science of us

I Haven’t Washed My Face in Years

Photo: moodboard/Getty Images/Cultura RF

In 2016 I stopped drinking, and in the following months I stopped wearing makeup, too. It felt good to stop hiding things, and I think I wanted to extend that to my face: This is just my plain self.

A falling-dominoes effect of going without makeup meant that I didn’t feel the need to wash my face, which in turn made moisturizer also seem unnecessary. It was like a newly closed ring, which I could then toss away (or, push to the back of the under-sink area).

I already hadn’t been washing my face much with cleanser by that point, but fully retiring the makeup felt like the final piece in a long-simmering face-products puzzle: What if I just stopped doing all of it? Makeup, face wash, moisturizer.

The answer: nothing. It’s been fine. My skin looks okay. It’s not amazing, but it’s better than it was before, and the whole thing has convinced me that I don’t need the products I thought I did, which has been a small revelation. If anyone’s curious about seeing what happens when you put it all away, I recommend it, at least for a little while, especially if you, too, have ever felt uncomfortably ensnared in a skin-care routine. (I sometimes think about the Simpsons scene where Lisa’s orthodontist projects what’ll happen if she doesn’t get braces, and the images show Lisa’s increasingly grotesque teeth growing up through the top of her own skull. That’s how I felt sometimes with regard to skin-care products — what nightmarish situations would arise if I went without them?? — and it’s been nice to learn the reliance isn’t real.)

So yeah, now I just wash my face with water, once a day, at night, in the shower. No more or fewer breakouts than before. I’d say my skin in general is “combination” and “red” — dryer in winter, oilier in summer, easily flushed. It’s less red than it used to be, which I attribute mostly to sobriety but also to not drying it out with face wash (and then stimulating it with products). I think it’s also because I’ve been exercising more and eating better: less sugar, dairy, and processed foods. And okay, my skin is still redder than my teenage self would have hoped, but I’m coming to terms with what seems to be my own natural rosy coloring. It’s nice to sort of give up on trying to change that.

I also checked in with a dermatologist about the pros and cons of this no-soap approach, and I was slightly disappointed that she was not 100 percent onboard.

It started out well. “I’m of less-is-more when it comes to face-wash camp,” said Dr. Arielle Nagler, an assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health. She doesn’t like aggressive, exfoliating scrubs or washes, either. “People like them because they feel clean afterward,” she said, “but they also promote inflammation, which can lead, downstream, to negative effects, including acne.”

Also: “Water is good,” Nagler said, since it can help to remove bacteria, chemicals, and other debris. But, sadly (for me), water is “maybe not enough.” Depending on where you live, but especially for city dwellers (myself included) who are “bombarded” with chemicals, dust, and other tiny particles all day, it is “important, at least at the end of the day, to actually do something to cleanse the face.” Nagler recommended gentle cleansers without parabens, fragrance, or formaldehyde. She also recommended using lukewarm water, since hot water can be drying.

I tried to get out of this, saying that even the gentlest cleansers seem to dry my skin out and require moisturizer, but Nagler was very kindly not having it: “I think that it’s important to balance dry skin with a good moisturizer, rather than forgoing the whole process of washing your face altogether.”

Well. I wish she hadn’t said that, but I’m probably going to keep doing it anyway.

Update 3/19: Okay, I’m going to start wearing a little makeup and moisturizer again. Still no face wash besides water, but the makeup and moisturizer feel nice and cheer me up. Thanks for reading.

I Haven’t Washed My Face in Two Years