How To Choose The Right Cleanser For Your Skin Type

by Gio
how to choose the best cleanser for your skin type

Do you spend more time putting your makeup on than taking it off?

If so, you’re doing it wrong. I know, cleansers are the most boring products on earth, and taking makeup off a chore we could gladly do without. But, cleansing your skin, both at night and in the morning, is NOT negotiable.

Cleansing is one of the most important steps in our skincare routine. It removes grime and impurities from our faces, so they won’t clog pores, and allows the goodies in our serums and moisturizers to better penetrate into the skin, so they can work at full power.

But, you can’t just pick a random one from the shelf. If it’s not formulated for your skin type, it can cause some serious havoc. So, how do you choose the right formula? Here are some tips to help you out:


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How Cleansers Are Made

Before we talk about the various types of cleansers, I’ll tell you a secret: all types of cleansers use the same two categories of ingredients to work their magic. These are:

  • Surfactants: these are ingredients that help water mix with oil and dirt so they can easily be rinsed away. The harshest (which should be avoided) is sodium lauryl sulfate. Some of the gentlest are cocamidopropyl betaine, PEG-6 caprylic/capric glycerides, and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate. Sodium laureth sulfate and ammonium laureth sulfare are somewhere in between. There are others, of course, but I won’t bore you with the whole list.
  • Emollients & humectants: these are moisturizers that reduce the harshness of the surfactants (because, if they were TOO gentle, they wouldn’t cleanse skin at all) and keep skin soft during and after washing. They include glycerin, petrolatum, and sunflower seed oil.

So, what change? The type of surfactants and emollients used, and their ratio. Let’s take a look at the various types of cleansers, shall we?

Types Of Cleansers: Which One Is The Best For Your Skin Type?

foaming cleansers: best cleansers for oily skin

Foaming Cleansers

  • High in surfactants and low in emollients
  • Produce a lot of lather
  • Remove dirt and waterproof makeup well
  • Leave no residue behind
  • They can be drying if left on the skin too long

Best picks:

  • Corsx low PH Good Morning Gel Cleanser ($11.00): ph 5.5. Available at Sokoglam and YesStyle.
  • Neutrogena Fresh Foaming Cleanser ($6.99): ph 6.2. Available at Ulta.
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Oil-Reducing Cleanser ($18.00): ph 5.5. Available at Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice. 
cleansing milks: best cleansers for dry skin

Related: Are Foaming Cleansers Bad For Skin?

Cleansing Milks

  • Low in surfactants and high in emollients
  • Don’t produce much lather
  • Remove dirt but struggle with waterproof makeup
  • Can leave a residue behind
  • Gentle on the skin

Best Picks:

cleansing oils: best cleansers for dry skin and makeup removal

Cleansing Oils (Including Dual-Phase Makeup Removers)

  • High in emollient oils that cleanse and moisturize
  • Don’t lather
  • Remove dirt and waterproof makeup well
  • Leave a residue behind
  • Gentle on the skin

Best picks:

cleansing balms: best cleansers for dry skin and makeup removal

Related: Why You Should Switch To The Oil Cleansing Method (OCM)

Cleansing Balms

  • High in emollients oils that cleanse and moisturize
  • Turn into oils when massaged into the skin
  • Don’t lather
  • Remove dirt and waterproof makeup well
  • Leave a residue behind
  • Gentle on the skin

Best pick:

micellar waters: best cleansers for sensitive skin

Micellar Waters

  • High in gentler surfactants and low in emollients
  • Don’t lather
  • Remove dirt but struggle with makeup
  • Don’t leave a residue behind
  • Don’t need to be rinsed off
  • Gentle on the skin

Best Pick:

  • Bioderma Sensibio ($10.90/£10.80): available at Dermstore and Feel Unique
  • L’Oreal Micellar Cleansing Water Complete Cleanser ($9.99): available at Ulta

Related: How Do Micellar Water Work?

cleansing wipes: cleansers to avoid

Cleansing Wipes

  • Low in surfactants and emollients
  • Cloths infused with a cleansing lotion
  • Don’t cleanse and remove makeup well
  • Their cleansing power is mostly due to the frictional force of rubbing the cloth into the skin
  • May leave a residue behind
  • Can be drying
  • Best for emergencies

Best Picks:

types of cleansers: what's the best for your skin type?

How To Choose The Best Cleanser For Your Skin Type

First of all, you must know your skin type, or you’re bound to pick up the wrong one. If you don’t have a clue, check out my ultimate guide to identifying your skin type, and then come back here.

Already know your skin type? Go ahead, then:

Normal Skin

What’s The Problem?

What problem? You’ve been blessed with awesome skin that has no issues, and you’d like to keep it that way.

How Can You Fix It?

There’s nothing to fix, so just use a cleanser that removes dirt and makeup without creating any problems.

What’s The Best Cleanser For Normal Skin?

You can choose any type of cleanser, as long as the formula’s not harsh.

Related: The Best Skincare Routine For Normal Skin

Oily Skin

What’s The Problem?

Your sebaceous glands are workaholics. They produce wayyyyyyyyy more sebum than skin needs to stay naturally moisturized, and you’re tempted to use the harshest cleanser you can find to get rid of it all. But, when you do, your skin has the annoying tendency of producing even more oil to compensate. Arrgh!

How Can You Fix It?

You need a cleanser that strips away enough oil to remove grease, but not enough to dry out skin. Choose a lightweight one that’s moderately high in surfactants and low in emollients. Emollients are great for dry skin, but can leave a residue behind and clog your pores. No, thanks!

What’s The Best Cleanser For My Oily Skin?

  • Foaming cleansers

Related: The Best Skincare Routine For Oily Skin

Dry Skin

What’s The Problem?

Most cleansers are too harsh for your skin type, and remove ALL the little amount of sebum your lazy sebaceous glands manage to produce, leaving it as dry as a cardboard box.

How Can You Fix It?

You may like the lather, but it’s not your friend. Opt for cleansers low in surfactants and high in emollients that replenish moisture while cleansing. Your skin will thank you!

What’s The Best Type Of Cleanser For Dry Skin?

  • Cleansing Balms
  • Cleansing Milks
  • Cleansing Oils

Related: The Best Skincare Routine For Dry Skin

Combination Skin

What’s The Problem?

Your skin is crazy. Some areas are too oily and greasy, others dry and flaky. All the cleansers you’ve tried tend to worsen both problems, making you go crazy. too.

How can you fix it?

You’re not gonna like this, my beautiful smart friend, but your best option is to use two cleansers: one chockfull of emollients on your dry patches, and one who barely has any on your oily areas.

What’s The Best Type Of Cleanser For Combination Skin?

  • Cleansing balms (on dry patches)
  • Cleansing milks (on dry patches)
  • Cleansing oils (on dry patches)
  • Foaming cleansers (on oily patches)

Related: The Best Skincare Routine For Combination Skin

Sensitive Skin

What’s The Problem?

All cleansers irritate your skin, and leave it a red, flaky mess. You’re seriously starting to consider to wash your face with water alone, but suspect that will be too harsh too (plus, it won’t remove makeup).

How Can You Fix It?

Be gentle. Choose the mildest formula you can find. Just make sure it’s fragrance-free. As pleasant as they are, fragrances can cause havoc on your skin.

What’s The Best Type Of Cleansers For Sensitive Skin?

  • Micellar waters

Not sure what your skin type is? Click on the image below to sign up to my weekly newsletter and receive the “Ultimate Test To Figure Out Your Skin Type”:

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What Type Of Cleansers Should You Avoid?

soaps: cleansers to avoid

Soaps

So, you noticed I didn’t mention bar soap anywhere? That’s cos I’m no fan of soaps. They usually have an alkaline base (that means a high ph) that can disrupt the skin’s protective barrier, causing all sorts of problems, including dryness, irritations, and infections. So, stay away from them.

Related: Why You Should Never Use Soap To Cleanse Your Face

exfoliating cleansers: why you should avoid them

Exfoliating, Anti-Aging, And Anti-Acne Cleansers

Avoid those, too. They aren’t bad for your skin, but they’re bad for your wallet. The antioxidants, exfoliating acids, and acne-busters in them need to stay on the skin for hours to work their best. If you massage them on your skin for a minute or so, only a tiny amount will penetrate skin, and that won’t do much good.

One exception is exfoliating cleansers with microbeads, sugars, walnut or apricot particles (those are super irritating, by the way), etc. Those don’t need to stay on the skin for hours, obviously. But, I don’t like those either. It’s so easy to rub them on the skin that little bit longer and damage it.

Besides, they can only remove dead skin cells. Glycolic acid also hydrates skin and boosts collagen production, while salicylic acid also keeps oil production under control and the pores free from breakout-causing gunk. So, leave manual exfoliation to newbies, and invest in a good acid-based leave-in exfoliant, instead.

You’ll wonder why you haven’t done so before!

Related: Why You Shouldn’t Waste Your Money On Exfoliating Cleansers

The Bottom Line

Now you know how to choose the best cleanser for your skin type, you can clean your skin without fear of drying or irritating it, or throwing your money down the drain (literally).

Are you using the right cleanser for your skin type, or do you need to switch? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Take The Guesswork Out Of Skincare Shopping

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Get access to the “Pro Skincare Library” for exclusive skincare routine “cheat sheets” and tricks to help you navigate the beauty aisles jungle like a pro and immediately know what to pick off the shelves to achieve the gorgeous skin of your dreams - even when you’re drowning in an endless sea of skincare products.


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31 comments

Allison December 2, 2014 - 6:18 pm

I love cleansers, Gio, and I have a lot of them: 2 creams, 2 gels, and 2 different cleansing wipes. Plus I have 2 complexion bar soaps. I’ve got all the bases covered, lol!

Reply
Gio December 3, 2014 - 1:29 pm

Allison, wow, that’s a lot of cleansers! Which type do you prefer?

Reply
Chic Readings December 3, 2014 - 3:46 am

I usually use foaming cleansers as they are just quick and practical and I don’t like my face to be oily but they do tend to dry out my skin a bit. Thank you for sharing this:)

Reply
Gio December 3, 2014 - 1:32 pm

Helena, I like foaming cleansers too, they cleanse so well. But if you find them drying, look for one with gentler ingredients like Sodium Lauroamphoacetate. 🙂

Reply
Xuvious December 3, 2014 - 7:30 am

I love my cleansing oils for taking off makeup, the Shu Umeura ones are excellent. But for general use I do like gentle foaming cleansers. 🙂

Reply
Gio December 3, 2014 - 1:33 pm

Xuvious, I like cleansing oils too. They take makeup off so well, I agree. 🙂

Reply
Mom In Nevada July 17, 2016 - 6:44 am

I have read lots about the wonders of cleaning your face with extra virgin organic coconut oil. My face loves it and i feel clean and dry after wiping it off with a damp cloth, but is it good or ir bad to use as my cleanser in an anti aging regimen? I live in the desert and tend to have somewhat dry skin.

Reply
Gio July 31, 2016 - 7:31 pm

Mom In Nevada, there isn’t a clear rule. If your skin reacts well to it, keep using it. My only concern is that coconut oil may cause breakouts, but if you’re not experiencing any, there’s no reason to stop using it.

Reply
Kirsty February 19, 2017 - 7:50 pm

Well, it looks as though I’ve been using the right type of product for my dry skin, but that’s more of an accident than because I understood the science. Thanks for explaining about the different types of products and which skin types they suit best.

Reply
Gio February 27, 2017 - 12:09 pm

Kirsty, my pleasure. And well done for picking the right one. 🙂

Reply
Alyson Pratico July 29, 2017 - 8:32 am

What do you think of St. Ives exfoliating apricot scrub?
Thanks

Reply
Gio August 5, 2017 - 11:02 am

Alyson, apricot scrubs are one of the worst things you can use on your skin. These particles have jarred edges that can seriously scratch skin.

Reply
sarah hayes August 13, 2017 - 11:13 pm

Hi gio,
what do you think of the skinceuticals cleansers or medik8 cleansers

My beautician recommends these. My skin is combination but more dehydrated than oily. I never know if they’re just trying to make commission.
Thank you! X

Reply
Gio August 19, 2017 - 9:11 pm

Sarah, these are good cleansers for combo skin. They use very gentle surfactants that shouldn’t dry out your skin even more. But their formulas are quite basic. So, yeah, they work but aren’t that different from plenty other cleansers on the market.

Reply
Jazz August 16, 2017 - 7:37 pm

The soap paragraph reminded me of my mom. She’s in her 60’s now but used Dove soap all her life to cleanse her face and always complained that she had dry skin.

Reply
Gio August 19, 2017 - 9:28 pm

Jazz, oh no! That may very well be the cause.

Reply
Sara Nelson December 11, 2017 - 4:15 am

Are you sure you don’t need to rinse away micellar water? Isn’t it a good idea to remove the surfactant from your face? Could it be irritating to leave the product on your face and then layer on other products?

Reply
Gio December 23, 2017 - 7:55 pm

Sara, yes, micellar waters are very gentle and you don’t need to rinse them. You can find an explanation of how they work here: http://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/avene-micellar-lotion-review/

Reply
Zin May 18, 2018 - 6:44 pm

Hi Gio, how do you think of a gel cleanser? My skin is oily ,so I’ve been knowing that I should use a gel cleanser. After reading this, I am confused whether I should use foam or gel cleanser. Thanks.

Reply
Gio May 27, 2018 - 6:51 am

Zin, gel is another great option for oily skin. If that works for you, stick with it. 🙂

Reply
marky murray` November 12, 2018 - 2:19 am

Looks like I am really late to this conversation. I have aging skin. I am changing up my skin care routine and would like to use an oil cleanser. Since I am trying to use products with fewer harmful chemicals I want to try coconut oil. I have read to massage it in well then wipe with a clean hot wash cloth. Will my other products work well after this regime or will the residual left behind block them??

Reply
Gio November 23, 2018 - 10:05 am

Marky, what skin type do you have? Coconut oil is very comedogenic so it could give you pimples if you don’t remove it completely. Try a mixture of castor and jojoba or castor and extra virgin olive oil instead. But you may have to follow up with a foaming cleanser to remove any residue and enhance the penetration of your skincare products.

Reply
Sharon Williams January 9, 2019 - 2:34 am

I’m a little disappointed… Neutrogena is not a good product and your choices of make up removers.. not on my face.. there is a app called “Think Dirty” you can scan the barcode and it tells you the what’s hood, fair and dirty.. I started reading labels and looking up ingredients two years ago.. The best makeup out there.. hands down .. Sweet Minerals.. nothing toxic plus sweat proof and provides sunscreen protection.. I sell “Perfectly Posh” at 64 my skin did a turn around and I look fabulous! I don’t buy anything off the shelves of Walmart and I have to disagree on products you are telling your customers that are good.. there is alot of information on toxic substances that you have correct.. but then you steer your people to the wrong products .. it’s just my opinion and everyone can take it with a grain of salt.. but your skin is what you put on it..

Reply
Gio January 12, 2019 - 2:54 pm

Sharon, thank you for your comment. I applaud you for reading ingredient labels and trying to choose products that are good and safe for your skin. Unfortunately apps like Think Dirty are NOT reliable sources of information. They just don’t understand the science behind skincare. In science, we have a saying, “it’s the dose that makes the poison.” Just because an ingredient is toxic at 100% concentrations, it doesn’t mean it’s toxic at 1%. Heck, vitamin C. It’s good for you, right? But if you eat too much vitamin C, it’s actually toxic for your body and you’ll get seriously ill. If you want to know if an ingredient is toxic in skincare, you need to do studies on how it’s used in skincare, not reference studies on higher concentrations. That’s just scaremongering and is steering people towards alternatives that are more natural but not necessarily safer.

Reply
VolcanicRash February 28, 2019 - 11:40 am

Do you think that Avene Tolérance Extrême Lotion is as useful at respecting the skin barrier for cleansing?
The cleansing milks you list make perfect sense for actually adding to the skin rather than taking away, i was wondering if the Avene would do the same. Thanks

Reply
Gio February 28, 2019 - 6:49 pm

Volcanicrash, yes. That’s a very gentle option too.

Reply
VolcanicRash March 1, 2019 - 9:48 pm

Thanks !
One last question on cleansers. I just read your review of Niod Low-Viscosity Cleaning Ester. It all sounds very promising particularly the fact that it doesnt dry the skin. Would these hydrating cleansers be a better choice still or would the niod product be suitable (ie respect the barrier or even aid in its repair when damaged) given its few and simple list of ingredients?

Reply
Gio March 8, 2019 - 3:44 pm

Volcanicrash, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily better. What product you choose depends a lot on your skin type and personal preference. But yeah, the Niod cleanser is one of my fave. If you’re looking for a gentle cleanser that gets the job done and respect the skin’s natural protective barrier, it’s definitely a strong contender.

Reply
VolcanicRash March 9, 2019 - 10:58 am

Ciao Gio,

Thank you for taking the time to answer.
I have always had dry skin and only recently decided to do something about it and was doing ok but after using salcilic acid my face has become red and flakey in places. Despite weeks having past my skin still looks broken and i am struggling to fix it. All cleansers i have tried seem to make my skin flakey so the journey continues. anyway just trying to say thank you for taking the time to post. Its very helpful.

Reply
Gio March 16, 2019 - 12:27 pm

Volcanicrash, have you tried the cleansers in this post? They are super gentle. Also, make sure you only cleanse and moisturise well until your skin is back to normal.

Reply
VolcanicRash March 30, 2019 - 9:25 pm

I will certainly give them a go.

Reply

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