The Critical Step in Your Skincare Routine You May be Overlooking

The Critical Step in Your Skincare Routine You May be Overlooking

Like most women I know (and plenty of guys as well), I have tried A LOT of different products in search of a skincare routine that works for me. These experiences, combined with my own research on skin and the skin microbiome, have taught me many things about what types of products and ingredients are most effective and which ones to avoid at all costs—insight I am always happy to share with anyone who is interested!

One question I am often asked is ‘what is the most important step in your skincare routine’? While it’s always difficult to pick one thing, other than the non-negotiable daily use of SPF, my answer would be cleansing. People tend to be surprised by this answer, as they view cleansing as just something you have to do before you get to the good stuff. However, that is precisely the reason it is so critical. Because cleansing sets the stage for the rest of your skincare routine, this means that using the wrong cleanser can really mess with your skin and undermine the effectiveness of every other product you use.

Sadly, I have experienced this myself on many occasions, especially in my teens and early twenties. In my search for a cleanser that would really get my skin ‘squeaky clean’, I was actually stripping my skin and damaging my skin barrier, leading to redness, irritation and excess oil production. I would then use products to ‘fix’ these issues, not realizing that I wasn’t actually addressing the source of the problem: my cleanser. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about what makes a good cleanser and why this often overlooked step is so easy to get wrong. 

Essentially, effective cleansing is always a balance between removing make-up, pollutants, and excess oils and maintaining the integrity of the skin barrier and acid mantle (i.e., the natural layer of oils and sweat that protects our skin and helps to keep it at the right pH). To accomplish this, cleansers contain compounds known as surfactants: molecules that have both a water-loving (hydrophilic) and water-repelling (hydrophobic) portion. This allows them to reduce the surface tension between oil and water, essentially bringing these normally incompatible substances together.

The types of surfactants used in cleansers work by helping to trap and solubilize the dirt and oils on your skin, allowing it to be effectively washed away. Some of these can also bring water and air together to promote lathering and bubble formation. 

Unfortunately, in an effort to appear that they are really ‘cleansing’ the skin and promote maximal “bubbliness,” many cleansers and soaps use surfactants that are far too harsh, such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLES) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLS). These compounds are extremely effective at removing oils, but on our skin, this is actually not a good thing: they can strip your skin of all oils, removing the nourishing oils needed for hydration, and disrupting your acid mantle. This increases skin pH, causing irritation and leaving it vulnerable to attack by pathogenic bacteria. Pro tip: if a cleanser leaves your skin feeling ‘tight’ or squeaky clean, it’s too harsh and has stripped your skin. 

Beyond their effect on skin, in some cases, these traditional surfactants are derived from petrochemicals and are not biodegradable, so they are not so great for Mother Earth either. 

Oil-based and cream cleansers avoid many of these potential issues by using only emulsifying surfactants. This can be better choices for people with dry skin, but often, an additional cleanser is needed to fully cleanse the skin and remove all traces of the oil cleanser. This introduces an additional step (and added cost) into your skincare routine, and one must still be careful that this second cleansing step does not contain harsh, stripping surfactants, which undo the gentleness of the oil cleanser!

As an alternative, gentler, plant-based surfactants can be used. These tend to foam less than stronger surfactants, but can be formulated at lower (that is, skin-similar) pH and are much more gentle on skin, while also providing effective cleansing. And because they are derived from plants and sugars, they are biodegradable as well.

At Ellis Day, we know just how important it is to use a cleanser that is gentle on your skin but also actually works to remove makeup, sweat, and dirt. That is why we spent over a year formulating our new Daily Rewind Cleanser. This advanced formula is safe for all skin types and contains gentle, non-stripping sugar- and coconut-derived surfactants: decyl glucoside, sodium cocoyl isethionate, and coco-glucoside, which thoroughly cleanse skin, while maintaining the integrity of the skin barrier and the skin microbiome. Even with gentle surfactants, formulation is key. That is why Daily Rewind also includes gentle hydrating and calming ingredients, such as glycerin, sunflower seed oil, panthenol, vitamin E (tocopherol), and aloe, and is formulated at skin-similar pH. And, of course, you can rest assured that Daily Rewind is fully compatible with all of our phage-based products, including our Balancing Phage Serum, Hydrating Phage Serum, and Chill Face Spray, and it’s 100% vegan and cruelty-free.

So, if, like me, you’ve spent years searching for a cleanser that actually cleans your face without overdrying it, or if you are thinking about switching up your cleansing routine as we head into the cooler, drier months, try a bottle of Daily Rewind today...your skin will thank you!

If you have any questions about Ellis Day Skin Science, our new Daily Rewind Cleanser, or how our phage-based, skin-native products can promote skin health, please email us at We’re happy to help!


  1. Ananthapadmanabhan KP, Leyden JJ, Hawkins SS. Recent Advances in Mild and Moisturizing Cleansers. J Drugs Dermatol. 2019 Jan 1;18(1s):s80-88. 
  2. Ananthapadmanabhan KP, Lips A, Vincent C, Meyer F, Caso S, Johnson A, Subramanyan K, Vethamuthu M, Rattinger G, Moore DJ. pH-induced alterations in stratum corneum properties. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2003 Jun;25(3):103-12. 
  3. Draelos ZD. The science behind skin care: Cleansers. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2018 Feb;17(1):8-14.
  4. Moldes AB, Rodríguez-López L, Rincón-Fontán M, López-Prieto A, Vecino X, Cruz JM. Synthetic and Bio-Derived Surfactants Versus Microbial Biosurfactants in the Cosmetic Industry: An Overview. Int J Mol Sci. 2021;22(5):2371.

Dr. Laura Marinelli is a skincare-obsessed scientist who has spent her entire academic career researching phages and the microbes that live on our skin and make up our skin microbiome. She earned her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh, completed her postdoctoral training at UCLA, and is now living her longtime dream of creating phage-based skincare products to improve skin health with Ellis Day Skin Science. Laura has been a part of the Ellis Day team since 2017 and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband, three kids, and two cats. 

About Ellis Day Skin Science

We believe that modern skincare must be grounded in true microbiome science and that the most potent, safe, and effective active ingredients are those that are native to healthy skin. 

At Ellis Day Skin Science, we formulate pioneering skincare products using skin-native active ingredients, for the cleanest, safest and most natural approach to healthy skin. These include bacteriophages that eliminate bacteria associated with inflammation, damage, and aging, and enable good bacteria to flourish. 

We use cutting-edge science to leverage these powerful active ingredients, creating products that are just as kind and conscientious as they are effective, so that everyone can feel empowered with balanced, clear, radiant, and resilient skin.

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