Are cleansing wipes really that bad for the skin?

There are many things the Instagram aesthetician community has in common; our love for clients that rebook and show up for their appointment on time and our hate for St. Ives Scrub and cleansing wipes.

I remember being introduced to the anti-face wipe movement for the first time in the first few months of college, by a Dermalogica representative with bright red lips who explained that cleansing wipes leave nothing but a filthy, grimy film on the surface of the skin – despite their purpose of design and handy function, they do not cleanse the skin in the way we think they do. Are these travel-friendly hygiene products really that disastrous for the skin? In this blog post, I will explore the pros and cons of using face wipes and investigate the possibility of experiencing bad skin when using them on a regular basis.

The invention of the wipe

The wet wipe is thought to be first created in the late 50s, by Arthur Julius, an American that worked in the cosmetics industry. Julius trademarked the name Wet-Map in 1958 and started selling his product to Colonel Harland Sanders for the wipes to be used in Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. To date, his company Nice-Pak has contributed to the first developments of the alcohol swap for hospitals in 1963, the first resealable baby wipes travel pack for on-the-go-portability in 1986 and the first dispersible wipe made from 100% plant-based materials in 2014.

It wasn’t until the 90s that wet wipes started to become specifically designed and marketed as baby wipes. As technology to produce wipes became more affordable, smaller brands began to appear and supermarkets around the world began releasing their own private label brand of wipes.

Because of this in today’s beauty world the standard wet wipe is marketed for several cleansing uses, and can also be referred to as:

  • Make-up wipes

  • Make-up remover wipes

  • Face wipes

  • Cleansing wipes

  • Baby wipes

  • Facial cleansing wipes

What are wipes made up of?

All of the wipes listed above consist of a nonwoven fabric material, soaked in some kind of liquid solution. 90-98% of this liquid is water. Other things are added to improve the feeling of the wipe when applied to the skin, to preserve the formula and to help remove dirt and makeup products from the surface of the skin.

Some cleansing pads are targeted a specific skin condition such as acne, and usually contain a specific active ingredient like the popular BHA, salicylic acid.

Besides cleansing the skin, wet wipes come in all shapes and sizes and used for other things like household cleaning, wipes to treat scrapes and skin burns, industrial-strength cleaning wipes and wipes and used to disinfect medical equipment.

Why wipe?

Despite the tense build-up of mass hate from aesthetician and beauty professionals alike, the facial wipe is a fast-growing sector of the person care market. Based on Euromonitor data, the personal care wipe market has roughly grown an addition $900 million between the years of 2009 and 2014.

Wipes are strongly marketed for their convenience, which is possibly the products main benefit. Wipes are travel-friendly, affordable and you don’t need water to use them. Even if you are not using them to take your make-up of, there are a million other ways you may have used them in your lifetime. Wipes can prove handy on long journeys and at festivals or on camping holidays to clear up unexpected messes or for a quick spruce up. Wipes can help to remove excess tanning lotion and nail polish from the skin, instantly correct unwanted make-up applications, save you on the days when you forgot deodorant, to clean your hands when a sink isn’t close by, to wipe off collections of dust and grime that gather around stuff in the home.

Convenience is great because it makes lengthy tasks easier and short, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should jump to that option every time. Just like a readymade meal may prove an ideal substitute on an evening where there is no time or you are too tired to prep a healthy, homecooked meal. Face wipes are the unhealthy readymade meal in this case, and home cooking is a proper facial cleanse using water. Here’s why.

Are baby wipes harmful to the skin?

Many aestheticians, dermatologists, beauty therapists and other skin professionals will tell you that relying on face wipes to clean your skin is problematic for a few reasons. Critics discuss that using face wipes to clean your face with on a regular basis can lead to a:

  • Damaged skin barrier

  • Increased sensitivity

  • Increase in breakouts and oil production

These symptoms can apparently occur because of a few factors.

The Rubbing Technique

Naturally most of us will use some kind of pressure and a rubbing technique to remove make-up from our face. If this done regularly, it can cause sensitivity, dryness and redness, especially around the eyes and lips where the skin is much thinner.

The Ingredients In The Wipes

Depending on the brand and type of wipe, all of these products contain some other ingredients besides water to help keep the wipes moist, to preserve the wipe and prevent it from going bad and to also help remove stubborn makeup and oils from the surface of the skin. Simple alcohols such as alcohol Denat, Methylisothiazolinone (MI) and Triclosan seem to be the most noteworthy ingredients amongst make-up wipe critics. I am not a cosmetic chemist and therefore will not scrutinise each ingredient like I have the expertise to. However, it can be said that such ingredients may increase sensitivity or be irritating for some people, but not for everyone. The likelihood of a skin reaction after using these ingredients repetitively is constantly debated and there is no scientific evidence to tell us if and how this happens, especially for some people and not in others. There will be more on this shortly.


One theory is that because the cloth of a make-up wipe is made up of fibrous tissue, it causes light (or rough, depending on how heavy-handed you are) exfoliation to the skin’s surface. This isn’t necessarily a problem if you are using a cleansing wipe every now and then, but daily use may strip the barrier of natural oils and cause skin irritation. Over exfoliation of the skin can lead to all kinds of stress symptoms such as skin dehydration, dryness, flaking, broken veins, a tight or warm sensation, fine lines, acne and a dull skin tone.

Not Cleaning The Skin Properly

Another argument is that cleansing wipes, despite their name, do not cleanse the skin thoroughly enough. As I mentioned earlier, skin wipes are thought to leave excess amounts of product that soaks up the wipe in the packet. This is thought to lead to a build up dead skin cells, lead to dry, flaky patches, excess oil, comedones and other types of acne, and a generally unbalanced, skin condition.

The one thing that many blog articles, practicing professionals and writers don’t address when discussing the ‘danger of the face wipe’ for skin cleansing, is the lack of evidence to support these claims. Are face wipes really that bad? Are you guaranteed to break out after a week of using them? Except for online testimonials and verbal guarantees from dermatologist testimonials, we don’t have enough scientific data to go from in order to make a fair judgement.

There are no trials or data recorded measuring the probability of skin damage, sensitivity or breakouts after using face wipes, only a divided culture running with this truth.

There was only one insightful report that I found on the subject of the cleansing wipe, but its purpose of publication was to only understand the differences between cleansing/make-up remover wipes that are manufactured around the world. It was reported that all thirteen wipe samples studied ‘cleaned the skin well,’ but there were different outcomes when it came to how the skin looked and felt after using the products.

There are still many unanswered questions, and so it is easy to fall in a habit of answering them yourself.

Is it ‘safe’ to use cleansing wipes on a regular basis?

What skin types are specifically prone to breaking out after using them?

Can using wipes really enhance the ageing process, and if so, specifically how does this happen?

It is unfair to give an answer on this without carrying out numerous trials which cost money and will take up a lot of time. Some would say the act would be slanderous to the companies that contribute to a global market sector expected to reach 5.83 USD in the next seven years. You can see why this dilemma isn’t on the research priority list, especially when there is a large demand and great use for wipe products.

How wipes affect our environment

The effect wipes have on our environment is something that is often discussed. Sustainability is at the forefront of today’s consumer trends and this is reflected in recent developments in cleansing wipe technology over the last few years.

Wipes are terrible for the environment. Water UK said that 90% of the material found in sewer blockages in 2017 were wipes. These products cause long-term problems for marine environment and ocean as they are often flushed down the toilet. Have you ever heard the term fatberg? Google it, and you will find stomach-churning videos on the internet of monster amounts of debris collecting in city sewers containing mostly, you guessed it, wet wipes.

The majority of wipe products are not manufactured to be flushable and some companies like Nicepak are coming up with new inventions such as the ‘dispersible’ wipe. Some argue this doesn’t solve the problem however, that by making the product dispersible only means that it can break up into tinier pieces.

Skin cleansing wipes in a nutshell

Still confused about whether or not to use a cleansing wipe after reading this? Don’t be, whatever your choice is, remember it is your own to make and ok to do what’s best for you. Just don’t flush the wipe, bin it.

The main ‘risks’ of using a wipe are breakouts, skin dryness, sensitivity, compromised barrier function and so forth but the probability of this happening is unknown. Are sensitive skins more likely to see redness, flaking and even more sensitivity after using cleansing wipes for more than a few days in a row? No one knows for sure. Are they something to be relied upon as a daily cleansing routine? Heck no. Why would you, when you have a sink, mostly likely a cleanser, and fresh running water at the ready? Despite the lack of evidence, using wipes like this just feels like brushing my teeth without the paste. Just not good enough.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you, comment below or connect with me through Instagram.