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The Different Types of Cleansers, Explained

When it comes to cleansers today, there are tons  of options on the market: bars and balms, clays, and cleansing oils. It’s exciting, for sure - with all, those choices, you’re bound to find a solution that’s great for you! - but it’s also overwhelming.

How do you know what type  of cleanser is the best for your skin type? Or which ingredients will really work? Or what is just going to make everything worse? 

Let’s break it down.

Things to Look For In Your Cleansers

Overall, there are three basic things that cleansers need to have to effectively cleanse and hydrate the skin:

  1. Humectants: Humectants, like hyaluronic acid, work by attracting water to the skin. They essentially help turn your skin into a little water sponge - but they don’t keep  the moisture in.
  2. Occlusives: Occlusives - like oils and silicones - help seal that moisture in. This prevents water loss and results in more hydrated skin overall.
  3. Emollients: Emollients - like lotions and creams - are like occlusives. They provide a thin protective layer on the skin. This can help repair the skin’s natural barrier and leave the skin soft and fully moisturized.

A product that has all three will be less likely to strip the skin, even if it has more active cleansing ingredients like salicylic acid or glycolic.

Also, you have to keep in mind your skin type and what you want your cleanser to do. Don't know exactly? Figure out your skin type here then come back to this post. 

Let's get started. 

Types of Cleansers, Decoded 

Cleansing Balm

Lately, cleansing balms have been having a skincare moment. I myself have tried a few of them, and I’ve seen mixed results. Some seem to get all my makeup off perfectly - without the harsh rubbing that you need from more “traditional” liquid cleansers - while others leave behind an undesirable, Vaseline-type residue (yuck!).

So what’s the difference and what should you look for?

Well, overall, cleansing balms are generally made from plant oil, plant butters, and wax. A well-formulated one will have a perfect combination of both emollients and occlusives, meaning that it will help keep skin clean, protected, and hydrated. To get this, pay attention to the formula. Pick one with a healthy butter - like cupuacu butter - and make sure that there isn’t too much  wax - that’s the stuff that can block your pores or leave an extra unwanted film on your skin.

When should you use a cleansing balm?

Well, cleansing balms are great at any time. That said, they’re an ideal choice for the winter months or for people dealing with dry or dehydrated skin. Why? Because of their thicker balm texture, they can help remove dirt and oil without overly drying the skin or stripping away the skin’s natural barrier.

Plus, they don’t even necessarily require water or harsh scrubbing, so they can help you remove your makeup and clean our face without water or while you're on-the-go.

Best for:All skin types

Cleansing Oil

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Looking for a moisturizing cleansing option that can remove even the most stubborn grime or waterproof makeup? Then consider a cleansing oil.

Generally speaking, cleansing oils are made from pure plant oils without any fillers and water. They’re usually both occlusive and emollient, though they’re much heavier on the emollients.

Keep in mind, though, that the chemical composition of different oils vary based on where they’re from, so each kind will better for different things.

Overall, look for an oil with high levels of linoleic acid or GLA - these will repair skin barrier function and provide occlusive benefits without  being comedogenic to the skin. Also, look for ingredients like grapeseed oil, argan oil, green tea, and vitamin E - all four are full of antioxidants and other ultra-healthy, skin-saving compounds.

Worried about face oils causing more oil on your skin? Don’t be!

Believe it or not, a cleansing oil may actually help you prevent clogged pores, removing debris from within pores and reducing breakouts.

That said, keep in mind that oils are never going to be the mostocclusive - that prize goes to butters and richer ingredients.

Best for:All skin types

Foam Cleanser

Another popular option is a foam cleanser. These are usually recommended for people with oily or acne-prone skin since they’re meant to clear excess oil and remove debris, heavy makeup, and SPF from the skin.

This intense cleansing action is, in part, due to the fact that foam cleansers often contain rougher surfactants like SLS, or sodium lauryl sulfate (something that is always a no-no in our book).

That said, not all foam cleansers contain this ingredient, and you can find great choices without it. Look for products with ingredients like tea tree oil, salicylic aid, glycolic acid, or benzoyl peroxide.

Best for:Oily and combination skin

Gel Cleanser

Generally considered to be milder than foam cleansers, gel options tend to provide a gentle cleanse that’s better for normal, combination, or acne-prone skin types.

You can also find lots of gel cleansers with antiseptic or exfoliating properties, which means that they can be really effective at decongesting pores and killing acne-causing bacteria.

Again, though, make sure to look at the ingredient list and pay attention to how your skin feels. If the cleanser leaves your skin feeling tight or dry, it may be too intense for your skin.

Some great clarifying ingredients? Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), glycolic acid, tea tree oil, and witch hazel.

Best for:Oily, combination, or acne-prone skin

Clay Cleanser

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Looking for a purifying and detoxifying option? Then consider a clay cleanser. These formulas work to deeply detoxify pores and remove excess oil, absorbing debris and helping to really purify the skin.

Of course, this makes them good options for people who need  all those benefits. If you have oily or acne-prone skin, then, this may be a good everyday cleanser. If your skin is more normal or combination, you may consider using a clay cleanser only once or twice a week. 

Alternatively, you can find cleansers with some clay to get the best of both worlds. Down to Earth, for example, is a clay cleanser and gel facial cleanser swirled into one. It has French Clay, vitamin C, & DMAE to invigorate the skin and keep it balanced and clear. 

Best for:Oily and combination skin

Cream Cleanser

Cream cleansers are right up there with cleansing balms as one of the most moisturizing and gentle options on the list. That’s because they usually also contain beeswax and petroleum, along with natural oils and emulsifiers that are meant to cleanse the skin while soothing redness and inflammation. Some nutrient-rich all-stars to look out for? Vitamin E, jojoba oil, and shea butter.

This thick, creamy, hydrating formulation makes them a great choice for the autumn or winter months, and for people with dry, sensitive, or aging skin. They’re even suitable for people that have undergone surgeries or harsher laser treatments.

Plus, they can remove both makeup and dirt at the same time (because they contain both water and oil) making them a sort of double cleanser in one.

Just like with cleansing balms, though, make sure to look specifically for products that are labeled as non-comedogenic and non-acnegenic. That means they’ve been tested for pore-clogging ingredients and they’ve been given the thumbs up.

Best for:Dry, sensitive, or aging skin

Micellar Cleanser

Micellar cleansers are water-based. They have no soap, and they’re full of tiny oil molecules - called micelles - that attract dirt and debris without  breaking down oils in the skin or compromising its natural barrier.

Unlike other options on the list, micellar cleansers can be applied using cotton pads, and they don’t have to be rinsed off afterward. They’re great for all skin types, and they won’t disrupt the skin’s pH or cause unnecessary irritation. Plus, there are tons of options on the market that feature added benefits like vitamins, rosewater, or witch hazel.

That said, because they’re such a gentle, low-maintenance option, you may not feel an extra deep clean with this type of cleansing. If that’s the case, double cleansing may help you ensure that every bit of makeup and debris is removed if you have the extra time.

Best for:All skin types

Powder Cleanser

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Want to skip the liquid altogether (and maybe get on more flights without worrying about TSA rules)? Then consider a powder cleanser. Powder cleansers are dry granules that are usually oil-absorbing and exfoliating on the skin.

You mix them with water and lather them onto the skin to create a creamy lather that deeply cleanses while sloughing off dead cells. It’s like a gentle exfoliator and a cleanser all in one. Plus, since there’s no water included, all of the active ingredients are in their most potent and undiluted forms.

The best news? It’s not too harsh on the skin. Unlike traditional physical exfoliants like beads and scrubs, powder cleansers glide smoothly on your skin, providing gentle exfoliation that’s suitable for everyday use or use on sensitive skin.

Best for: Oily or sensitive skin