Facial cleansers are a mandatory part of a great skincare routine, but so often they seem to leave the skin feeling tight and uncomfortable. There are also so many choices, so how do you pick the best face wash that’s perfect for you? Well, do not fret! In this post, I’ve compiled all the mandatory information on face washes, so you can know exactly what to look for in a good facial cleanser, and avoid the duds.
In this article, I explain what face wash is, and about all the different kinds of facial cleansers. I’ll exactly show how to use facial cleansers, and when, and I’ll cover a few other frequently asked questions about the topic. I’ll also explain how to choose a face wash based on your skin types, and even list all the best facial cleansers you can try! Keep reading, to learn how to have your facial cleansing process become a total breeze.
Facial Cleansers 101: Contents
• What Are Facial Cleansers?
• What Are the Different Kinds of Facial Cleansers?
• What Should You Look for in the Best Facial Cleansers?
• When to Use Face Wash?
• How to Use Face Wash?
• Should I Use a Facial Brush?
• How to Choose the Perfect Face Wash for Every Skin Type?
• Best Facial Cleansers for Normal and Combination Skin
• Best Facial Cleansers for Dry Skin
• Best Facial Cleansers for Oily and Acne-Prone Skin
Facial cleansers are skincare products with the primary purpose of cleaning the face from things like facial sebum (the oil our skin naturally produces), dirt and pollution from throughout the day, and, of course, makeup. Usually they do with the aid of surfactants – chemicals that have the unique ability to bind oil-based things to water-based things.
Facial cleansers come in all kinds of forms, including gels, creams, and oils to cater the unique needs of every skin type.
Gel Facial Cleansers
These are the facial cleansers that you will see most frequently. They come in a tube or pump, and have a gel texture. Once you mix them with water, they become foamy.
Gel face wash is usually made primarily of surfactants (an ingredient that, in facial cleansers, breaks down oils, binds to them, and allows for them to be rinsed away with water), and it is better for those with oilier skin.
However, many gel face washes are made with sodium lauryl sulfate (also known as SLS) – this is a strong surfactant that can over-strip the skin of oil and dehydrate it. If any remnants of it are left on the skin it can be seriously irritating.
Be very careful when choosing a gel-based cleanser that it doesn’t have SLS (at least not in the first few ingredients), or its only marginally less aggressive relative, sodium laureth sulfate.
Whether it’s African black soap, Dr. Bronner’s, or any other soap-based facial cleanser, I have to say no. Stay the heck away. Any soap-based product, whether in bar or liquid form, will have an alkaline pH (usually between 9 and 11, which is absurdly high).
Washing the skin with an alkaline cleanser (that is soap) on a regular basis will totally throw off the skin’s pH, and will make the skin much more susceptible to all kinds of problems, from dehydration to acne, to irritation. Using a pH-adjusting toner (not all toners are pH adjusting!) can mitigate the damage of a soap-based cleanser, but in my opinion, it’s much much better to stick to proper face wash instead.
Mousse Facial Cleansers
Mousse cleansers are facial cleansers with a very creamy foam. They can either come straight out of the pump in foam-form, or they can start off as a gel or cream and then be transformed into a mousse once mixed with water. In the case of the latter, this is actually how most gel cleansers work, so calling them “mousse facial cleansers” is really just a marketing choice.
The true mousse foam cleansers and the gel ones are best for those with normal, combination, and oily skin, while the creamier ones will work well for those with skin that leans towards dryer.
Cold-Cream, Cream, and Balm Facial Cleansers
Personally, this is one of my favorite cleanser options for all skin types, although usually they are most recommended for those with dry, dehydrated, or sensitive skin. Cold creams have the texture of a moisturizer or face cream, but they remove makeup, dirt, oil, and sweat like a dream.
They have had a resurgence in popularity recently, especially from Korean and Japanese brands, although they used to be the go-to face washes back in the early 20th century, when there were no surfactant-based cleansers – only harsh soaps.
While in the old days cold-creams were very alkaline because of ingredients like triethanolamine, these days most of the cream and balm facial cleansers you’ll find emulsify with gentler surfactants, and they are super safe and gentle on the skin.
DIY Oil Cleansers
These are technically not cleansers, because they cannot really be rinsed with water. The oil cleansing method, which you can read about in my article about skincare oils, is actually much more similar to using a makeup remover.
You choose an oil or blend of oils based on your skin type (Protip: mineral oil works for everyone!), use it to melt down your makeup as well as other impurities, and then use a face cloth or muslin to wipe it off. This method can work for just about anyone, assuming they choose the right oil, but if you’re not into feeling oil left on your skin, you might choose to follow it up with a dedicated facial cleanser.
Commercial Oil Cleansers
Store-bought facial cleansers are extremely simple, but are also extremely good for the skin. They are made with the same kinds of oils you might use for an oil cleansing, but a few surfactants are added to the formula.
These surfactants don’t have the job of breaking down oil or makeup – that’s the main oil’s job. Instead, their job is to emulsify the oils in the formula with water, and allow them to be rinsed clean. This makes for an ultra-gentle formula that cleanses without dehydrating or compromising the skin.
These store-bought oil cleansers are ideal for dry, sensitive, or dehydrated skin, but I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to those with oily, combination, or acne-prone skin.
Dry Facial Cleansers
This new innovation is especially popular in the natural beauty circles. Dry cleansers consist of a powder, often made of a mixture of clays, various powders, and a bit of oil and essential oils. In other cases, they are simply made of soap in a powdered form, in which case their pH is too high, and they should be avoided.
They are a fun innovation that is definitely worth trying, and they can work for any skin type. Just keep in mind that they might be a touch more abrasive and exfoliating than more traditional face washes.
Maybe you’ve heard about micellar water before – micellar waters are both makeup removers and cleansers. They come in liquid form, so all you have to do is saturate a cotton pad with them, and wipe your face to remove the day’s build-up.
They are ultra gentle, so they work for all skin types, although those with sensitive skin might prefer to rinse their face with water after using them (for everyone else, it’s not mandatory).
Micellar water is made with the same kind of surfactants you might see in a gel cleanser, although since micellar water stays on the skin, only the gentlest surfactants are used to make it – you’ll never see SLS in a micellar water formula.
• Skin Feel
Many of us (especially those of us who have oily skin or acne) expect our skin to feel tighty and “squeaky clean” after using a face wash. In reality, this feeling is actually a sign that our cleanser is no bueno.
When the skin feels tight it means that it has been stripped of all of the things that it needs to be healthy, strong, and protected, like natural skin oils, and that our moisture barrier has become compromised.
This uncomfortable feeling means our skin has become rapidly dehydrated without its natural protection, which makes it more susceptible to bacterial infection (that’s right, it’s now more susceptible to acne!), along with sensitivity, irritation, and premature aging.
Instead, after you cleanse you want your skin to feel comfortable, refreshed, and even a little bit hydrated. You can rest assured that your skin will still be completely clean, especially if you’ve used one of the best facial cleansers on my list, but it’ll also be healthy and strong.
• Low pH
The ideal skin pH is between 4.5 and 5.5. At that pH it’s easier for our skin to function well, because it becomes an inhospitable environment for bacteria to survive. Any higher, and our skin can go out of whack – all kinds of infections, including acne, are likelier to occur, along with irritation, dehydration, and sensitivity.
Cleansers with a pH that is too high (anything over 5.6) are big culprits in throwing off our skin and causing it to misbehave. When choosing a facial cleanser, always opt for one that is at a low pH. Companies don’t tend to advertise the pH of their cleansers, but you can always shoot them an email to find out.
The most important time to wash the face is before going to bed (i.e. in the evening for most of us). Nighttime is when our whole body is able to rest and become rejuvenated, and this includes our skin. To help it along, we want to make sure it is clean (as well as moisturized).
Additionally, throughout the day our faces can become quite dirty. Invisible impurities from the air (especially in polluted cities) land on our face where they can both cause free-radical damage (the damage that causes premature signs of aging) and simply clog the pores. Many of us also wear makeup, which should absolutely be removed before bed.
When we wake up, however, a full cleansing is not mandatory. If you feel like your skin produces a lot of oil, you may choose to do a second cleansing in the morning, perhaps with lighter cleanser than the one you use in the evening, but if it doesn’t, rinsing the face with water or wiping it with a gentle toner will certainly suffice.
You may also choose to cleanse your skin in the middle of the day, after strenuous physical activity or if you happened to participate in an activity that got you very dirty, like fixing a car, working in a greasy kitchen, or going on a muddy hike.
Different facial cleansers have slightly different directions for use, but for the most part, the basic principles are the same.
1. Squeeze out a quarter-sized amount of cleanser into your hand. If you are using a gel or mousse cleanser, you can add a bit of water and foam it up, or splash your face with water beforehand. For cream and oil facial cleansers, keep your hands and skin dry.
2. Beginning below the jawline, begin massaging the cleanser into your skin in circular motions that move upwards and outwards. Use the top part of your palm and the length of your fingers, to cover a lot of skin quickly and to give yourself a massage that will stimulate the skin and the muscles below it.
3. If you are using the face wash to remove makeup, make sure that you can see the facial cleanser break down and dislodge it completely.
4. Read the directions on your cleanser to see if it is appropriate to use around the eyes. If you are following the oil cleansing method, you can go ahead and use your oil around the eyes. If your cleanser is not fit for the eye area, use an eye makeup remover instead.
5. Once you have massaged your whole face with the cleanser, you can begin removing it, along with the sweat, oil, dirt, and makeup it has dislodged.
6. For most store-bought facial cleansers, rinse your skin with water until all of the cleanser and impurities are gone. You can also wipe your face with a damp face cloth or cotton pad. For cold creams and oil cleansing, a dry cloth or cotton pad will likely work better.
7. If not all your makeup has been removed, you might choose to do a second cleansing, either with the same cleanser, or with a different product.
8. Once your skin is completely clean, it is very important to nourish it. It is up to you whether you want to layer toners, serums, spot treatments, actives, or chemical exfoliants over your skin, but it is very important to moisturize it with a cream or lotion that is appropriate for your skin type and concerns.
If you’ve been been hearing about the Clarisonic, or about different kinds of facial brushes, you may have wondered if you really need one. Some people make facial brushes sound like a mandatory tool that must be used, although really, most people don’t use them. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you exactly what you need to know about them.
Whether you opt for an electric facial brush or a manual one, the principle is the same. The light bristles do the job of massaging your skin with the cleanser, so they can give a more thorough cleanse as well as a gentle exfoliation.
Some facial brushes are more aggressive, and should be considered on the same level as any other physical exfoliant, while others are featherlight, and can be used twice a day.
So are they as mandatory as some people make them sound, you might wonder. The answer is no. If a normal cleansing routine works for you, and you already have an excellent exfoliant, you really don’t need a facial brush. However, if you find that your makeup is difficult to remove, or you simply like the idea of using a brush to exfoliate – go for it!
Some people try facial brushes out and discover that they offer the perfect cleansing and exfoliation for their specific skin, while for others they simply do not make a difference. No matter what, they are not likely to hurt anywhere except in the pocket, since they can be quite pricey.
When it comes to choosing any skincare product, be that a moisturizer or a facial cleanser, you should always take your skin type into account. Below, you’ll find all the details for choosing the best face washes for every skin type and need!
Best Face Washes for Normal & Combination Skin
When your skin is somewhere in the middle – not too dry or too oily – you really just want to keep in balanced, cleansed, and healthy. Any type of facial cleansers can work for your skin, with the exception of soap-based cleansers with a high pH, and gel cleansers with harsh surfactants – those can strip your skin and turn it into a dehydrated mess.
Gentle gel cleansers, cold creams, oil cleansers, and all other cleanser types will likely do an excellent job, and you should simply choose whatever you enjoy using.
Best Face Washes for Dry & Dehydrated Skin
The best face washes for dry and dehydrated skin will not just cleanse the skin, but will actually hydrate it. If your skin is chronically dry, tight, dehydrated, or flakey, you want to choose a cleanser rich in emollients and humectants – ingredients that will deliver hydration to the skin, and give it a smooth feel.
These ingredients include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, botanical oils, and fatty acids. These ingredients are especially common in cream cleansers, but oil cleansers and DIY oil cleansing will also work for you.
You definitely want to avoid harsh surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, as well as soap-based cleansers.
Best Face Washes for Oily & Acne-Prone Skin
Those with oily and acne-prone skin often end up overdoing their skin cleansing with very harsh products. They end up dehydrating their skin, which makes it much more susceptible to acne. Instead, it is actually best to use gentle facial cleansers that will not irritate the skin further, but will still do a good job of breaking down and removing excess oil.
Additionally, for acne-prone skin, a cleanser with a lower pH is very important for preventing breakouts and keeping the skin healthy. If you’ve used harsh cleansers in the past, you might find a switch to a more gentle gel or mousse cleanser less jarring, although even cold-cream and commercial oil cleansers can work well at breaking down oil.
Since face wash doesn’t (or at least, it shouldn’t) stay on the skin for a very long time, any anti-acne ingredients in it are not going to have much of an impact on the skin. Acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, tea tree oil, or benzoyl peroxide are more useful in products that stay on the skin, like spot treatments, serums, and lotions.
The Best Facial Cleansers for Every Skin Type
Now the time has come for you to shop for the best facial cleansers for every skin type, which you can find below!
1. CosRX Low pH Good Morning Cleanser
This simple cleanser has a cult following amongst enthusiasts of Korean skin care. This cleanser has, as the name suggests, a low pH that hovers around 5.5, which is perfect for all skin types. It has a blend of skin-soothing and acne-fighting botanicals, and is free of SLS and SLES.
Unlike other sulfate-free cleansers, it foams up a bit when mixed with water, and it does an excellent job cleansing everything. You can try it for yourself, since it’s available for sale at Ulta.
2. May Lindstrom Skin The Honey Mud
This powder is a two-in-one cleanser and mask, made with a blend of ingredients that can work for most skin types. Botanical oils do the job of cleansing the skin, while Halloysite clay purifies and absorbs oils.
Unlike many other facial cleansers, this face wash is surfactant-free and totally natural, so a bit of the oil stays behind to keep the skin moisturized, although the clay ensures that it’s not too much. You can give this innovative cleanser a try by buying it from Net-a-Porter.
3. Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micellar Water
This gentle micellar water is deeply beloved by all skin types, because it’s super effective at removing makeup and other kinds of nasties, but it is also extremely gentle and hydrating. It does require more waste than other cleansers, since you must use a cotton pad, but it can be a great treat for those who need easy cleansing on the go, like at the gym or when travelling. It is available for purchase through Revolve.
4. First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser
This facial cleanser is the perfectly balanced option, with just enough foam and lather, without leaving the skin feeling dry. It is one of the best facial cleansers for those with normal and combination skin, thanks to gentle surfactants along with lots of nourishing fatty acids and balancing extracts. You can buy it from Sephora.
1. CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser
This is another cleanser with a cult following on the Internet. It hits all the important points: it’s the right pH, the right price, the right ingredients, and it simply works really really well. It’s gentle and hydrating without being overly creamy or greasy. It is fairly light, so for heavier makeup you might want to start off with an oil-cleanse. You can pick it up for yourself at Ulta.
2. DHC Deep Cleansing Oil
The Japanese pioneered cleansing oil, and to date, this is one of the best face washes on the market. This oil cleanser combines nourishing olive oil with some emulsifiers, to ensure it will completely break down even very heavy makeup, but that it will rinse totally clean off the skin. It is light and moisturizing, and perfect for treating dryness and dehydration. You can pick it up via Dermstore.
3. Banila Co. Clean It Zero
This cleansing balm is a K-Beauty innovation that is creamy and luxurious. Think of it as somewhere between a cold cream and an oil cleanser. As it’s applied to the skin, the balm melts into an oil and totally breaks down impurities of all sorts. It contains plenty of nourishing and anti-aging botanicals, as well. It is available for sale through YesStyle.
4. Clinique Take the Day Off Cleansing Balm
This exceptional cleanser’s punny name makes me appreciate it even more. It is gentle and non-greasy, and it easily rinses away along with a multitude of sins. It is fragrance free and super gentle, so it’s great for people with both sensitive and dry skin. It can be purchased through Nordstrom.
1. Boscia Clear Complexion Cleanser
Almost anyone who tries this gel cleanser from Boscia cannot help but love it. It is made for oily skin, but it treats it with gentle ingredient like willow bark extract, so it can work for anyone. It does a perfect job of gently removing makeup and other impurities, but it leaves the skin feeling clean and refreshed. It is available for sale at Sephora.
2. La Roche Posay Effaclar Deep Cleansing Foaming Cream
This creamy yet foaming facial cleanser is perfect for anyone who is seriously on the oily side. The formula is perfectly balanced, but it does eliminate more oil than some of the ultra-gentle facial cleansers on this list. Those who use it often rave about its astringent properties, which tighten up the pores quickly and efficiently! Just make sure to moisturize after using this cleanser. You can pick it up from Walgreens.
3. Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Oil-Reducing Cleanser
You can always trust Paula’s Choice to give us gentle, simple products that are perfectly formulated, and the job is done. This is the perfect facial cleanser for oil skin, made with ultra gentle surfactants to foam up lightly without stripping the skin of essential nutrients.
It’s the perfect cleanser for someone with sensitive oily skin, or for anyone who’s finding it hard to break up with sulfate-based cleansers. You can pick it up from Nordstrom.
4. Drunk Elephant Juju Bar
Are you surprised I added a bar cleanser to my list of the best facial cleansers? Don’t be! This unique bar from Drunk Elephant is not a soap, but a gentle, surfactant-based solid cleanser that cleanses the skin without dehydrating it.
Photos via @songofstyle, @tsangtastic