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Am I Washing Expensive Cleanser Straight Down The Drain?

Welcome to Beauty In A Tik, where each week we put TikTok's viral beauty hacks and innovative trends to the test.
Having worked in beauty for years, I like to think I've got certain things nailed. I'm a liquid eyeliner stan, so that includes getting my feline flick right every single time (it can sense fear). I can achieve air-dried waves with very few products.
I assumed that washing my face correctly was also something I had down, especially as I'm diligent with my skin care. But recently, TikTok's most outspoken board certified dermatologist, Dr. Shereene Idriss (aka #Pillowtalkderm), proved me wrong.
In a TikTok video with 79.9k views and counting, Dr. Idriss (founder of Idriss Dermatology in NYC), dropped the bombshell that most of us are using cleansers — specifically active cleansers, which include ingredients like exfoliating acids (e.g. salicylic, lactic, and glycolic acid) — all wrong. Not everyone will have an active cleanser in their routine, of course, but they're incredibly popular among those of us with skin gripes like breakouts, blackheads, and excess oil. Hydrating hyaluronic acid, brightening vitamin C, and oil-reducing niacinamide also count as active ingredients, and no doubt at least one of them is inside the face wash you're using right now.
Dr. Idriss hinted to her 94.2k followers that they were wasting time and — perhaps more importantly at the moment — their hard-earned cash by splashing their face with water, massaging in their active cleanser for a little bit, and then rinsing it off. In the video, Dr. Idriss says that you'll get the most benefits if you let the cleanser sit on your skin for one or two minutes before washing it off, and that the hack could even "give you the skin of your dreams." That's a bold claim but it seems a handful of Dr. Idriss' followers are sold. "Did this and helped with my breakouts," wrote one in response, while others thanked her for introducing the trick into their skin-care routine.

Dr. Idriss says that you'll get the most benefits if you let the cleanser sit on your skin for one or two minutes before washing it off.

Before I get into how the TikTok hack is helping me, Dr. Idriss told Refinery29 that not everyone needs an active cleanser. "The majority of people just need a basic cleanser that's going to remove all your makeup, sunscreen, dirt, and simply cleanse your skin." I love Medik8 Gentle Cleanse and REN Evercalm Gentle Cleansing Milk, or CeraVe Cream To Foam Cleanser, if you have less to spend.
"With that being said," continued Dr. Idriss, "if you have oily or acne-prone skin, you can benefit from an active cleanser with something like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid to help regulate your oil production and excess sebum." Dr. Idriss suggests including this in your routine once or twice a week.
I've been using Trinny London Better Off AHA/PHA Gel Cleanser, which combines lactic acid, malic acid, and lactobionic acid for gentle but effective exfoliation. I'm on my second bottle of the stuff and while I noticed a positive difference in my skin the first time around (it was a lot smoother and brighter), it hasn't been working as well for me lately. So I decided to incorporate Dr. Idriss' trick into my evening routine.
After taking off my makeup with micellar water, I slathered three pumps of the cleanser over my dry skin and massaged it in well, taking care to avoid my delicate eye area and lips. You can scroll through TikTok or do some chores, but I simply go about brushing my teeth for two minutes. Then just splash your face with water (always tepid, never hot), massage in the cleanser a little more, then rinse it away.
Active ingredients work best when they have good contact time with skin. So immediately washing off an active cleanser isn't going to benefit your skin. In fact, it could be a real waste of money. I didn't realize just how wasteful I had been until I stuck with this TikTok hack as part of my nighttime skin-care ritual. A few weeks in, my skin is gleaming in all the right places (you can see the light glinting off my cheeks in the picture above), and I no longer wake up in the morning with a family of new whiteheads. Don't get me wrong, this won't rid you of breakouts entirely. I still get them (thanks, hormones) but I'm noticing my skin become clearer and more even in tone. I combine the hack with my new favorite skin-smoothing serum, and while the change is a subtle one, it's noticeable to me.

Immediately washing off an active cleanser isn't going to benefit your skin. In fact, it could be a real waste of money.

How do you know if this cleansing hack will be good for your skin type? Dr. Idriss says it depends on the level of the active ingredient and your skin's tolerance. If you have very sensitive or reactive skin and don't do well with certain ingredients in leave-on products (like serums and moisturizers), it might not be the best idea to let them sit on your skin in cleanser form. If your skin isn't sensitive or reactive and you're getting to know active ingredients like exfoliating acids, this is a great way in.
Which active ingredient should you go for? "Benzoyl peroxide is a great active ingredient to have in a cleanser if you have acne-prone skin," says Dr. Idriss. Her go-to is the Panoxyl cleanser at 4% benzoyl peroxide.
"Salicylic acid is another great ingredient to have in a cleanser, especially for oily skin types," says Dr. Idriss (it's also good if you get lots of blackheads). She likes affordable Neutrogena. I also rate The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Cleanser, which boasts 2% salicylic acid (an effective percentage for unclogging pores fast) and Carbon Theory Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Gel Cleanser, which contains 0.5% salicylic acid but is still really effective.
What about active ingredients like vitamin C? Do they have the same impact in cleanser form as they do in a leave-on serum, for example? "If you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, I would stick to including vitamin C in your serum or moisturizer step," says Dr. Idriss. "One to two minutes in your cleanser isn't enough to fully absorb the daily antioxidant protection needed for your skin. So if you're using a cleanser with vitamin C, still include a serum or moisturizer."

"If you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, I would stick to including vitamin C in your serum or moisturizer step."

Dr. Shereene Idriss (aka #Pillowtalkderm)
There's one hard and fast rule when using actives like exfoliating acids or benzoyl peroxide in skin care, even in a cleanser: Always wear a high factor sunscreen during the day. Dr. Idriss explains that you can continue with your normal routine after cleansing (applying your serums and moisturizers). But as some active ingredients can make skin sensitive to sunlight, it always pays to follow up with SPF during the daytime. Even when it's cold and cloudy outside.
I've tried lots of questionable TikTok skincare hacks for Beauty In A Tik, including slugging, reversing the order of my routine, and even skin icing. Some of them have lived up to the hype, but not all of them are dermatologist-approved like this one. It's definitely something I'm going to stick to for the foreseeable.
This story was originally published on Refinery29UK.
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