Micellar water, sheet masks and more – an increasing number of skincare launches means there’s constant incentive to switch up our complexion staples for something newer and shinier that promises miracles. But is having a skincare routine that’s as chaotic as your bathroom cabinet really the secret to a perfect complexion?

While it might not be the most exciting product in your skincare repertoire, Lush co-founder and product inventor Helen Ambrosen believes that the single most important step in your routine is your cleanser. “If you can get skin cleansing right, it’s a real gateway to good skin,” she explains. “That’s my number one premise. Once you find the right cleanser for you, it enables your skin to feel healthy and function well and for it to look as good as it can do.”

But effective cleansing isn’t about finding the strongest cleanser possible. Instead, it’s a delicate balance between removing residue, sweat and cosmetics and not interfering with the friendly bacteria unique to your skin AKA your microflora.

Meet the family: Microflora

You might not have heard of microflora before, but behind the scenes these bacteria are hard at work protecting your skin from pathogens. Each person receives their microflora from the birth canal and the people they have contact with during their first week of life. This forms your skin’s immunity: a defence system that can wipe out unfriendly microorganisms that land on the skin in 20 minutes. In fact, keeping your microflora fighting fit is just as key to a healthy complexion as cleansing, toning and moisturising. Products with high levels of preservative do not distinguish between your microflora and invading bacteria and instead simply eradicate both – wiping out your skin’s natural defences. It’s just one of the reasons Lush cleansers use plenty of fresh, natural ingredients and very few or no preservatives.

Many spots are the result of a confrontation between your microflora and infections that attack the skin. Lush co-founder and product inventor Mark Constantine explains: “Imagine the skin as a big traditional Christmas cake, with loads of currants and fats and bits and bobs inside, then a layer of marzipan which creates a layer of icing on the surface. All of the guts are down in the main part of the cake, and then the cells from the marzipan migrate to the surface and desquamate [come off in scales or flakes]. It’s the way the skin keeps healthy.

“If you imagine putting your finger in the cake – that’s a hair follicle. A little bit of that dermal capillary goes deeper in. Now, the finer that hole, the more prone you are to spots. So, if you’ve got fairly fine skin that’s a little bit prone to irritation, the entrances to the hair follicles close over. Now, you may be covered in friendly microflora, but in the bottom of that hair follicle are some not-so-kind organisms that start to reproduce the minute the skin closes over. These are pathogenic and they cause a reaction. When your white blood cells go in to clean it up, you end up with pus in a spot because that’s the dead matter of the two fighting it out. What this means is it’s vitality important to clean the skin in as gentle a way as possible. One of the reasons you don’t want high levels of preservative in your products is that you don’t want to put something on your skin that will kill off all your microflora.”

How does this translate into skincare? It means that the most effective cleansers will remove all traces of makeup, pollution, sunscreen and anything else that’s accumulated on the skin with minimal disturbance to the microflora protecting you from pathogens. Lush co-founder and product inventor Mo Constantine explains: “In some creams there’s five or more preservatives and that’s a lot to put on your skin. It’s a minefield really so we try to keep it as simple as possible at Lush.”

Ditch the dirt (and the makeup)

With this in mind, forget a quick sweep over the skin with the makeup remover wipes left next to your bed, Lush skincare experts advise taking makeup and dirt removal much more seriously. Helen explains: “The danger is that if you’re not taking your makeup off fully, the skin is still dirty and then makeup is going back on top of unclean skin. If you’re wearing makeup to cover a spot in the first place, this escalates the problem.”

And, disregard any prejudices you may have towards oil-based cleansers (accentuated by the rise of ‘oil-free’ branding), all firmly agree that they’re the best way to initially remove dirt and makeup, even for skin which tends to be shiny. “Cleansing with oil lifts the dirt off the skin and leaves it very soft,” Helen explains. “If you have dry skin, this will often be enough. If you have oily skin, products with oil are great to prepare the skin for a more in-depth cleanse with an exfoliator like the cleansing rolls by removing makeup or dirt.”

For the ultimate deep clean, turn to Ultrabland: Lush’s cult cleansing favourite. An emulsion of water in almond oil, (known as a cold cream), Ultrabland also contains honey, glycerine and beeswax: humectants that attract oil and consequently draw dirt and makeup away from the skin. With added Turkish rosewater to soothe and calm, it’s a rare example of a product that’s deep cleansing but incredibly gentle on your skin. So gentle in fact, that Mo hasn’t used any other cleanser on her skin for about 22 years. She says: “I have very intolerant skin and so I use Ultrabland and that’s it. In fact, in my youth, Mark invented this beeswax and almond oil cleanser for me especially because I had such dry and sore skin.”

Recent addition to the cleansing family, Like A Virgin offers another choice to cold cream fans. This solid, naked and vegan incarnation of the traditional cold cream recipe is made with 50% extra virgin olive oil, jojoba oil (a liquid wax renowned for its compatibility with the skin’s sebum), candelilla wax and a dash of lemon myrtle oil to lift away dirt. Product inventor Ale promises, “Oils are the perfect medium to dissolve residue makeup and excess oil and Like A Virgin removes everything, including eye makeup.”

The art of exfoliation

Once you’ve removed your makeup or initial dirt, you may like to exfoliate. Exfoliating boosts circulation, gets rid of dead skin cells and brightens the complexion, giving you a coveted healthy glow. But when it comes to polishing, no one scrub fits all.

Lush co-founder and exfoliating enthusiast Rowena Bird has some tips. “You have to have the right size grain of exfoliant otherwise it doesn’t do the job. If it’s too big, you’re just chasing the granules around the skin. When it’s small enough, you can have a good scrub. Then you come down to how hard it is. If it’s really hard, like salt, you’re going to get a really good scrub. But if you’ve got more sensitive skin, you need a gentle scrub like the ground almonds in Angels On Bare Skin. It’s about looking at our collection of scrubs and then finding the grade and size that suits your skin.”

Finding what works for you, is all about listening to your skin. Ro explains: “Everybody needs to do what their skin wants it to do. Some skins do not want a strong, salty scrub like Ocean Salt. Some skins do. You may want to exfoliate once a day or once a week. It’s about being aware of your skin and listening to it. What you put on your skin is as important as what you put in your body.”

A note on soaps

If your skin tends to err on the drier side, chances are you steer clear of soaps. But if you have a complexion that feels oilier, the desire for that squeaky-clean feeling can have you reaching for a bar. But both Mo and Helen have a word of caution. “Oily skin does need to be treated in a kind way, rather than just drying it out with soap,” the former explains. “Soaps, I think, should be a last resort when it comes to washing your face because they are pretty stripping. I would never recommend any kind of soaps for face but we have made an offering for those who do with the Coalface and Fresh Farmacy which are as mild as you can get really.

Fresh Farmacy is about 40% clay, with lots of calamine powder too, so you’re not going to get a high lather but you are going to get a delicate clay cleanser wash. Coalface is charcoal and clays and ever so slightly medicating – so gentle you’d barely notice you’d used it. You can use these on any part of the body. Like I say, I don’t recommend using soap on the face, but if you are going to do it use something that’s sympathetic to your skin. Muds, clays, sands – you can clean your skin with all kinds of things other than soap.”

Helen adds: “Oily skin is so delicate – it’s only people’s attitudes towards it that leads to them punishing it. That’s where our philosophy of ‘how do you want your skin to feel today’ came from. Because a lot of how you want your skin to feel depends on how you feel on that day in yourself.”

Getting it right

Forget the myth that a really efficient cleanser can initially break you out in spots thanks to all that extra dirt it’s removing, Helen says that’s simply not the case. She explains: “If you’ve got a cleanser that isn’t right for you, what will often happen is that it will overstimulate the skin. Very often you will see someone with just one spot but otherwise clear skin. What’s often happening there is that the cleanser they are using is too strong for them so the skin protects itself by swelling a little bit and then it becomes very easy for a follicle to get trapped and then for that to turn into a spot. This is what often happens to people who have generally good, not difficult skin. They overstimulate it. If you’ve got a cleanser like that, then for a couple of days your complexion might look really vibrant but then your skin starts to think ‘I really don’t like this’. It’s telling you it needs something gentler.”

Treat cleansing as an essential, not a chore, put the effort into doing it thoroughly but gently and Helen is confident that your skin is sure to reap the benefits. “Your skin does change throughout your life,” she says “but if you’ve got your cleansing routine right, it shouldn’t have to change that much, unless your skin requires very particular care. If you can sort your skin out with the right cleanser and get it really settled, then you can get the very best out of it.”

Who knew the humble cleanser could be the key to healthy, contented skin?

Get back to basics and find your perfect cleanser and scrub here.