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Choosing a Facial Cleanser

When it comes to cleansers for your face, the idea is to balance cleaning the skin while maintaining its natural properties[1]. Way back in history, early cleansing involved using something hard (a stone or bone) to scrape the skin[1]. Eventually, plant-based materials with water were used for cleansing, until soap was discovered; now we also have synthetic detergents[1].

Cleansers are needed in today’s society as cosmetics and environmental pollution are often not water soluble, meaning water alone will not remove these from our skin[1]. Skin cleansers are able to emulsify these into finer particles to make them water soluble, lowering surface tension on the skin and removing oil, dirt, sebum, dead corneum skin cells, and microorganisms[1]. Ideally a cleanser should be able to do all of the above while keeping the skin moist, and without damage or irritation[1].


Usually a skin cleanser will contain the following[1]:

  • Water

  • Surfactants (emulsify)

  • Moisturizers (hydrate)

  • Binders (stabilize)

  • Fillers (hardeners)

  • Preservatives (prevent bacterial growth)

As well, the cleanser may also contain lather enhancers, fragrance (to mask odour of the surfactant), or dyes[1]. Surfactants are the key ingredient responsible for cleaning the skin, but these are also what can affect how drying/irritating the cleanser is[1]. In general, soaps are harsher cleansers, and can cause tightness, dryness, and rough skin, as well as irritation, itching, and redness from damage to the skin barrier[1]. Fragrances, preservatives and dyes can also cause allergic contact dermatitis in some people[1].

Cleanser Formulations


Gel cleansers provide a deep clean with one wash, removing makeup, decongesting pores, and removing oil and acne-causing bacteria[2]. Gel cleansers often contain moisturizing and hydrating ingredients, and skin feels fresh and moist after rinsing[2]. Generally these are clear and jelly-like and good for normal, combination, oily, and acne-prone skin, even if also sensitive or redness-prone[2,3].


Cream cleansers don’t leave the skin dry, and won’t strip the skin of natural oils[2]. They are moisturizing but sometimes can leave a creamy texture that clogs pores after rinsing[2]. Cream cleansers remove most makeup and can help control sebum, as well as replenish lipids[2,3]. They are best for dry, sensitive, redness-prone skin[2,3].


Foam cleansers can come as a liquid, cream, or gel, and when mixed with water lather/foam up to give a thorough cleanse, leaving skin soft[2,3]. These clear out pores and remove both dirt and makeup well and rinse off cleanly[2,3]. These work well for oily, combination, or acne-prone skin[2,3].


Cleansing oils are gentle, don’t dry out the skin, and help remove makeup[2]. They aren’t the best for deep cleansing, and are more used when double cleansing - using an oil-based cleanser followed by a gel, foaming, or cream cleanser[2,3]. Cleansing oils may be helpful for dry, normal, or combination skin, or for all skin types if part of a double-cleansing routine[2,3]. Cleansing balms are similar to oils, but are creamy solids that melt into an oily texture on the skin. They remove makeup well for dry or normal skin[2].

Skin Type + Choosing a Cleanser

Everyone's skin is different. I have combination, sensitive skin that does breakout now and then. It is best to search for a cleanser depending on your skin type. Hopefully the following will provide a bit of guidance, depending on your skin type and other concerns.

Acne-prone skin

  • Wash no more than twice daily using a gentle, soapless, simple cleanser and warm water[4,5]

  • Avoid cream-based cleansers[4]

  • There’s no evidence that one washing routine is better than another[4]

  • Don’t scrub to prevent rupturing of follicles and skin damage[4,5]

  • Cleansers with zinc acetate or zinc gluconate may help control sebum[4]

  • Look for a cleanser that rinses off well and is fragrance-free, noncomedogenic (meaning it won’t block pores), non-acnegenic (won’t cause acne), non-irritating, and non-allergenic[1]

Antiseptic cleansers only remove surface dirt, oil and bacteria, and medicated cleansers (eg containing benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid) require increased contact time to be effective, which dries out skin even more[4]. Since most cleansers are on your skin for a short period of time and then rinsed off, I don’t usually recommend cleansers containing active ingredients for acne-prone skin. Instead, I suggest opting for simple, gentle cleansers that won’t dry out the skin.

Rosacea-prone skin

This skin type is very sensitive to chemical irritants, so use very mild, non-soap cleansers and avoid anything with alcohol, astringents, and abrasives (i.e. similar to sensitive skin)[1,6].

Dry/eczematous skin or Atopic Dermatitis

Soaps will irritate, so make sure the cleanser is mild and hydrating. Fragrance-free is also a good idea to avoid sensitization, and it doesn't hurt for the cleanser to contain ceramides. Read more about dry skin here!

Sensitive skin

Usually defined as skin that is irritated/prone to allergic reactions more easily than the average population; liquid, mild cleansers such as cleansing oils or lotions can be used as these won’t strip moisture from the skin[1,7].

Oily skin

Pick something gentle and soap-free[7]. Ideally it will also be non-comedogenic.

Combination skin

Choose a gentle, balancing formula to prevent dryness/irritation[7].

Normal skin

Use a mild cleanser that doesn’t disrupt skin balance[7].

Hopefully this has been informative on how to choose a cleanser that is right for you. The key is to remember to be gentle with your skin - facial skin is delicate, and there’s no need for harsh or abrasive daily cleansers, drying ingredients (save active ingredients for other products in your skincare routine) or heavily-perfumed products. Let me know if you have any questions, and happy cleansing!


  1. Mukhopadhyay, P. Cleansers and their role in various dermatological disorders. Indian Journal of Dermatology. 2011 Jan;56(1):2.

  2. Beauty Insider Malaysia. 11 Different types of facial cleansers - Which is right for you? Retrieved 11April2021 from

  3. Paula’s Choice Skincare. Which type of face wash is best for you? Retrieved 11April2021 from

  4. Sihota, A. Acne. CTMA. Updated March 2, 2020. Retrieved from eCPS 11April2021.

  5. Lexicomp. Acne (Patient Education - Disease and Procedure). Updated March 3, 2021. Retrieved 11April2021 from

  6. Rivers, J.K. Rosacea. CPS. Updated May 15, 2019. Retrieved from eCPS 11April2021.

  7. Sephora Beauty Canada, Inc. Solutions for your skin type. Retrieved 11April2021 from

DISCLAIMER: The contents of this blog are for educational purposes and are not intended as medical advice. I enjoy researching but the information is general and not comprehensive. Please seek the advice of your healthcare provider (pharmacist/physician etc) with any questions you may have regarding your personal health. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read online. Any mention of specific products or personal recommendations are my opinion and not to be taken as medical advice. SHOP MY SHELF is an affiliate link.


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Hi, I’m Pharmacist Chelsea! I have a clinical Doctor of Pharmacy degree and have been practicing as a Pharmacist in Canada since 2018.

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