Different Types of Cleansers

Cleansing is the first step of your skin care routine, and is a necessity for removing dirt, oil, and makeup that can buildup can cause skin problems down the line. It provides the priming that clears out your pores so that your moisturizer, serums, and any other products can dive deep into your skin and get to work repairing your skin.

There are many different types of cleansers, and each has different benefits. Some cleansers are better suited for specific skin types than others, and some should be avoided altogether.

Keep reading to learn more about types of face cleansers and which one may or may not work well for you.

Why You Need to Cleanse Your Face

If you don’t cleanse at the end of the day, you’ll be leaving makeup, sunscreen, dirt, oil, pollution, and dead skin cells on your skin to build up over time. This accumulation of gunk will clog your pores which can lead to breakouts.

Cleansing is also essential for balancing your skin’s pH level. Our skin thrives at a pH of about 5.5, and that buildup of product and grime can throw the skin off balance. An unbalanced pH can lead to a damaged skin barrier which limits water retention, leaving your skin dehydrated. 

There’s a reason that cleanser is always the first step in a skin care routine. Removing buildup and clearing out your pores creates a clean slate so that the rest of your skin care products can permeate deeper into your skin, and work their magic. Otherwise your toner, moisturizer, and any serums or masks will just sit atop your skin and mingle with dirt.

How often should you wash your face?

If you have highly oily skin or break an intense sweat during your workout, then gently cleansing twice a day may be necessary, but in most cases, cleansing once before bed is enough to rid your skin of any built up dirt and oil.

For very dry and/or sensitive skin, over-cleansing can further dry out and irritate your skin, so stick to one cleanse.

How Cleansers Work

Skin cleansers are formulated to break down the large particles of dirt, oil, makeup, etc., which makes it easier to rinse them away with water. Their formulas consist of a selection of surfactants (detergents), oils, and exfoliants that can all vary in strength, effectiveness, and overall results.

The common goal of removing buildup can be met with various different types of cleansers — each having their own different properties and benefits.

Different Types of Cleanser

Gel Cleansers and Foam Cleansers

One of the most common types of cleansers on the market are gel cleansers. Gel cleansers – you guessed it – have a gel-like consistency, and they are designed to deeply clean the pores. 

Like gel cleansers, foam cleanser gets down deep into the pores, but they do so with a rich lather. Of the face washes on the market, foam cleansers will probably leave your skin feeling the cleanest. That tight feeling we associate with squeaky clean skin comes along with the heavier detergents that result in the foamy consistency.

Gel and foam cleansers can work for all skin types, but are best suited for combination and oily skin. Be careful with some of the heavier surfactants in foaming cleansers if you have dry or sensitive skin because they can further aggravate your skin’s problems.

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Cream Cleansers

Cream cleansers pack in emollients, ingredients that soften or smooth the skin, and humectants, ingredients that trap in moisture. Common cream cleanser ingredients include glycerin, fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol or cetearyl alcohol, and waxes.

Oil/Oil-based Cleansers

Similar to cream cleansers, oil-based cleansers are meant to both cleanse and moisturize the skin. The difference is they specifically use oil ingredients as the emollients.

The following are common oils used in oil-based cleansers:

  • soybean oil 
  • coconut oil 
  • jojoba oil
  • argan oil
  • rosehip oil
  • camellia oil 

Oils provide intense moisture while also helping to loosen and remove dirt. It’s even a popular DIY skin care tactic to just use household oils like olive oil and coconut oil to remove makeup.

Oil and cream cleansers are often considered the best type of cleansers for dry skin due to their emollient (skin softening), occlusive (barrier building) and humectant (water binding) ingredients that help restore moisture and hydration that may be lost during cleansing. 

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Cleansing Bar

If you prefer bar soap, don’t just use any old soap bar that you’d use on your hands and/or body. Choose a cleanser bar that is formulated specifically for your face without soap or sulfates. A glycerin-based cleanser bar is a solid option if you have combination skin and want a bar cleanser that won’t strip dryer regions of skin of moisture.

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Cleansing Balm

Cleansing balms have seen a huge surge in popularity over the last few years as a simple alternative to liquid cleansers and cleansing cloths. Cleansing balms are great for simplicity since they do not require water to use, they effectively remove makeup as well as dirt and oil, and they can also be incredibly hydrating for dry skin. However, they can be overwhelming for oily, acne-prone skin and can lead to clogged pores and breakouts.

Micellar Water

Micellar water is as close to cleansing with just water as you can get. It contains tiny particles of oil that help remove dirt and makeup on the skin’s surface. They don’t provide any lather so they are not the best option for a deeper cleanse, but they are a great option for a makeup remover that can be applied with a cotton pad or reusable washcloth, and does not need to be rinsed off.

Exfoliating Cleanser 

If you need the added benefits of an exfoliant, but you don’t want to go through the trouble of adding an additional product to your daily skincare routine, then cleansers that contain exfoliating ingredients like alpha hydroxy acid or physical scrubs are a great 2-in-1 cleanser option. Exfoliating cleansers are recommended for those who struggle with clogged pores or need help clearing up dead skin buildup, but be careful if you have sensitive skin because some exfoliants can be too abrasive.

Cleansing Wipes 

Cleansing wipes are more of a last resort than an actual cleanser. Cleansing wipes are great to have on hand for nights when you cannot be bothered to make your way through your skin care routine. However, most wipes contain strong, drying chemicals, and the act of tugging at your skin with a damp cloth can cause premature wrinkles.

Keeping a packet of cleansing wipes on your bedside table or in your bag for emergencies are great in a pinch because you never want to go to bed with makeup on, but daily use will yield  less than satisfactory results.

Acne Cleanser

Many acne-prone individuals often turn to their cleanser to help heal their acne. 

Cleansers targeted toward acne treatment are often formulated with active ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, retinol, and alpha hydroxy acid to increase cell turnover or dry up acne. 

However, don’t just rely on your cleanser to treat acne. You need to create an entire acne skin care routine to see consistent results, and consider seeing a dermatologist for prescription treatment if over the counter acne cleansers are not doing the job.

Clay Cleanser

Clay facial cleansers are formulated with various types of clay, which are some of the best ingredients for absorbing excess sebum (oil). Clay cleansers are a great option for those who want to control oil buildup. This combo product makes it simple to naturally remove oil buildup without completely stripping your skin.

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what cleanser type to use for your skin type

Should you double cleanse?

A double cleanse is a great trick for those with oily and acne prone skin who may need the surface level cleansing to remove makeup and oil, but also require a deeper cleanser to prevent acne and clogged pores.

That being said, double cleansing can be drying, so if you have dry skin, we recommend finding an all-in-one cleanser that helps remove excess oil and makeup while also deeply cleaning the pores.

Sulfate Free Cleansers

In general, any cleanser that uses sulfates should be avoided. Sulfates remove oil, but go so far as to strip the skin of its essential natural oils. This can dry out the skin causing irritation for those with sensitive skin or skin conditions like eczema or rosacea. It can also lead to premature signs of aging, and damage to the skin microbiome and barrier.

There are other facial cleansers – ones with and without lather – that do not use sulfates and still provide a deep clean.


The stress of choosing from so many cleanser options can be enough to scare people away from setting up their perfect skin care routine. Use these tips to narrow down which cleanser will work best for your skin type. After you’ve set that baseline for your routine, you can start your search for your other skin care essentials.

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