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Which Cleanser Is Right For My Skin? A Guide To Cleansers

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: we dislike labels. BUT when it comes to skin types, they do provide a solid framework when it comes to skincare. Dry, oily, combination? You probably identify with one of these skin types, but keep in mind that your skin is definitely more nuanced than that, so it’s important to choose the right keystone for your routine: the cleanser. So let’s explore some skin types, shall we?

Dry Skin:

Side effects may include tight, dry, easily irritated skin. It can sometimes be oily due to the skin’s overproduction of oil to make up for lack of moisture.

Ingredients To Look For:

Hyaluronic Acid is a universal moisturizer: great for all types! Skin naturally produces hyaluronic acid, but it is broken down by day to day skin stressors (pollution, sun, etc), so adding extra hyaluronic acid is a no-brainer.

Ceramides: We’ve written about ceramides before, but here’s a quick TL;DR: Ceramides are lipids (fats) that bind the skin together, retain moisture, and prevent aging.

Oily Skin:

Side effects may include oil on the skin, breakouts, clogged pores.

Ingredients To Look For:

Salicylic Acid (BHA) dissolves debris in pores to minimize breakouts

Benzoyl peroxide may be a tad drying (which is why it’s known mostly for spot treatment), but in small doses for those with oily skin, it makes a great cleansing ingredient for these same properties.

Kaolin clay is absorbing, exfoliating, but also very gentle.

Combination Skin:

Side effects may include areas of dry and oily skin neighboring each other.

Ingredients To Look For:

Aloe Vera is ultra-soothing and hydrating while also being anti-inflammatory

Antioxidants protect skin against free radicals and encourage collagen production


And just as there are skin types, there are cleanser types, too. Gel, oil, foaming, balms – it can get overwhelming, but we are here for you. Here’s a brief review of all the cleanser types out there. Think of it as Cleansing 101: Class is now in session.

Cleansing Oil

Cleansing oils work to break down debris, sebum, and makeup. While it may seem odd, cleansing oils are meant to be used on dry skin (yep, on top of makeup and all), the oil in the cleanser is actually attracted to the oils in your skin and makeup, thus breaking them down. Most oil cleansers contain a surfactant, which allows the oils to break down when water is added into the mix. Your daily debris is washed away, leaving clean, moisturized skin. (Learn more about cleansing oils here)

Is it right for me? Cleansing oils are a good skincare pick for anyone with dry, combination, and even oily skin if the oil emulsifies (break down with water), but if it doesn’t, those with oily skin should avoid as it will leave an extra layer of oil on the skin.

Our Picks:

DHC Deep Cleansing Oil
This cult favorite contains vitamin E and olive oil to break down makeup and daily grime. It emulsifies beautifully and will leave your skin moisturized. This one is great for skin that’s on the dryer side.

Caudalie Makeup Removing Cleansing Oil
The French be knowing. This cleansing oil contains castor oil, grapeseed oil, and sweet almond oil (all non-comedogenic) for a soothing, gentle cleanse. This oil is perfect for all skin types, dry, combination, and oily.

Josie Maran Argan Cleansing Oil
This cleansing oil is formulated without any of that nasty stuff (SLS, parabens, etc), and is another pick that’s great for all skin types. It contains sunflower, safflower, and grape seed oils to clarify and nourish the skin.

Cleansing Balm

Cleansing balms are almost the same concept as cleansing oils: the oil latches on to sebum and makeup and emulsifies with water. The only difference is the texture. Balms melt into oil from a solid texture once they make contact with the skin.

Is it right for me? It is! Once again, depending on the formulation and emulsifiers, cleansing balms are good for all skin types. Cleansing oils that are heavy in coconut oil may be too heavy and pore-clogging for those with oily skin.

Our Picks:

Clinique Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm
This is arguably one of the more baseline cleansing balms out there, no frills no nonsense. It isn’t scented (making it great for sensitive skin), and you can even use this one on your eyes to get off any pesky mascara (it’s been ophthalmologist tested!)

Erborian Solid Cleansing Oil
This French-Korean brand has some amazing formulations, and this balm is no exception. It contains coconut oil and sunflower oil, and no mineral oils of any kind, leaving your skin feeling clean, but hydrated.

Beautycounter Cleansing Balm
This one takes a bit to work into the skin, but its benefits are hard to ignore. It contains Vitamin C to reduce uneven skin tone, and cranberry seed oil brightens. This one gets a bonus point because it can also double as a nourishing mask!

Micellar Cleansers

Micellar cleansers may be trending right now, but they’ve been around for a long while and for good reason. Micellar water contains micelles with a water “head” and oil “tail” that trap dirt, oil and makeup, and it won’t disrupt the natural pH of your skin. Plus, you don’t need a water rinse for micellar cleansers, just apply to a cotton pad and swipe off the day. (Learn more here)

Is it right for me? Micellar waters are effective makeup removers that come in a variety of formulations for specific skin concerns, but it is particularly good for dry, sensitive skin as it is hydrating and won’t mess with your skin’s delicate pH.

Our Picks:

Bioderma Sensibio H20
A classic for a reason. Formulated with fatty-acid micelles, this micellar water removes makeup, dirt and oil without stripping the skin, leaving it hydrated and cleansed. This option is great for all skin types.

Koh Gen Doh Cleansing Spa Water
This cleansing water is best for oily to combination skin because it contains lactic acid to gently exfoliate while it cleanses. It is formulated with mineral-rich water from Japan, lavender, and rosemary. Truly a spa water.

Mega-Mushroom Skin Relief Micellar Cleanser
This is a clean formulation without any oil or alcohol, and contains a soothing mushroom and antioxidant blend to protect the skin against pollution.

Cream Cleanser

Cream cleansers are super hydrating formulations that can also go by the stage names cleansing milk or cleansing lotion. Cream cleansers are meant for dry, sensitive skin and typically contain natural oils and emulsifiers. As with cleansing oils and balms, this formulation is also meant to be used on dry skin and rinsed with water. (Learn more here)

Is it right for me? If you suffer from sensitive, dry skin, cream cleansers are your ultimate cleansing option. If you’d like to dabble with a cream cleanse if you have oily or combination skin, it can’t hurt, but you may feel a bit too “hydrated” for your liking.

Our Picks:

Biologique Recherche Lait U
Meant to be used on dry skin, rubbed in and left for a moment and then wiped off with gauze, Lait U contains wheat germ extract (for fatty acids) and sweet almond oil (for its calming and antibacterial properties). If you know Biologique Recherche, this product is one of their less offensive smelling products.

KORA Organics Cream Cleanser
This cream cleanser contains all sorts of ultra-hydrating ingredients like aloe vera, avocado, and macadamia and rosehip seed oils. Plus it’s clean and organic so you can feel good about replenishing your dry skin.

Avene Gentle Milk Cleanser
Another no-rinse hydrating option, Avene’s cleanser contains hyaluronic acid, vitamin E and thermal water to soothe and plump the skin. It’s hypoallergenic so this is a good option for those with sensitive, dry skin.

Cleansing Wipes

Cleansing wipes are a pretty controversial cleansing method. Sure, they are convenient, but most professionals argue that they are not cleansing enough and can leave behind makeup and oil residue, which clog pores. Most cleansing wipes aren’t biodegradable, so think on that as well -_- Despite some humming and hawing, cleansing wipes are a good option for a makeup remover before a proper cleanse. (Learn more here)

Is it right for me? Luckily for us, there are a bevy of wipes on the market that target different skin concerns. If you do have sensitive or acne-prone skin, rubbing your skin with the wipe may cause irritation.

Our Picks:

Bioderma Sensibio H20 Micellar Wipes
Biodegradable, good for sensitive skin, and under $10–what more could you want? This formulation is the same as its water-form counterpart and attracts dirt and makeup.

Josie Maran Bear Naked Wipes
These wipes are good for all skin types and the environment (a portion of the sale goes towards saving the polar bears!) with jojoba oil, vitamin E and aloe vera extracts.

Klorane Makeup Remover Biodegradable Wipes
Formulated for super sensitive skin, Klorane’s wipes have soothing blue cornflower, castor oil and vitamin E.

Gel Cleanser

Gel cleansers are thick in texture with a slight foaming quality to remove excess oils on the surface of the skin. These are meant to be used on damp skin and rinsed with water. (Learn more here)

Is it right for me? Gel cleansers are best for those with oily to combination skin, as they may be too stripping for dry skin types.

Our Picks:

CosRX Low pH Good Morning Cleanser
This is a good one if you’re looking to explore gel cleansers. It’s on the gentler side with its low pH and botanical extracts.

Mario Badescu Enzyme Cleansing Gel
Papaya and grapefruit enzymes gently exfoliate, remove excess oil and brighten the skin. This formulation is best for oily and combination skin types.

YTTP Superfood Antioxidant Cleanser
This gel cleanser contains kale, spinach and green tea that add nutrients, fatty acids and antioxidants respectively. This one suits dry, combination and oily skin types.

Foaming Cleanser

Foaming cleansers are best for oily and acne-prone skin as their sudsy texture gets deep into pores and rids the skin of excess oil and buildup. One thing to note about foaming cleansers: their pleasing texture often means they include SLS, a sensitizing cleansing agent. (Learn more here)

Is it right for me? If you have oily, acne-prone skin, foaming cleansers are definitely the right pick for you. They get rid of excess sebum and leave skin feeling refreshed.

Our Picks:

Ole Henriksen The Clean Truth Foaming Cleanser
This foaming cleanser doesn’t use any sulfates to get that satisfying texture so cleanse away! This has vitamin C and antioxidants to brighten the skin, and it’s super gentle, so even sensitive skin types can use it.

Kora Organics Foaming Cleanser
This is best for oily and combination skin types, but also still SLS-free. It contains sandalwood oil, aloe vera and green tea extracts to fight impurities,

belif Creamy Cleansing Foam
Here’s a foaming cleanser even those with dry skin can love! This one is also free from SLS so it won’t strip the skin. Wormwood extract prevents breakouts, soapberry detoxifies and vitamin C brightens.

Physical Exfoliant Cleansers

Another hot topic. In recent years people have moved away from the St. Ives scrubs of yore, but there are ways to use a physical exfoliant without tearing your skin a new one. Literally. When you go too hard with a scrub, it can create micro-tears in the skin, so please be gentle! Those with acne-prone and sensitive skin should avoid physical exfoliation. (Learn more here)

A note: think of the environment and only use natural (like sugar) and water-soluble exfoliants.

Is it right for me? If you have oily to combination skin that is not sensitive, go for it, but only 1-2 times a week maximum.

Our Picks:

Tatcha Rice Polish
Tatcha’s Rice Powders (they have several options for different skin types) are a gentle way to exfoliate. When mixed with water, the powder transforms into an ultra-fine exfoliant that isn’t abrasive in the slightest.

Fresh Sugar Face Polish
Fresh’s formulation uses brown sugar and strawberry seeds as its exfoliants. They gently buff the skin while brightening with vitamin C and hydrating with plum seed and grape seed oils.

Omorovicza Refining Facial Polish
This is a pricey one, but worth it. This is formulated with Hungarian Moore mud, microalgae and fruit extracts to purify and brighten the skin. The exfoliant on this is very subtle, so it’s not damaging to the skin’s surface.


Your average run-of-the-mill bar of soap should never be used on your face (think Dove, Irish Spring, etc) because they are highly stripping and drying due to their lower pH. However, there are bars out there specifically formulated for the delicate skin on your face.

Hygiene note: store your facial bar in a cool place that allows it to dry completely and not sit in a pool of water (that’s when the bacteria party starts). (Learn more here)

Is it right for me? Bars are best for those with oily to combination skin due to their foaming quality.

Our picks:

Drunk Elephant JuJu Bar
A combination of thermal mud and bamboo powder gently exfoliate and remove oil and buildup. This bar is best for oily to combination skin.

Herbivore Botanicals Pink Clay Gentle Soap Bar
This bar is great for dry skin as it moisturizes with vitamin E, olive and coconut oils, while pink clay gently draws out impurities.

Erno Laszlo Phelityl Cleansing Bar
The bar for everyone! This bar delivers essential moisture via fatty acids and promotes cell turnover. This one is great for all skin types, hurrah!

Some Notes About Cleansing:

The Double Cleanse

You’ve no doubt heard about double cleansing, essentially using an oil-based cleanser/balm to remove makeup, and then following with another cleanser of your choosing. While this is an option, especially for dryer skin, balms and oils tend to have larger molecules while serums that are typically applied afterward have smaller ones, meaning the rest of your routine may not sink in as well as it ought to. Instead of oil or balm, consider using a cream cleanser for your first cleanse! (Learn more here)

To Towel Or Not To Towel

So you’re done washing your face. Good job! But before you reach for your week-old towel, think about it before you undo your hard work. That towel that you used to dry off after your post-gym shower is crawling with pore-clogging bacteria that you don’t want on your freshly cleansed face. Instead, reach for a new towel, or use gauze as an alternative. It’s super sanitary and ensures your pores will be clog-free! (Learn more here)

Want to see if your cleanser is right for your skin goals? Find out on RateYourRoutine.com!

(Cover image by Tom Newton via Into The Gloss)

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