It’s hard to imagine that the simple question of, “should I wash my face in the morning” be met with such polarised controversy by many within and outside of the skincare industry.
But since it has, I’m going to throw my 20 cents into the ring.
As a practicing nutritionist for over 20 years, I have a pretty good grounding in the function and physiology of skin. As a skincare formulator, I have applied that knowledge and experience into creating skincare products that work with your skin barrier and the skin microbiome. Over-cleansing disrupts both of these crucial components to maintaining skin balance and health.
So, should you wash your face in the morning?
The first question I have when someone asks if they should wash their face in the morning is what they’re using to cleanse with. I’m still amazed how many people still use soap for washing their face. Or harsh cleansers that should probably be used for cleaning greasy, dirty dishes rather than faces. And then wonder why their skin is dehydrated, dry and sensitive.
It doesn’t matter how oily or greasy your skin is when you wake in the morning, using a cleanser that leaves your skin feeling tight and squeaky clean is going against every principle of skin health and there will be repercussions for your complexion. These include
- Dehydrated skin (oil and acne prone skin is commonly dehydrated)
- Dry, flaky patches on your face
- A damaged skin barrier creating the potential for sensitivities and allergies to skincare ingredients to develop
- Predisposing your skin towards inflammation
- A rebound overproduction of oil as a protective response to all of the above
Your body’s largest organ
Your skin is a dynamic, living, breathing ecosystem, it's your body's largest organ – and like your liver and kidneys, it is not made of bricks and mortar. I fear those common analogies like bricks, mortar and glue, used when describing your oh so essential protective skin barrier, has done a huge disserve to many.
When cleaning your skin, visualise cleaning a plant leaf rather than your kitchen bench. It will hopefully make you re-evaluate the products you’re using combined with your cleansing technique.
Is skin more dehydrated in the morning?
A quick online search reveals dozens of articles claiming that skin loses moisture while sleeping and therefore this justifies washing skin in the morning to help with re-hydration.
But what does the science say? Well, like everything else it seems that it depends. In this case it depends upon the humidity of your bedroom and the quality of your sleep.
It makes sense that the humidity in the place where you’re laying down for 6 hours+ each night will affect the moisture levels of your skin in the morning. Humidity is simply the amount of moisture in the air. So if you’re sleeping in air conditioning then yes, your skin will be dehydrated in the morning. If you live in Brisbane and sleep with your window wide open in the middle of January (with mozzie screens of course!) then you’re unlikely to wake with dehydrated skin.
What is more interesting is the link between sleep quality and skin hydration in the morning. A 2015 study found that poor sleepers had higher levels of moisture loss over night but that oil production increased in response. In other words, if you’re burning the candle at both ends and not getting enough quality sleep, you’ll wake with dehydrated, oily skin.
Read more about sleep and skin hydration
What should you wash your face with in the morning?
Washing your face can help with restoring moisture, but only if you’re not using cleanser that is damaging your skin’s barrier. Once that barrier is damaged, the ability of your skin to hold onto water is severely compromised. Harsh cleansers are the number one cause of dehydrated skin.
Most cleansers by their very nature, will disrupt the skin barrier. The skincare ingredient most commonly used to allow oil and water soluble ingredients to mix together and stay together is called an emulsifier. There are many different types of emulsifiers, and some are more damaging than others. Detergent is an example of an emulsifier – most emulsifiers used in skincare thankfully aren’t this harsh but there are some that come very close.
Your skin barrier is essential for maintaining skin hydration and is your frontline protection against microbes, irritants, UV radation and pollution. It’s a bit of a big deal.
If your cleanser leaves your skin feeling squeaky clean, tight or dry – it’s stripping your protective barrier.
Skin isn’t dirty in the morning, so the main reason to wash your face is really to help refresh and wake yourself up.
You also perspire at night while sleeping, so it’s good to wash this away along with any urea and other waste products that are eliminated with sweat.
Washing normal skin in the morning
If your skin is normal and balanced – not dry, dehydrated or oily then you don’t really need any products to wash your face with. A splash of water and a wipe will suffice.
Washing dry skin in the morning
Dry skin will benefit from a cleansing product that moisturises and hydrates. Ideally using something extremely gentle to exfoliate and remove any dead surface skin cells. This will help to improve the visual appearance of your skin and allow your moisturiser to be more effective.
Washing oily skin in the morning
No matter how oily or greasy you feel like your skin is in the morning, resist the urge to use harsh cleansers. They will only keep you stuck in a negative feedback cycle as your skin is forced to produce more oil to counter the damage to your skin’s outer protective barrier. Use a gentle cleanser to refresh your skin and gently remove any excess oil.
Washing acne prone skin in the morning
Acne is not caused by dirty skin. As with oily skin, using a harsh cleanser in the morning is counterproductive. Instead, opt for a gentle cleanser that also exfoliates. Focus on a product that doesn’t disrupt your skin pH or microbiome.
Can’t or don’t want to shake your morning face wash routine? Choose a cleanser that doesn’t contain emulsifiers, alcohol or other ingredients that work against healthy, beautiful skin by disrupting your skin barrier and microbiome.
Shop for gentle cleansers
Sarah has been in private practice since 1999 as a naturopath, nutritionist and herbalist. She has worked in wholistic beauty clinics and Integrative Medical centres in Sydney's Eastern suburbs. She now specialises in wholistic beauty and skincare, having a special interest in the relationship between gut and skin microbiome. Her guiding motto when formulating skincare is Beautiful, Simple and Safe.