Choosing a Cleanser Guide

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The first step to any routine is the cleansing step. It’s so simple and boring, right? Not as glamorous as an intoxicating smelling silky serum or one of those fancy expensive creams that come in a glass jar. Arguably the most important step in your routine, cleansing gets the grime of the day off and sets the stage for the rest of your routine.

Most people don’t put much thought into their cleanser choice – in their mind it’s a good cleanser if it gets their makeup/sunscreen/dirt off their face. But use the wrong cleanser and you’ll suddenly find yourself purchasing more products to undo the damage it caused. This guide will help you pick the right cleanser for your needs and maybe save you a little money in the process.

Types of Cleansers

  • Foaming cleansers use  a surfactant or synthetic detergent that produces bubbles when vigorously rubbed between the hands with a bit of water. Just lather the cleanser and massage it around on damp skin. Foaming cleansers can be drying, so if you have dry skin be careful not to massage it around for too long. The longer the cleanser is on your skin, the more oil it takes with it. This may seem like a good thing – but those with dry skin want their skin’s natural oils to remain in place.
  • Cream cleansers don’t  foam and bubble up. Also referred to as a milky cleanser, cream cleansers resemble a thinned lotion. Some cream cleansers aren’t as stripping as foaming cleansers, and are more suitable for dry skin. If you find your skin still oily or that the cleanser didn’t quite remove your makeup or sunscreen, you might want to opt for the foaming cleanser or try a makeup remover (like a micellar water or mineral oil) prior to cream cleansing.
  • Cleansing balms are oil-based cleansers that have recently exploded in popularity. They have all the benefits of a cream cleanser plus they’re gentle and easy to use. To use a cleansing balm, scoop a small amount of balm into your hands and rub them together, warming it up so it becomes an oil. Cleanse as if using a cream cleanser (gentle circular motions) and rinse with water when done. A soft, damp cloth or konjac sponge can also be used to remove the balm oil.
  • Cleansing oils are similar to cleansing balms except they are liquid at room temperature. Cleansing oils (and balms) are really great for removing waterproof mascaras or sunscreen – something other cleansing methods occasionally have trouble with. Like cleansing balms, they emulsify, meaning they rinse off cleanly with water. Our resident skin-so-sensitive-a-stiff-breeze-makes-it-react owner,  Melinda, has an upcoming article on DIY cleansing oils.
  • The Oil Cleansing Method (OCM) is a method of cleansing that solely depends upon an oil (or a mix of oils) for cleansing and does not rinse off with water. Look for an in-depth article explaining OCM soon.

Choosing a Cleanser for your Skin Type

To choose the best cleanser, first determine your skin type as well as any skin conditions you may have. That may sound daunting, but the Addicts have you covered. Our researchers and writers have already written up thorough explanations on these topics for you to read. And don’t be afraid if you’re unsure even after reading them; there are a few cleansing methods that are safe, regardless of your skin type or condition.

Here are some general guidelines:

Dry Skin

  • In general, avoid foaming cleansers, especially ones made with harsh surfactants (the ingredients responsible for those rich, luscious bubbles) like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Occasionally you can get away with a foaming cleanser made from much more gentle surfactants like cocamidopropyl betaine or sodium methyl cocoyl taurate.
  • The safest bet for dry (or sensitive) skin is a cream cleanser, an oil-based cleanser, or OCM.

Normal and Oily Skin

  • Can use almost any cleanser so long as it is pH balanced (keep reading to see what I mean about pH). A good cleanser shouldn’t leave your skin feeling tight or dry after use. If you have very oily skin, it may be tempting to reach for a harsh bar soap, or even dish soap (the horror!), but a gentle foaming cleanser or a cleansing oil will serve you better in the long run.

You might notice that I’ve left out skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, psoriasis or eczema. Regardless of skin concerns, you’ll want to consider using the most gentle cleanser you can. Some people think treating the problem with a harsh/scrubby/tingling cleanser is the way to go, but those can actually make irritation and inflammation worse.

What to Avoid in a Cleanser Regardless of Skin Type

A lot goes into the making of a good cleanser – gentle surfactants and appropriate pH are important in cleansers made for any skin type. Things like dish or bar soap have an obscenely high pH and our skin is naturally acidic at a pH hovering between 5 and 6, typically settling in at 5.5. So as you can imagine, high pH washes don’t do your skin any favors. Moreover, high pH soaps tend to irritate the skin.¹

Many drugstore brand facial cleansers are typically at a 7 or below. A few notable exceptions on the high end of the scale are Dr. Bronner’s (pH 8) and Liquid Neutrogena (pH 8.7- 9.1). Bar soaps consistently test at or above pH 9, unless it is a syndet bar. Syndet stands for synthetic detergent. They tend to have a lower pH and are more gentle on skin. You can read more about the dangers of high pH cleansers in our upcoming Skincare 101 article about protecting your skin’s barrier.

How do I know if my cleanser isn’t working?

Okay, so what if you already have a cleanser but aren’t quite sure if it’s the right one for your skin? If your cleanser does any of the following you should be using it to wash your feet, not your face!

The Squeak

We’ve all had, at one time or another, a cleanser that made our skin feel tight and ‘squeaky’ clean. And for so long that phrase, “squeaky clean,” has haunted skincare lovers around the world because that feeling generally means one thing: more than the dirty oils and the guck and the filth, you’ve now stripped away your skin’s own oils. This can eventually lead to dry skin or even what we like to call the Oil Slick (or a combination of both!).

Solution: Find a gentler cleanser. See if you can ascertain the pH of the cleanser so you can try one that’s a bit lower and/or perhaps identify any foaming agents that may be too harsh and avoid those in your next choice.

The Oil Slick

You may experience The Squeak or you you may just feel your skin is a bit dry. You think that’s okay, I can just use a moisturizing cream and everything will be right as rain. Until 1 hour later, your skin is producing so much oil it’s threatening to displace Gulf wildlife. It’s been described as an overproduction of oil in response to how dry your cleanser made your skin, but the research on the particular phenomenon is lacking. The fact is, your cleanser is too stripping for your skin.

Solution: Find a gentler cleanser. See if you can ascertain the pH of the cleanser so you can try one that’s a bit lower and/or perhaps identify any foaming agents that may be too harsh and avoid those in your next choice.

The After-Grime

You’ve washed your face and your skin feels a little less than fresh. You can scratch your cheek and find the leftovers of the day’s sunscreen under your fingernails. Or maybe everything looks great but then you dry your face on your towel and there’s foundation on it.

Solution: Try using a makeup remover like a micellar water or an oil as a pre-cleanser to remove any dirt, makeup, sunscreen, etc. before using your regular cleanser.


How do I know if my cleanser is working?

If your skin doesn’t react with dryness, acne, redness or sensitivity, then the cleanser is likely a good choice. Remember though, if you aren’t slowly introducing products, it will be difficult to recognize which product is the troublemaker and which one is the keeper. Anna’s recent article on Starting a Basic Skincare Routine goes into detail about this and more.

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