Living the low-pH cleanser life is a lot like trying to order vegetarian-friendly takeout in some parts of the Midwest. There are probably options for you, but not many and the choices that do exist may not be particularly appetizing. Sometimes you may discover that a dish labeled as vegetarian actually contains fish or straight up meat. One might end up very hungry and glumly overlooking the chicken bone broth in the “vegetarian” soup while dreaming of a different, better day.
There are no easy conclusions in this review of 8 kbeauty second cleansers. Each of these eight cleansers has drawbacks, in my opinion, and I’m pretty unsatisfied with the field of contenders as a whole. I mean, when I test eight products that seem, after some pre-buying research, to have good odds of at least meeting my minimum standards, I expect there to be a brilliant choice in the mix. And yet I’m left feeling the way my skin does after using the famed Su:m 37 Miracle Rose Cleansing Stick: technically fine, but a bit on edge and grouchy.
About double-cleansing and cleansers
Here’s how to do the two-step cleansing process (which has more than two steps if you really think about it):
- Bring your dry, dirty, makeuped face to the sink. Do not add water to it yet.
- Apply an oil cleanser. Massage it into your skin gently for 30 seconds to 2 minutes depending on how much fun you’re having.
- Rinse your face well with water. Rinse until the water runs clear and make sure to get all the emulsified foamy stuff out of your hairline.
- Apply a second cleanser. Lather it in your hands with the help of water, if possible, and massage it into your skin gently for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. The times I’m listing here are just guidelines, don’t stress, just focus on what your face and the mirror are telling you.
- Rinse well with water.
There are two main classes of cleansers: those used first and those used second.
First cleansers usually have quite a bit of oil in them to help loosen and remove sunscreen, dirt, and makeup.
I reviewed 15 oil cleansers a few months ago and found most of them to be quite good. Oil cleansers are something of a new concept for many Western beauty fans, but–as an adult convert to the double cleanse life–they can be a huge gamechanger for the condition of one’s skin, including pores.
Second cleansers are usually mixed with water, agitated to make foam or bubbles, and applied to one’s face. Second cleansers remove any lingering oil from the first cleanser and remaining traces of dust, makeup, and sebum.
Second cleansers have usually been formulated to have pH levels far above neutral to give users the feeling of squeaky cleanness. We now know that that squeaky sensation is actually a bad sign for your skin–it means that your skin has likely been stripped of healthy oils and overcleaned, which can damage the moisture barrier and cause skin to crank up oil production among other bad things.
This review is of eight second cleansers, with particular attention to their pH levels.
The history of interest in low-pH cleansers among fans of Asian beauty
One year ago, Kerry at Skin & Tonics posted on “The Importance of Fatty Acids, pH & the Moisture Barrier: How I Eliminated my Acne & Decreased my Skin Sensitivity,” which set off a major change in what many international fans of Korean (and Asian more generally) beauty products look for in their second step cleansers. In the post, Kerry argued in favor of low-pH cleansers since higher pH cleansers (including many foaming cleansers) damage the skin’s moisture barrier, causing issues such as dryness and potentially the growth of bacteria that could otherwise be managed by skin kept at its natural, acidic pH.
Cat at Snow White and the Asian Pear looked a few months later into the science behind the issue in “Skincare Discovery: Why the pH of Your Cleanser Matters” and confirmed that researchers for decades have demonstrated that low pH cleansers protect against acne-causing bacteria by keeping skin in its ideal pH zone while high pH cleansers damage the moisture barrier that helps give skin resilience. Based on her review of the literature Cat is strongly in favor of cleansers that have a pH of 5.5 or less when mixed with water.
1. Blerg why does this have to be so difficult
On one hand, I know that my skin prefers low-pH cleansers. On the other hand, having to do research gymnastics to determine prior to ordering a new cleanser if it has a suitably low pH level is a nightmare.
First off, it’s difficult to determine in advance which products have a qualifyingly low pH (ideally 5.5 or under when mixed with water). One can use the Asian Beauty subreddit cleanser pH list to check, but not every cleanser is listed there and some pH levels are incorrect. New cleansers appear and have no pH information provided. Some pH levels provided by companies are incorrect or change significantly when the cleanser is mixed with water. Virtually no shops that sell Asian skincare provide pH information for all of their cleansers. This leads to a lot of pointless, unusable purchases.
2. The perils of being out-of-step with cosmetics makers
One year isn’t a very long time in the world of product development, meaning that if the Asian beauty market wanted to respond to the interest in low-pH cleansers, it would still be a bit before we saw the new products, even in fast-paced kbeauty. This means that the range of options is drastically reduced–and that range could be reduced further by one’s own inability to use products containing trigger ingredients unrelated to pH. For example, my skin does not like or actively hates certain foaming agents, so I can’t just keep irritating my skin with these ingredients in a misguided attempt to live a low-pH lifestyle at all costs. CosRx, an exceptionally responsive kbeauty skincare brand, did let Jude from Fifty Shades of Snail know that they’re developing a low-pH cleanser right now. Hopefully more brands will follow suit.
3. Second cleansers offer a million ways to [make your skin] die
After navigating the wonders of pH levels there’s still the chance that your skin will hate something in a cleanser. My skin, which is highly troubled due to hormones but otherwise pretty flexible and chill revolts when coming into contact with certain foaming agents (and I know I’m not alone in that). The combination of pH stress + regular ingredient sensitivities + foaming agents mean that for this product category more than any other in Asian Beauty in my opinion, your mileage may vary (YMMV–a shorthand for expressing the fact that someone else’s skincare results may not be the same for you). In this case, I’d even say something like Your Mileage May Be Hundreds of Miles Different (YMMBHMD).
4. Where’s the fun?
Time to whine more and louder. As someone who takes a lot of delight in <https://www.fanserviced-b.com/skincaretainment-connection-and-the-culture-of-korean-beauty/>skincaretainment, finding something that works as a second cleanser that I both want to use and should use is an expensive, wasteful drag. I carry pH strips in my purse at all times due to being on the hunt for the perfect second cleanser, I’m not even kidding (I live in NYC, where we have lots of kbeauty shops these days, so that’s not as crazy as it may sound. But it’s still crazy.).
I want something that:
- has a pH of 5.5 or lower when mixed with water
- doesn’t irritate my skin
- cleanses effectively
- has a pleasant texture (ideally foamy)
- smells good
When I find that product, I will come back to fan-b and share it with you while crying and jumping because, damn, these 8 miss the mark.
Ingredients: Glycerin, Coconut Oil, Water, Stearic Acic, Lauric Acid, Lauryl Betaine, Potassium Hydroxide, Betaine, Rose Centifolia Flower, Fragrance, Camellia Japonica Seed Oil, Tocopherol, Camellia Sinensis Seed Oil, Sunflower Seed Oil, Olive Fruit Oil, Kyounin Yu, Saccharomyces/Rosa Damascena Flower Extract Ferment Filtrate, Basil Oil, Lemon Peel Oil, Lime Oil, Origanum Heracleotium Flower Oil, Orange Peel Oil, Cananga Odorata Flower Oil. CosDNA.
This cleanser has a low pH, it smells ok (the rose scent isn’t quite on point for me, but whatevs), the format is pretty genius (an encased tube of soap that last a really damn long time and is travel-friendly), the ingredients are mostly good, and it’s now dead cheap on Amazon.
So why don’t I love it?
Ehh, something in the formula just doesn’t play 100% right with my skin. For some people, the coconut oil in this stick causes breakouts (some skin responds really well to coconut oil and some really doesn’t). This doesn’t cause breakouts for me at all, but my skin always feels just a bit on edge after using the MRCS. The smell doesn’t knock me out–it’s as if the rose variety isn’t my favorite or something (I’m really particular about smells lol).
I think that this is good, but it’s date casually good, not get married good for me.
pH: 7.30 -8.30 (provided by boscia; information provided by /u/dianxue on the Asian Beauty subreddit)
Ingredients: Glycerin, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Water, Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate, Peg-120 Methyl Glucose Dioleate, Polyglyceryl-10 Oleate, Stearic Acid, Sodium Chloride, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Hydroxide, Euterpe Oleracea Pulp Powder, Charcoal Powder, Glycolic Acid, Glucosyl Hesperidin, Ascorbyl Glucoside, Cynara Scolymus (Artichoke) Leaf Extract, Lactobacillus/Punica Granatum Fruit Ferment Extract, Subtilisin, Camellia Oleifera Leaf Extract, Camellia Sinensis Seed Oil, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Oil, Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Seed Extract, Eugenia Caryophyllus (Clove) Leaf Oil, Epilobium Angustifolium Flower/Leaf/Stem Extract, Eucalyptus Globulus Leaf Oil, Pelargonium Graveolens Flower Oil, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Leaf Extract, Betaine, Maltodextrin, Tocopheryl Acetate, Butylene Glycol, Caprylyl Glycol, Ceteth-25, Oleth-10, 1,2-Hexanediol, Xanthan Gum. CosDNA.
Real talk: I didn’t even test this on my face (I ordered mine before the official word from boscia came about the pH of this stick–I tested it to confirm) and I’m sending this back to Sephora the moment I hit publish on this post. This costs more than the MRCS and has a pH higher than water, yeah right, get out of my house.
pH: 9.0-9.5; way too high even for my relaxed standards
Ingredients: Glycerin, Water, Stearic Acid, Myristic Acid, Potassium Hydroxide, Lauric Acid, PEG-32, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Glyceryl Stearate, Polyquaternium-7, Lauramide DEA, Tea Tree Leaf Oil, Willow Bark Extract, Polysorbate 60, PEG-100 Stearate, PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, Sorbitan Olivate, Cellulose Gum, Wintergreen Leaf Extract, Disodium EDTA. CosDNA.
This cleanser is, sadly, a high-pH nightmare. Not only is the pH level too high, it was really irritating to my face when I used it (I remembered seeing the pH listed as 5.5 at an online shop when I bought this, which raises my irritation/paranoia levels regarding second cleansers and/or my sanity). Cosrx is currently developing a low-pH cleanser that sounds quite promising. This one, on the other [swatch] hand, is headed for the trash as soon as I publish this review.
pH: 6.5. This isn’t ideal, but since it’s not more basic that my water and it doesn’t irritate my face, I’ll keep it until I find a more acidic option that I like.
Ingredients: Water, Tea Tree Extract, Potassium Laureth Phosphate, Potassium Cocyl Glycinate, Sodium Cocoyl Alaninate, Acrylates Copolymer, Lauramide DEA, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Citric Acid, Centella Asiatica Extract, Adansonia Digitata Leaf Extract, Witch Hazel Water, Willow Bark Extract, Morus Alba Root Extract, Hippophae Rhamnoides Fruit Extract, Trehalose, Spirodela Polyrrhiza Extract, Lavender Oil, Tea Tree Leaf Oil, Glycerin, 1,3-Butylene Glycol, Cocamide DEA, Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Hydroxide, PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, Sodium Chloride, Hydroxypropyl Mathylcellulose, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Phenoxyethanol, Disodium EDTA. CosDNA.
Out of all of these cleansers, this is my favorite, but the pH level should be lower, ideally. I like the slight foaming action (it’s not super foamy, but enough to feel good on my skin), gentle scent of tea tree extract, and clean-but-not-stripped feeling it leaves on my skin. You can find this on KoreaDepart.
Ingredients: Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Water, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidapropyl Betaine, Glycerin, Cocamide DEA, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Chloride, Portulaca Oleracea Extract, Phenoxyethanol, PEG-120 Methyl Glucose Dioleate, Triclosan, Willow Bark Extract, Citric Acid, Tea Tree Leaf Oil, Methylparaben, Rhus Semialata Gall Extract, Artemisia Princeps Leaf Extract, Disodium EDTA, 1,3-Butylene Glycol, Lactic Acid. CosDNA.
Urgh, this cleanser has the right pH level, but I find it unpleasant to use. The scent is something between tea tree oil and something more traditionally antiseptic, which I find really awful to slather on my face. The bubbles just sort of bubble rather than foam. My skin feels a bit angry when I use it (I actually expected the pH level to be higher based on my skin’s reaction to it). This reminds me of something a Western company would make: correct, functional, and utterly unappealing to me. If I wanted something like this I’d just buy Paula’s Choice and avoid the strong scent, to be honest. Find it on KoreaDepart.
Ingredients: Water, Dipropylene Glycol, PEG-15 Glyceryl Isostearate, PEG-20 Glyceryl Triisostearate, Bis-PED-18 Methyl Ether Dimethyl Silane, 1,3-Butylene Glycol, PEG/PPG/Polybutylene Glycol-8/5/3 Glycerin, Torreya Nucifera Seed Oil, Rosa Centifolia Flower Extract, Boesenbergia Pandurata Rhizome Extract, Salicylic Acid, Citrus Unshiu Peel Extract, Orchid Extract, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Opuntia Coccinellifera Fruit Extract, Camellia Japonica Leaf Extract, Tocopherol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Disodium EDTA, Polymethyl Methacrylate, Polysorbate 20, Phenoxyethanol, Abies Sibirica Oil, Juniperus Communis Fruit Oil, Juniperus Virginiana Oil, Fragrance. CosDNA.
This cleansing gel has a strong, antiseptic scent like that of the Ciracle cleanser except perhaps stronger and not tea tree-ish. Aish. Additionally, I realized after receiving this that it’s more like the pool cleansers I reviewed in my massive first-step cleanser review: it’s meant to be put on dry, makeupy, dirty skin, rubbed in, and then rinsed off–taking the place of both the makeup-removing oil cleanser and cleanup crew second cleanser. It has terrible reviews as a first cleanser, so most people use it as a second cleanser. When using it as a second cleanser I never felt certain that my skin was getting really clean or if I was just rubbing some gel on my face and then rinsing it off. *Darth Vader voice* I find the lack of bubbles or foam combined with the strong scent disturbing, so this one is gonneeee.
Ingredients: Water, Butylene Glycol, Sodium Lactate, TEA-Cocoyl Alaninate, Sodium cocoamphoacetate, Polyglyceryl-10 laurate, Glycerin, Disodium cocoyl glutamate, Glycolic Acid, Salicylic Acid, Sodium cocoyl glutamate, Methylparaben. CosDNA.
This cleanser’s pH level is too high to be exfoliating or even effective at setting one’s skin up for exfoliation, so I have no idea where the AHA and BHA figure in. Additionally, this cleansing fouf feels like cleansing with a cloud, which isn’t so great in practice when you know you have a bunch of oil and makeup traces still to remove. Nope.
pH: 7.5-8.0 (yeah, no idea how the actual pH doesn’t match what’s printed in large numbers on the bottle)
Ingredients: Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Water, Sodium Cocoyl Apple Amino Acids, Sodium Lauroyl Aspartate, Glycerin, Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysate, Glycosyl Trehalose, Pinus Palustris Leaf Extract, Grapefruit Seed Extract, Bambusa Textilis Stem Extract. CosDNA.
This was a total wipeout. How does a product have the damn pH on the side of the bottle and then not deliver that when it’s not even mixed with water due to being self-foaming? This has the same texture issues as the Hada Labo fouf–it just isn’t a satisfying cleanser type for me, recovering high-pH foam lover. No.
I started writing this post two months ago (!!!), on 20 May, and it’s been such a kbeauty boner-killer that I just want to be rid of it so I can hunt for the perfect foamy, delicious-smelling, and effective second cleanser of my dreams. In the end, I have an imperfect cleanser that I like (LJH Tea Tree), a cleanser that I can sort of deal with (Su:m 37 MRCS), and a cleanser that’s the right pH but I don’t enjoy using (Ciracle Anti-Blemish Tea Tree Wash). I’m left with five products that I consider unusable for various reasons, one of which I was able to return. Blerg.
I will be back with a better cleanser someday soon, I hope. grr
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