Do certain cleansers cause redness?

Redness on the skin.
Could that redness be caused by her cleanser? See more skin care ingredient pictures.

That rosy, just-been-washed complexion may be just the look you strive for when you clean your face each day, but you should make sure that you're not irritating your skin by using a cleanser with harsh ingredients or by washing too frequently. While a small amount of redness may disappear in a few minutes, irritated skin -- whether red or dried-out -- can be a sign that you're using the wrong product for your skin. It may be time to change cleansing products if you consistently have redness or other reactions to the cleanser you currently use.

Strong soaps, irritating additives and water that's too hot or too cold can cause everything from an immediate acne outbreak to long-term damage that won't be recognizable until it's too late. In fact, skin may not always show that it's irritated, so when redness appears, it could be the beginning of more trouble to come. In addition to redness, your face may show signs of dry patches, cracks, rashes, increased sensitivity or flakiness when irritated.


Determining whether your cleanser is the cause of your irritation, though, is the first step. Skin also can become irritated by very hot or very cold water, so try washing with warm or cool water. Even if you're in love with your loofah, you might want to lose it, as scrubbing with abrasive sponges or washcloths can create redness. Washing your face gently using your fingertips to distribute the cleanser is a better way to go and won't cause irritation.

Perhaps your routine isn't to blame - but is the culprit your cleanser? Before you pitch it and head to the drugstore to buy something else, read on to find out which types of cleansers can be the most troublesome.


Cleansers and Skin Irritation

Clean shouldn't equal red, but some harsh ingredients in skin cleansers can lead to irritation. This may be especially true if you have sensitive skin overall, but some specific ingredients can cause more trouble than they're worth.

In general, avoid strong soaps, which can strip natural oils from your skin and leave it too dry. Additives like perfumes and dyes can also have an irritating effect on your skin. If you think this might be your problem, look for products labeled as being free of dyes and perfumes.


First and foremost, check the label -- some ingredients can spell trouble. Many skin care products contain alcohol, which can dry skin abnormally fast and could even cause added wrinkles after extensive use. Exceptions to this include cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol, which are used as thickening agents and are nonirritating. Would you ever use nail polish remover on your face? Check the label of the product you use because acetone, a harsh chemical commonly found in nail polish remover, is sometimes used in skin care products that are intended to treat acne or oily skin. Redness and irritation are possible side effects for some people who use products with acetone. Other potentially irritating ingredients range from menthol to citrus oils.

Overall, if the product you use causes redness or even tingling, it may be too harsh. Stop using a cleanser that causes irritation.

In addition to the type of cleanser you use, other factors may influence whether you experience redness or irritation when you wash your face. To find out how to know if your skin is clean, or if it's simply irritated, read the next page.


Knowing When Your Skin Is Clean or Irritated

Think of red as a stop sign. When you're scrubbing your skin and it turns red, you're irritating it. Redness is not a clean sign. Try washing your face gently, using only your hands or a soft washcloth. Cleaning your face with a loofah or scrub mitts can irritate your skin without making it any cleaner. Rough scrubbing also can cause breakouts in those who are prone to acne.

Using very hot or very cold water -- or steaming or icing your skin -- can have an irritating effect as well. Instead, use warm water and limit your bath or shower to 15 minutes; any longer can strip necessary oils from your skin. You should avoid washing your face multiple times throughout the day for the same reason -- twice a day is the limit, especially for middle-aged or older adults, who are stripping the oils that can keep their skin appearing soft. Even people with acne will benefit the most from a mild cleanser twice daily because skin that's irritated from abrasive soaps, cleansers, toners or astringents is more likely to break out.


Overall, skin cleansers don't have to cause pain, redness or tingling to be effective. If your skin appears to have been irritated by your new cleanser, stop using it and find one that's milder and a better fit for your skin.

If you're tired of seeing redness on your face and want to learn more about how facial cleansers can cause irritation, visit the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Twelve Ways to Get Better Results from Acne Treatment." 1/14/09. (Accessed 8/30/09)
  • Bailly, Jenny. "The Clear-Skin Makeover." WebMD. 3/20/08. (Accessed 8/30/09)
  • Begoun, Paula. "The Complete Beauty Bible." 2004. (Accessed 8/30/09)
  • Larson, Elaine. "Hygiene of the Skin: When Is Clean Too Clean?" Emerging Infections Diseases 7(2): 2001.
  • Mayo Clinic. "Skin Care: Top Five Habits for Healthy Skin." 12/28/07. (Accessed 8/30/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Acetone, Isopropyl Alcohol and Polysorbate." 6/1/09. (Accessed 8/30/09)