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I don´t say that very often, but back when I was young, some things were definitely easier.
Not in everyday life (no cell phones, no internet – I used to navigate foreign streets with paper maps the size of a restaurant table), but when it came to buying skincare products. Facial cleansers for example. Not that they were better back then – if your skin wasn´t dry and tight afterwards, you were lucky – but there just weren´t as many!
You see, I am a skincare fan, reading up on it is my hobby (sad, I know), but even I get overwhelmed by the variety of options staring back at me from the drugstore racks.
What the heck is the difference between a cream, a balm, an oil and a powder cleanser? Why does one gel foam and the other one doesn´t? And which one is the best for your individual skin type (Which I tell you how to figure out here)?
Let me talk you through the ten main types of facial cleansers and which skin they are best suited for!
1. Micellar Waters
You might have heard already that surfactants are what cleanses the skin, because they allow oil and water to be together without separating into two different layers. That way the water gets to take the oily makeup and dirt trapped in sebum from your face away instead of simply being repelled.
You probably have heard as well that surfactants can be pretty irritating, which is true for some, but not for all.
Micelles are basically tiny balls of gentle surfactants that, when applied to a cotton pad, stick their oil attracting part towards the skin, binding the grime to the cotton pad.
That makes Micellar Waters great to use if you just have a cotton pad and no sink to wash your face or if your skin is more on the sensitive side.
The infamous “one quick swipe” will not do it though, you need to go over your face multiple times to really allow the micelles to grab everything and maybe even let the soaked cotton pad sit on your eyes for a little while if you are wearing waterproof mascara.
Oh, and even you can leave them on your face, rinse them off if possible. Even gentle surfactants are still surfactants!
Skin types best suited for? Not really a type, but a lifestyle: Busy and on the go, think travel, festival or freshening up after a workout. Maybe even a first cleanse if you are not wearing much makeup. Oh, and: Better than face wipes, both in cleansing and in being less wasteful!
2. Foaming Cleansers
These are very lightweight cleansers that start as a balm or gel and start to foam up when they get in contact with water. Usually they are gel formulas, but the above pictured pixi hydrating Milky Cleanser is indeed a foaming one (the proof is in the video!).
Often used as second step in a traditional Korean Double Cleanse, they are said to be able to penetrate into the pores and lift dead skin cells and debris from there, basically a very, very gentle form of exfoliation. You can use them to remove makeup, but I find most of them work better as face cleansers.
Not all foaming cleansers are harsh and stripping, the lather comes from the surfactant and as I said before, there are gentle versions out there, but it surely helps to check the ingredient list and stay away from Sodium Laureth Sulfate if our skin is dry already.
Skin types best suited for? These cleansers are usually recommended for oily and combination skin.
3. Gel Cleansers
Some gel cleansers are foaming cleansers, but not all of them, so Gel Cleansers deserve a mention of their own. But similar to Foaming Cleansers the gel textures are lightweight, feel refreshing and are better usually at cleaning the skin than they are at removing makeup. I like them as morning cleanse or second cleanse in the evenings.
They often put an emphasis on ingredients designed to fight breakouts.
Skin types best suited for? Oily, combination or congestion prone skin. Young skin.
4. Cream Cleanser
To add to the confusion here, Cream Cleansers often go by Cleansing Milk or Cleansing Lotion. All of them are creamy and rich in texture, with a focus on moisturizing ingredients. They are usually very gentle, and designed to cleanse the skin without stripping, but can be used to remove makeup as well. They can be used both morning and night and are great for more reactive skin types too, if they are fragrance free.
Skin types best suited for? Dry skin, mature skin and acne prone skin. I do think however that everyone should own a gentle cream cleanser just in case.
5. Oil Cleanser
“Like attracts like” is the basis on which oil cleansers operate, which means that they are best at breaking down makeup (even waterproof), sunscreen and sweat, making them perfect as a first cleansing step.
Using just a regular cooking oil on your face will not give you the same effect though, as oil cleansers do contain surfactants that make the oil emulsify when in contact with water, meaning that you can rinse your skin and don’t get residue.
Skin types best suited for? They can be used by every skin type. Oily skin will benefit from the fact that they remove sebum well while dry skin will find them non-stripping.
6. Balm Cleanser
Balm Cleansers are basically solid oil cleansers, so everything I said about those applies here too. Most of them need a little prewarming between your fingers before you apply them to your face, but there are some that can be massaged directly on to your skin and then melt on their own.
Just like oil cleansers they are great for makeup removal and as a first cleanse, aren’t stripping and emulsify when in contact with water. Their firm texture makes them great for jars and very convenient for traveling.
Skin types best suited for? All skin types.
7. Clay Cleansers
These are basically cream cleansers that have clay added to them. Clay is supposed to be great at absorbing oil, and some Clay Cleansers will claim that they will “suck the oil out of the pore”, but I highly doubt that the short contact time your cleanser and your skin usually have will allow that.
If I am completely honest, I even doubt that a clay mask will affect what is inside your pores, and that one has a substantially longer contact time with your skin.
But that doesn´t mean that I think they are useless, I reach for a clay cleanser in the mornings after a hot summery night whenI feel my skin is sweaty and oily already.
Skin types best suited for? Normal to Oily skin.
8. Powder Cleanser
These are basically foaming cleansers you mix yourself by adding water to a powder. They come in different versions for different skin types, very common are either exfoliating ones that offer a gentle physical exfoliation or Vitamin C ones, because the Vitamin C stay stable longer in powder form and you don’t have to worry about it loosing its efficacy over time.
Another great reason to use them is that they obviously reduce waste and don’t go off as quickly.
While I find the concept very intriguing, I don´t really have any in my routine because I simply can´t be bothered with the whole mixing process.
Skin types best suited for? Depending on the added actives all skin types with an emphasis on oily and congestion prone ones.
9. Bar Cleansers
If you see a bar cleanser and immediately think about the stripping effects of the soap bars of your childhood, let me assure you that things have come a long way. The bar cleansers you get these days are more solid cream cleansers with gentle surfactants (check your ingredient lists, people!) and can be gentle and nourishing.
There are however some that contain ingredients specifically targeting acne prone skin that I am not the biggest fan of, many include means for physical exfoliation, something that should only be used with caution on active acne.
Bar Cleansers are great for those that aim to reduce waste, as you usually get them with minimale or no packaging depending on where you buy.
Skin types best suited for? All skin types depending on their ingredients.
10. Cleansing Cloths
And lastly, microfibre or cleansing cloths. The trick with them is that they contain very VERY small fibers (microfibers), so that they are able to grab even the tiniest bits of dirt and remove them. You can either use them with just water or with a tiny bit of cleanser and get a good cleanse out of them. After you are done using them, you can just throw them in the wash and they are good to go again.
They do come with a few downsides too.
First, the act of cleansing your face with them is physical exfoliation, so if you use them too often, you can over exfoliate your face.
The second thing is that they release micro plastic with every washing cycle, and as we grow aware of the way micro plastic is accumulating in the oceans, wildlife and, in the end, ourselves, many people aim to cut out sources of micro plastic.
You need to decide for yourself if the amount of cleanser you are saving (which subsequently is NOT going down your drain and potentially polluting the water) makes up for that or not. Oh, and beware, while there are bamboo versions that are sold, you need to double check before buying, as many of them are traditional microfibre cloths with just a small amount of bamboo fibers thrown in for marketing purposes.
So which one is the cleanser you will be using from now on?