Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/07/2021
Washing your face is something that seems so simple it doesn’t need to be explained. After all, don’t you just turn on the water, apply your cleanser and wash it off again?
Not quite. The reality is that there’s a correct and incorrect way to wash your face, with the way you wash potentially having a real impact on your skin’s health and appearance.
Wash too much and you can strip away your skin’s protective barrier, worsening acne. Wash too little and dead skin cells, oils and other unwanted substances can accumulate on the outer layer of your skin, also worsening acne.
Like many other things in life, washing your face is striking the right balance between too much care and too little.
Below, we’ve explained how to wash your face from start to finish. Our guide includes a series of steps to follow every time you wash your face, as well as specific dos and don’t for keeping your skin clear and blemish free.
Whether you’re prone to acne, irritation or other annoyances, or simply want to quickly go over the basics, keep reading to dive into the science behind washing your face the right way.
Keep in mind as you go through these next few paragraphs that these are generalized guidelines based on the professional opinions of organizations like the American Academy of Dermatology Association and the World Health Organization, and that every aspect of it may not apply to you, your skin or your particular skincare issues.
That means you may want to focus on some aspects of it more than others, or even disregard, add or modify some steps to fit your skincare routine — that's okay! The right skincare regimen is a process, so find what's right for you and stick to it. We're just helpful guides along the way.
We all know to wash our hands before preparing food or eating. Why? To prevent bacteria and other germs from making their way onto our food and into our bodies.
Likewise, a key aspect of keeping your skin healthy and free of blemishes is avoiding bacteria, fungi and other nasty substances that can clog pores and cause infections.
Before you wash your face, wash your hands. If you wash your face while you shower, soap up your hands and clean them thoroughly before you touch your face. If you wash your face in the sink, use soap or hand wash to clean your hands before you start.
Make sure to completely remove your makeup before you start cleansing your skin. If you have sensitive skin that’s prone to dryness or irritation, use a gentle makeup remover to get rid of any makeup without triggering a flare-up.
Try to wash your face using warm water. Water that’s overly hot can irritate your skin and cause issues like itching and peeling. It can also affect your skin’s natural moisture balance, reducing the amount of oils and proteins that keep your skin strong and healthy.
Facial cleansers are formulated to remove makeup, dead skin cells, oils and other substances from your face.
Used properly, a good quality facial cleanser can help you keep your skin healthy and reduce your risk of dealing with acne. However, many cleansers use overly harsh ingredients that can lead to irritation, redness and dry skin.
To keep your skin smooth, acne-free and healthy, use a gentle, non-abrasive cleanser that has no alcohol. Look for cleansers labeled “non-comedogenic,” which are less likely to clog pores and cause acne breakouts.
To apply your cleanser, wet your face using warm water and gently apply the solution with your fingertips. Avoid scrubbing the cleanser into your face with a washcloth or sponge, as this may irritate your skin and make your face more prone to acne.
Rinse your face using warm water, making sure to rinse away all of the cleanser you applied in the last step. If you need to, you can gently use your hands to wash away any leftover cleanser and check that your face is clean.
After washing your face, gently pat it dry using a clean towel. Make sure to gently pat your skin dry instead of rubbing it with the towel. If you have sensitive skin, make sure to use a fresh, soft towel to avoid irritation.
If you’re prescribed any topical medications to treat acne or other skin issues, you should apply them before you use any other skincare products.
Common medications for acne and other skin issues include tretinoin, clindamycin, salicylic acid and several others. Make sure to closely follow the instructions provided with your medication to apply it to your face correctly.
If your face feels dry or itchy after washing, it’s okay to apply moisturizer. A good moisturizer will supply your skin with moisture and prevent it from escaping, making it a good option if your skin feels dry and uncomfortable.
To reduce your risk of developing acne, look for a moisturizer that contains no oil and is labeled non-comedogenic. Be gentle when applying moisturizer near your eyes to avoid tugging on the skin.
If you have oily skin and use medication to treat acne, talk to your healthcare provider about the most appropriate moisturizers for your skin type.
If you’re planning on spending time outdoors, it’s important to apply sunscreen to your face after you finish washing.
Although a tan can look nice, the reality is that sun exposure is terrible for your skin. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that up to 90 percent of the aesthetic changes we typically associate with aging may be caused by sun exposure.
The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends using a broad-spectrum daily sunscreen with an SPF rating of 30 or higher. Obviously, if you’re spending your time at home or about to go to sleep for the night, there’s no need to worry about this step.
Assuming you’re washing your face in the morning, now is the time to apply makeup if you’d like to. As always, if you’re prone to acne, stick to cosmetics that are labeled non-comedogenic or oil-free.
Washing your face the right way isn’t particularly difficult. However, there are still a few common mistakes that you’ll want to avoid to lower your risk of pimples, irritation and other everyday skin annoyances. We’ve listed several dos and don’t for washing your face below:
Applying a cleanser to your face is a great way to clean away oils and debris that can clog your pores and cause acne breakouts. Try to use a gentle, non-comedogenic cleanser, as these are the least likely to irritate your skin.
To apply the cleanser, gently massage it into your skin using your fingertips, then rinse it off with warm water. After you’ve finished, carefully pat your skin dry using a clean towel.
Contrary to popular belief, scrubbing your skin won’t help to keep it blemish free. Instead, it’s far more likely to contribute to dryness and irritation -- two things that are infamous for making acne breakouts worse.
The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends washing your face two times per day: once when you wake up and once again just before you go to bed. This washes away oils and dirty that can accumulate during the day and while you’re sleeping.
Avoid washing your face too often. Doing this can cause irritation, especially if you use products that dry out your skin. When your skin becomes dry or irritated, you have a much higher risk of developing acne breakouts.
Stick to washing two times a day as recommended above, plus a quick wash after you exercise, play sports or do any other activity that causes you to sweat.
If you’re prone to breakouts, using topical acne medications such as tretinoin, clindamycin and others can help to prevent breakouts. Most of these medications are designed for use after you wash your face.
If you’re prescribed acne medication, don’t just apply it to pimples. Instead, use it on your entire face. While applying medication directly to breakouts will get rid of acne, using it on your whole face is a more effective way to prevent new pimples from developing in the future.
Take off your makeup before you sleep. Even if you wear non-comedogenic makeup, it’s important to fully wash away your makeup before you sleep. Apply makeup remover or use a non-comedogenic towelette to clean away makeup quickly.
Avoid letting your skin get too dry. Used correctly, some topical acne treatments may make your skin feel a little drier than normal. However, they shouldn’t completely dry out your skin and they definitely shouldn’t cause significant irritation.
If you’ve noticed very dry skin after you started treating acne, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider. Fixing this may be as easy as using a non-comedogenic facial moisturizer when your face feels overly dry or irritated.
No matter how tempting it is, don’t pop acne. Finally, if you notice acne forming, try to leave it alone. Popping pimples might provide temporary relief, but it also increases your risk of inflamed, infected acne and acne scarring.
Washing your face the right way will help to get rid of dirt, makeup, dead skin cells, oil and other unwanted substances that can contribute to acne, wrinkles and discoloration.
Follow the steps above and you’ll be able to keep your face clean and healthy in a few minutes a day. You can also learn more about avoiding blemishes and pimples in our complete guide to preventing acne breakouts.