Back to Basics

A closer look at facial cleansers.
Back to Basics

Creams and serums receive a lot of attention from skincare professionals and aesthetic patients, but cleansers are at the core of a homecare regimen. Helping your patients find the right cleansers for their skin types and concerns can lead to faster improvements and better long-term skin health. To understand the different cleansing products available today, it helps to go back and revisit the evolution of soaps and facial cleansing ingredients.

The first accounts of using soap-like materials for cleansing date back to 2500 BCE, although soap similar to what we use today (made of oil, water and lye) was in­­vented between 600 and 300 BCE. The actual steps necessary to produce soap were first published in 1775, and the first manufactured soap—sold in individually wrapped and branded bars—appeared in England in 1884. Driven by consumers’ desire for cleanliness and freshness, the soap industry rapidly expanded, and many of the original soap manufacturers—including Colgate Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and Unilever—are still around today.

The increase in soap use at the turn of the century led to new concerns such as dry skin, itching and irritation, and mild cleansing bars formulated with synthetic detergents debuted in 1948. These gentler versions have since re-placed their predecessors and evolved to provide myriad benefits for the skin, ranging from moisturization to sanitation in solid, liquid, gel, cream, foam and cloth forms.

The goal of cleansing is to remove dirt, oil, dead surface cells and bacteria from the skin, and cleaning products rely on surfactants to do this. Surfactants reduce the surface tension on the skin and emulsify dirt. They are often combined with: emollients, occlusives and/or humectants to hydrate the skin; ingredients with drug-like effects to address concerns such as acne; and perfumes for an enhanced sensory experience. The combination of ingredients, the form of the cleanser (i.e., bar or liquid) and the type of surfactant dictate the effect the cleanser has on the stratum corneum.

Types of Surfactants

Anionic (negatively charged) surfactants have the most cleansing power and generate the most “suds” or foam. True soap and sodium lauryl sulfate fall into this category. These cleansing agents have a strong irritating effect on the skin because they cause swelling of the cell membranes and strip lipids from the skin.

Cationic (positively charged) surfactants have lower detergent properties than anionic surfactants, yet are irritating to the skin as well. These ingredients are typically used for their antimicrobial properties, and they can cause dermatitis in those who wash their hands frequently. A few examples of cationic surfactants are cetrimide, chlorhexidine and benzalkonium chloride.

Amphoteric surfactants vary in efficacy depending on the pH of the solution in which they are formulated. These are popular cleansing agents because lather well, exhibit good cleansing power and moderate antibacterial benefits while causing minimal irritation. Examples in-clude cocamidopropyl betaine, cocoamphoacetate and cocamphodiacetate.

Non-ionic surfactants include coco glucoside, lauryl glucoside, decyl glucoside and coconut diethan-olamine (cocamide DEA). They are expensive and demonstrate poor cleansing characteristics, but cause less irritation than anionic and cationic surfactants—despite disrupting the skin barrier by solubilizing fatty acids and cholesterol.

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