Image: woman in bathtub
Nicolas Moore
Since we have to wash the day's grime off our faces anyway, wouldn't it be swell if we could also fight wrinkles or repair environmental damage at the same time?
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updated 11/19/2008 9:17:21 AM ET 2008-11-19T14:17:21

Scanning the labels of new cleansers making big skin-boosting promises, we find ourselves inexplicably thinking of the “X-Files” movie that came out this year — the one subtitled “I Want to Believe.” Since we have to wash the day's grime off our faces anyway, wouldn't it be swell if we could also fight wrinkles or protect our skin from environmental abuse at the same time?

Who wouldn't want their cleanser to do that? Let's go out and buy some! And that's right about when our inner Dana Scully shouts, “Hello, have you forgotten that you rinse it all off with water? That cleansers literally go right down the drain?”

This might have been true in the past, but the latest generation of washes may win over even the biggest skeptics. Some new ingredients have rinse-resistant staying power; others offer the more subtle bonus of increasing the effectiveness of your other creams and serums.

And while any benefits will be gradual, there's no question that “it certainly can't hurt to use them,” says Joseph Cincotta, a cosmetic scientist. “Every little bit helps.” So, which of the new washes are worth believing in? The truth is right here.

Minimize wrinkles and brown spots
Anti-aging ingredients such as glycolic acid, vitamin C, and retinol are now popping up in cleansers. But can they be effective when they're on and off the skin in a flash (or rather, a splash)?

With glycolic acid, long used in creams for its ability to smooth skin and diminish fine lines, the answer is a resounding yes. “In a cleanser, glycolic acid binds with water and exfoliates skin, softening lines and reducing pigmentation,” says Francesca Fusco, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Bonus: “Since it helps remove the layer of dead skin cells, whatever you apply next will have enhanced penetration,” Fusco says. The key is to choose a formula with a concentration that's high enough to be effective but not so high as to cause irritation. Jim Hammer, a cosmetic chemist, says, “Between 5 and 10 percent is probably a good place to be,” and recommends leaving it on the face for at least a minute. Try DDF Glycolic Exfoliating Wash with 5 percent glycolic acid.

As icky as it sounds, a cleanser that leaves behind a residue on your skin can actually be a good thing.

That's the good news. The flip side is that other anti-aging ingredients, including vitamin C and retinol, don't work as well in cleansers as they do in moisturizers because they aren't in contact with the skin long enough to be effective, says Hammer. Premoistened cleansing wipes, which don't typically get rinsed off, can deliver these ingredients to the skin, especially for people who want a gradual introduction to retinol. We like L'Oréal Paris Revitalift Radiant Smoothing Wet Cleansing Towelettes, which contain vitamin C, and Pond's Dramatic Results Age-Defying Cleansing Towelettes, with retinol. “If you're able to tolerate the amount of retinol in the wipes,” Fusco says, “you could move on to a stronger serum or lotion.”

Protect skin from the sun
As icky as it sounds, a cleanser that leaves behind a residue on your skin can actually be a good thing — as long as that something is sunscreen. Broad-spectrum SPF cleansers such as St. Ives Elements Protective Cleanser and Freeze 24–7 Ice Shield Facial Cleanser with Sunscreen

SPF 15 use rinseproof technology and don't feel sticky (or interfere with basic cleansing). The St. Ives cleanser, for example, contains microencapsulated sunscreen and two film-forming agents, says Dennis Abbeduto, a senior scientist at St. Ives. “This makes the sunscreen stick to the skin, while other ingredients remove dirt and oil.” Dermatologists are enthusiastic about SPF cleansers since they appear to really work. Because they are more for incidental exposure than hard-core protection, however, experts recommend using a moisturizer with SPF 15 or higher.

Repair environmental damage
The free radicals that skin encounter on a daily basis from sun and pollution reduce the collagen and elastin in the underlying layers of skin, causing dullness and sagging. And while cosmetics companies have been throwing traditional antioxidants like vitamin A and E into cleansers for years to counteract the free radicals, “these are oil-soluble vitamins, so they are generally found at extremely low levels in water-based cleansers,” says Hammer.

Experts are more intrigued by a new ingredient Chanel recently introduced in its Précision line of cleansers: a tulip-tree-leaf extract intended to target the residue that pollution can leave on skin. “The tulip extract works as a magnet that traps pollutants accumulated on the skin, then rinses them away with water,” explains Armelle Souraud, Chanel's scientific spokeswoman. As for whether the tulip-tree extract rids skin of environmental residue better than a regular cleanser, Cincotta says, “Most cleansers will remove environmental grime, but if you can leave a barrier of protection from pollutants on the skin, that could be beneficial. I'd want to see studies conducted to determine both the amount of tulip-tree wax left on the skin after cleansing, and the amount of pollutants the cleanser was able to buffer, to see if it's legitimate.”

Hydrate dry skin
Many women with parched skin wait until after they've washed their faces to address flakiness and tightness with hydrating serums and rich creams. But a new cleanser packed with peptides (strings of amino acids frequently found in anti-aging products) may make us consider backing up a step. When used in cleansers, peptides may have a hydrating effect, which can help alleviate the itchy feeling skin may have after washing. In a company study of the peptide-laced Olay Regenerist Deep Hydrating Mousse Cleanser, machine measurements showed higher levels of moisture in participants' skin after they used the cleanser twice a day for three days. The added moisture can plump the skin and keep its protective outer layer intact and able to “resist the forces that lead to aging, like free radicals, better than unmoisturized skin,” says Fusco. To that end, participants in the Olay study also said the cleanser left their skin softer, smoother, and with fewer visible fine lines and wrinkles.

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