How To Use Active Cleansers, From Dermatologists

Years of excessive exfoliation and far too much time spent prodding and picking in front of a 10X mirror have left my skin temperamental, at best. The truth is, I simply can’t handle active serums the way I used to—vitamin C leaves me red and itchy, and retinol gives me a bumpy, persistent rash. And while my current simplified skincare routine has proven successful, I still find myself wanting the benefit of certain acids without overburdening my moisture barrier.

Enter the active cleanser: a cleanser packed with, you guessed it, active ingredients that promise everything from a brighter complexion to anti-aging benefits. While dermatologists have long sung the praises of gentle, non-soap cleansers (particularly those you can get at the drugstore), active cleansers offer an additional, less irritating opportunity to treat the skin with stronger ingredients since they’re ultimately washed off with water.

For me, swapping out my usual Dr. Loretta Gentle Hydrating Cleanser ($35) with an active cleanser a few times a week has been seriously game-changing—it keeps my pores unclogged and my skin baby soft. It’s one of my go-to tips when approached for skin-care advice, thanks to the gentle-yet-effective results it delivers. And while I tend to gravitate toward cleansers with active ingredients like lactic acid and benzoyl peroxide, you can find top-notch cleansers with an array of actives, including salicylic acid (for fighting acne), niacinamide (for calming skin), glycolic acid (for exfoliation), and azelaic acid (for brightening). But in order to get the full benefits from your active cleanser, it’s essential that you use it properly.

The right way to use an active cleanser

I know what you’re probably thinking: How can you possibly mess up washing your face? But it’s not always as simple as a quick scrub and rinse. As board-certified dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, MD, explains, it’s important “that actives have the opportunity to interact with the cleansing agent properly.” In other words, products need some time to do to their thing, and this is especially true with those that have active ingredients. This can be done one of two ways: with movement of the product (i.e. rubbing it on your face) or more indirectly over time.

In order to ensure your active ingredients, well, activate, it’s imperative that you leave the cleanser on your skin for at least 60 seconds, says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD Otherwise, when the cleanser is applied to the skin, it’s washed away before it can do what it’s designed to do.

Dr. Hirsch says to think of it as insurance: By leaving your active cleanser on the skin for at least one minute, you’re giving it more time to work its magic so that you can reap the full benefits of the formula. Not only that, but cleansing for a full 60 seconds also helps soften the skin and clean off the pollution, dirt, and sweat from the day. In other words, those extra precious seconds help thoroughly cleanse the skin, which in turn allows active ingredients to penetrate deeper and work better.

While you can certainly set a timer, many dermatologists say counting to 60 in your head is more than sufficient—as is singing your ABCs (out loud or in your head, whichever you fancy), since the full song is roughly a minute long. Regardless, experts strongly suggest keeping time in some fashion, since most people only end up cleansing for around 10 to 15 seconds.

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But be careful to stick to that one-minute time limit—no more or no less.

“There is a balance,” Zeichner warns. “Cleansing ingredients are not designed to be left on the skin for extended periods of time. When it comes to cleansing, there can be too much of a good thing. even the most gentle cleansers can cause skin irritation, if they are left in place and not rinsed off the way they should be.”

The 60-second rule is a serious game changer when it comes to active cleansers, but it’s a lesson worth applying to any sort of cleansing, ingredients aside. After all, taking the extra time to really clean off the day’s dirt and grime and allow your cleanser the chance to penetrate the skin is never a bad thing.

Shop active cleansers

For fighting acne

Herbivore, Aquarius BHA + Blue Tansy Clarifying Cleanser — $26.00

The salicylic acid molecules in this face wash dive way down deep into your pores, clearing out acne-causing dirt and bacteria to keep your complexion clear. And not only does the blue tansy in the formula give it it’s beautiful cerulean shade (which, FWIW, will look gorgeous on your vanity), but it also helps calm inflammation and soothe redness.

Augustinus Bader, The Cream Cleansing Gel with TFC8® Gentle Cleanser — $70.00

For evening out skin texture

Murad, AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser — $46.00

Developed with dermatologists, this formula delivers a double dose of chemical and physical exfoliation via a thoughtful blend of alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids and jojoba beads. Lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acids work together to resurface your complexion, while itty-bitty beads gently whisk away dead skin cells.

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