How To Use a Cream Cleanser the Right Way

Your skin may not be getting thoroughly clean.
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Michelle Villett
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Your skin may not be getting thoroughly clean.
How to use a cream cleanser

Welcome to our Ask Beautyeditor column, where our experts answer your hair, skin and makeup questions. To request skincare advice:

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Q: This is probably covered in another post elsewhere, but what's the problem with cream cleansers? I've seen a couple posts where cream cleansers are dissed, but I've never seen a reason why? That's what was recommended to me for using with the Clarisonic, so I'd be interested to hear the reason. Thanks! — Jennifer

A: Jennifer, if you like cream, milk or lotion cleansers, there's nothing wrong with that—IF you're using them the right way.

Here are the problems with this category of cleansers, and what I recommend if you do want to incorporate one into your routine:

Cream Cleansers May Not Clean Your Skin Properly

It depends on the individual formula, of course, but many cream-textured cleansers aren't very effective at cleaning your skin. If you've ever used one, and then swiped a toner-soaked cotton pad across your skin, you probably know what I'm talking about. Many times, I've seen that cotton pad come away dirty, which means the cleanser wasn't doing its job.

But actually—the job of a cleansing cream or milk isn't really to clean your skin. It's to remove makeup, which is only the first step in washing your face. That's why these formulas are packed with oils and moisturizing agents that lift away foundation and mascara, but are low on surfactants that dissolve sebum.

So... if you're trying to wash your face with a cream cleanser in one step, know that you MIGHT be leaving some dirt and oil behind, which can lead to clogged pores, breakouts and irritation. 

I've found that Dr Roebuck's Cleanse is one formula that does rinse away clean.

Dr Roebuck's Cleanse

Dr Roebuck's Cleanse.

Cream Cleansers Can Leave Behind Residue

Another problem with cream-based cleansers is that they often leave a residue behind on your skin, even after rinsing with water. Or, if you have a tissue-off cream cleanser, you're not meant to rinse at all—which I don't recommend!

The idea is that the moisturizing ingredients in the cream cleanser will stay on your skin and help nourish it, instead of stripping it, which sounds appealing if you have dry or sensitive skin.

MV Organic Skincare Gentle Cream Cleanser

MV Organic Skincare Gentle Cream Cleanser.

But wouldn't you rather give your skin actual moisturizer, instead of relying on a cleanser to do it? Cream-based cleansers are primarily formulated for makeup removal, so they contain a lot of other ingredients that may not be beneficial or safe to leave on your skin for hours to absorb. Think: silicones, mineral oil and aging polyunsaturated oils, to name a few. 

These materials can cause clogs in your pores, and exacerbate acne and dehydration. Plus, they can prevent the other products in your skincare regimen, such as serums, moisturizers and treatments, from absorbing properly into your skin (therefore causing them to be less effective).

As for stripping, yes—that's definitely a concern with many cleansers, and a reason to like cream formulas. However, cream cleansers aren't the only option for complexions that need a gentle cleanse. Maybe that was the case 20 years ago, but these days, plenty of non-stripping, sulfate-free cleansers can be found in all formats. 

The Right Way to Use Cream Cleansers

If you're going to use a cream, milk or lotion cleanser, you need to make sure you're getting your skin thoroughly clean, and not leaving any cleanser behind on your skin.

Step 1: Apply the cream cleanser to dry (not wet) skin and massage it around for a few moments.

Step 2: Wet your fingertips with water and continue massaging the product. This will emulsify it, making it easier to remove. 

Step 3: Rinse with water. 

This will have taken off most of your makeup, but now you need to get your skin clean. If you weren't wearing makeup, you STILL need to remove the cleanser residue.

Here are some options for what to do next:

Use another cleanser: In the famous Korean double-cleansing routine, the first step is a makeup-removing cleanser, followed by a foam or gel cleanser to actually clean the skin. Make sure to choose a gentle, sulfate-free formula. Two that I love are Caudalie Instant Foaming Cleanser and Derma E Purifying Gel Cleanser.

Caudalie Instant Foaming Cleanser

Caudalie Instant Foaming Cleanser.

Wash twice: If you don't want to use a second cleanser, consider simply cleansing twice with your cream cleanser. The second pass should get your skin cleaner than trying to do it all in one step. But you should still get the residue off with a cloth, micellar water or toner.

Remove with a warm, steamy cloth: A good way to ensure you're not leaving residue on your skin is to take off the cream cleanser with a face cloth instead of rinsing. After you've massaged the cleanser around, immerse a soft cloth in warm water, and drape it over your face for five seconds before using it to gently wipe away the cleanser. Repeat this process up to four times. The steam will aid removal, and also help soften dead skin. The buffing action of the cloth will take off the cleanser and give you a mild exfoliation. I like the cloths from MV Organics and Pai.

Pai Organic Muslin Face Cloth

Pai Organic Muslin Face Cloth.

Use micellar water or toner: Cleansing waters, such as Bioderma's, are another way to wash your face and can be used after cream cleanser to get rid of any lingering residue. (They don't require rinsing, although I do because I don't want the PEG-6 sitting on my skin.) Alternatively, you can do a final pass with toner—just check that you're not picking up any actual dirt with the cotton pad. If you are, it's a sign that you need to go back and wash your face more thoroughly. Don't rely on toner to do the job of cleansing.

Bioderma Sensibio H2O

Bioderma Sensibio H2O.

Use a cleansing gadget: Cream cleansers, because they're non-abrasive, are a good choice to use with the Clarisonic. The buffing movements of the brush can also up their effectiveness (although I prefer the gentler Foreo Luna, which doesn't have the risk of creating micro-tears in the skin). Either way, I'd still follow up with micellar water or toner, to be on the safe side. 

Clarisonic Mia 1 Skin Cleansing System

Clarisonic Mia 1 Skin Cleansing System.

Hopefully, this has clarified how you can make cream cleansers work for you!

Do you use cream cleansers?
How do you make them work for you?