“I’ve given up on foaming cleansers,” a friend announced the other day. “Caroline Hirons said they’re not good for your skin.”
I’m not as drastic as Caroline, but she has a point.
If a cleanser dries out your skin, it’s usually a foaming one.
If it leaves your skin feeling tight, ditto.
There’s enough to make you think to ditch them for good. Should you?
How Do Foaming Cleansers Work?
A foaming cleanser is a cleanser that produces lather. Unlike cream, milk, or balm cleansers. Pretty self-explanatory so far.
But, what makes a foaming cleanser foam?
Surfactants. Water alone can’t mix with the extra sebum on your face or the oils in your makeup and sunscreen. It can’t remove them.
Enter surfactants. They help water with mix oil, so that oil-based impurities can be rinsed off. Finally!
Any time you see some lather in your skincare, you can be sure there’s at least one tiny little surfactant lurking in it.
Related: Should You Avoid Sulfates In Skincare?
Struggling to put together a skincare routine that banishes shine, excess oil, and acne? Download your FREE “Best Skincare Routine For Oily Skin” cheat sheet to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order:
Why Are Foaming Cleansers “Bad” For Skin?
Remember when I mentioned surfactants help oil mix with water so they can be rinsed away?
Well, sebum is your skin’s natural moisturiser. If you remove the excess, good. If you remove a little too much, your skin dries out. That’s why foaming cleansers are usually recommended for oily skin only.
Surfactants disrupt your skin’s protective barrier, too. They bring your skin’s pH level to the stars. They make it so high, the lipids in your skin’s protective barrier break down. When that happens, skin becomes all dry and sensitive.
Moisture gets out. Bacteria gets in. At best, your skin turns into the Sahara. At worst, you get an infection, too.
Related: How To Choose The Best Cleanser For Your Skin Type
Are All Foaming Cleansers Bad?
I mean, as long as a cleanser doesn’t leave your skin squeaky clean and feeling tight, you’re all good, right? It’s not that simple.
Whether a foaming cleanser will ruin your skin or not depends on two things:
- pH: If it’s low enough (around 6), all good. Problem is, cleansers don’t usually state their pH on the label. You need to buy pH strips and test it yourself.
- Type of surfactants: Harsh surfactants that leave your skin feeling tight are a no-no. Instead, look for gentler ones like Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Cocoamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate and Alkyl Sulfosuccinates (i.e. anything with “succinate” in the ingredients list).
If your foaming cleanser fits both criteria, go ahead. It’s safe to use.
Related: Why You Should Ditch Cleansers With A High pH
What Are The Best Foaming Cleansers?
- 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 Dermstore, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice.
The Bottom Line
If you love using a foaming cleanser, make sure it’s pH balanced and doesn’t live your skin feeling tighter after washing. Break the rules and you may end up with dry, irritated skin!
Neutrogena Fresh Foaming used to be my Holy Grail! I actually did end up making the switch to non-foaming cleansers because I started using tretinoin. My skin was just too sensitive, even for low pH cleansers.
Alexis, tretinoin works wonders but it makes your skin so sensitive, you need to reevaluate your entire skincare routine, don’t you?
I read about this too at Caroline’s cheat sheet if I’m not mistaken. I have several cleansers that claim to be pH 5.5 like Sebamed and most of them are just slightly foaming. But they’re not stripping either so I think I’m in right track hoho
Kaido, if the ph is low enough and it doesn’t leave your skin feeling tight, your cleanser’s good. 🙂
I use foaming face washes. The ones I use and have used (they come in different names, e.g., balancing foam, washing foam, foam wash, foam cleansing face wash, and so far I’ve used only Japanese brands) do not leave my face tight or dry. I tend to have combination skin, which tends to be a bit oilier in the summer and a little drier in the winter. But I’ve not encountered a problem from using foaming face washes, even in winter. The ones I use come out like a thick creamy paste from a tube (I don’t use those which you pump out foamy from a bottle). What do people use in place of foaming face washes?
JD, a lot of people prefer milk, balm or oil cleansers. But if your foaming cleansers have never caused you any troubles, there’s no need to switch.
Ahh..dont you just luurve that foam from the cleanser, especially those that come from pump bottle, makes face cleansing much more fun! Yeah right, haha! The younger me would’ve totally love foaming cleansers. Now that I’ve been educating myself on skincare (and this skin aint stay forever 21), I usually use cream cleansers.
As long it doesnt leave my skin feel tight afterwards. ?
Hanna, tell me about it! I loved foaming cleansers as a teen. I thought the more foam the better! Thank goodness I got into skincare and started washing my face properly. 🙂 Cream cleansers all the way now. 🙂
I’m very nearly 48 and still suffering from acne (mild black heads, odd larger painful spots that seem to last forever) plus have I acne rosacea (not redness by papules/pustules and tiny white pimples like a rash under the skin I can scratch off). A dermatologist would say my symptoms are mild. But they drive me batty. I’d love a clear smooth skin. I’m hoping you can help with my routine.
Body Shop T tree foaming cleanser used with Foreo Luna Mini 2
Body Shop T tree skin clearing mattifying toner (but not the week I micro needle at night)
Body Shop T tree mattifying lotion
Body Shop T tree pore minimiser
Followed by foundation etc
In the past before this routine within half an hour I could have shiny skin which I hate. It’s only very slightly better now. But summer’s not here yet.
‘It’s Magic’ microfiber cleansing cloth with warm water
Body Shop T tree foaming cleanser used with Foreo Luna Mini 2
Body Shop T tree mattifying lotion toner but on alternate weeks I use a Swiss Clinic 0.2mm derma roller.
Body Shop T tree anti imperfection night mask used alternate nights ( this really seems to help).
Retinol reface alternate nights.
Jane Scribner ‘Un’ Conditional Oil most nights.
Plus I may use a pure t tree oil or Differin 0.1% on spots.
I think I need a moisturiser as I’m not sure the body shop one is good enough.
My ultimate goal would be no spots and smooth skin. I think I need a miracle.
Many thanks Michelle and sorry this is so long winded.
Michelle, what your skin needs the most right now is salicylic acid. As much as I love the Foreo Luna, it can only exfoliate the surface of the skin. Salicylic acid, on the other hand, can get inside the pores and remove all the gunk that clogs them up and causes breakouts. So ditch the Luna and try an exfoliant with salicylic acid morning and night right after cleansing.
You can ditch the toner too. It has no beneficial ingredients for skin and contains alcohol, which can dry out and irritate it. Hope this helps.
Hi Gio thanks for your advise. Have just started to slowly introduce The Ordinarys Salicylic acid and have stopped the Toner. I’ve started using La Roche Posay’s factor 30 anti shine Anthelios AC. Plus will introduce over the next few weeks The Ordinary’s Nicacinamide 10% + Zinc in the morning and 100% Plant Derived Squalane for hydration after the Salicylic acid for the evening. Here’s to clear skin. ?
Michelle, my pleasure. Let me know how it goes. 🙂
After reading this article (and just happen to have pH strips in the house), I checked a ton of my products. My cleanser is 7! Is that too high? Since you wrote above that pH 6 is good, and lower is ideal. My previous cleanser is at a 5.5, but I felt it wasn’t effective in the evenings after oil cleansing/makeup, usually I will even foam up twice which isn’t good either. I wanted something slightly more cleansing, but is pH 7 not good for the skin in the long run? I plan to use the same cleanser even when I’m not cleansing makeup off, but I’m not too sure about how it will affect the acid mantle with regular use. Also because I found that the majority of my serums, essences, moisturizers, etc. are pH 6. But I always thought that we need to use products slightly more acidic (pH 4.5-5.5) to help maintain the skin’s acid mantle, which in turn helps with breakouts (which I need).
Also would really love to know: you’ve mentioned in an article that acids like AHA/BHA need hours to effectively penetrate into the skin. Do you know a ballpark of how many hours (8h?) before it isn’t working anymore? Can it reach maximum effectiveness by 3h, 5h, or when? Sometimes I want to use my “overnight” AHA lotion in the afternoon and wash it off at night, but then I would have to use it for much less time. When does the AHA cease to be effective and is just done with its duty?
Can I ask you another question about AHA/BHAs? As it takes some hours for AHAs to work, does that mean it is only the following wash/exfoliation that the dead skin cells come off? Not upon contact? For example, AHA toners wouldn’t actually dissolve dead skin cells on contact, and instead they are just starting the process of dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells. And these dead skin cells will be removed later on or are they literally dissolved in the product? I’ve always read “dissolves the bond between dead skin cells,” but what happens to the dead skin cells! And when! Does our skin keep exfoliating itself when the product is already washed out (if you’ve tried those korean peeling foot masks that tell you to expect peeling 3 days later, not immediately)? Does that mean when I am using one of those acid peeling pads, its just laying down the acid to do the work vs. actually taking off the skin cells immediately? At what point are the dead cells coming off? On the pad? Later when I wash?
I tried to search your site for more scientific information on acids (and went through a spiral of your articles, which are all absolutely lovely) as well as generally online, but haven’t found much more detail on the hours/mechanisms of action. Thought it’d be best to ask you directly.
All the best, love your writing. If you have any good further readings/detailed scientific sources about AHA/BHA/PHAs, please link me! I’m addicted to acids (have a lactic acid mask on now, but I really restrict myself on not overusing acids during the week since I have sensitive skin).
Mel, pH strips at home around 100% accurate but they’re close. A ph of 7 is indeed too high for the skin. I’d suggest you try one of the cleansers from this list as they’re gentler for skin but still effective.
To be honest, I never seen anywhere the exact amount of hours it takes for acids to exfoliate the skin. The way they work is by dissolving the glue that holds skin cells together. Once this glue is dissolved, skin cells can simply slough off your skin. Your skin is designed to naturally do this on its own but as it gets older, it slacks on the job so you need to give it a helping hand. It’s not so much a matter of how many hours but the longer the acid is on the skin, the more time it has to work. It also depends on the concentration of the acid. Applying 30% glycolic acid for 10 minutes gives you powerful results whereas applying 5% glycolic acid for 5 minutes gives you a more superficial peeling.
If you’d like more information about how studies on glycolic acid are done, take a look at Pubmed. Hope this helps.
I have an alkaline water machine at home that can turn water ph to more acidic ph 4 for beauty use purposes. I’d put the water into an amber glass bottled sprayer. Since I started using it it helps to control my eczema, and clears the skin. Acidic water works wonder!
Tiffany, what a smart trick! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Hi, one wash with a milk or cream cleanser doesn’t remove my make up from the pores on my face. Unsure of what to use :(. Any advice would help, thanks.
Bebe, have you tried an oil-based cleanser? But if your pores are clogged, you should follow up with a salicylic acid exfoliant.
Gio, I have a doubt about low ph cleanser (like the cosrx one) that enes yo be wash off with tal water. Maybe it is a silly question, but if gap water ph os high and I wash the foaming low ph cleanser with it…, the ph or my skin will go higher too?
Thank you very much!
Lucila, you’re worrying too much now. If you wash your face and your skin doesn’t feel tight, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Your skin will tell you if the pH is too high.
Hi Gio, Is Clarins foaming cleanser ok?