Are sonic facial cleansers better for your skin? Episode 52

Are those expensive “sonic” face brushes really better than just washing your face by hand? Tune in and find out.  

Show notes

Question of the week

Phillip from Germany asks…Is “sonic cleansing” the best way to clean your skin? Will these brushes harm your skin like the sharp particles in a scrub?

What is sonic cleansing?

Let’s start by explaining what “sonic cleansing” is. The term originally comes from the fact that the bristles on the head of the cleansing brush oscillate at a precision-tuned sonic frequency (which happens to be 127 Hz, if you’re keeping score at home). The first “sonic” skin care device was the Clarisonic brush which was created by the key inventor of the Soni-care toothbrush which used oscillating bristles to clean teeth.

The basic idea is that the rapid movement of the brush bristles gently deep cleans skin by removing makeup residue, clearing pores, and lightly exfoliating skin. In addition, some products claim that they increase the absorption of skin care ingredients.

You need to understand, however, that not all “sonic” cleansers are really sonic and that there’s not a lot of evidence that these expensive devices are much better than a simple wash cloth.

Oscillating nylon brushes

There are three basic types of sonic cleaners. We’ll describe each type and give a few examples.

The most common ones consist of a nylon brush that is driven by a battery operated motor. The biggest difference between these is whether the brush oscillates or rotates. There are also non-brush type cleansers. But let’s start with the oscillating brush.

This type uses a combination of moveable and stationary nylon bristles which are 10mm in length. The bristles move back and forth at a rate greater than 300 motions per second. This movement generates enough force to deep clean skin without damaging it. The true sonic cleansers are the ones that oscillate.

Clarisonic is the “mother of all sonic cleansers.” It’s the most expensive brand but they offer the widest range of products. They vary by speed and power and by which products and accessories they come with.

Their face cleansing collection starts with the Mia for $99, the Mia 2 for $149, the Plus for $225 and a Pro model that’s apparently only for sale to dermatologists and aestheticians. The main claim for the product line is that it “Cleanses 6x better than hands alone.”

They also have a special version designed to work with their skin brightening cream. It claims to provide “10x reduction of hyper pigmentation vs manual treatment.” But of course it’s sold with a product that works against hyper pigmentation so it’s not just the brush the provides the benefit.
They also offer the Pedi Sonic which is designed for your feet. It has a smoothing disk like a buffing stone which is designed to work on tough calloused skin.

Lastly there’s the Opal for $185. Instead of a simple cleanser this is a “sonic infusion” device that’s designed to improve the penetration of anti-aging ingredients.

Clinique Sonic System
Phillip mentioned the Clinique sonic system which, at $135, is slightly less expensive than the some of the Clarisonic line. It features an oscillating brush with a dual angled head and its claim to fame is its gentleness. See their website for a video showing it’s gentle enough to use on a flower.

Nutra Sonic Cleansing brush
And, finally, if you want true oscillation at a bargain then look for the Nutra Sonic brush which retails for about $100. Now let’s look at the rotating brushes.

Rotating nylon brushes

The rotating brush also uses 10mm nylon bristles but these move in a circular motion rather than back and forth. These products tend to be much cheaper and people have raised concerns whether they work as well.

Spa Sonic
As we explained the “sonic” name comes from the oscillation frequency. Of course that only applies to the oscillating brushes, not rotating brushes like this one. This is one of the pricier rotating brushes at $50 but their website claims it’s been tested and is comparable to the Clarisonic.

Proactive Deep Cleansing Brush
At $30, the Proactive Deep Cleansing brush is an affordable alternative although there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the claims it makes.

Ulta Dual Action Cleansing system
Similarly, there’s the Ulta version for $25

Olay Pro-X Advanced Cleansing System
This one costs anywhere between $20 to $50 depending on which products you purchase with the brush.

Conair Facial Scrub Brush
Our final example of rotating brushes is the Conair Facial Scrub Brush which has the dubious distinction of allowing you to rotate the brush clockwise or counterclockwise. I don’t know WHAT difference that would make – it’s not like your skin can tell the difference. You can pick this up for only $15.

Non-brush cleansers

There are also “Non-brush” cleansers. These are less common – instead of a nylon brush they channel pulsations through soft silicone filaments or some sort of non woven pad. So even though the technology is different these are probably more similar to the oscillating brushes.

The pricey Luna, at $199, uses transdermal sonic pulsations to refresh the look and feel of your skin. Because it uses silicone touch-points it’s supposedly more hygienic than standard brush bristles. It claims to give you “Deeper, gentler cleansing for a healthy-looking glow” and to “Improve the absorption of your favorite skincare products.”

Neutrogena Wave Sonic Power Cleanser
And finally there’s the Neutrogena Wave Sonic Power Cleanser.  The motor vibrates a disposable non woven pad and it retails for less than $15.

Are sonic cleansers effective and safe?

All these products can help clean your skin and they’re kind of fun to use but there are two key questions:

1.) Are they sufficiently more effective than “regular” face washing to justify their price?

2.) Can all this oscillation and rotation actually damage your skin?

To answer those questions we looked for evidence that demonstrates the safety and efficacy of these products. Unfortunately, there’s no independent scientific review that compares all these products on all these attributes. However, we were able to find some evidence, including some peer reviewed articles, which should help guide your decision whether or not to purchase one of these devices.

Evidence for cleansing efficacy

First, there’s some evidence from the manufacturers (which always has to be looked at skeptically since the data are self-serving.) But here’s the proof that Clarisonic puts forth:

They conducted a half-face study in which they applied makeup spiked with a fluorescing agent. Half of the face was washed manually and half was washed with the device.  There are pictures on their website taken under blacklight which causes the makeup to glow and you can clearly see that almost all makeup is gone on one Clarisonic side. Apparently this is the study which support the “Cleanses 6x better than hands alone” claim.

They also conducted a study shows that use of the product reduces pore size in “hard to reach places” but it didn’t compare the Clarisonic to anything. Therefore, this study is not a compelling reason to buy the product.


P&G has done one of the most comprehensive studies on facial cleansing brushes. They measured 5 parameters comparing brush cleansing to manual cleansing and in some of those parameters they directly compared rotating and oscillating brush heads (remember, they make an inexpensive rotating brush product.)

P&G did a study comparing rotating and oscillating brush heads and found “Rotating and Oscillating implement had parity cleansing results regardless of cleanser.” The brushes with cleanser did a better job than manual cleansing alone.

4 of these measurements where related to cleansing efficacy:

Make-Up Removal
Objective: Evaluate cleansing efficacy of the cleansing implements compared to manual cleansing

Results showed rotating and oscillating brushes cleaned better than hands alone. No significant difference between the brushes.

Stratum Corneum Exfoliation
Objective: Measure stratum corneum exfoliation of the cleansing implements via DHA exfoliation over four treatments.

Results showed both brushes exfoliated better than manual cleansing. No difference between brushes.

Stratum Corneum Hydration
Objective: Evaluate effects of cleansing to skin hydration when a topical moisturizer is applied after use. This test just compared their brush to manual cleansing. Clarisonic was NOT tested. Why? Maybe they knew they couldn’t achieve parity and didn’t want to have negative data on file.

Results showed the rotating brush provided better hydration than the cleanser alone, assuming a moisturizer was applied immediately after cleansing. Again, there was no comparison to Clarisonic. The report states that “The lead hypothesis for increased hydration following use of the cleansing implement is that penetration of hydrating ingredients is enhanced via exfoliation.”

Cleansing Effects on Facial Bacteria Population
Objective: Evaluate effects of a facial cleansing implement to facial bacterial populations, tested on women with acne. Again, Clarisonic was not tested.

Results showed use of the rotating brush decreased bacterial population. Although no direct anti-acne claims are made the presumption is that if it removes more bacteria you’ll get less zits.

Other manufacturers:

Other companies don’t provide much information. Clinique shows a video to prove their brush is safe enough to use on a flower petal but there’s no hard data. And Nutra sonic makes same claims as Clarisonic but don’t present data of their own so my GUESS is that they’re assuming equivalency but didn’t do any of their own testing. Or maybe ALL these companies have their own data and have just chosen not to share it. There’s no way to tell. But the good news is that there are a few independent studies that provide additional information.

Independent scientific studies:
We found two studies by cosmetic science rock star and friend of the Brains, Dr. Zoe Daelos. In her study titled “An Efficacy Assessment of a Novel Skin-Cleansing Device in Seborrheic Dermatitis” she notes that plain old soap and washcloth may be fine for people with normal skin but people with skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis (and others) may require specialized cleansing to deal with their symptoms. That’s because regular cleansing may lead to facial scaling and because manual washing doesn’t clean as well around unusual skin structures. So this indicates there sonic cleansers DO provide a special benefit for some people.

In her second study, “Re-examining methods of facial cleansing” she compared the following: a lipid-free cleanser, a foaming syndet-based face wash, an abrasive polyethylene beaded scrub, a face cloth, and the sonic skincare brush. So this is the most direct comparison we’ve seen. Her results showed that the sonic skincare brush removed the most makeup from the skin, followed by the wash cloth, then the scrub, the syndet-based face wash, and then the lipid-free cleanser. She concluded that the bristles on the sonic skincare brush were able to “traverse the dermatolglyphics, facial pores and facial scars more adeptly than any other cleansing method.” Draelos also commented on 10 individuals who had various dermatologic conditions, including acne vulgaris, pseudofolliculitis barbae and seborrheic dermatitis, and found that the sonic skincare brush provided “excellent cleansing on the uneven skin surface caused by these conditions.”

So it looks like a sonic cleanser can be “better” than just using a washcloth but there’s still no answer to how much better and if that difference is big enough to justify spending $100 to $200.

Evidence for gentleness

Again, let’s look at the information provided by the manufacturers as well as the scientific literature.

What companies say
The P&G study was the only one to address this directly. One portion of their study evaluated “effects of a rotating brush on stratum corneum barrier function.” This could be considered a measure of mildness because the more intact the skin barrier is, the better it will seal in moisture. If the brush was creating little tears and fissures then more moisture would leak out.

Results showed moisture loss was not increased as a result of using the rotating brush vs a cleanser alone. They said they would expect that the oscillating type would have similar results but again they didn’t test against Clarisonic. They also said that “Low irritation scores from a consumer study with the rotating implement provides supporting evidence” but they did now show this data.

What the scientific literature says
There are two data points in the independent studies that we found which indicate these sonic cleansers are gentle. The first is from “Clinical-Efficacy-of-a-Novel-Sonic-Infusion-System-for-Periorbital-Rhytides” which states the device tested generates “a force powerful enough to unclog pores, but low enough to minimize strain to the skin.” Be aware, though, that this study was done on the non-brush type cleansers (like the Luna and the Opal.)

And finally, Michael Gold, another dermatologist has written that the sonic brushes “enhance cleansing of the surface while being gentle enough for at least twice daily use without compromising the skin barrier.”

So based on the little data we could find there doesn’t APPEAR to be any cause for concern about these products damaging your skin.

The Beauty Brains bottom line:

So what does all this mean? If you have “normal” skin and you wash your face diligently with a washcloth, you may not see much additional benefit from any of these devices. BUT, if you have skin conditions like those that Dr. Draelos mentioned, you may be able to more effectively and more gently clean your skin using a sonic cleanser.

Then again, you may just like the aesthetic experience of a pampering face scrub. That alone can drive greater compliance – if you like using the device the chances are that you’ll wash your face longer and more thoroughly. In fact, some of the brushes even have a built in timer that tell you how long to wash each part of your face.

If that’s the case, then do your research to make sure you get a brush that doesn’t feel too hard or too soft for your skin and that it doesn’t splash soap and water all over the place (as some of these products do.) And of course, decide how much you want to spend.

The Clarisonic is the gold standard (because they pioneered the technology and have done their own testing) but their top of the line product is very costly. Perhaps a good compromise would be to start with their $99 model and see how you like it. It’s up to you, or up to Phillip in this case, and hopefully he’ll write back to us from Germany and let us know what he decides to do!


Draelos ZD. Re-examining methods of facial cleansing. Vol 18, No 2; Cos Dermatol. 2005: 173-175.

Draelos ZD. An Efficacy Assessment of a Novel Skin-Cleansing Device in Seborrheic Dermatitis

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Quiz answers:

  1. FDA must approve cosmetics before they go to market. F
  2. Using mascara the wrong way can cause blindness. T
  3. Tattoos used to be permanent but now lasers are an easy, reliable way to erase them. F
  4. Cruelty free or not tested on animals means that no animal testing was done on the product and its ingredients. F
  5. There are non-animal tests that can replace all animal testing of cosmetics. F
  6. If a product is labeled as all natural or organic it is probably hypo allergenic. F
  7. Even if a product is labeled hypo allergenic it may contain substances that can cause allergic reactions for some people. T
  8. Choosing products with the claim dermatologist tested is a way to avoid an allergic reaction or other skin irritation. F
  9. Lots of lipsticks on the market contain dangerous amounts of lead. F
  10. About 60 to 70% of what you put on your skin is absorbed into your body. F