I imagine that some people wake up with naturally blemish-free skin. They — let’s call them the “perfect-skin havers” — stretch, yawn, and pad over to the bathroom, where they splash water on their even-complexioned faces, before getting ready for the day. Woodland creatures are probably involved in helping them get dressed. The rest of us, however, must put in work to maintain our skin.
I fall squarely into the latter camp, and have spent years reading obsessively about perfect-skin havers’ routines and favorite products in an effort to harness their power. I know what lurks within many celebrities’ makeup bags, have opinions on which expensive products I’ve never tried are likely worth the hype, and have a Sephora wish list filled with retinols, masks, and gadgets that promise a future where clear, smooth skin might exist. But the best investment I’ve ever made for my skin cost just $15: a 24-pack of identical white cotton washcloths from Amazon.
Each night, I reach for a new wash cloth from a stack in my bathroom before beginning my cleansing routine. They are worn and well-loved; some are faintly stained with dye left over from past face masks. My routine consists of a gel cleanser, usually a mask, and a soap cleanser. By the end of all that, the washcloth is filled with soap and grime; I add it to my laundry pile, where it waits to be subjected to hot water, bleach, and a clothes dryer. I do my laundry about once a week, or whenever the laundry bag becomes almost too heavy to hoist up to my laundromat three blocks away. In the morning, I’ll use a disposable cotton pad to rinse my face with micellar water.
This isn’t a new technique, by a long shot: Salons and spas keep plenty of towels on deck for each client, and plenty of people extol the virtues of changing your sheets regularly. But that always struck me as something that only rich people — read: those who can afford either backup towels, or apartments with enough storage space to stock backup towels, or both — could do. Until I happened upon the $15 24-pack, I did not consider myself to be one of those people.
I made the switch in 2017, shortly after I read a report that detailed exactly how germ-infested towels are. My skin now looks the best it ever has, but it’s hard to posit exactly if that’s due to the towels alone, or the growing collection of skin-care products in my medicine cabinet. But according to dermatologist Karan Sra, reusing a wash cloth can absolutely cause or exacerbate skin conditions, like acne or folliculitis (when the hair follicle becomes infected and inflamed).
“Washcloths are the perfect place for bacteria to grow,” Sra explains. “The warm, moist environment of the shower is the ideal environment for both bacteria and mold to thrive.” She recommends washing and drying your washcloths daily, but if you don’t have access to an in-unit washer and dryer, she suggests swapping out your towels “at least every three to four days to prevent bacterial overgrowth.” She also recommends disposable wipes, though those don’t always hold up against heavy clay masks and can feel environmentally wasteful.
Ashley Weatherford, a senior editor at Into the Gloss, takes an even more careful approach to her skin-care routine: She air-dries her skin, and sometimes pats excess moisture off with a paper towel. “I think it’s helped my skin look clearer overall,” she says.
She made the switch about ten years ago: “I’m absolutely neurotic about germs and washcloths are the epitome of fluffy germ rags.” While I often find myself scrubbing at leftover face masks with nubby cotton, Weatherford follows a mask session with a swipe of toner to make sure she’s removed any traces of product from her skin.
If there is anything I have learned from my voracious indexing of other people’s beauty routines, it’s that often so much more work goes into the quest for “good skin” than people realize. Yes, some people get regular facials or swear by expensive tools, but others make do with what they have. For me, that’s my economy-size order of washcloths. Perhaps one day I’ll upgrade to the 60-count pack, a true sign that I’ve made it … or at least that I’ve moved into an apartment with the closet space to support my habit.
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