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What types of cleansers are drying to skin?

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Dry skin is a common dermatological condition that can cause pain, redness, flaking and itching. It can also emphasize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Cleaning dry skin often becomes a balancing act between using ingredients that are effective at removing dirt and bacteria while still protecting or replenishing the natural oils that the human skin produces.

Heredity, weather, diet, age, hormonal changes and some medical conditions and medications have an impact on the way your skin looks and feels. Because skin responds to these internal and external changes, it's important to recognize the type of skin you have so you can choose the best cleansers and moisturizers to maintain it properly.

The first step in purchasing the right cleanser for you is to evaluate your skin:

  • Dry skin - Dry skin can look dull and feel tight. Any lines around the mouth and eyes will be more visible, and you may also see some flaking or redness.

  • Sensitive skin - Often confused with dry skin, sensitive skin may look flaky or inflamed as a result of an allergic reaction and not because of a lack of moisture. If you think you have dry skin because of flaking or itching, you may want to check with a dermatologist or look for products that are hypoallergenic and designed for sensitive skin.

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  • Oily skin - If your face becomes shiny or greasy a couple of hours after you wash it, it's probably on the oily side. If you're currently using an oily skin cleanser that leaves your cheeks and neck feeling dry, you may have combination skin that needs a mild general cleanser with a stronger product for the areas around your forehead, nose and chin.

Once you determine that you do have dry skin, there are some ingredients in cleansers you should take extra care to avoid whenever possible. We'll take a look at them on the next page.

 

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Did You Know?
Your skin is the largest organ in your body. It weighs about 9 pounds and sloughs off 50,000 dead cells each minute. More than a billion tons of atmospheric dust is really minute particles of dead skin floating around our planet [source: The Dermatology Blog].

You may not be able to see it, but your skin has a thin, pH-balanced protective outer film of oil and other ingredients that help keep moisture in and damaging bacteria out. Every time you wash your face, you cause changes in that protective barrier. When it comes to skin protection, that thin film is your best friend. This is particularly true if your skin is naturally dry. The skin cleansing product you choose should avoid damaging your skin's natural oils but still do a good job of removing dirt, dead skin cells and other debris. The goal is to coax dirt off the surface of your skin without interfering with the chemical balancing act that keeps it supple and healthy. If your skin feels tight and uncomfortable after you wash your face, you're using the wrong cleanser.

There could be a number of ingredients contributing to the problem:

  • Soap and strong chemical detergents - Soap has the advantage of being convenient to use. It lowers the surface tension of water, making it easy to lather away dirt and oil. For use on your dry complexion or hands, though, soap will make your skin feel clean for a few moments and then dry and uncomfortable later. If you don't rinse off soap well every time you use it, it will keep drying and irritating your skin for hours afterward, too.

    The culprits are strong detergents, but soap may also contain deodorants, other antibacterial agents, preservatives, dyes and fragrances, all of which can also be drying. If you must use soap, stick with a mild, glycerin variety made especially for dry skin. Soaps formulated for dry skin have a lower pH (in the 5-7 range) and often contain onboard moisturizers that are gentler to your skin [source: Draelos].
  • Antibacterials - Avoid antibacterial ingredients like triclosan and triclocarban. Although removing bacteria is one of the goals of a good scrubbing, antibacterial agents are too strong for dry skin.
  • Fragrances - Added fragrances in cleansers are typically drying and can trigger skin reactions like itching and redness. When you shop for cleansing products, prefer the term "fragrancefree" over claims that a product is unscented. Sometimes cosmetic and skincare companies use fragrances to mask the odor of strong chemical ingredients and sell them with the label "unscented" because they don't include an identifiable scent, like rose or lavender.
  • Parabens - A common cosmetic preservative, parabens like butylparaben, propylparaben, ethyparaben and methylparaben in cleansing lotions can cause flaking, itching and discomfort. Although still considered safe by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a 2004 study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found the presence of parabens in breast tumors, so there may be more than one reason to avoid this ingredient [source: FDA].
  • Alcohol - Some types of alcohol are very drying to skin while others are actually moisturizers in disguise. Steer clear of ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, ethanol, methanol and alcohol denat.
  • Dyes, additives and preservatives- Unless a cleanser contains ingredients you know are effective for the treatment of dry skin (more on that in the next section) or you're buying a product specifically designed for dry skin, avoid preparations with lots of ingredients you don't recognize. Many of them are preservatives, additives, pigments and stabilizers that can change your skin's pH and cause unexpected skin reactions.

There are lots of skin cleansers on the market and even more ingredient combinations that can go into them. Product ingredients are listed on the labeling by quantity, with the most plentiful ingredient appearing first. (One exception is active or therapeutic ingredients that are always listed first regardless of their concentrations in the product.)

Although a few skin care product manufacturers list percentage amounts for their ingredients, most do not. If you elect to purchase cleansers containing ingredients like alcohol and sodium lauryl sulfate, make sure they occur below the first few items on the ingredient list to help ensure they're present in small quantities that will be less likely to irritate your skin.

Now that you know what you don't want in your cleanser, let's take a look at a few ingredients that will help you combat dry skin.

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You don't always have to clean and moisturize your skin in two separate steps. If your skin is dry, you can purchase cleansing products that clean, moisturize, protect and refresh your skin all at once. This is more than just a time saving choice. One problem with even mild cleansers is that they can disturb the skin's acid mantle, the oily layer that helps skin stay hydrated and repel bacteria. The faster you replace moisture after cleaning your skin, the more likely it is that you'll be able to keep it hydrated, supple and smooth between washings.

To combat dry skin, look for these ingredients in the cleanser you choose:

  • Emollients- Natural skin oils float on the skin's surface, holding vital moisture inside and protecting it from evaporation. Emollients mimic the action of natural oils by creating a barrier between your skin and the air. When you use cleansers that include emollients, you're cleaning your skin, moisturizing it and adding a shielding film before the moisture you've added can be lost. If your skin is dry, an emollient will make the most of any moisture you apply as part of your skincare regimen.
  • Fatty alcohols - A type of emollient that's beneficial to your skin, fatty alcohols are among the most misunderstood skincare ingredients. Because they contain the word alcohol, it's counterintuitive to think of them as good choices for dry skin care. Lanolin alcohol, derived from lanolin, is a natural emollient and very effective. Other beneficial fatty alcohols are stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol and cetyl alcohol.
  • Lipid-free preparations - Lipid-free formulations clean skin without fats. They also leave behind a moisturizing film that protects and hydrates dry skin. Lipid-free preparations are gentle and effective but may take some getting used to because they don't provide the rich lather and bracing, clean feel associated with many skin cleansing products. Some of the gentlest cleansers on the market are lipid-free.
  • Synthetic detergents - Often derived from petroleum products, synthetic detergents have a lower pH that's less disruptive and potentially damaging to skin.
  • Humectants- Humectants are compounds that attract and hold moisture. When added to your skin, they help keep it hydrated. Adding humectants to a cleanser is like providing extra insurance. Humectants help restore moisture that strenuous washing takes away. Common humectants used in skincare preparations are glycerin, collagen, keratin, elastin, propylene glycol and butylene glycol. Cleansers containing natural phospholipids, like lecithin that draw moisture from the air to help hydrate your skin, are good choices, too.

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Sources

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