via a very simple scientific principle – oil and water do not mix. Oil will sit on top of water to form a barrier that is in turn impenetrable by water. Skin’s barrier function relies on this principle to lock-in hydration while also preventing additional diluting hydration from invading.

Skins outermost lipid/oil based layers form what is often described as skins barrier function. A theoretical wall of brick shaped skin cells and lipid sealing mortar, preventing foreign matters infiltrating and internal nutrients from escaping.

Skin cells mature through a 30-day cycle during which time they travel from the skin’s deepest layers towards the skins visible layers. Through this cycle skin cells differentiate from so-called keratinocytes into corneocytes – skin cells without a nucleus which are therefore technically classed as dead6. In their differentiated state corneocytes are able to pack tightly together forming a brick-like structure held together by a lipid-based matrix of fatty acids, ceramides, and cholesterol. In turn, this brick and mortar structure is also kept well lubricated by sebum glands excreting a mixture of triglycerides, fatty acids, wax esters and squalene7.

When skin has a healthy lipid barrier, its barrier function performs optimally, meaning hydrated skin that is free from irritation, inflammation, and sensitivity. When skin has an unhealthy lipid barrier, holes are formed in the skins theoretical brick wall leading to dull, dry sallow skin prone to reactivity, redness, and ageing.

Traditional cleansing methods rely on a type of ingredient frequently referred to as a surfactant. Surfactants have a unique function amongst all cosmetic ingredients – they are able to dissolve in both water and oil. This makes them extremely efficient at cleansing skin of impurities that are both water and oil based. However, it is also because of this unique function that traditional surfactants are able to solubilise skins own lipid-based barrier8.

Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) is a well-known, frequently used surfactant which has a pH of 10. The ingredient is cheap and readily available. It’s also a well-proven irritant able to cause measurable changes to skins barrier integrity9.

How to choose a cleanser that works for you

There are many, many different types of cleansing products available. Some work by using surfactants, some work by using emulsifiers (weaker surfactants) and others work by using a sensitive ‘like-dissolves-like’ principle – of which we will explain more about soon.

There are 7 predominant and distinct cleansing options available;

  1. Gel cleansers
  2. Oil cleansers
  3. Balm cleansers
  4. Face wash/foaming face wash
  5. Beauty bars
  6. Milk cleansers
  7. Cream cleansers

Gel cleansers such as our griffin+row skin Cleanse patch the space between face wash and milk cleansers. Often with a light to moderate foaming action, their formulas are also targeted to lend moisture-attracting ingredients to the skin. This is a great cleanser that works but doesn’t dehydrate. Gel cleansers combine gentle actives with hydrating ingredients to ensure skin is gently washed of impurities and make-up while being left feeling softened and supple.

starter-kit

Our griffin+row Cleanse is especially gentle, being free from SLS and friendly to all skin types, including sensitive ones.  We make 4 promises – to be gentle, effective, hydrating and finally to counteract the harmful effects of pollution. Although uniquely mild, our gel cleanser formula is effective at emulsifying oil based ingredients e.g. waterproof makeup/excess sebum and water based ingredients e.g. pollution impurities, whilst also protecting skin’s delicate acid mantle.

Oil cleansers work in synergy with skins natural lipid biology. Oil based cleansers use the like-dissolves-like principle. They use nourishing plant oils to cut through water-proof makeup, wipe away pollution and dissolve excess sebum. Many oil-based cleansers are free from surfactants, others use gentle alternatives.

In a similar nature to oil cleansers, balm cleansers use a combination of butter and oils. Both ingredients are lipid based and also work by the like-dissolves-like principle. The additional use of butters can help to, ‘refat’ skin, leaving it feeling moisturised and supple, even after cleansing. Dry and sensitive skin types alike will benefit from a balm cleansers refatting properties.

Face wash and foaming face washes describe a traditional approach to cleansing that is often home to the irritating surfactant – sodium lauryl sulphate. Face washes are often alkaline in pH causing a negative shift to barrier function. Sensitive skin types should avoid face washes which do not claim to be pH balanced.

Beauty bars are a modern take on bar soap, however, unlike soap which is made from the reaction of oils with lye, beauty bars are made from synthetic detergents. Traditional bar soap is extremely drying to skin because of its alkaline pH, beauty bars are often closer to skin pH – when choosing a beauty bar, look for pH balanced products.

Sensitive skin friendly cleansers usually produce low to no foam in-use and this is certainly the case of most milk cleansers. Milk cleansers use a combination of light oils and gentle surfactants to remove impurities and nourish skin. Their light-weight nature makes milk cleansers especially suited to sensitive, oily or combination skin types.

Cream cleansers have more in common with moisturiser than surfactant based face wash. Cream cleansers combine gently cleansing actives with moisturising oils and butters to ensure skin is cleansed and conditioned. A cleansing option perfect for dry skin types.

How often should you cleanse skin?

When cleansing, it’s important to remove impurities while also respecting skin’s inherent biology. This can be a difficult balance to strike. It’s a give: take relationship, a see-saw of change.

How often you cleanse skin, feeds directly into your complexion’s health and hydration. Cleanse too little and pollution impurities get embedded into the skin where they begin to form damaging reactive oxygen species. Cleanse too much and skins natural moisturising factor is depleted leading to chronically dry, irritated skin.

The most effective cleansing routines use gentle cleansers to ensure impurities are removed and skins own natural moisturising factors remain in place. However, this balance can be un-done by over-use of even a gentle cleanser. Over exfoliating can also remove the acid mantle and many contain AHA’s that are acidic and can lower your skin’s pH and make it too acidic leading to an itchy and red skin.

How effective and respectful is your cleansing routine? Take action today to ensure your routine protects skin’s natural biology.

starter-kit

griffin+row is a naturally effective skincare system with centess+complex, a cocktail of the purest Australian plant extracts known for their antioxidant and regenerative properties. Developed by scientists, our simple system has been designed to give your skin all the ingredients it needs, and to make your skin look and feel better every day.


  1. Combustion-derived nanoparticles: A review of their toxicology following inhalation exposure, Ken Donaldson, Lang Tran, Luis Albert Jimenez, Rodger Duffin, David E Newby, Nicholas Mills, William MacNee, Vicki Stone, Part Fibre Toxicol. 2005; 2: 10. Published online 2005 Oct 21. doi: 10.1186/1743-8977-2-10
  2. Airborne particle exposure and extrinsic skin aging. Andrea Vierkötter, Tamara Schikowski, Ulrich Ranft, Dorothea Sugiri, Mary Matsui, Ursula Krämer, Jean Krutmann J Invest Dermatol. 2010 Dec; 130(12): 2719–2726. Published online 2010 Jul 22. doi: 10.1038/jid.2010.204
  3. Natural skin surface pH is on average below 5, which is beneficial for its resident flora. H. Lambers, S. Piessens, A. Bloem, H. Pronk, P. Finkel Int J Cosmet Sci. 2006 Oct; 28(5): 359–370. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00344.x
  4. Differences in the skin surface pH and bacterial microflora due to the long-term application of synthetic detergent preparations of pH 5.5 and pH 7.0. Results of a crossover trial in healthy volunteers. H. C. Korting, K. Hübner, K. Greiner, G. Hamm, O. Braun-Falco Acta Derm Venereol. 1990; 70(5): 429–431.
  5. Correlation between pH and irritant effect of cleansers marketed for dry skin. Lourdes Baranda, Roberto González-Amaro, Bertha Torres-Alvarez, Carmen Alvarez, Victoria Ramírez, Int J Dermatol. 2002 Aug; 41(8): 494–499.
  6. Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. Epidermis and Its Renewal by Stem Cells. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26865/
  7. Picardo M, Ottaviani M, Camera E, Mastrofrancesco A. Sebaceous gland lipids. Dermato-endocrinology. 2009;1(2):68-71.
  8. Corazza, M., Lauriola, M., Zappaterra, M., Bianchi, A. and Virgili, A. (2010), Surfactants, skin cleansing protagonists. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 24: 1–6. doi:10.1111/j.1468-3083.2009.03349.x
  9. Surfactants and experimental irritant contact dermatitis. I. Effendy, H. I. Maibach, Contact Dermatitis. 1995 Oct; 33(4): 217–225.

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