The Wash-Off Difference: How Active Ingredients in Cleansers Relate to Those We Leave on the Skin


Actives in our wash-off products—think face cleansers and body washes—like retinol, glycolic acid and vitamin C are all the rage right now. But, when we think about our hard-hitting serums and moisturizers that stay on our faces throughout the day and night, we can’t help but think: Are the ingredients in our cleansers really doing anything when we’re rinsing them off within seconds? Ahead, industry professionals answer our questions about the wash-off difference and whether our actives are as effective when they come in this form.

Do actives in cleansers work?

According to brand manager of Soapbox, Jessica Busick, “Active washes work by blending the key active ingredients with a nourishing base that helps support penetration.” Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD concurs: “If an ingredient is found in ‘wash-off’ products like a cleanser or a body wash, then it’s often able to do its job within seconds,” he says. “Glycolic and salicylic acid, which are oftentimes found in face cleansers, are both great exfoliants and they also prepare the skin for leave-on ingredients.”

Cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos adds retinol—we particularly like Olay’s Cleansing & Renewing Nighttime Body Wash with Retinol ($9)—to the mix: “Ingredients that are lipid-soluble like retinoids—which have the benefit of efficacy at lower concentrations—can also work better in wash-off products.”

New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD and Dover, OH facial plastic surgeon David Hartman, MD offer benzoyl peroxide as another example of a fast-acting ingredient. “If this is left on the skin for about 60 seconds, it is able to get rid of dead skin cells,” says Dr. Day. Dr. Hartman adds that two other effective ingredients often found in wash-off products are maleic acid and jojoba oil.

Are they as effective as a topical you would leave on the skin?

“Most ingredients that are lipid-soluble—think antioxidants like vitamin E—have the same effect when they’re washed off versus kept on the skin,” says Dobos. “But things start to shift when we look at the ingredient’s ability to penetrate the skin. The ability of wash-off ingredients to deposit into the skin at the level of leave-on ingredients is probably not likely.”

For this reason, Busick advises waiting as long as possible—Dr. Day recommends anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds—for your products to penetrate the surface of the skin before washing them off. “With both leave-on and wash-off products, you’re going to want to give the product a few minutes to absorb into the skin or hair versus quickly rinsing or moving on to the next product in your regimen. Take your time sudsing up and lathering with those body washes in the shower and also allowing time to let serums dry and absorb before laying on another serum or moisturizer.”

Are there any active ingredients that don’t work in a wash-off vehicle?

According to Dobos, ingredients that are water-soluble or hard to stabilize, like vitamin C or hyaluronic acid, are challenging to deliver in a typical cleansing product. “There are derivatives like sodium ascorbyl phosphate which are more stable but, of course, this is a less active form,” she says.

On the other hand, an ingredient that works great in both forms is tea tree oil. “It’s great added to moisturizers, but also really effective as a wash-off in topical treatments, too,” says Busick. “Another is argan oil, which easily penetrates into skin or hair because of its smaller molecule sizes. Even if it is washed out, as long as you give it a little time to work its way into skin or hair, it’s an amazing benefit-rich ingredient.”

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