Crazy Snail Lady Note: The cleansers discussed in this post were given to me by retailers for review. To learn more about my sponsorship policy and testing schedule, please visit this page. There are no referral or affiliate links in this post.
About a week ago, I posted some teaser news about one of my favorite brands, COSRX. The news was that COSRX is developing a mild, low-pH facial cleanser that’s almost ready for release!
Holding on to that “squeaky clean” feeling
For many readers, the news came as a welcome surprise–but I imagine that for others, it was something of a head-scratcher. Why does cleanser pH matter, and why would you even want a mild cleanser?
Strong facial cleansers, the kind that give your face that “squeaky clean” feeling, are as popular as ever, as COSRX Marketing Team Assistant Manager Lee Hye-young told me. I’d emailed her to inquire why both of COSRX’s cleansers, the Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Cleanser and the Hyaluronic Acid Hydra Foam Cleanser, have such high pH levels. High-pH cleansers strip away the natural oils of the skin’s protective barrier, compromising the acid mantle and allowing moisture to escape from within the skin and bacteria to infiltrate. Even COSRX’s foaming cleansers are pretty much just soap, as cosmetic chemist Stephen Alain confirmed when I sent him their info for his thoughts. Soap on one’s face is, according to many among the science-minded skincare community, a very bad thing.
Hye-young reached out to COSRX’s research team and responded:
“To answer your question, let’s begin with how the cleansers are produced.
“Most of the foaming cleanser is produced by neutralizing the acidic fatty acid with the alkali-metal salts. Our cleanser’s composition stabilizes as these two components are mixed well. In the process of mixing, the cleanser becomes strong alkali, which is normal for most of the cleansers on the cosmetic market.
“There are two reasons for COSRX cleansers show higher pH: 1) Unique preference of Korean consumers 2) Formulation and texture.
“Korean consumers favor squeaky cleaning products, making people to feel no impurities are left. Our products are developed based on their need. Only the alkali cleanser can leave such feeling by removing the oiliness completely. Then the concern might rise since the higher pH cleanser would irritate the skin and take both oiliness and moisture away from the skin. Therefore, glycerin is added to the formula to resolve such concerns. Glycerin has a moisturizing property, so it prevents skin dryness and irritation. Our formula comprises 30% glycerin, while other cleansers with the same pH on the market comprise only about 10% glycerin.
“Our cleansers satisfy the needs of consumers suffering from acne or sensitive skin to make skin oil-less and clean. Hyaluronic Hydra Foam Cleanser and Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Cleanser both contain enough glycerin to protect irritated, or acne-prone while giving out the fresh feeling after the wash.
“To sustain the formula with the listed effects, the cleansers must maintain pH9. If it goes below, the formula is unstable and active ingredients start dissociating. The destruction of formula cause production of ‘free fatty acid,’ which is harmful and irritable to the skin. For these reasons, the cleansers have to be alkali. On this year April, one of our global customer suggested the need of mild acidic cleanser. We began investigation, research, and development of such cleanser, and it is almost ready to meet COSRX customers.”
The key takeaway that I got from Hye-young’s response is that ultimately, the decision to make their cleansers alkaline was a response to market demand. That’s a pretty valid reason, sadly enough.
So what do you do if the combined forces of The Beauty Brains and Skin and Tonics and Snow White and the Asian Pear (and me) can’t convince you to look for a mild, low-pH facial cleanser that won’t give you that “squeaky clean” feeling?
Why would you want an alkaline cleanser?
Despite my own dogmatic insistence on a low-pH cleanser like Hada Labo’s Gokujyun cleansing foam or Missha Super Aqua Oxygen Micro Visible Deep Cleanser, I can understand why someone might want to stick with a strong cleanser. A couple of common reasons are:
- Being unwilling (or unable) to take on the additional step and expense of a dedicated makeup remover/double cleansing process
- Feeling unclean when using mild cleansers
- A strict budget that doesn’t allow for the usually slightly more expensive mild acidic cleansers
Saving your skin from the ravages of your cleanser
The first thing to do is to ditch your bar soap, if you’re using an actual bar soap to wash your face. Bar soaps are regulated differently from facial cleansers, and many of them don’t have the full ingredients listed. As with any other step of your skincare routine, you should practice ingredient awareness when it comes to your facial cleanser.
Look for moisturizing ingredients. Hye-Young mentioned glycerin, and that is indeed a common ingredient in the less stripping (yet still thorough and squeaky-producing) foaming cleansers I’ve tried. The higher up on the ingredients lists the glycerin and other moisturizing ingredients are, the better.
Thanks to the generosity of Memebox and Peach and Lily, I was able to try out a couple of foaming cleansers recently. Luckily, I found both of them much less drying than the harsh-ass cleansers I’ve used in the past. I’m not super comfortable giving hard ratings to products that I hesitate to recommend on principle (in this case, because of their pH), but here are some quickie reviews to help you find a less irritating cleanser that you can still be comfortable with.
Mini-review: Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam
If you’re one of those who doesn’t just want a squeaky-clean cleanse, but who wants a cleanser that’s a little bit scrubby as well, then Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam might be the one for you.
The little mini volcanic bits in the cleanser are there to provide some exfoliation and possible pore-cleaning benefits. Below are the ingredients, with the moisturizing ones bolded.
Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam ingredients: Water, glycerin, stearic acid, myristic acid, PEG-32, butylene glycol, potassium hydroxide, lauric acid, hydrogenated silica, lauryl glucoside, volcanic ash (jeju scoria), camellia sinensis leaf extract, citrus unshiu peel extract, opuntia coccinellifera fruit extract, orchid extract, camellia japonica leaf extract, glyceryl stearate, disodium EDTA, lauramide DEA, microcrystalline cellulose, mannitol, silica, zea mays (corn) starch, cocamidopropyl betaine, polyquaternum-7, PEG-100 stearate, sodium benzoate, fragrance
CosDNA analysis is here. As you can see, glycerin is high up on the ingredients list, and this cleanser does contain some other moisturizing and emollient ingredients to help offset the harshness of its high pH (9+).
Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam emulsifies with water into a milky, thin-ish lather with a nice herbal fragrance. It can clean away all but the more stubborn or waterproof point makeup. You should be using a dedicated point makeup remover for eyes and lips, anyway.
The only makeup that the Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam was unable to remove was my Etude House Play 101 pencil. In my opinion, that’s more of a testament to the pencil’s staying power than the cleanser’s lack of cleansing power, since even my CC cushion and sunscreen have been cleansed off. My skin squeaked when I rinsed, so that’ll be good news to those of you who just can’t live without the squeak. My face didn’t feel tight or dry afterwards.
I didn’t find this excessively stripping during my brief (2 weeks) trial period with it, but those effects often take some time to show up. The little volcanic clay bits aren’t abundant enough to provide a particularly strong scrubbing effect, nor does this cleanser clear out my pores any better than any other cleanser would. To be fair, however, I don’t expect any cleanser to do either of those. I use AHA for overall exfoliation and BHA for my pores.
The bottom line is that if you strongly prefer powerful facial cleansers, this is one that can give you the squeak you crave without destroying your face in days.
I was given Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam by Memebox USA, where it retails for $11.
Mini-review: Mizon Snail Cushion Cleansing Foam
If you like snails and you’re willing to forego little scrubby bits in your face cleanser, then Mizon Snail Cushion Foam Cleanser may be a more appealing option.
This pH 9+ cleanser touts the moisturizing and regenerative abilities of snail secretion (which I’ll remind you is mostly going to wash off with the cleanser).
Mizon Snail Cushion Foam Cleanser ingredients: Aqua, glycerin, myristic acid, palmitic acid, potassium hydroxide, stearic acid, cocamidopropyl betaine, glyceryl stearate, PEG-100 stearate, beeswax, snail secretion filtrate, polysorbate 20, macadamia integrifolia seed oil, aloe barbadensis leaf extract, morus alba bark extract, lactobacillus/soybean ferment extract, salix alba (willow) bark extract, cinammonium cassia bark extract, organum vulgare leaf extract, chamaecyparis obtusa leaf extract, scutellaria baicalensis root extract, portulaca oleracea extract, laminaria digitata extract, red ginseng extract, phytosqualane, dioscorea japonica root extract, piper methysticum leaf/root/stem extract, beta-glucan, hydrolyzed corn starch, sodium chondroitin sulfate, sucrose, 1,2-hexanediol, alcohol, butylene glycol, PEG-14M, disodium EDTA, methylchloroisothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinone, phenoxyethanol, fragrance
CosDNA analysis is here. Like the Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam, the Mizon Snail Cushion Foam Cleanser lists glycerin second on its ingredients list and scatters moisturizing ingredients throughout. Is it as mild and non-stripping as a true mild, low-pH cleanser? No. But, like the Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam, it may well be a step above the ultra-harsh bar soaps and acne washes many people enjoy using. Let’s see how it cleans.
Mizon Snail Cushion Foam Cleanser has a soft, soapy smell to it, so if you actively enjoy washing your face with soap, you will probably like this quite a bit.
The cleanser does indeed foam up into a thick, cushiony lather. It’s quite pleasant-feeling on my skin.
Cleansing is on par with the Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam, leaving nothing behind but a few traces of Etude House Play 101 pencil. No beading means that the CC cushion and sunscreen are gone.
I tested this for the same amount of time that I tested the Innisfree, and I found that despite its moisturizing ingredients and the fact that the Innisfree is marketed as more of a deep cleanser, the Mizon Snail Cushion Foam Cleanser consistently left my skin squeakier than the Innisfree. Take that as you will. On the positive side, like the Innisfree, this cleanser didn’t leave my face tight or dry after use. If you want something that’s quite cleansing and delivers a nice thick foam, Mizon Snail Cushion Foam Cleanser fits the bill.
I was given the Mizon Snail Cushion Foam Cleanser by Peach and Lily, where it sells for $14.
Other ways to salvage your barrier
In addition to choosing cleansers that have significant moisturizing properties in order to help prevent your barrier from being worn to nothing by your cleanser choices, you can also salvage your barrier by replacing the lipids you’re losing. Look for essences, serums, ampoules, and moisturizers that contain ceramides, cholesterol, and other essential fatty acids. Dr. Jart has a complete ceramide line, Ceramidin, though I haven’t yet tried that out.
I only started paying attention to ceramides and other skin-identical ingredients recently, but I can definitely recommend the COSRX Honey Ceramide Full Moisture Cream as one great barrier-repairing moisturizer to try.
Conclusion: If you can’t give up harsh cleansers
Would I regularly use an alkaline facial cleanser? No. I’m much more comfortable with my cleansing oil/mild acidic cleanser routine, which leaves my skin with a post-cleanse luster that shows I haven’t damaged my barrier. Both of the cleansers I discussed above cleansed my skin thoroughly and didn’t leave me feeling abnormally dry, but they also took away that luster, which I didn’t get back until I put on my regular hydrating and moisturizing products.
But I get it. They say you shouldn’t wash your hair every day. I do, because there is literally nothing I hate worse than feeling like I have dirty hair, and the idea of No Poo just…that’s just really gross to me. I can’t handle it. And I wash my hair with sulfate-containing shampoos that I’m sure would freak out the haircare equivalents of us low-pH skincare people. I shower every day and I wash my hands constantly. I don’t baby every part of my body. As with any other area of self-care, it’s all about prioritizing, choosing the areas that matter to you and compromising when you have to on other areas.
If you don’t want to give up your harsh, high-pH cleansers, I feel you. I understand. Just find ways to minimize the damage. Your skill will thank you.
And in the meantime, think about switching over to a lower pH cleanser, K? Hopefully we’re not too far out from a great one made by COSRX. Let’s all hope that Hye-Young and her teammates are having good results testing the prototypes out.
What kind of cleanser do you use? What do you look for in a foaming cleanser?