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How to Choose the Best Cleanser for Your Skin

This one product can make or break your entire skincare routine.

Using the right cleanser is more important than you think.

Let me guess. When you invested in your current skincare products, you probably put a lot more thought into choosing your moisturizer than you did your face wash. 

Am I right? The same goes for eye cream, serum, anti-aging or acne treatments. 

Most of us consider those topical leave-on products to be the workhorses of our routines—the stuff that really makes a difference to our complexions. 

Cleanser, on the other hand, is usually a "whatever works" kind of thing. I mean, it washes off, right? How important can it be? 


Why It's Important to Use the Right Cleanser

It's not so much that a good cleanser, on its own, is going to do something miraculous to your skin. 

It's that the wrong one can create a skin condition that you don't normally have—one that you'll constantly be trying to "fix" with your topical products. For example:

  • If your cleanser is too stripping: It can leave you with dry, irritated or sensitized skin. So then you'd be relying on creams to put the hydration back that your cleanser took out... over and over again. Sometimes, aggressive cleansers can even cause rebound sebum production, making your skin oilier than it would be on its own—which you'd then chase with mattifiers, oil-control products, etc.
  • If your cleanser is too rich: Some balm or oil cleansers can appear to be removing makeup well, but in fact leave a residue behind that clogs your pores. "Nourishing" cleansers may seem like a great idea to prevent dry skin—but certain ingredients actually make skin even drier by forming a seal that interferes with the skin's natural regeneration process. 

Clearly, there's lots that can go wrong! Choosing the right cleanser is not easy, but hopefully, these tips will help.

Do a Double Cleanse

Before we get into specific product recos, my first tip is to incorporate a double cleanse into your evening skincare routine. (You don't need to do this in the mornings... unless you pulled a Charlotte Tilbury and wore makeup to bed, hehe.) 

Cleansing twice lets you get more out of your cleanser(s) by ensuring that NO traces of makeup, SPF or dirt are left on the skin. The usual advice is to repeat the wash with the same product, and you can do that—or do what I do and use two different ones.

Makeup-removing cleanser: One of your cleansers should have the purpose of removing your makeup. My personal preference is for micellar cleansers or cleansing waters, such as Bioderma Sensibio H2O, although oils and balms work well here, too. This cleanse is basically your first pass, to take off the stuff on the surface of your skin. 

Use a makeup-removing cleanser to remove surface residue first.

Note: I've recently found a few more "natural" alternatives to my beloved Bioderma (although I still think it performs the best). Refresh Botanicals Eye + Face Makeup Remover is the most natural I've found—99.7 percent!—and has a fab push-down pump dispenser. Caudalie Micellar Cleansing Water is glycerin-based and free of mineral oil and preservatives. Simple Cleansing Micellar Water contains no perfume and features glycerin and niacinamide.

Deep cleanser: Your second cleanser should give you a deeper, more thorough cleanse, obviously without stripping. This is where I'd suggest a cleansing gel, foam, milk or lotion. One that should suit all skin types is Consonant Natural Foaming Face Wash... I swear I've gone through three or four bottles so far!

Most oils, I don't love as a second cleansing step, because depending on the ingredients, they might lead to dryness and clogging if left on the skin. (Plus, when you're using them last, there's a good chance you won't get every bit off.) If you like, you could use your cleanser of choice in conjunction with a gentle face brush such as the Foreo Luna 2—I find it leaves my face super-clean and super-smooth, but not at all irritated.

Doing these two steps, I think you'll find that you get a more thorough cleanse, with no residue left and without having to manually slough your skin with a washcloth or flannel (as they say in the UK). Your complexion is completely prepped to receive whatever topical products you want to use next.

After you remove makeup with a cleansing water, do a deeper cleanse with a foam.

Never Use Sulfates

My second tip is to avoid sulfates like the plague, no matter what your skin type. Even oily skin!

Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are synthetic detergents. They're used in cleansers because when they combine with water, they produce a lather that emulsifies and lifts away oil. That foaming action may feel satisfying initially, especially if you are oil- or acne-prone. But the problem is, it can strip your skin barrier. 

Your skin barrier is the outermost part of your skin that keeps moisture in and protects you from germs, bacteria, pollution, etc. Sulfates are so strong and so alkaline that they can temporarily damage it, causing irritation, dryness, excess oil production, itching or redness. After you use them, it can take hours for your skin's pH to return to normal. So if you're cleansing every day, twice a day, with sulfates, just imagine the stress you're putting your skin through!

Fortunately, you can still get a good cleanse with sulfate-free (also known as "soap-free") products. My preferred substitute is cocomidopropyl betaine, which is derived from coconuts and cleanses effectively but gently, without causing dryness.

Look for sulfate-free cleansers, no matter what your skin type.

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From The Skincare Edit Archives

Monitor Your Skin

Okay, let's talk skin types now! I don't necessarily agree with the broad classifications of oily, dry, combination, acne-prone or sensitive. Many of us are two or three of those on any given day! 

So the best advice I can give you is to stay aware of how your skin looks and feels, and tweak your routine accordingly.

That might mean you like a gel cleanser during certain parts of your menstrual cycle, or in the heat of summer. In the winter or, say, after a laser treatment, you maybe want something creamier and more hydrating. Or, you might fall squarely into one set skin type and be okay using the same cleanser all the time. If you're really not sure, then it's probably best to err on the side of gentleness and adjust as you go from there.

On to the product suggestions...

Normal-to-Oily Skin Cleansers

Gels and gentle foams will be the best choices to cleanse dirt and sebum from an oilier complexion without leaving you stripped—just remember to check that they are sulfate-free! Bar soap is often too harsh, but there is the rare one made with good ingredients, such as this 100 percent clay bar

Some of you might follow the "like attracts like" principle and prefer to use an oil to cleanse; in that case, I suggest