Updated 10/12/17. Cleansers generally all have the same basic function. They clean dirt, debris, oil, bacteria, and makeup from the skin. However, not all cleansers are created equal. There are definitely some things you need to know when it comes to choosing the right cleanser and using it correctly. Here are my expert tips to get the best cleansing experience possible.
DO choose a cleanser made exclusively for your skin type. It’s difficult for me to understand how some skin care companies say that their cleansers are “suitable for all skin types.” All skin is different. Therefore, each individual has very unique requirements when it comes to skincare products. Since a cleanser is a staple in a morning and evening skin care routine, it’s essential that you’re using one for your skin type. This is why I developed products that are not just designed for standard oily, normal or dry skin. Instead, I formulated products and systems for types 1 through 9 (see my nine skin types). You’re guaranteed to get great results when you use a cleanser that is for your specific skin type.
DO avoid cleansers containing synthetic fragrance—especially if your skin is sensitive. Individuals with sensitive skin can react negatively to synthetic perfumes. In fact, this is thought to be the #1 cause of allergic reactions for sensitive skin. Before purchasing a cleanser, take a look at the ingredient list. Avoid products that contain anything like “parfum,” “perfume,” or “fragrance.” Information regarding artificial fragrance ingredients is usually found towards the end of the ingredient list.
DO switch cleansers every season, if necessary. The climate in which you live directly affects your skin’s ability to retain moisture or reduce oil production. If you live in a humid environment or have oily skin, use a foaming or gel cleanser. In dry environments, a lotion-based cleanser may be best. Be sure to reassess not only your cleanser, but your other products as well, every change of season for best results.
DO wipe over skin with facial sponges after cleansing. Particularly when washing your skin at night with a cleansing lotion, it is important to physically wipe with facial sponges or a baby washcloth. This properly removes makeup, dirt, and oil so you won’t later find it on your cotton pad when applying toner. Here’s how to wash your face. (Really, many people get it wrong!)
DO limit the use of a sonic cleansing brush. The Clarisonic brush is a popular cleansing accessory. The company suggests using it every time you use your regular cleansing product, but I feel this is way too much for the skin. Instead, I only suggest using it no more than three times a week. Read why here.
DO apply moisturizer within 60 seconds after cleansing. After cleansing, you must IMMEDIATELY use an alcohol-free toner, serum (optional) and moisturizer. If you leave your skin bare for more than 1 minute, it will start to dehydrate. The air in your environment attracts moisture out of the skin. Perform your skin care routine quickly, and always leave your toner damp to deliver extra hydration. This better protects the skin and helps avoid tightness commonly felt post-cleansing.
DON’T use a cleanser that leaves your skin feeling tight or dry. Many foaming and gel cleansers are still formulated with ingredients called Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate. These ingredients are known as surfactants; they’re cleansing agents that cut oil from the skin. The problem with the specific ones listed is that they are simply too harsh. They can really strip the water out of the skin.
What you cleanse your face with is actually the MOST important part of your skincare routine. Why? Because if you wash with a foaming cleanser or soap that is too drying, it pulls all the water out of the skin and creates dead, dry skin cell buildup. Then you have to quickly run and put your moisturizer on to infuse what you just removed. Makes no sense, right? Choose either a cleansing lotion and/or a gel cleanser that does NOT contain these drying ingredients. Look for the words “sulfate-free” to guarantee a more gentle cleansing experience. See this collection of gentle, yet effective cleansers.
DON’T wash your face with bar soap OR use cleansing wipes. Washing your skin with a bar of soap—no matter how expensive it is or how moisturizing it claims to be—is just an absolute no-no. The binders that hold a bar of soap together naturally have a high pH. This means they’ll always be too strong for the skin. When you cleanse with something too harsh, just liked sulfate-based cleansers, it strips water from the skin. Again, this leaves it dehydrated with dry skin cell build up. Skin cells are like fish, they need water to live and without water they die. Bar soaps are more suitable for the body, not the face. (However, I never use one on my body either. I have a condition known as keratosis pilaris which causes little “chicken bumps.” Bar soaps only contribute to this condition. Here’s how I keep them away.)
As for cleansing wipes, I believe they are not a smart choice because they don’t effectively clean the skin. Instead they just smear dirt, bacteria, oil and makeup across it. A cleanser without the addition of any water will break down and dissolve the dirt in the oily portion of the soap (surfactant) molecule only and remove it onto the wipe. However, it’s the actual rinsing action from water that removes it and cleans the skin. Essentially it is like applying cleanser to your face with soap and then not washing it off. Instead, I recommend using a gentle, sulfate-free, low-foaming cleansing gel or a lightweight cleansing lotion to wash the face. Then follow it by wiping the skin with a baby washcloth or facial sponge.
DON’T use a cleansing oil or cleansing balm. Balms and cleansing oils have large molecules that deposit a film onto the skin to prevent your products applied afterward from getting through. For example, serums have smaller molecules and you don’t want a small molecule on top of a giant one (an oil). This would prevent the smaller molecule from penetrating through so your serum can’t perform at its best. I discuss this in further detail in my double cleansing post.
In summary, choose your cleanser wisely. People often splurge most on moisturizers. However, people typically don’t give cleansers as much thought. They often choose something much more inexpensive from the drugstore, instead. Since cleansing is the first part of your routine, though, avoid using a low-quality cleanser. If you do, then your expensive serums and creams have to do even more work to control the potential damage caused by a dehydrating cleanser.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”