The Drugstore Face Wash That Truly Changed My Skin

This post might have the most clickbait-esque title you’ll ever see from me, but I can honestly say that I actually had to temper my enthusiasm while writing it. I’ve tried so many different products and regimen changes over the years hoping to accomplish what this face wash did, but only once I stopped aiming for a particular result—and instead took an informed step for the sake of my skin’s general health—was I successful. Let me explain.

The backstory

It all started with a random Facebook log-in, leading me to a random comment on a random group post. If I hadn’t checked the app at that particular moment and scrolled past that particular post, I might’ve never been directed to the following link, vaguely described by the commenter as “really helpful for understanding my skin” or something along those lines—despite how assiduously I was already trying to learn about skincare at the time. And so, chance directed me to a 2014 blog post by Kerry Thompson, titled “The Importance of Fatty Acids, pH & the Moisture Barrier: How I Eliminated my Acne & Decreased my Skin Sensitivity.”

There are a few different subsections to the post, but this is the most relevant passage (emphasis mine):

The outermost layers of our stratum corneum/moisture barrier have an acidic pH that can range from 4.0-6.0, with the average being 4.7. The acidic layers are often referred to as the “acid mantle,” which plays an extremely important role in the condition of our skin. The acid mantle’s low pH serves to stop the growth of harmful bacteria, fungi, parasites, and other pathogens, as well as maintain the durability and structural integrity of the keratin proteins in our keratinocytes. Those with a pH on the lower end of the 4.0-6.0 scale have greater overall skin health.
When we use products with a high/alkaline pH, we are disrupting our acid mantle. Alkaline products cause the keratin proteins to soften, and as they lose their structure, they also lose their protective qualities. When our acid mantle is disrupted, our skin becomes prone to infection, acne, roughness, flaking, irritation, and dehydration. Once the acid mantle has been compromised, it takes somewhere between 14 and 20 hours for the pH to return to normal, assuming you’re vigilant about the pH of your skincare products throughout the healing process. During that time, your skin is more vulnerable to pathogens.
This disruption happens most commonly as a result of using the wrong facial cleanser, as most bar soaps and foaming facial cleansers have a pH of 8.0 or higher.

At the time that I first read the above, I’d been using Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash for almost five years, having been advised to do so by my first dermatologist (“dermatologist-recommended”: not just marketing!). The clear, almost-colorless foaming cleanser is advertised as “clinically shown” to be “gentle as water,” and it even smells straight-up like Johnson’s baby wash. How could something seemingly mild enough for a newborn’s skin be damaging to my own? As my skin improved due to the topical treatments I was prescribed, I also felt like that face wash—in all its refreshing purity and simplicity—was helping things along.

If you look at online reviews, you’ll find that tons of people have had great experiences with this cleanser—mine certainly wasn’t negative, per se. But when I read Kerry’s blog post, I figured I should probably check the cleanser’s pH. Sure enough, there’s already an online list available noting the pH levels of certain popular face washes and soaps, which includes Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash. As it turns out, by this metric the cleanser is “gentle as water,” alright; its pH comes in at 6.5-7.0: just barely still acidic, and possibly just neutral (like water).


It’s worth noting that pH is a logarithmic scale, meaning that each descending pH value is 10 times more acidic than the next-highest value. This means that pH 4, for example, is 10 times more acidic than pH 5 and 100 times more acidic than pH 6. Although it’s fortunate that my Purpose cleanser wasn’t at a super-high alkaline pH, its range of 6.5-7.0 is far above the ideal 4.5-5.5 range for cleansers—ten times too acidic, at best. I’m extremely risk-averse when it comes to changing up parts of my routine that are working well (you’d have to rip my current face wash, that I’m reviewing here, from my cold dead hands, for example), so it was tempting to think 6.5 wasn’t so bad; however, chemically speaking, it is a pretty substantial difference. Further, Kerry helpfully listed an inexpensive, drugstore-stocked alternative: CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser, $8-12 USD (depending on where you look). I went ahead and bought it after spotting it at my local Target store, knowing I wouldn’t have lost too much if the product turned out to be a bust.

Little did I know, the money I’d just spent would make a difference that many of us have wasted countless more dollars hoping to achieve. Unlike with every “balancing” moisturizer or “mattifying” primer I’d ever tried, after just three weeks of using CeraVe morning and night, I noticed my skin was producing noticeably less oil than before. Since my later teenage years, my skin tended to get shiny so quickly that I felt the need to always keep blotting sheets on hand; I’d blot a couple of times a day, and if I spent a night out (especially wearing makeup), I’d usually be a greasy mess by the time I got home. Reducing acne didn’t change this, though as I wrote in my introductory blog post my acne was never significant enough to explain the excess oil. Now—after changing nothing but my face wash—not only could I skip blotting during the day without feeling gross, but I could also look in the mirror at the end of the night without seeing an oil slick reflected back at me. I actually didn’t blot or powder my face at all for two weeks after I noticed this development.

Reduced sebum production wasn’t even an effect I anticipated from the product change at all, let alone a motivating factor behind it! I had just gleaned from the quoted blog post that pH was pretty important to skin health. However, it makes complete sense: attending to the acid mantle means a less damaged moisture barrier, which means my skin no longer had to produce as much excess oil to make up for whatever my previous face wash probably stripped from my skin. It’s similar to the logic behind the more popular wisdom that people with oily skin needn’t shy away from face oils (a skincare subcategory also addressed in Kerry’s blog post).

Product overview

Further, CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser’s formulation is top-notch: the three primary ingredients listed on the label are “skin-identical,” that is, they are naturally produced in the skin and/or boost the skin’s natural production of other beneficial components. Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, is a powerful anti-aging ingredient used to reduce the appearance of pores, lighten hyperpigmentation, and calm inflammation or acne. It’s also been shown to increase the production of the skin’s natural moisturizing, barrier-repairing ceramidesalso included in this product as ingredients (Ceramide 3, Ceramide 6-II, and Ceramide 1). Finally, hyaluronic acid is an all-star humectant that can carry up to 1,000 times its weight in water; the ingredient has experienced a boost of popularity in moisturizing products since 2015 (in America, at least—I remember first reading about it in a magazine article about Korean skincare-influenced gel moisturizers). Hyaluronic acid is also a naturally occurring substance in our bodies but our skin seems to produce less of it as we age, so it’s fortunate that synthetic variations (of lower and higher molecular weight) are available for light, fresh-feeling hydration.

cerave 2

The cleanser is a clear liquid, less viscous than it is watery. Pump a bit into your hands, and (as seen above) it’ll slide around easily rather than remaining cohered as a single droplet.

cerave 3

It’s generally recommended that you use an oil-based cleanser to wash off make-up before a water-based or foaming cleanser, but CeraVe’s cleanser removes makeup with ease on its own. To demonstrate this, on my hand I applied small swatches of waterproof liquid eyeliner, richly-pigmented and smear-resistant blue pencil liner, one solid and one liquid red lipstick, a beige concealer, and green color-correcting concealer. I tried washing them off with one pump of cleanser lathered with water, and then I quickly rubbed off any remaining dried product (really just lipstick, which is always a pain to remove) with a facial tissue.

cerave 4

As you can see above, pretty much all of the makeup was removed with the cleanser and water alone, while some of the more stubborn red lipstick came off easily with the swipe of dry tissue afterward. To see what the cleanser may have missed, I applied toner with a cotton pad; it’s hardly visible in the photos, but there was a little remaining red lipstick in the finest creases of my skin and two larger (but still tiny) spots of lipstick, all of which the toner easily removed. Ideally you won’t smear lipstick all over the rest of your face when trying to wash it off your lips (unless you’re the younger, more clueless me), so I’m not too worried about the cleanser’s limits on lip makeup leaving anyone’s pores clogged.

Facial *and* body cleanser?

One last note, on another unexpected benefit of CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser: it’s replaced my normal body wash. That may sound weird, but serendipity led me to discover the effect this product has on my skin below the face as well. I was testing makeup I’d just purchased and had applied some to my décolletage (chest), and I wanted to wash it off more thoroughly without full-on jumping into the shower. So I lathered up my face wash for the task, and afterwards I noticed the skin on that area was unusually smooth and calm. See, a few years back that skin randomly became a little bumpy—not anything too intense, but a mild manifestation of keratosis pilaris (KP). The lactic acid lotion my dermatologist recommended made no difference and exfoliation also failed to smooth out the texture. But for whatever reason, my new face wash did the trick; the skin on my arms and elsewhere is loving this discovery as well. This additional use in the shower has also taught me that the 12 fl oz. product lasts surprisingly long, making its low price even more incredible. Fortunate thing, as this cleanser has definitely attained holy-grail status for me and I don’t plan on abandoning it anytime soon. ✦

2 thoughts on “The Drugstore Face Wash That Truly Changed My Skin”

  1. Hey! Great post. I follow you on twitter and just thought I’d say I ordered this online thanks to this post because I’ve always suspected some kinda pH imbalance was causing me issues so I’ll let you know how it goes.


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