What *Really* Happens to Your Skin When You Are Not Washing Your Face

Photo: Stocksy/Lucas Ottone
When you're dealing with a less-than-ideal complexion, there's a lot of advice out there on how to clear your skin or get a fresh-from-the-facialist glow—which can range from a simple three-step regimen to next-gen treatments like microneedling or cryofacials.

But when's the last time you heard this advice? Do nothing.

It might sound sacrilegious, but Adina Grigore—founder of skin-care line S.W. Basics and author of Skin Cleanse—swears this one simple, lazy girl-endorsed trick will do wonders for your glow.

"New research says that cutting your products and not even using water on your skin is actually the best thing you can do," she insists. "Leaving your skin 'dirty' is really good because cleansers throw off the correct proportion of bacteria on your skin that let it regulate itself."

"Leaving your skin 'dirty' is really good because cleansers throw off the correct proportion of bacteria on your skin that let it regulate itself."

Even some dermatologists can get behind the seemingly counterintuitive idea. "Every time you wash your face, you strip your skin of some oil," says Jennifer Chwalek, MD, a New York City-based skin doc. "Over-washing can compromise the skin barrier function." In other words, leaving it alone is better for the bacteria on the surface of your face—which keeps your complexion functioning optimally on its own.

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Of course, it's not right for everyone. Dr. Chwalek still recommends that her clients wash their face at least once a day with a gentle cleanser, preferably at night (when your face is coated with a day's worth of dirt). "Not washing your face could cause the buildup of oil and dirt that may lead to acne, more prominent pores, and inflammation," she says.

Despite the (qualified) praise for this hands-off approach, I wondered how I would actually fare without my go-to face wash. Considering it's my job to try out beauty products, and my nighttime routine is about as complex as a full-on boot-camp circuit (though I have replaced my a.m. face wash with raw honey), giving my pores some alone time would be a big change.

What, exactly, would a minimalist approach do to my complexion?

Here's what happened when I stopped washing my face for a week.

Although I initially planned to steer clear of the dozen or so products I have on my beauty shelves, I decide I'm still going to use a simple rose water toner just to absorb my go-to serum. (There are only so many steps to my routine that I'm willing to give up.) Grigore is okay with this, saying it won't derail the whole "cleanser cleanse" (ha).

My first morning is easy—I just don't wash my face with honey, like I normally would. After a toner spritz followed by my Vintner's Daughter topical, I opt for light makeup; since I won't have my usual cleanser to get it off later, I think, I might as well not overload my pores. My skin looks a tad dewier than usual, probably due to a tiny bit of excess oil that wasn't washed off—but I'm okay with that (hey, it's the trend now anyway).

At night is when things get tricky: I get every last bit of my mascara off with a rose water/cotton pad combo and apply my go-to serum,  but it honestly feels weird layering oil on top of an unwashed complexion. My face feels straight-up grimy (gross but true), which definitely has me worried. I doze off to nightmarish visions of waking up with a massive pimple on my chin.

The next morning, I apprehensively approach my bathroom, concerned about what I'd be facing in the mirror. But—phew—my face looks just as good as usual.

My complexion only gets increasingly radiant as the days go by—even though I'm often going to bed with what feels like thick dirt just doing its thing on my face.

As the week progresses, I'm pleasantly surprised by the lack of breakouts. In fact, despite going to bed with what feels like a coating of dirt on my face, my skin looks downright glowy. (Score one for bacteria working its magic?) The best part: An acne spot left over from a particularly large pimple actually starts to vanish—a feat my nightly retinol hadn't been able to achieve.

Another bonus is that it cuts my a.m. and p.m. beauty routines down dramatically—and whatever gets me into bed faster (and lets me stay there longer) makes me happy. Another thing that boosts my mood? The fact that I've had zero skin emergencies as I close out my seven-day experiment (AKA my worst fears were not realized), all while achieving major radiance.

So, will I be tossing my fave cleanser entirely? Not exactly—I'm a beauty editor, so eliminating them from my life isn't totally realistic. (I take my job seriously—how else will you know which products are worth it?) But I have a better understanding of my skin's built-in balancing superpowers, so I've learned to streamline the products I do use. Less is more, after all.

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Originally published May 4, 2017; updated May 25, 2018.

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