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Yes, You CAN Cleanse, Tone & Exfoliate Without Drying Out Your Skin

Yes, You CAN Cleanse, Tone & Exfoliate Without Drying Out Your Skin

PSA: an effective (but gentle!) cleansing, toning and exfoliating routine can work wonders – no matter how dry your skin.

Dry skin can be a delicate little beast, often cringing at even the thought of a regular cleansing, toning and exfoliating routine. But skincare has come a long way since the harsh products of yesteryear that were formulated to do their job… but often to the detriment of your skin’s actual health.

Hark back to those astringent cleansing and toning products from your youth. Full of bad alcohols, synthetic fragrances, colors and additives, they might have left your skin feeling squeaky clean, but that level of skin-stripping prowess was never really necessary. Not then. And certainly not now. And what about those deliciously scented face scrubs that were chock full of ‘natural’ abrasive particles like nut shells. Yeah, they may have sounded like they were doing real good – after all, they were natural, right? – but in actual fact, those sharp particles were probably over-stimulating your skin and leaving tiny micro tears in the skin’s surface. So not cool.

Thankfully, you no longer need to resort to such measures in the quest for beautifully cleansed, toned and exfoliated skin. Because those unnecessarily potent products still exist, for sure, but they now take a back seat to much gentler formulations and skin-loving ingredients.


If you have dry skin, chances are you have your moisturizing routine totally down. But if you’re yet to find a cleansing, toning and exfoliating routine that works for your complexion and leaves your skin bright, clean and fresh without making it feel tight and uncomfortable, read on for a few pearls of wisdom…

Your Cleansing 101

The number one rule for ALL skin types is to choose the kindest cleanser possible. And this is never more important than if you have dry skin.

Unlike dehydrated skin which is deficient in water, dry skin contains fewer sebaceous glands and often has a slightly compromised barrier function that lacks the oils and lipids required to lock in moisture and keep your skin soft and supple. This is why cleansing can swiftly cause further dryness and even mild irritation if you don’t take extra care.

The first golden rule for cleansing dry skin is to know which ingredients to avoid. And the biggest no-nos, in our opinion, are sulfates like sodium laureth sulfae (SLS) and sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES). These bad boys are very good at cleansing the skin, lathering up like nobody’s business to strip away every last drop of oil, dirt, makeup and residue. But that’s the thing, you don’t want your skincare to suck all the life from your skin – and the same goes for every skin type, tbh. Instead, you want your cleanser to gently remove surface debris without upsetting the balance of your skin. You also want it to nourish your skin and, if at all possible, even put back a little moisture.

The good news? All this is totally doable. Simply search out soothing cleansers that contain humectants like aloe veraglycerinhyaluronic acid, plus fatty acid-rich oils to help reduce dryness, dehydration and irritation. Oat and rice milk are equally awesome for dry skin because they contain tons of natural nourishing, calming and exfoliating compounds like lactic acid. They’re also anti-inflammatory which make them a fabulous choice if you have conditions like eczema or rosacea.

Our Must-Try: Soothing Cleansing Milk

Your Exfoliating 101

Some folks believe exfoliation is dry skin’s arch enemy, causing even more dryness, itching and redness. Not so. Granted, some exfoliating products and treatments can be sensitizing for dry skin but choose wisely and exfoliation can be a very beneficial step. You see, dead skin cells can build up on the surface of your skin – whatever your skin type – and if you already have dryness, this can make flaking and dullness so much worse. And we imagine that’s probably not what you’re looking for in life.

So what’s the answer? Well, daily exfoliation is rarely the way to go for you as this can over-stimulate your skin and leave it vulnerable to irritation. Physical exfoliants (those that require movement or pressure like scrubs, brushes and mitts) can also be too invigorating for dry skin, so our advice is to stick with chemical treatments that use kind-to-skin exfoliating acids to encourage cell turnover.

Chemical exfoliators use chemicals (no surprises there!) to break down the bonds between your skin cells. This allows them to naturally shed without you having to rub or scrub the skin. They’re generally split into three types: AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids), BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) and the lesser common PHAs (poly hydroxy acids). AHAs like glycolic and lactic acids are water soluble and commonly used for all skin types; BHAs like salicylic acid are oil-soluble which makes them incredible for oily skin types; and finally, PHAs are gentler versions of AHAs so ideal for dry or sensitive skin. Phew. Science lesson over.

Just remember, even the most forgiving of chemical exfoliants can irritate super-sensitive or dry skin so choose your formula wisely, always patch test first and start slowly by applying it just a few times each week.

Our Must-Try: AHA, BHA + PHA Liquid Exfoliant

Your Toning 101

Toner is a funny guy. Nowhere near as important as cleanser or moisturizer (or sunscreen for that matter – although that’s another lesson for another day), it often slips through the net. In fact, we could go so far as to say that it’s generally a little unloved.

But it’s the quiet ones that often hold the most useful super powers, and toner can actually be darn useful in the quest for fabulous skin. If you choose well, there are plenty of toning treatments available that offer all manner of post-cleansing, pre-moisturizing benefits. Think brightening, age-defying, firming, clarifying, the works.

For dry skin, toners can be just the ticket for boosting your skin with extra hydration and moisturization – especially if they contain those infamous humectants which draw in water like magnets. However, stay well clear of any formula that contains even a hint of those devils of the alcohol world – alcohol denat, methanol, propanol and isopropyl. These can just about be tolerated by stronger skin types but will frequently cause irritation and inflammation if used on dry skin.

Your motto should be to keep it simple with fewer ingredients. Also, look for calming, soothing and balancing botanicals like rose water and aloe vera. These will always be your best friends and will never let you down.

Our Must-Try: Rose Water Refreshing Facial Toner

More About This Article

Georgia Gould

Georgia Gould

Georgia is an award-winning beauty writer who has been in the business for over 20 years. British-born, she began her career as a magazine beauty editor in London before moving to San Francisco, CA in 2012 where she now continues her love as a freelance writer and editor. As well as her editorial work, Georgia has created content for many high-profile beauty brands, including Clarins, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Simple and TRESemmé. Her passions include retinol (obviously), golfing, skiing and walking her beloved Schnauzer, Dave.