How Does the Clarisonic Cleansing Brush (Theoretically) Work?

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How Does the Clarisonic Brush (Theoretically) Work?

I always assumed that the Clarisonic cleansing brush was an attempt to clean the skin via sonic cavitation, which is when sound waves cause tiny jets of water to smash into a surface to clean it, like a thousand tiny power hoses (that’s how sonic jewellery/glasses cleaners work). But for sonic cleaning via cavitation to work, you need a hard surface, which glasses and jewellery are, but skin is not, so I was pretty confused.

I recently stumbled upon a paper from 2006 in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, where the inventors of the Clarisonic discuss how it’s designed to work. (Important note: the paper doesn’t present any data of the Clarisonic in action to show that that’s how it actually works, but it’s interesting to see the theoretical background anyway!)

The Clarisonic Brush Head

The Clarisonic brush head has two parts: an outer ring that’s fixed and doesn’t move, and an inner section that’s attached to a motor inside the handle.

From the Clarisonic patents, the inner section rotates back and forth between 8 and 26°, at a frequency of 176 Hz (i.e. it makes 176 cycles from the left to the right and back again in a second; you can also think of it as 352 “sweeps”).

How Does the Clarisonic Brush (Theoretically) Work?

How the Clarisonic Brush Head Works

Here’s the question: if you put the brush against your skin, which part of your skin gets cleaned the most? If you’re a normal sensible person who hasn’t looked at the Clarisonic website in much detail, you’d say, “the part of your skin that’s sitting under the moving inner portion.”

This is where it gets really interesting – the part of the skin that the brush is designed to deeply clean is actually the part with no bristles on it! It’s the skinny ring in between the outer and inner portions (0.05-0.125 inches, or 1.3-3.2 mm according to the patents).

The point of the small rotation of the inner section is so the bristles don’t actually brush over the skin much as it rotates. Instead, the outer and inner sections of the brush move the skin in a gentle twisting movement, so that the section in the ring gets stretched back and forth in a “rapid flexing” motion. Since your skin is more elastic than any unwanted material in your pores, this back and forth movement gradually breaks the adhesion between clogs in your pore and the pore walls, a bit like when you twist an ice cube tray to free the ice cubes. The moving inner bristles then sweep the dirt away as you move the brush over your skin.

How Does the Clarisonic Brush (Theoretically) Work?

To try to visualise the active area, I carefully placed one ply of wet tissue on my Clarisonic Mia 2 and left it to go for a full 1 minute cycle. You can clearly see the ring where the deep cleansing happens. (Don’t fret too much about your skin looking like this afterwards – skin is much more elastic and less fragile than wet tissue!)

How Does the Clarisonic Brush (Theoretically) Work?

The obvious worry here is that the stretching from the brush will cause damage to the skin, but the makers claim that by limiting the angle of rotation and having a back-and-forth oscillating movement rather than a continuous spin like with a rotating brush, the strain is low enough that collagen fibres aren’t damaged. If you’re feeling paranoid, use it on the lowest “speed” – moving up a speed actually increases the angle of rotation, without changing the number of cycles per second.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see a demonstration of whether the Clarisonic actually works on the skin in this way. I think an interesting test would be to cover your skin in some sort of coloured substance that sinks in your pores and hardens slightly, then hold the brush stationary against a section of skin and see if a clean ring forms, but I haven’t been able to think of a suitable material. I’m open to suggestions!

The Clarisonic was provided for editorial consideration, which did not affect my opinion. This post also contains affiliate links – if you decide to click through and support Lab Muffin financially (at no extra cost to you), thank you! For more information, see Disclosure Policy.

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25 thoughts on “How Does the Clarisonic Cleansing Brush (Theoretically) Work?”

  1. This is so interesting. Does it actually seem plausible that this would be gentler or more effective than the much cheaper rotating facial brushes or even a washcloth? The lower priced PuraSonic you reviewed does function like the Clarisonic, but sadly is not available in the US.

    Reply
    • It should be gentler than a rotating brush, since there’ll be less friction (of course, it also depends on the softness of the brush you’re using and how hard you press it against your skin). I think it’d be easy to find a washcloth that’s gentler, but I don’t know if it would clean as thoroughly. The one I’d recommend would also depend on how much stuff you have on your skin that needs removing (e.g. make-up, sunscreen) – I usually just double cleanse with my hands with no issues, but lately I’ve been using heavier sunscreens and I have a little clump of closed comedones that I think are from insufficient cleansing, so I’ve been using the Clarisonic every day.

      Reply
    • I’m very grateful that my skin isn’t too sensitive, so I can try all the things! The Clarisonic does have a few gentler brush heads designed for sensitive skin with very soft bristles that might be worth having a look at 🙂

      Reply
  2. This is such a neat post! As a fellow Geek and beauty lover, this totally has me geeking out!! I was thinking about your question at the end- re: seeing what it does to the skin…what about using a thinned out mud mask? It would harden on to the skin, sink into pores slightly and still be thin enough to provide color on the skin!! Hope this works!

    Reply
    • Thanks! And yay fellow geek! 🙂

      I think the film that a clay mask would form might be too brittle, so the shaking would break it up on the surface…

      Reply
  3. That is super, super interesting. Wow. I guess that’s why it’s said to be so much better than knock-offs, since the latter usually doesn’t have two separate rings. Love your blog so much… I learn something new every time I read it!

    Reply
    • I’m guessing that’s why too – it’s patented, so it’s hard to get away with making a knockoff that does the same job! And thank you 🙂

      Reply
  4. While I don’t think Clarisonic’s are 100% skin safe for consumers (so many factors involved, including lack of consumer education), this is why they’re far safer than most rotary brushes on the market. A lot of brushes will actually twist skin and cause damage.

    Reply
    • I agree – the number of skincare newbies who think scrubbing the crap out of their face with apricot scrub is the way to go astounds me! I think all brushes can be used safely, but not when people think pressing it as hard as it’ll go on the skin is the right approach… especially after using harsh treatments.

      Reply
      • I’ve damaged my skin greatly by doing just that. When I had my hormonal teen acne, I was advised to use harsh scrubs and alcohol-bases products. I didn’t know it scars and damages the skin.

        Reply
    • There are some gentler brushes available… but on the flip side, I kind of feel like they’re not doing much, though I really need to get over that mentality!

      Reply
  5. Interesting! This might explain why, anecdotally, some of us who have rosacea and are prone to broken capillaries seem to get more of them when we try the Clarisonic!

    Reply
  6. This has been a fascinating post, it’s making me consider getting one. I’ve also heard a lot of hype about the Foreo Luna vibrating silicone facial “brushes” (they have the benefit of not needing to replace brush heads, as silicone doesn’t really store bacteria if washed properly) but this post makes me wonder how the Foreo products could work without the rotation factor. Do you have any thoughts?

    Reply
    • I think it just vibrates really hard and shakes dirt off… but I haven’t actually seen one in person so I can’t say that confidently!

      Reply
  7. Just purchased a Clarisonic Alpha Fit (which is just the Mia Fit “engineered for men’s skin) and I can see how the theory is plausible on skin. After using it for a week conjunctively with my Glycolic Acid toner, it made a difference and penetrated my “T-zone” more effectively as evidenced by noticeably smoother texture on the surface of my nose as well as an apparent reduction in the appearance of blackheads.

    I’m curious. The Mia fit and Alpha fir are essentially one in the same, with exception of the different brush heads (mine containing then mens brush head and fit including the sensitive/radiance brush head). Clarisonic stated that the Alpha fit is best suited for men’s skin, as its’ brush head is designed to penetrate men’s thicken and tougher skin surface more effectively.

    From a clinical perfective, what are some physiological differences in male to female skin tissue? Are we talking a larger stratum corneum layer?

    Reply
    • Yep, thicker and oilier skin, and there’s the shaving/ingrown hair issue too. There are also some other differences like pH but they’re not quite as relevant. I think the main difference is just the included brushes, and perhaps different timing in the cleansing cycle. I doubt there would be much difference in the actual oscillation.

      Reply
  8. I would like your opinion on using the back of a Clairsonic Mia 2 as a product infuser such as a JeNu Ultrasonic Infuser or Arbonne Genius Ultra. Would the ultrasonic vibrations used by the Clairsonic to cleanse have the same effect on infusing products into this skin if gliding the smooth back side of the Clairsonic across the skin?

    Reply
    • I honestly have no idea! It would depend on how well the vibrations transfer to the back of the MIA, and how big they’d have to be to be effective (“ultrasonic” is the frequency, not the intensity, so intensity could make a difference).

      Reply
  9. I have just worked up to using mine 2x a day starting at the lower setting just a few times a week for my sensitive skin. I’ve seen a huge difference and even a little “purging” of some clogged areas. My skin is much smoother and not irritated using a non foaming cleanser. I know this is an older post but I wanted to see your take on the brush.

    Reply
  10. Hi.

    I was wondering about how Clarisonic works, too since it makes my skin so much better than before.

    And I stumble across one video from Clarisonic UK from many years ago. And it demonstrate how the brush head works the same as your explanation. Here it is: https://youtu.be/AsVlLhpR9c0

    Thank you, Michelle for providing me a lot of deeply research information. You make my skincare journey so much clearer through all the bells and whistles.

    Reply

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