How To Choose the Best Cleanser For Your Skin

This one product can make or break your entire skincare routine.
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Michelle Villett
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This one product can make or break your entire skincare routine.
How to choose the right cleanser for your skin

Using the right cleanser is more important than you think.

Let me guess. When you invested in your current skincare products, you probably put a lot more thought into choosing your moisturizer than you did your face wash. 

Am I right? The same goes for eye cream, serum, anti-aging or acne treatments. 

Most of us consider those topical leave-on products to be the workhorses of our routines—the stuff that really makes a difference to our complexions. 

Cleanser, on the other hand, is usually a "whatever works" kind of thing. I mean, it washes off, right? How important can it be? 

VERY.

Why It's Important To Use the Right Cleanser

It's not so much that a good cleanser, on its own, is going to do something miraculous to your skin. 

It's that the wrong one can create a skin condition that you don't normally have—one that you'll constantly be trying to "fix" with your topical products. For example:

  • If your cleanser is too stripping: It can leave you with dry, irritated or sensitized skin. So then you'd be relying on creams to put the hydration back that your cleanser took out... over and over again. Sometimes, aggressive cleansers can even cause rebound sebum production, making your skin oilier than it would be on its own—which you'd then chase with mattifiers, oil-control products, etc.
  • If your cleanser is too rich: Some balm or oil cleansers can appear to be removing makeup well, but in fact leave a residue behind that clogs your pores. "Nourishing" cleansers may seem like a great idea to prevent dry skin—but certain ingredients actually make skin even drier by forming a seal that interferes with the skin's natural regeneration process. 

Clearly, there's lots that can go wrong! Choosing the right cleanser is not easy, but hopefully, these tips will help.

Do a Double Cleanse

Before we get into specific product recos, my first tip is to incorporate a double cleanse into your evening skincare routine. (You don't need to do this in the mornings... unless you pulled a Charlotte Tilbury and wore makeup to bed, hehe.) 

Cleansing twice lets you get more out of your cleanser(s) by ensuring that NO traces of makeup, SPF or dirt are left on the skin. The usual advice is to repeat the wash with the same product, and you can do that—or do what I do and use two different ones.

Makeup-removing cleanser: One of your cleansers should have the purpose of removing your makeup. My personal preference is for micellar cleansers or cleansing waters, such as Bioderma Sensibio H2O, although oils and balms work well here, too. This cleanse is basically your first pass, to take off the stuff on the surface of your skin. 

Cleansing waters

Use a makeup-removing cleanser to remove surface residue first.

Note: I've recently found a few more "natural" alternatives to my beloved Bioderma (although I still think it performs the best). Refresh Botanicals Eye + Face Makeup Remover is the most natural I've found—99.7 percent!—and has a fab push-down pump dispenser. Caudalie Micellar Cleansing Water is glycerin-based and free of mineral oil and preservatives. Simple Cleansing Micellar Water contains no perfume and features glycerin and niacinamide.

Deep cleanser: Your second cleanser should give you a deeper, more thorough cleanse, obviously without stripping. This is where I'd suggest a cleansing gel, foam, milk or lotion. One that should suit all skin types is Consonant Natural Foaming Face Wash... I swear I've gone through three or four bottles so far!

Most oils, I don't love as a second cleansing step, because depending on the ingredients, they might lead to dryness and clogging if left on the skin. (Plus, when you're using them last, there's a good chance you won't get every bit off.) If you like, you could use your cleanser of choice in conjunction with a gentle face brush such as the Foreo Luna 2—I find it leaves my face super-clean and super-smooth, but not at all irritated.

Doing these two steps, I think you'll find that you get a more thorough cleanse, with no residue left and without having to manually slough your skin with a washcloth or flannel (as they say in the UK). Your complexion is completely prepped to receive whatever topical products you want to use next.

Normal skin cleansers

After you remove makeup with a cleansing water, do a deeper cleanse with a foam.

Never Use Sulfates

My second tip is to avoid sulfates like the plague, no matter what your skin type. Even oily skin!

Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are synthetic detergents. They're used in cleansers because when they combine with water, they produce a lather that emulsifies and lifts away oil. That foaming action may feel satisfying initially, especially if you are oil- or acne-prone. But the problem is, it can strip your skin barrier. 

Your skin barrier is the outermost part of your skin that keeps moisture in and protects you from germs, bacteria, pollution, etc. Sulfates are so strong and so alkaline that they can temporarily damage it, causing irritation, dryness, excess oil production, itching or redness. After you use them, it can take hours for your skin's pH to return to normal. So if you're cleansing every day, twice a day, with sulfates, just imagine the stress you're putting your skin through!

Fortunately, you can still get a good cleanse with sulfate-free (also known as "soap-free") products. My preferred substitute is cocomidopropyl betaine, which is derived from coconuts and cleanses effectively but gently, without causing dryness.

How to choose the right cleanser for your skin

Look for sulfate-free cleansers, no matter what your skin type.

Always Monitor Your Skin

Okay, let's talk skin types now! I don't necessarily agree with the broad classifications of oily, dry, combination, acne-prone or sensitive. Many of us are two or three of those on any given day! 

So the best advice I can give you is to stay aware of how your skin looks and feels, and tweak your routine accordingly.

That might mean you like a gel cleanser during certain parts of your menstrual cycle, or in the heat of summer. In the winter or, say, after a laser treatment, you maybe want something creamier and more hydrating. Or, you might fall squarely into one set skin type and be okay using the same cleanser all the time. If you're really not sure, then it's probably best to err on the side of gentleness and adjust as you go from there.

On to the product suggestions...

Normal-to-Oily Skin Cleansers

Gels and gentle foams will be the best choices to cleanse dirt and sebum from an oilier complexion without leaving you stripped—just remember to check that they are sulfate-free! Bar soap is often too harsh, but there is the rare one made with good ingredients, such as this 100 percent clay bar

Some of you might follow the "like attracts like" principle and prefer to use an oil to cleanse; in that case, I suggest jojoba because it's a monounsaturated fat, and is one of the oils that is least likely to clog pores. (If you're tempted by heavier oils such as castor, olive or any others popular with the Oil Cleansing Method, let my story be a cautionary tale!) Know that any skin type can have a sensitivity to any oil, and they could lead to serious breakouts, even if you only cleansed with them once or twice.

Here are a few of my favourite cleansing products for oily and combination normal-oily skin:

If your skin feels tight and dry after cleansing, if you experience stinging or if you need to frequently apply moisturizer, these are signs that you shouldn't be using an oily skin cleanser, and need something more hydrating/gentle instead. 

Oily skin cleansers

Sulfate-free, oil-free gels and foams are ideal cleansers for oily skin.

Normal-to-Dry and Sensitive Skin Cleansers

If your skin is on the dry or sensitive side, consider creams, lotions and milks that are designed to cleanse gently while keeping your complexion hydrated. Sometimes foams can be moisturizing enough, like this one. If your skin is particularly intolerant and sensitive to even water, dermatologists have told me that it's fine to use micellar water as your main cleanser, which requires no rinsing. 

Again, be careful with oil-based products. I already mentioned that jojoba oil is safe; so are coconut oil and the macadamia oil in here (both are a little heavier, so better for dry skin). BUT... I've never seen any popular cleansing balms/oils that don't have problematic ingredients: either polyunsaturated oils or mineral oils, or both!

Here's the deal. PUFAs are oils like soybean, sunflower, safflower and almond; these are highly unstable and promote aging of the skin, so I just wouldn't want to rub them on my face in any significant concentration, no matter how "luxurious" they feel. As for mineral oil, unless it is absolutely thoroughly removed, it can leave a film on the skin like Vaseline. Not only can that give you clogged pores, but it can actually dehydrate your skin by interfering with your cells' natural sloughing and renewal process. I know the Eve Lom "hot cloth" types of cleansers are very popular, but they are simply mineral oil. It's probably the manual action of the cloth that is doing most of the work—you can get an equally efficient but healthier cleanse by doing the two-step process I mentioned. If you must use a straight PUFA or mineral oil, make it the first step so that your second cleanse with a different product is washing it all away.

Here are my normal-to-dry and sensitive skin cleanser picks:

If your skin looks and feels greasy within a short time after washing with one of these, or if it just doesn't feel thoroughly clean, it may be a sign that you need to switch up to a stronger gel or foaming cleanser.

Dry and sensitive skin cleansers

Creams and lotions can gently cleanse dry and sensitive skin.

A Quick Word About Face Wipes

You'll notice that face wipes/cleansing cloths are nowhere to be found on my lists of suggested cleansers. I think they are fine and convenient to use occasionally, when you're on the go, at the gym or whatever—but should never be a replacement for regular, consistent cleansing. 

I've found most of them contain questionable chemicals, way more than are in plain micellar waters, and this is more worrisome because they're being left on your skin instead of rinsed down the drain. Plus, they are wasteful! 

If you do want face wipes to be part of your routine, I suggest using them as an initial makeup-removing step and then following them up with a regular cleanser. My pick would be the new RMS Beauty The Ultimate Makeup Remover Wipe, which is just coconut oil!

Conclusion

Hopefully, I've convinced you that cleansers are an important part of your skincare regimen—and that all are not created equal!

I think it's not a bad idea to maintain a mini cleanser wardrobe, if you will, containing a handful of cleansers that you like for your skin's different needs—oiliness, dryness, makeup removal, etc. Many of us rotate our hair products in this way, so why not do the same for your skin, too? I can't be the only one whose skin acts differently depending on the day, month, season...

No matter which cleanser(s) you choose, remember that you still don't want to OVER-cleanse. As I explained here, you might find that a micellar cleanser or even just splashing water on your face is sufficient in the mornings. Salma Hayek does this and I'd say it's working pretty well for her! That said, I do always recommend a good cleanse at night before bed, to remove all the makeup, oil and dirt accumulated throughout the day.

I would love to hear your about your cleansing routine, and the products you like best! Have you found the perfect cleanser yet?

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Have Your Say

Do you double cleanse? Which cleanser(s) do you use? Do you avoid oils or sulfates?