I generally hear of two camps of people who either a) feel that face cleansers aren’t that important because it’s on your wet face for literally 20 seconds before you just rinse it off, or b) are cleanser evangelists who are fiercely loyal to their favorite cleanser or constantly Indiana Jonesing their perfect cleanser.
I think this sort of thing comes down to how high-maintenance you are about your skincare in general. I used to be in the former camp until I tried just about every type of cleanser under the sun and now I get it. Finding a great cleanser is like going from casual dating to full-on nesting. It makes me want to give it keys to my apartment, to buy furniture with it, to tell all my friends about it and introduce it to my parents.
That said, finding your perfect cleanser is not easy. There really isn’t a shortcut; you just have to do the work and trial-and-error that shit on the good graces of the internet’s five-star ratings. And it doesn’t help that they all promise radiant/clear/glowing/hydrated/oil-balanced skin and a lot of stuff that, honestly, the rest of your skincare routine is better-suited to do. You have one job, face cleanser: just clean my face well enough that it doesn’t overdo it but preps my skin for whatever I put on it next. That’s it! Put away the piñatas and confetti — I got essence and serum for that.
Generally, cleansers with a low pH, in that 5.5 range, are a good starting point. Your skin’s pH is slightly acidic and you want to keep it that way (higher-pH cleansers can over-strip your skin’s natural oils). Acidity helps maintain an unfriendly environment for acne-causing bacteria. The rest is mostly determined by your skin type and lifestyle habits.
Let’s review a few types of cleansers out there.
An obvious pick, foam cleansers offer that gratifying sudsy feeling of *clean* and are probably some of the most popular picks. People just associate bubbles with cleanliness, I guess. Now, foaming cleansers are advanced enough to have the foam and the gentle ingredients but generally, they are water-based with some sort of surfactant to bubble and bind to dirt and oil.
These are some foaming cleansers that I’ve used and like. They’re gentle, sudsy, and don’t over-strip my skin. I use to have really dry skin, and I’m always going to be slightly prone to that, but in my second coming of puberty it seems that my skin is veering towards combination territory.
I’ve found that many Korean skincare brands’ foam cleansers are formulated with less harsh ingredients (and sometimes even other cool stuff like green tea extracts, egg white protein, and yeast ferment, like in these three) to get you the right amount of clean and keep your skin’s pH balanced.
Oil cleansers are BOMB for removing makeup. Seriously, they’re way better than those dual-oil-layered bottles of eye-makeup remover. The idea is that oil dissolves oils, so for those with oily skin or who wear lots of medium-to-full-coverage makeup, this is a really easy way to emulsify all that and rinse it away without having to scrub your face raw.
Balms tend to be more heavy-duty than liquid oil cleansers, I find, sometimes requiring accoutrement to remove them, like Eve Lom’s Cleanser, which is a rich mineral oil-based cleanser that needs a muslin cloth soaked in warm water to help remove. It’s a lovely feeling, like a mini facial steam.
For the most part these oil-based cleansers are formulated to emulsify with water, so they often turn a milky color and then rinse away from your skin. These are the first step if you’re a double-cleanse advocate (which I am) and then you’d follow with a water-based cleanser to remove whatever impurities are left behind.
Another great cleansing balm is from a Korean brand (big surprise), Banila Co Clean It Zero. I’ve gone through two jars already (which is why I no longer have any to shoot here). They offer a few variations, depending on skin concern.
The big draw of powder cleansers seems to be their TSA-friendliness (because a powder is way less suspicious somehow than boarding a plane with a bottle of clearly-marked face cleanser). Lots of ones on the market now are inspired by Japanese rice-powder cleansers. Good powder cleansers melt into a creamy foam with water and shouldn’t be too scratchy, but the point is generally to act as a mild exfoliant.
Honest Beauty’s powder cleanser is like that. It has a cornstarch derivative, oat and rice powder with calming stuff like chamomile and aloe, and Aspen bark to exfoliate. My skin felt very squeaky-clean after using this, and one packet is more than enough for a wash since it foams so much. You could probably use half at a time.
I probably wouldn’t use a powder cleanser daily, but it’s good to throw into the mix a few days a week for an extra exfoliation kick that isn’t too harsh. (Just don’t scrub your face to death with it, OK?)
"Gel" cleanser leaves a bit of mystery considering you can’t be sure what that gel does until it hits the water. Mostly, they foam, but these here stay jelly.
The idea is that they’re kind of like the apple corers of cleansers — just a single purpose tool, but a convenient one to have. There are no added AHAs, brightening, anti-aging ingredients or what have you — just some gentle cleansing. They don’t foam at all, so it does feel a bit like you’re slathering jam on your face, but it rinses clean and soft.
The genesis of these cleansers I imagine comes from Cetaphil, the one dermatologist-recommended clinical gentle cleanser that teens with eczema like me were forced to use. No shade to Cetaphil — it calmed my scaly face right quick — but I was a teen who wasn’t allowed to wear makeup, so it wasn’t really doing a ton of heavy lifting, and that’s kind of the point with these.
These newer incarnations from La Roche-Posay and Glossier both contain poloxamers, an ingredient similar to contact lens solution, so both are essentially tear-free while having a bit more oomph to cleanse. These make great morning cleansers for me since I don’t want to over-strip my already mostly-clean face but after a day of not wearing makeup, I’ll use these too. My brain is too ingrained into the double-cleanse method to trust the purported makeup-removing power of these, however. As a second step water-based cleanser, though, these are the tits.
Bar soap gets a bad rep, but you’re probably thinking of bricks of Irish Spring or Lever 2000, both of which are super-drying. The great thing with bar soap is that since there’s no water-based form, you get the concentrate, making it last for what feels like forever.
Drunk Elephant has quickly become one of my favorite skincare brands because honestly, they work. I mean, there are other great things about the brand, like the ethics of using safe, nontoxic, naturally derived ingredients, going so far as to having a public "black list" of skincare offenders. It’s one of the few "natural" brands I’ve found that really work.
These two cleansers both have a pH of 6.34-6.51, fairly balanced but high enough for makeup/oil removing. The brown JuJu Bar, for morning, is clay/mud-based to draw out excess oil and has bamboo powder for gentle exfoliation; it does feel the slightest bit gritty, but you can’t really over-scrub because the bits dissolve with water. The nighttime Pekee Bar is more hydrating and nourishing, with blueberry extract, marula oil, and honey. I almost want to switch the orders, but honestly, it’s up to you.
Also, if $28 is a bit steep for a bar of soap, there is a baby set of the two for $18. Given how long these last, it’s a better deal when figuring out if you like it.
Some people swear that they can just clean their face with only micellar water — makeup and all. That is my personal version of a Saw film. I can, however, attest to their remarkable abilities to get most of what is on my face onto the cotton pad I soak this in. In some situations, I’ve replaced my oil-cleanser with a micellar water as a first step in my double-cleanse (a novel idea if you’re traveling and don’t want an oil-cleanser leaking all over your stuff). But since there’s no actual water immersion, over time, the gunk left within my pores is going to sprout into some lovely whiteheads without deeper cleaning.
I always keep a bottle of this around with cotton swabs to correct makeup mistakes (they’re way better than an oil-based remover in that context), and they make for great spot-cleaning for makeup brushes.
I’m not a loyalist with skincare products, and if one thing isn’t impressing me, it gets forgotten like a losing lotto ticket. But sometimes the right combo of a routine will really make it shine, and all of these have been in fairly even rotation for me in the last few months.
My skin is pretty tolerant of most of the stuff I put on it, but I also tend to avoid really harsh stuff (I just got my skin to start responding positively to AHAs this year, so I’m feeling pretty smug). All in all, knowing the ingredients that trigger adverse reactions in your skin is the best way to approach finding a cleanser. Don’t go into your search looking to rule out chemicals (because literally everything is a chemical) — just toxic and unsafe ones.
- Do you swear by a certain type of cleanser?
- Have you been unsure what kind to use?
- Are you one of those all-I-need-is-micellar-water people?