Here’s a myth I’ve been seeing around skincare communities: that you have to use a special cleanser to remove water-resistant sunscreen. For example:
“Keep in mind that most of these sunscreen actives are also oil-soluble (only dissolves in oil, not water), which gives sunscreens their water-proof and sweat-proof properties. Therefore, in order to completely remove sunscreen, you have to use an oil, cleansing oil, emollient cleanser, or makeup remover of some kind.” (Source: Skinacea)
Have we all been leaving sunscreen on our faces before we discovered the magic of double cleansing? Is it the only way to remove sunscreen from your skin?
How Cleansers Remove Sunscreen
Luckily, the answer is no. A regular cleanser will remove water-resistant sunscreen! The reason for this is surfactants.
Surfactants are a special class of ingredient I’ve mentioned quite a few times before. They look a bit like a tadpole, with a lipophilic (oil-loving) “tail” and a hydrophilic water-loving) “head”:
Because of this special structure, surfactants can help oil dissolve in water. The oil-loving tail grabs on to oily substances like sunscreen ingredients, while the water-loving head binds to water.
Essentially, the surfactant has an “oil” within its structure!
The surfactants help the oily substances lift off the skin, forming little oil droplets that end up dispersed in the water as an emulsion. (This is why surfactants are also known as emulsifiers.) The droplets can then be rinsed away, leaving your skin clean.
The same mechanism is at work when you’re washing dirty dishes. Even the oiliest plate can be cleaned using dishwashing detergent, which doesn’t contain any oil, but has lots of surfactants.
For example, here’s what’s in Dawn Dishwashing Liquid (in case you’re wondering, the “active ingredient” is triclosan since it’s antibacterial).
The sodium lauryl sulfate, lauramine oxide and sodium laureth sulfate are surfactants. There aren’t any oils in there! There are also supporting ingredients that don’t play a cleansing role like preservatives (phenoxyethanol, methylisothiazolinone).
Different types of cleansers
There are a few different types of cleansers you’ll find in skincare:
Traditional cleansers contain surfactants as the active cleansing ingredients. The base of the product is mostly water, and little or no oil.
Micellar water also contains surfactants in water. However, unlike traditional cleansers, micellar water surfactants should be mild enough to be left on the skin without rinsing for most people (although this can depend on the specific formula).
Related post: All About Micellar Water (video)
Cleansing oils and balms contain surfactants in a base that has a large amount of oils or other oily substances. The oily base helps lift the oil-based grease and sunscreen off your skin so the surfactants can emulsify them, and a lot of people find that these products seem to shift waterproof products a lot more easily. They’re used as the first step in a traditional “double cleansing” routine, followed with a regular cleanser (usually foaming).
However, the surfactants in cleansing oils and balms are crucial! Without surfactants, the mixture of oil and grease and sunscreen would just stay sitting on your skin.
Related post: How Do Cleansing Balms Work?
Cleansing oils don’t always remove sunscreen better
This is one thing that doesn’t always get mentioned – sometimes, a cleansing oil or balm used alone can actually be worse at removing oil-based products than a traditional cleanser.
In a product with a lot of oil, the tails of the surfactants are already partly “used up” by the extra oil. So if the proportions aren’t right, there might not be enough surfactant to emulsify the oil on your face.
This means not all the oily stuff on your face will be dispersed into droplets into the water, and will stay stuck to your skin. (This is why a second cleanser is often recommended after using a cleansing oil or balm, but whether you need one depends on the formula!)
Cleansing surfactant examples
Here are some popular cleansers and their top 5 ingredients, with the main surfactants in bold:
- Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser: Aqua, Glycerin, Cetearyl Alcohol, Panthenol, Niacinamide
- CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser: Aqua/Water, Glycerin, Cetearyl Alcohol, Phenoxyethanol, Stearyl Alcohol
- Cosrx Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser: Water, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Polysorbate 20, Styrax Japonicus Branch/Fruit/Leaf Extract
- Iunik Centella Bubble Cleansing Foam: Centella Asiatica Leaf Water, Water, TEA-Cocoyl Glutamate, Disodium Cocoamphodiacetate, Glycerin
- Paula’s Choice Resist Perfectly Balanced Foaming Cleanser: Water, Sodium Lauroamphoacetate, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Stearic Acid, Glycerin
- Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water: Aqua / Water, Hexylene Glycol, Glycerin, Disodium Cocoamphodiacetate, Disodium EDTA
- Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micellar Water: Water (Aqua), PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides, Propylene Glycol, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Mannitol
- Pyunkang Yul Low pH Cleansing Water: Water, Dipropylene Glycol, Propanediol, 1,2-Hexanediol, C12-14 Pareth-12
- La Roche-Posay Effaclar Micellar Water: Aqua / Water, PEG-7 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides, Poloxamer 124, Poloxamer 184, PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides
- DHC Deep Cleansing Oil: Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Sorbeth-30 Tetraoleate, Pentylene Glycol, Phenoxyethanol
- Skin1004 Madagascar Light Cleansing Oil: Ethylhexyl Stearate, Cetyl Ethylhexanoate, Sorbeth-30 Tetraoleate, Centella Asiatica Extract (10,000 ppm), Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil
- Klairs Gentle Deep Black Cleansing Oil: Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Cetyl Ethylhexanoate, Isononyl Isononanoate, PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil
- Paula’s Choice Perfect Cleansing OIl: Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Helianthus Annuus Seed Oil, MIPA-Laureth Sulfate, Laureth-4, Laureth-7
- Clinique Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm: Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Sorbeth-30 Tetraoleate, Polyethylene
- Banila Clean It Zero Cleansing Balm: Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Cetyl Ethylhexanoate, PEG-20 Glyceryl Triisostearate, PEG-10 Isostearate, Synthetic Wax
- Paula’s Choice Omega+ Complex Cleansing Balm: Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, PEG-20 Glyceryl Triisostearate, Diisooctyl Succinate, Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters
- Heimish All Clean Balm: Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Cetyl Ethylhexanoate, PEG-20 Glyceryl Triisostearate, Polyethylene, PEG-8 Isostearate
In general, these types of cleansers should be able to remove water-resistant sunscreen well enough to not irritate your skin – although it can depend on the specific cleanser formula and the sunscreen formula. It’s possible you’ll need to use the same cleanser a few times for particularly weak cleansers and stubborn sunscreens.
Do you need to double cleanse?
Double cleansing with an oil-based cleanser first is an awesome technique for gentler cleansing (for more on the benefits of gentle cleansing, check out: All About Cleansing & How to Choose a Gentle Cleanser). But it isn’t the only way to remove water-resistant sunscreen! A regular cleanser will do the job.
Related Post: All About Cleansing & How to Choose a Gentle Cleanser
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