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 Skincare

Cleansers

Written by: Becki Murray

Last Updated: 9 February 2024

Consider cleansers as one of the main staples of your skincare regime. In fact, a good facial cleanser should be the first step in keeping your skin not only clean but healthy. Cleansers come in many forms – cleansing balms, hot cloth cleansers, gel cleansers, oil cleansers, and cream cleansers to name many – but in essence, they are all designed to remove dirt, sweat, oil, and makeup residue from your face. Which type you choose often comes down to a combination of your skin concerns and personal preference.

cleansers

What is a cleanser?

The primary function of a cleanser is to break down and remove any impurities that are found on the surface of your skin, meaning they can target excess oil, sweat, pollutants, and makeup. That is true regardless of the type of cleanser you choose, with cleansing balms, hot cloth cleansers, wash-off cleansers, oil cleansers and cream cleansers all aiming to give you an effective skin clean.

What type of cleanser do you need?

This really comes down to what you think your skin requires – does it feel dehydrated, dry, oily, or maybe sensitive? Be guided by this to choose a texture for your cleanser. If your skin feels tight or it’s very dry, you probably want a nice, rich, comforting balm or oil-based cleanser, which will nourish the skin.

But if you’re oilier, you might prefer something gel-based or lightly foaming that makes your skin feel clean and fresher.  In short, choose something your skin likes and that you enjoy using, and do it twice a day. For further guidance, many cleansers are now specifically designed for particular skin concerns too. That means there are options for acne-prone skin, dry skin and those prone to rosacea, for example. Look for those terms in the name of the product to help shortlist the right formulas for you and your skin. You can find more information on each type of cleanser in the FAQs below.

 

How to choose a cleanser

How to use cleanser?

In general, when putting your cleanser on, massage it into the skin firmly but gently in small circles. Doing proper face massage helps the cleanser work more effectively, improves blood circulation and lymph drainage in the skin, and also just makes the whole process more luxurious. Don’t rush the process either. To clean your whole face should last around a minute!

Remove your cleanser either by rinsing it off (this is a better idea for super-sensitive skin), or wiping it off (gently!) with a flannel wrung out in warm water (this gently exfoliates the skin). If you’re going to use flannels or muslins to remove makeup, make sure you have enough of them. You need to chuck them in the wash regularly, so having one for each day of the week is best.

How do different types of cleansers affect the skin and how do you use them?

Here’s a run-down of how to use the many different types of cleansers:

Cleansing balms – massage into the skin to loosen up the dirt and debris on the skin, add water to turn it into a milky liquid that can be either rinsed away or removed with a wetted and wrung out cloth (muslin or flannel) if you want a gentle exfoliation.

Oil cleansers – massage into your skin, emulsify by adding a bit of water, then continue adding water to rinse the cleanser away.

Cream cleansers – massage into damp skin in small circles. Then either rinse it off by splashing your face with water, or wipe it away with a damp, clean flannel.

No-rinse cleansing creams and lotions – these are creams that you can massage onto your skin, and then leave on without rinsing (I’m not so mad about these, as I prefer to feel that I’ve actually removed the cleanser and dirt from my face). BUT if you have very dry or sensitive skin, these might suit you.

Foaming facial wash – apply to wet skin and then work (gently) up into a lather, before you wash off (or wipe off with a wet flannel). The foaming action helps provide a deep clean, but certain formulas can be stripping if you aren’t careful, so choose one with gentle surfactants (as discussed below). These are also best for oily skins.

Glycolic acid-based facial washes – these deliver a small but definite dose of exfoliation (the glycolic acid dissolves the bonds tethering old, dead skin cells to the surface). Apply to wet skin, massage around for a bit, then wash off (or wipe off with a wet flannel).

Micellar water – wipe your face over with micellar water on a cotton pad. It’s a good idea to rinse your face with water after this to make sure you get rid of the surfactants left on your skin after cleansing with micellar water – these can potentially irritate the skin if left on for too long.

Face wipes – these are not proper cleansing! They’re also terrible for the environment. They’re better than nothing but they are definitely a last resort. They’re not biodegradable. If using them, wipe over your skin, and rinse your face with water afterwards.

Magic cleansing cloths – these are made from microfibre. All you do is wet them, work them gently over your face to remove everything on it (up to and including a full face of makeup). They absolutely work, and you just chuck them in the washing machine to clean them. While these aren’t bad at all, I’d still like to follow them with a proper cleanser.

Exfoliating cleanser – apply to damp skin, massage (gently) into the skin in small circles.

Soap – Please don’t use soap on your face. It dries out the skin and does not make a good cleanser.. There are so many other products you can choose from.

What are the benefits of using a facial cleanser?

It’s important to cleanse for the health of your skin, and because if you’ve invested in special skincare products, you surely wouldn’t dream of putting them onto dirty skin, would you? They don’t work by magic – they need to be absorbed into the skin, and that won’t happen if you simply plonk them on top of a cocktail of old dirt and oil.

What ingredients should I look for in a cleanser?

Cleansers often contain ingredients called surfactants, which help emulsify oils, allowing them to mix with water (which they don’t usually do) so that they can be washed off your skin. There are a few different types of surfactants to know about. SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate on an ingredients list) was traditionally one of the most common, but has become less popular in recent times, as it can be ‘too good’ at its job – stripping the skin of its natural oils, which can make it harsh on drier complexions, leaving them ‘tight’ and ‘sore’. Milder alternatives include SLES (Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate) – although these are often still avoided by those with very dry complexions – and, gentlest of all, those derived from coconut oil. Look for the word ‘Glucoside’ within the ingredients list to guide you, especially if you have sensitive skin.

What should you avoid in a cleanser?

In general, it’s probably best to avoid harsh surfactants or exfoliating grains or beads in your cleanser, unless it’s a really high-quality formula. That’s because these tend to be quite scratching and irritating to the surface of your skin.

How often should you cleanse your face?

Ideally twice a day, once in the morning and once at the end of the day. Your cleanser should also be the first step in your routine, giving you the clean canvas you need to then apply your results-driven serums and creams afterwards.

You definitely need to cleanse in the evening because sweat, dirt, bacteria and sebum (the natural oil produced by your skin’s sebaceous glands) build up on your face. If you live in a city, your face will be picking up particles of pollution too. And then you may have been wearing make-up, too. You want to get all this off your face at the end of the day.

You might think having cleansed in the evening means you don’t have to cleanse in the morning, but it is actually a good idea. Overnight, while you were lying in bed, your body will have sweated out around a pint of water and the oil glands in your face have been producing oil on your nose, chin and forehead. Plus your pillowcase is unlikely to be perfectly clean. You don’t normally need to double cleanse in the morning – unless you really want to – though.

Do I need to double cleanse?

Double cleansing has become a lot more popular in recent years, and if you wear a lot of makeup, it probably isn’t a bad idea – although for bare skin or minimal makeup days, there may be less need. One way of double cleansing is to use the same cleanser twice (think of it like shampooing your hair twice – the first one is to get rid of surface grime, the second one to work a little deeper into the skin). The exception to this is: if you’re using a foaming cleanser, do not double cleanse. This will strip all the oil out of your skin.

You could, alternatively, use two different cleansers – e.g. a micellar water to get rid of makeup, followed by a wash-off gel cleanser to remove any oil residue, or a cleansing oil to pull away surface grime, followed by massaging in a cleansing cream, taken off with a damp flannel or muslin.

How do cleansers help in removing makeup effectively?

Many cleansers are very good at removing make-up. An oil-based balm or cream cleanser will get everything off in one go, including sunscreen and waterproof mascara. Micellar water will get most make-up off, though it doesn’t provide a deep or thorough cleanse, so I would suggest that you go over your face again, maybe with a cream cleanser, after using a micellar water to shift your make-up – aka double cleansing.

How do I avoid over-cleansing?

Cleansing is crucial for the skin but you also don’t want to over-cleanse. You want your skin to be clean but not too clean, if that makes sense. The sebum that our skin secretes is actually our natural moisturiser – you want to get rid of any excess, but not all of it. If you wash your face until it is squeaky-clean, it does more harm than good because it upsets the skin barrier. This is because skin without any sebum on it will try to rebalance itself by producing more oil to get things back to normal. If your skin is oily, the last thing you want is more oil. If your skin is dry and not good at producing enough sebum in the first place, it won’t manage to compensate for over-cleansing, and will become even drier. So don’t overdo it. Cleansing once in the morning and once at night, and potentially double-cleansing if you’re using gentle enough cleansers, should be absolutely fine.

Is it bad to wash my face in the shower?

That depends. You may have heard skincare experts saying that it’s bad to wash your face in the shower. That’s because you may be using hot water, and your face will find hot water quite stressful – it is happier with tepid water. Also, in the shower, you are probably washing your hair at the same time, and shampoo contains certain surfactants — degreasing ingredients — that are able to cut through the build up of oil on your scalp, but are not ideal cleansing agents for your face. They are too harsh. But if you’re using your normal facial cleanser in the shower and keeping the temperature of the water down – I don’t see the problem.


FAQ ABOUT Cleansers


Are cream cleansers suitable for all skin types?

A cream cleanser is not only considered to be a type of gentle skin cleanser, it is also suitable for all skin types – from oily and acne-prone to sensitive. That’s because such formulas work very softly on the skin and are designed not to disrupt the skin’s pH or water balance. Due to their gentle nature, they are particularly popular with anyone who struggles with dryness, redness or irritation, as protecting the skin moisture barrier is particularly important for managing these skin conditions.

What’s the best way to use a hot cloth cleanser?

The hot cloth cleansing method – made popular by Emma Hardie and Liz Earle – focuses on getting the most out of how you remove your cleanser. It involves pairing your preferred cleansing product (often an oily-based texture) with a face cloth or flannel that you run under comfortably hot water and wring out before you use it to clean your face. The combination of heat and the texture of the flannel helps further remove dirt and debris from your pores, while also physically (but gently) exfoliating your skin as you clean it. The result can be a brighter-looking and cleaner complexion, but always remember to regularly wash the cloth(!) and avoid using piping hot water as this can draw moisture out of your skin.

Can a facial cleanser improve skin hydration?

As mentioned above, many modern cleansers like to include other skin-improving ingredients to maximise their benefits. That includes nourishing and hydrating ingredients, such as ceramides, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid to ensure the cleanser doesn’t disrupt your natural moisture barrier – locking in hydration.

Can oil cleansers improve skin health?

Another method of cleansing is known as oil cleansing, which uses the principle of ‘like attracting like’ to help you clean your skin. Specifically, the oils in the cleanser are attracted to the sebum, bacteria and dirt in your pores that are also oil-based, helping you lift them away when the cleanser is cleaned off. This can help improve the skin health of those who are prone to dryness, as the cleansing action does not strip moisture from the skin, and equally may actually improve combination and oily skin by helping rebalance sebum production. You do however need to ensure you thoroughly remove an oil cleanser to avoid breakouts and clogged pores – otherwise they can have the opposite effect. Plus, if you have very reactive skin, you may want to stay clear.

What are wash-off cleansers, and what are they good for?

Wash-off cleansers are, as the name suggests, cleansers which you wash completely off of your face. These are different to cleansers which leave a residue on your face, such as oil cleansers or micellar water. These are good for acne and rosacea, two conditions in which you might not want to leave a thin layer of, for example, oil or surfactants on your skin overnight, as these could aggravate these conditions.

What are exfoliating cleansers, and what are they good for?

Exfoliating cleansers contain alpha, beta or poly hydroxy acids (such as lactic acid, glycolic acid or salicylic acid) or fruit enzymes. They perform a light chemical exfoliation on the skin as you cleanse. This is beneficial, firstly, because the removal of the outermost layer of dead skin cells can help tackle pigmentation and rough texture. Secondly, exfoliation is beneficial for combatting acne (especially when done with salicylic acid, which is oil-soluble and hence can get into the interior of pores, where it can exfoliate the pore lining from within). Thirdly, hydroxy acids are hydrating to the skin (and glycolic acid in particular can boost collagen production, which helps with any sort of wrinkling, fine lines or sagging). Finally, using an exfoliating cleanser improves the efficacy of any products you use after the cleanser, as these products won’t have to fight through the extra layers of dead cells that chemical exfoliation removes. This means they can permeate deeper into the skin, and have a greater effect.

What is a mild cleanser?

A mild cleanser is one that is gentle on the skin and hence suitable for sensitive skin. It’s worth noting that this is not a technical or legal definition, and as such is not a guarantee of anything. Mild cleansers are generally fragrance-free, and often don’t contain any surfactants (detergent elements) such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).

What is the best facial cleanser for sensitive skin?

A cleanser without parfum (fragrance) and surfactants like SLS or SLES is good for sensitive skin. If you have sensitive skin, no-rinse cleansing creams and lotions might suit you. Cream cleansers and hot cloth cleansers are also good for dry and sensitive skin.

What are the latest trends in facial cleansers?

At-home beauty tech is a big trend at the moment, and the new generation of cleansing brushes could supercharge your facial cleansing experience too. These brushes are said to leave skin up to 6 times cleaner than regular cleansing. They work by rotating or oscillating their bristles (they look sort of like a giant toothbrush) at a very high speed, effectively ‘bouncing’ dirt out of the pores. Using cleansing brushes has also been shown to improve the absorption of treatment skincare serums (like vitamin C serums, AHAs or retinoids) applied after cleansing with a brush by up to 4 times.

BUT! (There is always a ‘but’, isnt’ there?) I would limit using a cleansing brush to once or twice a week to avoid damaging and irritating the skin barrier and choose one with gentle silicone bristles, which are much kinder to the skin.

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