What types of cleansers are drying to skin?

Drying Ingredients in Cleansers

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.