Face Off: A Primer for the Care and Keeping of Your Skin

It’s probable that you, like many of us, have skin on your face. Possibly you have been wondering if there is something you should be doing for it, or if there’s a better basic skincare routine than what you’re currently doing. Maybe you just need to know some skincare basic steps or if you moisturize with acne prone skin. Or possibly, your skincare routine is already perfected well beyond beginner level, in which case feel free to read through just to smugly correct me. We’re just going to talk about the super duper skincare basics routine here, nothing crazy.

Background: I’m not a dermatologist, or a cosmetic chemist, or even someone who did particularly well in science in high school. I don’t have perfect skin either! My knowledge about skincare comes from researching it pretty extensively on the internet, starting with the heralded Skincare Addiction subreddit, which is heavily sourced with scientific research about everything from cell turnover to particle size in sunscreens. Much of what I’ll talk about here is distilled from there. Feel free to take anything I say with a grain of salt or correct me; if you have information or research I don’t know about, I’d love to hear it!

Taking care of your skin can seem daunting, especially with confusing and contradictory commercials trying to convince you that you need sentient helioplexes to penetrate all 23 layers of skin so that your inner youth can burst out of your cells. Basic skincare is not really that complicated, though; or more accurately, it’s only as complicated as you want it to be. There are only a few basic steps that you need, and they’ll work for everyone, regardless of your age, skin type, gender, or specific skin issues. Although you may end up tweaking the below basic skincare routine to fit you better, the fundamentals generally remain:

The Most Basic Skincare Steps

  1. Cleanse
  2. Moisturize
  3. Sunscreen (in the AM)

See? Not hard. A few things to note before we really get into it, though. Before getting all excited and slathering all new stuff on your face, consider introducing new skincare products slowly. You don’t know how you’re going to react to new things, and if you try five new skincare products the same day and the next day you’re covered entirely in hives, you’re not going to know what caused it. If you do choose to try new skincare products or techniques, introduce them one at a time, and wait at least a week between adding the next one to your skincare routine. It’s also ideal to use them at first on only a small area, so that if you do have a negative reaction, it’s happening on just a few inches rather than your entire facespace. This is called “patch testing,” and it seems tedious until the first time something doesn’t agree with you, and then it seems GENIUS. Also, if there’s a specific skincare ingredient you know doesn’t agree with your or that you don’t like from previous experience, you can check for other products that might contain it with a tool like CosDNA.

Also! Faces are unique and beautiful, like snowflakes or jasmine flowers. It’s totally possible that nothing I talk about here works for you and in fact the exact opposite works for you. Maybe you’re happiest with your skin when you rub it with a pinecone and then paint it with turpentine. If that’s what’s working, then great, go with that. No one will be mad, I promise. I’ll recommend a couple specific products here for beginner skincare, but there’s no way to recommend something that will be good for everyone, because everyone’s face situation is different; all I can do is mention things that have worked well for me or that I’ve heard often work well for others.

Okay! With that out of the way, let’s talk about what to put on your face.

Basic Skincare Step 1: Cleanse

Generally speaking, what we’re most looking for in a cleanser is that it be gentle. This is true even if you have oily skin or acne prone skin; although it’s often suggested to us that those skin situations need to be aggressively scrubbed with intense cleansers, that’s generally not true. Ideally your cleanser has either no or low surfactants — chemicals like sodium laureth sulfate, which create sudsiness and that “tight” feeling you sometimes get after washing your face. The tight feeling is actually a bad thing, trust me. If you have oily skin and/or acne prone skin and are using a drying cleanser like this, it may actually be making oiliness worse, because it feels so dry after cleansing and then over-produces oil. Unless you’re bobbing for apples in tar pits or something, you probably don’t need something for your face that you could also use to clean your dishes. (Also, it seems nitpicky, but ideally you’re not using SUPER hot water here, which isn’t awesome for your skin cells. No, not even to “open up your pores;” your pores do not open and close, no matter what temperature the water is. Warm/room temperature water is good!)

For many of us, a good choice in our basic skincare routine is a cream or gel cleanser; they don’t necessarily make foamy soap suds on your face, but that doesn’t mean they’re not working. If you wear makeup, it’s true that a cream or gel cleanser may not remove all your makeup on its own. You may want to look into an oil-based cleanser or makeup remover of some kind, which is awesome at dissolving makeup, and then use your cream or gel cleanser to remove the oil-based cleanser. This is called double cleansing, and is a great idea if you wear makeup and/or mineral sunscreen. You can also try a cleansing balm, which is sold as a solid that melts into a cleansing oil on your skin, which works well for a lot of people. Your skin should be feeling clean but also hydrated and calm, not tight, dry or squeaky.

One last thing: most of what we’ve discussed here has to do with evening face cleansing, when you’re taking off everything you’ve been exposed to all day and maybe makeup. You likely don’t need to go through this entire situation in the morning; your face probably didn’t get that dirty overnight. I don’t know, I don’t know your life. Probably you can just do a quick wash with your basic cleanser, or even just with water.

Products to try for Step 1 of your basic skincare routine:

Cetaphil, CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, DHC Deep Cleansing Oil

Basic Skincare Step 2: Moisturize

You do you, but also probably moisturize your face. Again, this applies even if you have oily and/or acne-prone skin. Wearing (the right) moisturizer will not make your skin more oily or your skin’s acne worse.

What should you look for in a moisturizer? There are some ingredients that are generally solid for beginners to skincare — good examples are hyaluronic acid and ceramides. (I know that “acid” looks scary, but trust me, it’s hydrating.) Other than that, pick a moisturizer that you like and that works well for you. Just make sure you’re using one both in the morning and at night. There are lots of moisturizers that are advertised for specific things — aging, acne, etc — and you’re welcome to try them, but trying to have a product do two things, hydrate and the other thing, can mean that it doesn’t do a great job at either of them. It may be better to find a separate product — serum, cream, something — and add that into your skincare in addition to your moisturizer rather than trying to get your moisturizer to do double-duty. We’ll talk more about that in a future post!

Do you need different moisturizers for morning and evening? Not necessarily. Some people like to, because they have different ingredients that are specific to daytime or nighttime, or they’re more comfortable wearing “richer,” heavier creams at night, when they aren’t out in the world or trying to wear makeup over it. It’s a personal preference, though, not a hard and fast rule. If you have a basic moisturizer that you like, there’s no reason you can’t use it both in the morning and at night.

Do you need a different eye cream? Again, not really. If you compare the ingredients on eye creams generally with the ingredients in regular moisturizer, they’re usually not super different; the eye cream is just a good moisturizer. The skin around your eyes isn’t radically different from the skin elsewhere on your face, and the problems that eye cream is usually marketed towards solving are either not really solvable or better solved by more targeted products. (Dark circles are the result of veins existing under the thin skin of your eyes, and that isn’t going to change if the skin is more hydrated. Wrinkles/fine lines are better dealt with by products/ingredients designed for them, which we can talk about later.) Eye creams that promise to reduce dark circles or make your eyes look giant and shiny like a Disney princess’s are basically propaganda lotion in expensive, tiny containers. I’d recommend instead just having a general moisturizer that you find effective, and making sure not to skip your eye area with it. Apply it gently though! Lots of rubbing and pulling around the eyes can make wrinkles worse.

Does your moisturizer need to have SPF? Nope! We’ll get into this more in a second, but you’re generally much better off having a separate sunscreen. SPF probably shouldn’t be a major factor in your moisturizer decision. If you have one you really like and it does have SPF in it, though, go for it, whatever.

Products to try for Step 2 of your basic skincare routine:

CeraVe AM morning moisturizer, CeraVe general moisturizing cream, CeraVe Skin Renewing Night Cream, Embryolisse Lait-Creme Concentre

Basic Skincare Step 3: Sunscreen

Sunscreen! So unsexy yet so important. Really not to be skipped in any skincare routine, even the most rudimentary. I feel like people are very resistant to the idea of wearing it every day, but allow me to make my case. Obviously daily sunscreen as part of your basic skincare routine helps prevent cancer from sun damage; it also helps with the appearance of aging and wrinkles, both of which are significantly impacted by sun exposure. (It’s not super scientific, but have we all seen this photo by now?) If you’re concerned about visible signs of aging, sunscreen is probably the best thing you can do. But that’s not all!

If you have any dark spots on your face, either from aging or hyperpigmentation (that’s the scarring left behind from a breakout), the sun damage is keeping that from healing or fading. Hyperpigmentation can and will fade eventually, but if sun exposure is re-darkening it every time you go outside, you’re never going to notice a change. Daily sunscreen can be your savior from unwanted signs of aging, hyperpigmentation/acne scarring, and literal cancer. Also, if you’re using ANY other kinds of treatments — OTC acne creams, retinols, many prescription acne products, any chemical exfoliants like salicylic acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid, etc — your skin is extra sensitive to the sun and you REALLY need a sunscreen. Most of the benefits of those products will also be basically canceled out by sun damage, so if you’re using those but not a sunscreen, you may just be wasting your money. It’s a good move all around!

Some people who often think they don’t need to wear sunscreen but should still wear sunscreen: people with a lot of melanin or dark skin and people who are indoors all day. People with increased melanin or dark skin can still get skin cancer and visible damage and aging from sun, even if sun exposure is relatively less visible or damaging as compared to white people, and sometimes dark-skinned people can be more prone to hyperpigmentation than lighter-skinned people; sunscreen will help that hyperpigmentation heal. People who “never go outside” are still exposed to the sun through windows, etc, and that damage accumulates over time. Sunscreen is step three of your basic skincare routine for a reason and you probably should not skip it!

Maybe your moisturizer or makeup already have SPF; isn’t that enough?? No! It is not, my friend. Here’s the thing: when you look at your sunscreen’s SPF rating — say, 30 — that’s based on the assumption that you’re using a full ¼ teaspoon of the product. Trust me, that’s a lot more than you think it is. It’s definitely a lot more than you probably use of either your moisturizer or makeup. A good rule of thumb is using 2-3 “fingers” of sunscreen for your face & neck combined, drawing a line of product down the first three fingers of your hand to measure it out. So even if your non-sunscreen skincare product says it has SPF 30 in it, you’re definitely not getting SPF 30; you’re probably not getting much protection at all. You need a separate sunscreen product that’s at least SPF 30 on its own, and you need to apply a ¼ tsp or 2-3 fingers of it. That’s why sunscreen is its own third step in your skincare basics.

Okay! All that said, let’s talk about what kind of sunscreen you should use. There are two basic sunscreen families: physical/mineral (active ingredients are usually titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide) and chemical (active ingredients are usually some combination of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate). They both have pros and cons. Physical sunscreens are nice because they don’t usually need to be reapplied; their sun protection stays all day, and they’re sometimes easier on sensitive skin or acne prone skin. They’re less irritating for sensitive skin or eyes; if you’ve had your eyes sting or burn while wearing sunscreen, it’s probably because it wasn’t mineral. On the other hand, they can adda white tint to skin, which is especially noticeable on people with dark skin or really any skin that’s not super pale. Chemical sunscreens can feel nicer to apply — some of them come in a ‘gel’ texture that’s very cooling and feels like othing on your face – and they don’t tend to leave a white cast, but their protection isn’t always as consistent either, and they work better when reapplied throughout the day. Increasingly, dermatologists are thinking mineral sunscreens are the more effective and reliable option. It’s your call!

Products to try for Step 3 of your basic skincare routine:

Physical suncreens:

Elta MD Physical, Elta MD UV Shield, La Roche Posay Anthelios Mineral Ultra Light, Neutrogena Sheer Zinc

Chemical sunscreens:

Biore UV Aqua Rich Waterly Essence, Elta MD UV Clear, Elensilia Enchante Marine Energy Sun Gel, La Roche-Posay Anthelios Cooling Water Lotion Sunscreen Broad Spectrum

And that’s it! I know it seems like a lot, but the basic steps of a skincare routine — wash your face, moisturize it, put some sunscreen on it, then wash it off again at the end of the day — are super easy. Just like falling off a log with your face. Enjoy!

This post was originally written in 2015, and was updated in April 2021.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


    • mmhmm your face is small but all is possible with faith. it’s sometimes easier to put half of it on first, then wait 5 minutes or so and then rub the rest in. u can do this i promise

  1. Yes, yes, I know I should wear sunscreen, esp. because I live in Evil Sun Land and my antidepressants make me burn more easily. But sunscreen always feels so gross on my face! Even the face ones? Any non-gross-feeling sunscreen recommendations, particularly that are available in Australia?

  2. Ooh, face care! I love/hate this topic, mostly because as someone in the entertainment industry with acne-prone skin, I feel like my whole life revolves around mah face skin. I actually oil cleanse with pumpkin seed oil and moisturize with rosehip seed oil, and my skin is getting way better. As far as sunscreen, haven’t taken the leap yet, but I’ve been eyeing the Badger sunscreen line, because apparently it’s super organic and has no zinc. And smells like a field full of lavender, which is always a bonus.

    • I also just use oil to wash my face, and it’s great! My skin has gotten a lot better. Also, I do use Badger sunscreen, and I love it! It’s the first sunscreen I don’t hate. I only use natural sunscreens, and Badger does not feel greasy. It does leave that white tint to your skin, but it is the best sunscreen I’ve used.

    • I recently started cleansing with hemp seed oil and my skin is really liking it. I do it at night and find that I don’t need a separate night cream because it leaves my skin feeling really nice and moisturized.

    • if i ever got really disciplined about cleaning my face i would get into the the oil-cleansing method. i tried it for a few days and was amazed how much cleaning was possible with oil, but I also seemed to have a mild allergic reaction to the oils i used (forget which), so i would need to screen some different oil combos. but it seems to work really well for a lot of people with acne that doesn’t respond to other methods.

  3. Oh goodness this is a source of much stress in my life. Is there a way to have this stuff all in one for less than $5/month? I feel like there is not because you would have told us if such magic existed. Thanks for the info though, I will file this away for the day I finally get my shit together.

    • not exactly, but most of what’s linked here is less expensive than you might be assuming. i added up what i use (cerave hydrating cleanser, cerave moisturizing cream, LRP anthelios sunscreen) divided by how many months they last me and got about $12.50 a month? and there are definitely cheaper sunscreens. i know that’s more than twice what you wanted to budget for, but with some couponing it may not be as stressful as you think!

      • That is actually much better than I expected, thanks for breaking it down for me! Still probably not doable for the moment, but it’s definitely something to remember for when I somehow inherit millions (or just get a somewhat steady job above min wage). I’ve been trying to make healthy choices lately and it’s great but financially it’s kicking my ass. Thank youuu

        • That’s definitely something I struggle with! If I’m at the grocery store, trying to stay under my budget, and I’m trying to decide between getting a tube of sunscreen or getting actual food, I’m gonna pick the food and tell myself I can worry about skin care later.

    • Neutrogena is one of the best-protecting sunscreens you can buy at any price, and happens to be only $10 for enough for 2 months. They sell it at Target, Walmart, and on Amazon I believe. It also does a good job moisturizing, so you’re at least 2/3 of the way to being on budget, and home free if you don’t need special face soup (I can get away with just warm water most the time).

    • I dunno about sunscreen, but i use burt’s bees cleansing oil with argan and coconut oil, and a $14 bottle lasts more than a year, clocking in at about $2/mo. it does the cleansing and moisturizing for me all at once. (i actually found it as a product at Trader Joe’s which is now discontinued). i also use it more like 2-3x per week, not every day. i haven’t gotten into sunscreen tho. everyone is different so your milage may vary! also my skin depends more on what i eat than what i put on it. . . and i don’t wear makeup, and that i think makes things much easier. i always had acne since i was 11 or so, and this stuff keeps my skin the happiest its been.

  4. this is so well-timed because my moisturizer is about to run out and my facewash will run out shortly thereafter, and i have an annoying amount of acne these days, so a change needs to happen.

    but yeah, that’s really a lot of sunscreen.

  5. For moisturizer, I swear by First Aid Beauty’s Ultra Repair Cream. It makes my skin soft but doesn’t leave residue or make my skin feel all heavy and oily. Also pretty neutral smell.

  6. This is one of those things like how to eat properly that is super hard to find empirically based non-bullshitty information about, so thanks for doing all of this research, this is super helpful.

  7. thank you for making my dreams come true and writing this post! this is so helpful! gloria and my mom will probably be very grateful that you helped me actually take care of my face, something they’ve been trying to do since forever.

  8. i think i literally wished this post into existence! i just feel very very comforted when someone tells me that things like this are not actually that complicated and i can do them and i don’t need eight different bottles of $400 japanese products for my very specific skin type or something. also i am still very torn about using things w/ parabens and whatever because they seem to be the products that work the best for the least amount of money but also are they going to mess up my hormones or do other bad things ugghhhh i think maybe i don’t care for now???

  9. One tip for make up removal before cleansing is micellar water. I don’t fully understand the science behind it but I know it feels far more gentle than face wipes or make up removers and takes off all my make up so my cleanser can actually make its way to my needy little face. There are loads of expensive ones but Garnier have a few for different skin types that always seem to be on offer somewhere.

    Also I need to share this with someone: I’ve had moderate acne on my chin for about five years now (I’m 25) and had tried all sorts to get rid of it including going on the pill (oh the irony – as soon as I stop playing with the D I end up on oral contraceptives) and loads of topical creams. I went to my doctor last week and reluctantly left with a prescription for Lymecycline, an antibiotic and in TEN DAYS I don’t have a single new spot or any lurking under the skin. This is the first time in years that my skin has felt so pain free and clear. I did a little happy cry when I saw my face this morning.

  10. I was just thinking earlier, “I don’t really trust the information I have on face washing/face washes. Why hasn’t Autostraddle taught me this yet?”

    BOOM!!! Autostraddle article perfect timing strikes again and I know I can trust Rachel. Thanks!

  11. I am a slave to sun-tan lotion, thanks to azathioprine! My question is, can you put your make-up just on top of your sun-tan lotion, or do I need to do something else first? I have visions of it all just sliding straight off my face!

    • I think that varies a lot depending on where you live and what your skin is like. I mean for the month of November we got like 2 sun hours here in Stockholm. But if it’s sunny where you live sunscreen is still a good idea to protect your skin from UV-rays, even if the weather’s chilly.

    • You do actually! The rays that cause sun damage are different than the rays that we can see, and they’re there even when it’s not sunny or warm. We still need sunscreen when it’s winter or cloudy, basically anytime it’s not night.

      Also, I might suggest bumping up to at least SPF 30; SPF 15 doesn’t provide much protection!

    • You especially need high spf if there’s snow on the ground because the snow reflects! So you get UV from above and below, and you can actually end up with the same or higher UV exposure than in summer!

  12. If you have sensitive skin, the sunscreens listed here will make your skin break out — especially the La Roche Posey one. Zinc based ones work best for sensitive skin, like Glycolix Elite Sunscreen SPF 30. Just thought I’d share since I learned this the hard way!

    • i’m sorry you’ve had bad experiences with those! it’s good to keep in mind though that everyone’s skin is different, even sensitive skin — sort of like how if you get a dozen people in a room with food sensitivities, lactose isn’t going to make all of them ill, just some of them. that’s why it’s important for everyone to patch-test new products when trying them out, so thank you for the reminder! if you’ve had bad experiences with those sunscreens, i’d recommend using something like CosDNA to see what ingredients they share so you can avoid them in the future. (also, if you’re seeing breakouts rather than redness or irritation, your skin might actually be more acne-prone than sensitive. if that’s the case, it might be helpful for you to look for the comodegenic ratings for products/ingredients, also available on CosDNA. Higher comodegenic ratings often bring a higher likelihood of breakouts.)

  13. There’s a few really good australian brands like people for plants and sukin. Both are relatively affordable in canada, though I’m not sure about other places. Sea wench, a canadian company, also makes good stuff.

  14. All of my skin care products are from Cerave. I really love this brand. Lots of dermatologists recommend it or even give out samples. It’s pretty cheap too. A bottle of cleanser lasts a few months and costs around 10-12 bucks where I live.

  15. Rachel this is so good thank you! Thank you for dispelling the myths about ‘shrinking’ your pores etc, and giving sound advice about sunscreen, and all the other great advice here. I’m going to look at those links you posted.

    Speaking of sun-screen: no one ingredient can block all the UV that should be blocked (UVA1, UVA2, and UVB), so to get <a href="http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/uva-and-uvb/understanding-uva-and-uvb&quot; broad-spectrum protection , use something with multiple ingredients (i.e. not just zinc).

    Ideally your sunscreen will have both physical block (Zinc or Titanium) and chemical block (Octylcrylene etc), because physical block takes effect immediately, but chemical block takes about 30 minutes after application to start working.

    I did a bunch of research on sunscreen when I moved to Phoenix and Neutrogena seems to be one of the best products available in the U.S. in terms of broad-spectrum protection, and it’s also pretty affordable, $10 at Target. It’s also dry-touch and waterproof, and surprisingly easy to get that whole teaspoon onto your skin somehow, compared with other brands.

    Don’t forget to put sunscreen on your neck, ears, and the backs of your hands too, and wear a hat and sunglasses.

  16. Thanks Rachel this article was really helpful and I am keen to try out the Cerave products. I had a question from an article awhile back you wrote about the Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay Deep Pore Cleansing Mask. I went out and tried it and it has worked well. Just wondering how often you would recommend using that? Like once a week? I am sure it depends on the person, just wondering if you have found timing that is best since it is a strong product. Thanks!

    • once a week is probably good! definitely not more than twice a week, and if you have sensitive skin, even going to every two weeks might be a good idea. you know your own skin best, though, so whatever is working for you is best!

  17. I am already doing most of these things! Except for the daily sunscreen. Yesterday after reading the article I told myself ‘nah, my moisturizer has SPF 15 and my foundation has SPF 15 so I’m probably already covered’ but then I went and sat in the sun for hours. I didn’t get a burn (surprisingly, because pale ginger) but it definitely wasn’t great for my skin. So then this morning I figured I’d try out the face sunscreen thing and I got it in my eye! Maybe tomorrow will be better.

    • i’m sorry about your eye! but yes, like the article explains, the SPF 15 in your moisturizer and foundation are basically nothing. you’re definitely not actually getting SPF 15 from them, and even if you were, SPF 15 isn’t much protection; you need at least SPF 30. (and SPF’s don’t add up; wearing two different products with SPF 15 in them doesn’t give you SPF 30.) better luck next time!

  18. So what sort of teaspoon are you using that that’s a quarter of it? Because I’m sitting here in my kitchen and whatever’s in your hand there is more than a *teaspoon.* The full tea experience. Either that or maybe you have super tiny hands?? I am confuse.

  19. So I was getting ready to go out on a cloudy day and wasn’t going to bother with sunscreen but then I thought, no, put it on, it’s what Autostraddle would want you to do. And then obviously it became super sunny and I was outside all day! Thanks Autostraddle! (But also I forgot my sunglasses so if you feel like it please write an article about sunglasses)

  20. Walgreen’s house brand sport sunscreen in the little waxy tube saved me from many a facial burn last summer, AND it never drips in your eyes AND it didn’t make my fairly sensitive face break out.

  21. Hello, I think your site might be having browser compatibility issues.
    When I look at your blog in Ie, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it
    has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!

    Other then that, awesome blog!

  22. re: makeup removal, I highly recommend alcohol-free witch hazel! I use Thayer’s. It’s so dreamy.

    And WRT the listed sunscreen recs, here’s a w i l d story for u: there’s a woman on TikTok in her mid-fifties with face full of skin so glowing that if she’d told me she drank unicorn’s blood for a cursed but eternal youth, I would have believed her. She’s maybe the most radiantly-faced individual I’ve ever seen in my life.

    One day, I begged her to aid us mere mortals with her skin care routine, and she was like, “I simply use sunscreen every day!” and I said “.. What? Wait, do you ever exfoliate or anything?” and she said, I swear to god, “Exfoliate? Darling, I’m not sure how to do that!”

    So I asked her what type of sunscreen she used, and she named the La Roche-Posay thing in this very article.

    La Roche-Posay is a tube full of witchcraft.

    • I saw a thing on Twitter in 2019 where a woman had run out of cleanser and so just used water while she was waiting on her refill but it turned out that her skin was happier with just water. So I tried it and damn if my pores didn’t shrink and my skin get smoother within a week! Now I just use a washcloth to wipe my face thoroughly in the shower and my skin is so happy.

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