The 15 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Washing Your Face

Do you have bad skin? Or do you have bad skin habits? There’s a big difference. First, your skin is on your side and never “bad.” Second, habits can be fixed. The first step to healthy skin is the most basic...and surprisingly easy to get wrong. Before you blame your skin for chronic inflammation or constant overdrying, make sure you’re not screwing it up with these 15 common face wash mistakes (that, apparently, 80 percent of Americans are making).

Healthy skin requires keeping after it. Just like keeping your gut happy starts with healthy food habits, happy skin is a matter of healthy habits. And the number one habit a lot of us get wrong is the most basic: face washing. I know I’m not the only one who got into the habit of seeing my face wash as too basic to warrant much effort, attention or budgetary discretion (saving those dollars for my ten-plus moisturizers, thanks). But how much good are those fancy face lotions going to do you if you’re screwing up the first step with any of these 15 common face wash mistakes?

1. You’re Not Using the Right Cleanser

It’s easy to think of face cleanser as so basic we don’t need to put much thought into which one we’re using on our skin. But that cleanser you got because it worked for your friend’s skin might not work or your skin. A cleanser with salicylic acid is great for balancing oil-prone skin, but not so great for dry skin that would benefit more from a hydrating cream cleanser.

2. You’re Not Using Any Cleanser

Hold up. Before we can get the type of cleanser you need right, let’s agree on one thing: you do need a cleanser. And water isn’t the same thing as face wash. Are you with me? Turns out, upwards of half of Americans just use tap water. That’s just asking for a clogged-pore problem (and follow-up breakout) since the accumulation of makeup (if you wear it), pollution, sweat, and bad bacteria don’t just disappear off your face on their own every day. Effective cleansers are formulated to attract and lift them away. (3, 4)

3. You’re Face Wash Isn’t pH Balanced

Neither is your tap water, tbh. A lot of cleansers are more alkaline than your skin’s ideal pH level, which tilts toward acidic. Keeping your skin in its preferred acidic zone allows for good bacteria, known as your microbiome, to thrive. If your cleanser isn’t pH balanced, you risk drying out your skin and giving bad bacteria (like the acne-causing kind) a foothold.

4. You're Using a Soap, Not Cleanser

Traditional bar soaps aren’t pH balanced (although a new generation of cleansing bars is changing that) and tend to rely on harsh surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate to strip away dirt, grime, oils aaaaand your skin’s moisture barrier. That squeaky clean feeling you get after using soap? It’s your skin barrier getting weaker and weaker, leading to moisture loss and free radical gains.

5. You’re Using Hand or Body Wash

The skin on your face is different from the skin on the rest of your body — different bacteria, different thickness, different pH level, different number of oil glands. But that hasn’t stopped 40-50% of consumers from using body wash or hand soap to wash their faces. (5)

6. You’re Not Washing Your Face Enough

Skipping the pre-sleep cleanse is tempting, but counterproductive. Your sleep cycle is actually when your skin is working it hardest to regenerate. Rolling it around in unwashed makeup, pollution, and excess oil isn’t optimizing your skin’s natural repair cycle. Likewise, a morning wash may seem optional, but without it your skin isn’t prepped to absorb that fancy serum you just spent your last paycheck on. (6)

7. You’re Washing Your Face Too Much

This for my fellow gym rats sneaking in a third face wash after their midday workout. Too much washing can backfire in the form of oil overproduction, irritation or increased dryness. Unless you’re breaking a serious sweat, the triple-cleanse should not be a daily habit. Twice is plenty. (7)

8. You’re Using Makeup Wipes Instead of Cleanser

Makeup wipes are useful for removing waterproof, long-wear makeup that some face cleansers aren’t formulated to break up and take down. But you can’t just wipe away your makeup and call it a day. Plus, a makeup-wipe approach to face washing runs the risk of too much rubbing, which can cause damage and irritation without accomplishing the goal at end: actually cleaning your skin.

9. You’re Only Using Cleanser, Not Makeup Remover

On the flip side, if your cleanser isn’t made to remove makeup you’re not going to get the most out of your washing experience without gently but thoroughly removing your makeup first.

10. You’re Using Really Hot Water

Contrary to popular belief, hotter water does not equate a better clean. Water temperature is an important factor in dissolving lipids, which play a key role in your skin’s natural defense setup. The warmer the water on your skin, the more you risk stripping away the oil barrier your skin relies on for balance, protection and hydration. Lukewarm water might detract for the joy of the moment, but it will keep your skin from irritation. (8)

11. You’re Rushing the Job

Thorough cleansing is a no-brainer, but it’s easy to rush the process and move on with our day (or night). But if you’re going to take the time to do it all, make the cleanse worth it. Gently massage your skin in circular motions — including the T-zone and jawline which we frequently miss.


12. You’re Scrubbing Too Hard with Your Towel

Pat, don’t rub. Pat, don’t rub. Pat, don’t rub. Say it until it sinks in. Once you’ve washed your face with a pH-balanced cleanser (not soap), using lukewarm water (not hot) and gentle circular motions...don’t choke in the final hour by breaking your skin’s elastin with a rough towel and aggressive dry-down. That’s a one-way ticket to premature wrinkles and sagging.

13. You Don’t Wash Your Towel Often Enough

And a dirty towel is breeding ground for bacteria and mold. Why go through the time and effort to wash your face if you’re just going to cover it in a towel crawling with bacterial contamination immediately after? And, no, the towel you use for your body post-shower shouldn’t come near your face. Have separate (and gentle) face clothes handy on rotation.

14. You Have No Idea What Ceramides

Or why they should be in your cleanser. Navigating the ever-evolving skincare glossary of ingredients isn’t something most people keep up with on the daily, but if there are a handful you should know when choosing a cleanse that works it’s ceramides. Ceramides help restore moisture and strengthen the skin barrier, ensuring your cleanser isn’t just removing what you don’t want but also re-adding what you need more of. (9)

15. You’re Not Washing...Your iPhone?

Gross fact: there are more bacteria on your cell phone than on a toilet seat (including e. Coli), according to this Times article. Do what you want with that information, but I have a hunch your phone is touching your face a lot and could use a cleansing routine of its own.

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