What would happen if you never washed your face?

boys with dirty faces
What happens when the mud stays?
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What's the deal with washing our faces? Mothers seem to think it's important, but children (and some adults) don't really see what the big deal is. You have to choose between a store-aisle's worth of products and it takes a precious five minutes of your day you'd rather spend doing something else, like watching cartoons -- or sleeping.

As it turns out, our mothers' opinions on this matter are supported by doctors and researchers who unanimously agree that we should, in fact, wash our faces daily. Not only that, but some of our mothers were actually sugar-coating the situation, because not only should we wash our faces daily, we should do it twice: once in the morning and again in the evening. That seems like a lot of work, so why should we do it?


Because the world is gross and dirty. Your own skin is covered in a layer of dead skin cells, bacteria, pollutants, viruses and dirt. (In fact, every single day you shed about 50 million dead skin cells [source: Chudler].) And that layer will get thicker over time unless you take drastic action and wash your face twice a day. Washing our faces not only gets rid of various antigens (tiny unwanted foreign invaders), it also provides our skin much-needed hydration. (This is why it's important to moisturize your skin shortly after bathing; the moisturizer's function is to seal moisture within the skin.)

But what if you just said "no" to washing your face? Would your face become so dirty as to render you unrecognizable after a few days, or would your nose -- heavy from the weight of accumulated dirt -- suddenly slide right off your face with the suddenness and finality of a large iceberg cleaving and crashing from the ice cap? After a few weeks, would your face suddenly roll up like a window shade? Or would it, as you've long suspected, be pretty incredible?

What would happen if you never washed your face? To find out, you must keep reading.


Creating a Perfect Facial Swamp

In addition to holding our faces on our heads, our facial skin creates a waterproof barrier that protects us from the dirty, dangerous world around us. This is accomplished in part through the production of oil called sebum. This oil is produced by tiny sebaceous glands that exist midway down the shafts of our hair follicles. As sebum travels up and out of the hair follicle, it mixes with sweat and dead skin cells that are also migrating up the follicle. Upon reaching the surface of the skin, this mix (now joined by other lipids such as linoleic acid) spreads out and hardens, forming an armorlike coating that helps prevent bacteria and other invasive agents from penetrating the outer layer of skin.

However, when external dirt builds up or there's increased production of oils or skin cells, blockages occur in the follicles. The mix of sebum, sweat and dead skin cells continues pushing up against the blockage and growing larger, creating a growing traffic jam in the follicle. Once bacteria arrives on the scene and inflammation occurs, you've got acne. Without washing, acne breakouts and blemishes occur, regardless of the cleanliness of your environment.


When we wash, we clear our pores of debris and prevent the excessive buildup of this oily armor, allowing the outwardly mobile skin cells and lipids still in the follicles to emerge unimpeded to form a new layer of armor on the surface. (But we can't undo existing acne, only prevent future breakouts.)

If you stopped washing your face entirely, your pores would become clogged and stay clogged. You would experience lots of acne (likely some mix of whiteheads, blackheads and cysts), blotchy skin, redness and irritation, and skin that looked dirty, oily and greasy.

The incredible itchiness you would experience would force you to scratch at it like crazy, possibly leading to broken skin and the risk of infection (which wouldn't be an entirely small risk since you've completely stopped washing your face).

Now that we've put your question to rest, click over to the next page for more articles on cleansing that dirty mug of yours.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Daily Skin Care Essential to Control Atopic Dermatitis." (Jan. 5, 2010)http://www.skincarephysicians.com/eczemanet/daily_care.html
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Bathing and Moisturizing Guidelines." (Jan. 5, 2010)http://www.skincarephysicians.com/eczemanet/bathing.html
  • Amirlak, Bardia, MD, et al. "Skin, Anatomy." Sep. 5, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2010)http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1294744-overview
  • Chudler, Eric, Ph.D. "The Skin." University of Washington Engineered Biomaterials. (Jan. 5, 2010) http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/receptor.html
  • Lee, Delphine J.; Shellow, William V.R. "Management of Acne." Primary Care Medicine: Office Evaluation and Management of the Adult Patient (5th edition). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006. ISBN 078177456X, 9780781774567.http://books.google.com/books?id=aWQhTbwoM9EC&pg=RA1-PA1191&dq= whiteheads+blackheads
  • Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Dry Skin." (Jan. 5, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/dry-skin/DS00560
  • Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Rosacea." Nov. 15, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2010) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/rosacea/DS00308
  • Nordenberg, Tamar. "Face washing dos and don'ts." Discovery Health. (Jan. 5, 2010) http://health.discovery.com/centers/healthbeauty/beautybasics/facewashing.html