In the middle of last week—what some took to calling “December 37th,” for the spillover of chaos unfolding at the Capitol—I managed to peel myself away from the news for two brief respites. One was an episode of How to With John Wilson, the filmmaker’s series on HBO Max, which overlays street footage with narration that meanders toward profound. The episode was called “How to Cover Your Furniture” and opens with shots of his cat-clawed sofa, juxtaposed with the kind of shrink-wrapped upholstery owned by risk-averse retirees. After John Wilson zips a new plastic cover onto his tufted chair, he empties a jar of salsa on the seat—a sterile, short-lived thrill.
Getting dirty, and venturing back toward clean, is part of life, isn’t it? Which led me to the second reprieve of the night: a dollop of Naturopathica’s manuka honey cleansing balm, massaged into thirsty skin. It’s prosaic, the act of washing your face. Day in, day out. But something about the way the formula invites an impromptu temple rub had the effect of stopping time. Or maybe restarting it, given the craving lately for an honest-to-god new beginning.
“Look, it’s a form of self-care, to put yourself first and make sure that you are presenting your best face for the day,” said Corey L. Hartman, M.D., founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. We were speaking on Wednesday evening, hours after the Capitol siege, which made it a strange time to talk about skin care. “I get it, but—you know, I know—life goes on,” he said, echoing the mantra of past months, “and we’ll do what we need to do.”
“I always tell patients that you’re going to have an armamentarium of products,” the dermatologist continued, describing the handful of cleansers at the ready: “the one when you’re having maybe your most potent breakouts; the one when your having some irritation; the one that’s your workhorse that gets you through most situations.” For Hartman, that last formula has “a little something extra in there”—such as hydroxy acids to brighten and exfoliate the skin, albeit gently. “A cleanser should not feel bad, at any point, when you’re using it. That kind of thing, especially if you have dark skin, leads to inflammation,” he cautioned, “and that’s where you get hyperpigmentation.”
But more than “do no harm,” washing your face should feel good—on a sensory level and an emotional one. “Routines for humans are very important,” said Amy Wechsler, M.D., a dermatologist and psychiatrist in New York, “so a skin-care routine sounds like a little thing, but it’s not.” A rinse in the morning doubles as a wake-up call; the evening wash helps you “take the day off. Well, you might not have left your apartment or your house,” Wechsler said—a very relatable point—but the important thing is to “keep the diurnal pattern going.”
So what goes in that armamentarium? The possibilities are many—so long as the formula doesn’t overdo it and strip the skin of its natural moisture. Wechsler, an advisor to Chanel Skincare, finds herself drawn to gentle milky cleansers but recognizes the oil-fights-oil merits of a balm formula; micellar water is good for sweeping away surface-level dirt, Hartman adds. The 16 here are a starting point to refining your personal arsenal. In the meantime, with John Wilson’s show renewed for a second season, let’s hope he graces us with a primer on “How to Wash Your Face.”
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Naturopathica Manuka Honey Cleansing Balm
The namesake star ingredient lends more than an earthy-sweet scent. Manuka honey, a varietal out of New Zealand, has a reparative effect on skin as well as humectant properties. Applied to dry winter skin, the formula acts like an end-of-day salve, dissolving accumulated oils and then rinsing away clean.
Reflekt 1 Daily Exfoliating Face Wash
Gentle enough to use twice a day, this formula takes an easy-going approach to exfoliation, with biodegradable jojoba-ester beads that melt into skin. It’s a favorite in the shower: a sensorial sweep from chest to forehead, with hyaluronic acid and glycerin to leave everything feeling supple.
Humanrace Rice Powder Cleanser
Pharrell’s skin-care range, which landed in November, naturally sold out fast. Plenty of people are eager to replicate the musician’s preternatural glow, which starts with this cleanser in a refillable capsule. Moistened with water, the powder transforms into a lightly foaming wash, with micronized rice and fruit acids lending a surface-level refresh. New converts can mark their calendars: Fresh stock arrives Tuesday at noon PST.
Furtuna Acqua Serena Micellar Essence
There’s an elegant ease of use with no-rinse micellar waters, the category of water-based cleansers (best applied with a cotton pad) whose tiny oil micelles attract and clear away debris. This version by the clean Sicilian line includes olive-leaf water and a foraged antioxidant complex for a lasting boost. It makes for a quick refresh after a masked errand.
Chanel Le Lait Anti-Pollution Cleansing Milk
The most delicate skin—sensitized by dryness or active ingredients—welcomes a gentle cleanser. Wechsler, who uses prescription Retin-A weekly, recommends this milky version to minimize irritation. The formula’s marine actives also help fortify the skin and offer some protection against environmental stress.
Epara Cleansing Oil
With a soothing blend of oils (including moringa, marula, argan, and ylang ylang), this cleanser has a way of reanimating skin as it works to dissolve away makeup and impurities. London-based founder Ozohu Adoh also included two ingredients—licorice root extract and plankton extract—that help brighten the complexion and minimize hyperpigmentation.
SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel
This triple-acid formula works to decongest pores and refine surface-level texture by way of light chemical exfoliation. For patients with oily skin and anti-aging concerns, Hartman calls it a “workhorse cleanser,” though it’s still gentle enough to use twice daily. Consistency, he stresses, is everything.
Augustinus Bader The Cleansing Balm
The German skin-care line recently expanded its lineup to include this cleansing balm, which invites a meditative unwind. Another reason to take your time: The nourishing formula includes the brand’s proprietary TFC8 complex to stimulate cellular renewal. An accompanying muslin cloth helps whisk it all away.
Tatcha The Rice Wash
The pleasing lather of this cream formula comes with a pH-balancing base, which means skin is left dewy, not stripped. Rice powder gives an ultra-gentle polish, while a duo of hyaluronic acid and Japanese algae helps maintain hydration levels and reinforce the skin’s outermost protective barrier.
Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Pure + E.O. Free Oil Cleanser
A joint effort from two Bay Area skin savants—Holey, a holistic facialist, and Veronique, a revered formulator—this cleanser is attuned to the microbiome and aims to leave the skin’s natural lipids intact. It coaxes debris out of pores and follicles, without the irritation that can sometimes arise with added fragrance.
Superegg Gentle Elements Cleanser
Frothy like the namesake whites, this wash from the new skin-care startup uses vegan ingredients to mimic the beneficial components of the egg. The formula hits a plush sensorial note and has a well-rounded approach to efficacy: alpha hydroxy acid for light resurfacing, micro-encapsulated beads that melt on contact, and hyaluronic acid for bounce.
Protocol Double Alpha Hydroxy Cleanser with Green Tea Extract and Aloe
Created by a savvy startup out of Los Angeles, this gel-like sudsing cleanser delivers light, everyday exfoliation with a blend of lactic and glycolic acids. (The formula is designed to be gentle enough to use alongside its own retinol serum.) The wash can also be applied as a quick resurfacing mask.
Loum Stress Detox Enzymatic Cleanser
Amid a rise in stress-induced breakouts, this recently launched brand aims to even the keel. In addition to its trademark botanical complex (which combines whole-plant CBD extract, micro-algae, and wild indigo extract), this lightly bubbly cleanser addresses pores with a blend of papaya and pumpkin enzymes; mandelic acid also helps balance oil production.
Ranavat Cream Cleanser
Born of Ayurvedic principles, this cleanser succeeds with elegant restraint, from the soothing formula to the pale-pink aluminum tube. The traditional herb manjistha is included for its purifying and anti-inflammatory effects; sesame seed and rose also aid in nurturing and restoring delicate skin.
Dr. Zenovia Skincare 10% Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Cleanser
Targeted to help keep hormonal acne in check, this dermatologist-formulated face wash features a micronized version of its titular ingredient, to minimize irritation while working to clear pores and blemishes. The formula also includes a botanical complex to boost skin health, as well as the antioxidant bakuchiol.
Lesse Refining Cleanser
This charcoal-boosted formula with a featherlight lather is an elegant one to add into the mix; here, physical exfoliation arrives by way of finely ground apricot shell. Along with aloe vera, a blend of floral extracts and oils (coconut, camellia seed, tea tree) helps maintain the skin’s delicate balance.