Do I Need a Special Cleanser to Remove Sunscreen?

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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??

Do I Need a Special Cleanser to Remove Sunscreen?

How Do Cleansers Work?

Luckily, the answer is no. A regular cleanser will remove waterproof sunscreen! The reason for this is surfactants.

Surfactants are a special class of chemical 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”.

Do I Need a Special Cleanser to Remove Sunscreen?

(Related posts: How Do Cleansing Balms Work?, How Does Micellar Water Work?, The Science of Face Washing)

Because of this special structure, surfactants can help oil dissolve in water and vice versa. The tail binds to oil while the head binds to water. The surfactants help the oil lift off the skin, forming little oil droplets that end up dispersed in the water as an emulsion (surfactants are also known as emulsifiers for this reason). The droplets can then be rinsed away, leaving your skin clean.

Do I Need a Special Cleanser to Remove Sunscreen?

The same mechanism is at work when you’re washing the 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).

Do I Need a Special Cleanser to Remove Sunscreen?

Traditional cleansers contain surfactants with water, and little or no oil. Micellar water also contains surfactants, but unlike traditional cleansers they’re mild enough to be left on the skin without rinsing for most people.

Cleansing oils and balms contain surfactants along with large amounts of oils – the oils help lift the oil-based grease and sunscreen off your skin so the surfactants can emulsify them better. Without surfactants, the mixture of oil and grease and sunscreen would just stay on your skin!

A cleansing oil or balm, if used alone, can actually be worse at removing oil-based products than a traditional cleanser. The tails of the surfactants are already partly “used up” by the extra oil in the product, so if the proportions aren’t right, there might not be enough surfactant to emulsify the oil on your face.

Here are some popular cleansers and their top 5 ingredients, with the main surfactants in bold:

Traditional cleansers

  • Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser: Water, Cetyl Alcohol, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Stearyl Alcohol 
  • CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser: Purified Water, Glycerin, Behentrimonium Methosulfate and Cetearyl Alcohol, Ceramide 3
  • Cosrx Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser: Water, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Polysorbate 20, Styrax Japonicus Branch/Fruit/Leaf Extract
  • Philosophy Purity Made Simple (somewhere between a traditional cleanser and a cleansing lotion/oil): Water, Disodium Lauroamphodiacetate, Limnanthes Alba (Meadowfoam) Seed Oil, Coco-Glucoside, PEG-120 Methyl Glucose Dioleate

Micellar waters

Cleansing oils and balms

  • Clinique Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm: Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Sorbeth-30 Tetraoleate, Polyethylene
  • DHC Deep Cleansing Oil: Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Sorbeth-30 Tetraoleate, Pentylene Glycol, Phenoxyethanol

There are a few cleansers that don’t contain any surfactants, like Lush Angels on Bare Skin and Avene Tolerance Extreme Cleansing Lotion, which won’t do a good job of removing sunscreen. With these, you’d have to either use a surfactant-based cleanser, or cleanse multiple times with the same product.

(Related posts: A Month Without Facewash)

Verdict

Double cleansing is awesome 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.

Do I Need a Special Cleanser to Remove Sunscreen?

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50 thoughts on “Do I Need a Special Cleanser to Remove Sunscreen?”

  1. Would you consider doing an ingredients-type review of the Sunsense range? I saw on your Insta story that some of them have tinosorb (?) so it would be fantastic to know what the difference is between each type of sunscreen they put out and what they have in them!

    Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Again, thank you so much for the clarification! I have recently read this claim as well and was taken aback. I mean, I do love my double cleansing, but it is not the only solution to all problems in the world!

    Reply
    • I agree! I’m a devotee but it isn’t necessary… it’s just great for my skin! Double cleansing is sort of the coconut oil of skincare…

      Reply
  3. Hello! Thank you so much for another amazing post! You are my hero.

    I want to ask: should my Clinique Take the Day Off balm be followed by some other foamy-creamy-mousse cleanser? Is there any sense in having a micellar water as a second step after the balm?
    Or is it okay just to use the balm twice and consider a two-step cleansing process done?
    Thank you!

    Reply
  4. Hey, Michelle. Great post! 🙂

    All of the western sunscreens I’ve tried were easily removed by a single traditional cleanser. However, some eastern sunscreens are impossible to remove using a traditional cleanser only once! Sunscreens from Bioré UV Perfect line are one of them. Their first ingredient is a silicone and I believe this is why they are so difficult to be removed, am I right?

    Reply
      • What’s the best way to remove products with crosspolymers? I’ve got a zinc oxide based sunscreen that contains a couple of them and it’s a beast to get off the skin. Two rounds with a two-phased makeup remover and two rounds with a makeup removing face wash plus washcloth doesn’t even do the job some days!

        Here are the ingredients if it helps: Cyclopentasiloxane, Zinc Oxide (Micronized), C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Caprylyl Methicone, Isostearic acid, Polyhydroxystearic acid, PEG-12 Dimethicone/PPG-20 Crosspolymer, Tocopheryl Acetate.

        P.S.: Your website is my go-to resource for everything related to skincare. Most of the actual products you use and review aren’t available in my country, so understanding the (applied) science helps me generalise to products available here. For this reason, I especially appreciate your explanatory and how-to posts and videos. Thanks for the brilliant job you do!

        Reply
        • Have you tried a cleansing oil, or a microfibre make-up remover cloth? I usually find that using a mix of different cleansers works better than using the same cleanser twice.

          Reply
          • Neither but baby oil made it worse for me. I’m a tad reluctant to buy new products for just this one tube. I have a new bottle of oil-infused micellar water, though; so I might give that a go.

            Sunscreen can be such a challenge! The one I asked you about has an aesthetically pleasing finish; no white cast at all, and it looks neither too shiny nor too dry. It’s really sweat and water resistant too. If it weren’t for zinc oxide’s limitations in the face of long UVA and this particular formula’s reluctance to leave your face, it would be a a good choice.

            Perhaps the company was trying to make a permanent sunscreen!

  5. That’s strange – I was always of the impression that oil cleansing was recommended for makeup, sunscreen, etc. because it cut down on the amount of scrubbing one had to do. I must be completely inept since before oil cleansing, I’d always have to do two or three rounds of cleansing before I got all the product pillage off, and of course was left with slightly irritated skin afterwards. Maybe I’ve just been blessed in the sense that I haven’t seen the sunscreen = cement myth, or maybe I was just under the impression that others thought like I did: oil cleansing helps as part of a two-step process so that you don’t have to go in as hard with a cleanser.

    Reply
    • Exactly! It cuts down the scrubbing and damage, but some people think it’s essential. It’s a blessing for dehydration-prone skin 🙂

      Reply
    • It depends on a lot of things: the surfactants used, the oils used, the proportions… in general, cleansing with pure oils will require a regular cleaser afterwards (more info: All About Oil Cleansing: A Beginner’s Guide), but cleansing oils formulated with surfactants will be more effective at getting oil-based make-up and sunscreen to move while reducing surfactant-related damage.

      Reply
  6. Thanks a lot for the post! I’ve been a lurking fan of your blog for years btw :).

    So in that case, for everyday use sunscreen (non-waterproof) I definitely don’t need any oil cleanser but just normal face wash like Hada Labo foam is enough right?
    I’m a male that never use any make up, but I have got this impression from reading around the internet that I need a cleansing oil/1st step cleanser if I use sunscreen but I’m pretty lazy to double cleanse every day.

    Reply
    • It depends on whether the cleanser is strong enough on its own (I haven’t tried the Hada Labo before so I can’t say), but you don’t need to double cleanse 🙂

      Reply
  7. Hi Michelle! I read somewhere that some people just use oils such as mineral oil or mct (caprylic/capric triglycerides) for oil cleansing. I’ve been thinking doing that but I’m not sure how it would work. What are your thoughts on that and the two oils mentioned?

    Reply
  8. Hey Michelle!
    I see there’s a talk on using just a regular cleanser or doing a 2 step,
    but how about an only one step cleanse, but using only an oil cleanser?
    (I do wear sunscreen but I don’t wear any makeup daily)..

    I was also wondering about the fact that all oil cleans’s marketing are very related to taking off makeup more then anything, but I still like using them for the way they feel. so the main question is, do I need another step of a water based cleanse? and do oil based are also suitable for non-removing makeup needs…?
    Thanks a lot! this is very informative!

    Reply
  9. Hey Michelle, I was recently introduced to your site and I love it! I am trying to repair my moisture barrier/orange peel texture skin so I only want to cleanse once in the evening. I am trying to find a cleanser that I can use once and it will remove my sunscreen (Elta MD UV spf 46) Cerave products break me out, what would you recommend? Would any of the above mentioned cleansers work?

    Reply
    • You can try a cleansing oil perhaps? I do really like them for quick and gentle cleansing! I personally still like to double cleanse even though it isn’t necessary.

      Reply
  10. I’m not sure what double cleansing is, but I have major issues getting my sunscreen off. I read that oil can remove it, so I bought a bottle of vitamin E oil and rubbed it on me in the shower. It would not rinse off no matter what I did! I ended up having to use Dawn dish soap to get all the oil and sunscreen off. It was a nightmare! I’m just posting this to warn others not to try using oil. Apparently it’s a special produce called oil cleanser that people recommend. Excuse my ignorance because I know nothing about makeup or skin care. *blush* I still have to wash my face and body like three times to get sunscreen off, and scrub so hard my skin gets irritated and dry. It really puts me off wanting to wear sunscreen.

    Reply
  11. Have you got any recommendations for body cleansers as using SPF 50 on holiday quite often leaves a thick residue, white/yellowish, which I am sure is the cause of ruined white clothes. No matter how much shower gel I use the water resistant sun lotions stay put.

    Reply
  12. Hi Michelle!

    Prior to reading this post, I had tested this out for myself by using a tinted EltaMD sunscreen and each of the CeraVe facial cleansers (Hydrating and Foaming) separately; neither of them removed all of the sunscreen. I now double cleanse at night on a daily basis to remove all sunscreen and any makeup that I might be wearing, and would recommend that others do the same.

    Best,
    Jules

    Reply
  13. Does this apply for physical/mineral sunscreens as well? Or would double cleansing using a micellar water then a general cleanser suffice?

    Reply
  14. About two years too late for me to comment on this but as somebody whose entire PhD was on surfactants, thank you so much for this article and for everything you do explaining the science behind skincare and formulations (also from a sci comm perspective, your explanations of everything are so amazing and clear!). I’m so glad I found your blog 🙂

    Reply
    • I think it’s very limited – especially when the cleanser uses a surfactant system that’s pretty rare (sodium methyl cocoyl taurate and cocoamido propyl betaine). I’d expect that intra-category variation would be greater than inter-category variation here!

      Reply
      • Thank you for your reply and insight! I understand your point and I hope there will be further studies comparing the performance of more widely used surfactant combinations.

        Reply
  15. Hello, I find that your statement is quite misleading. While I do agree if we are speaking of only sunscreen INGREDIENTS instead of the entire sunscreen product, then yes, we can remove it easily with very basic medium to high HLB surfactants. However, in most sunscreen, film formers are added to create a smooth layer of sunscreen for optimised SPF, it would naturally make “gentle” cleanser almost impossible to remove sunscreen. How about doing an actual demonstration with UV light to show that sunscreen can indeed be removed with general facial cleansers instead of makeup remover?

    Reply
  16. So that means If I am using Mineral Sunscreen( I am using Neutrogena Zinc Sheer right now) and using the above mentioned traditional cleanser , I don’t have to double cleanse ???

    Reply
    • Depends on your specific cleanser – I think for Neutrogena Sheer Zinc most cleansers won’t be enough since it’s a very sticky formula.

      Reply
  17. Hi. New to your channels. From the Mid East.

    I’m a nervous Nellie who feels safer with natural (health food store) sunscreen brands …aka Zinc Oxide based (like the Weleda brand). And willing to put up with the white cast for the sake of less ingredients and a “more natural” formulation.

    Just learned about double cleansing too and havent incorporated it into my routine. Have always used high quality “soap” with plenty of surfactant action to remove the sunscreen.

    But still it’s very hard to remove. The mineral white cast sunscreens are greasy and persistent and one has to lather multiple times and tug to remove the product. And it doesnt seem to get off completely

    So would double cleansing with an initial oil based product make sense for me? Any thoughts? Any reccs?

    Or is there something I can mix with the Zinc Oxide mineral sunscreen or cut the sunscreen with (lotion, aloe vera?) Upon application to make it less viscous and less unpleasant?

    Reply

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