Cleansing 101

Creams, gels, oils oh my! With so many different types of cleansers on the market, it can be a bit overwhelming to choose one that is best for suited for you.  So I thought, let us get back to basics and I will walk you through all the different types of cleansers, cleansing techniques, tools and skin tips!

What to look for in a cleanser?

All cleansers have the same basic function to remove dirt, sweat, excess oil, makeup, bacteria, pollutants from the air and dead skin cells. However, picking the right cleanser formulated for your skin type and conditions is super important and base of all other skin care steps. When choosing a cleanser I recommend looking for natural ingredients, hypoallergenic and non-drying formulas. Skin nourishing ingredients like vitamins, antioxidants and plant-based ingredients that serve a function are ideal to look for. 

I would steer clear of cleansers with sulfates, synthetic fragrance and dyes. These three ingredients are completely pointless and nonbeneficial to the skin. Synthetic fragrance and dyes simply "adds" to the user experience, but may cause irritation and is proven to be a hormone disruptor. Colored cleanser, why? There is absolutely no reason your face wash needs to be blue. Sulfates are added to make cleansers foam and give that "squeaky clean" feeling but lead to surface dehydration and irritation.

You'll know a cleaner is not right for you if you feel tight, dry, itchy or that your face may crack if you smile! It doesn't matter the skin type - you should feel clean and refreshed after cleansing, not dry. Squeaky clean feeling = the skin has been stripped of it's natural and necessary oils.

Dirty word in the skin care world = bar soap

Bar soap is usually the first thing we washed our faces with as kids so why wouldn't it be good? Most people have heard the term "ph" back in high school chemistry. Here is a refresher in terms of skin care. Ph stands for "potential of hydrogen" which is the measure of how acidic or alkaline a product is. This scale ranges from 1, being the most acidic and 14, being the most alkaline with a ph of 7 that is considered neutral. The natural and optimal ph of skin is slightly acidic and is around 5.5 and ideally, a cleanser should be around that ph.

The ph of bar soap is around 9 which is very alkaline. Skin that is too alkaline will be dry, dehydrated, fragile and have accentuated wrinkles. I've found people that use bar soap regularly to cleanse their skin usually have very dehydrated skin with wrinkles and stubborn blackheads that are holding on for dear life! No thanks to all of that! And even the old time fave Dove soap is a smidge better being around 7, but still too alkaline for a truly balanced skin.  

Types of cleansers


Gels are refreshing and perfect for cleansing the skin thoroughly without over drying. They are best for combination and oily skin types. For skin with acne, it's nice to give the skin a break from the harsh and drying ingredients used in typical acne cleansers like benzoyl and salicylic acids. 

Milk + Creams

Cleansing milk is great for dissolving makeup and cleansing the skin but also known for its moisturizing properties. Milky cleansers are good for normal/balanced, dry and sensitive skin types. 

Cleansing creams also fall into this category but are much richer in consistency and best for very dry and mature skin types. 

Both of these types of cleansers may be used in two ways. Applying to dry skin and wiping away with a tissue or cotton pad. Or applied to the skin and rinsed away with warm water for a traditional cleanse. 


Since the natural oil in our skin is a wax-like consistency, people with very oily skin need a cleanser to really break down that oil and thoroughly cleanse the skin. Foams are by far the most cleansing and best for oily and acne prone skin types. 

Oils + Balms

The oil cleansing method works by the "oil attracts oil" philosophy by breaking down excess oil all while still nourishing the skin. They are used by applying to dry skin and massaging into the skin, breaking down oil and makeup. It may be wiped off with a tissue/cotton pad or even a clean warm wet washcloth. This cleansing method is best for makeup wearers with sensitive, dry, mature, combination and eczema prone skin types. 

Cleansing balms are the thicker more emollient cousin to cleansing oil. Personally, I like a cleansing balm because it's just so creamy and dreamy on my skin! They are especially great for dry and very dry skin types.

Exfoliating Cleansers

Exfoliating cleansers generally have beads in them that range from jojoba esters to micro-pumice. Personally, I am not a fan and don't recommend them to clients. Exfoliating cleansers tend to be one of two things in my opinion - too much or too little. Either there is more cleansing gel versus the number of beads in the formula giving the illusion you are exfoliating your skin. (Which is more of a marketing tactic.) Or it's too aggressive to be exfoliating every day which will lead to dryness and stripping the skin of its natural oils. 

Active Cleansers

Active cleaners are wonderful for treating skin conditions like acne, dullness, hyperpigmentation and have many anti-aging properties. These may include enzymes made with papain (from papaya) which helps to break down dead skin cells. Or anti-aging and brightening acids such as lactic and glycolic. Typical acne cleansers will contain benzoyl and salicylic acids to kill bacteria, break down what is clogging the pores and dry out acne. Sulfur cleansers are also really great for acne as well as rosacea skin as it aids in calming inflammation and killing bacteria. Just be aware that sulfur is a common allergy so test patch! I wrote blog posts on enzymes and acids if you care for more information. 

I am a big fan of keeping TWO cleansers in a skin care routine, I know more products! One should be a gentle everyday non-active cleanser and the second should be an active cleanser. You may want to switch off every other day or go with how your skin feels day to day. If I wore a lot of makeup one day or sweat a lot during a yoga class I will use my active cleanser. It's nice to have options!

Here are some examples!

Sensitive skin
Non-Active: Cream, milk or oil cleanser - particularly in a sensitive formula
Active: A gentle enzyme cleanser to remove any dry patches

Dry skin
Non-Active: Cream, milk or oil cleanser
Active: Lactic cleanser to slough off flakey skin cells

Combo skin
Non-Active: Gel
Active: Glycolic acid or an enzyme cleanser to dissolve dead skin cells, brighten and preventive for aging.

Oily skin
Non-Active: Gel or foam
Active: Salicylic cleanser to break down excess oil in pores to prevent blackheads/acne from forming and reduce the amount of oil in the skin.

Non-Active: Gel or foam
Active: Salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide cleanser to dry out acne and break down what is clogging pores or sulfur cleanser to calm inflammation and kill bacteria. (This is a personal preference as some people can't tolerate one ingredient but do fine with another.)

Cleansing Tools

Clarisonic Brush
We have all heard of or by now owned a Clarisonic brush. The Clarisonic brush is a great investment for the skin as it deeply cleanses the skin, removes makeup better and breaks down flaky skin cells. It will also enhance product penetration of your skin care products.

I personally think using twice a day a little much for most people and the most important cleanse is at night to wash away the day. Also, using the correct brush head is important and will give you a better experience. They now have several options and there is one for everyone, even the most delicate of skin types.

Daily use? You betcha. I have taken about 10 classes in my career over the years at different spas I have worked at directly from Clarisonic and it is safe to use daily. It is actually a CLEANSING tool, not a once a week exfoliation tool. If you are using the correct brush head, speed and pressure (not sanding your face off with a power tool here!) you should be totally fine!

Other Cleansing Brushes
The difference between many of the other cleansing brushes and the Clarisonic brush is other brands the brush spins, tugging the skin. The Clarisonic brush oscillates (moves back and forth) which is much gentler and effective in removing makeup, oil and dirt on the skin. So be aware what you are purchasing! 

Not a fan, they are too aggressive, scratchy and they hold bacteria. Enough said, ouch and ew.

Konjac sponges
A sponge without the square pants. (I kill myself!) These sponges are actually made from a Japanese root vegetable and used to cleanse and lightly exfoliate the skin. When wet they are mild, remove makeup and give you a nice glow. However, be aware they do have a shelf life and should be tossed after about a month, it is a vegetable after all!

konjic sponge.jpg

The "double cleanse" method

The double cleanse is an old school esthetician facial practice as well as popular in most Asian skincare cleansing methods. The thought is to first remove and break down any excess makeup, dirt and oil then thoroughly cleanse the skin. 

Oils and balms are also perfect if you practice the "double cleansing" method. This is to first to use an oil cleanser followed by a second cleanse with a water based cleanser like a gel. 

If you just get right in there with cleanser and don't remove makeup first you will essentially just be smearing all that junk around your face and into your pores. Nope! Remove makeup first with a gentle unscented makeup wipe or a makeup remover. I recommend oil based makeup removers for mascara and full coverage foundation wearers. 

Water temperature

The old school thinking was to wash your face with hot water to "open" pores and at the end of cleansing splash your face with cold water to "close" pores. This has been a long time belief by many and has been passed down from generation to generation, but it's actually incorrect! Pores do not open and close as they do not have involuntary muscles, which makes that physically impossible. What does happen is since natural sebum in the skin is waxy in consistency, hot water "melts" the oil and allow products to penetrate better and oil to come out. The opposite is true for cold water on the skin, it basicilly solidifies the oil. This means hot water will strip the skin of natural oils drying the skin and cold has a harder time breaking down dirt, oil and makeup.

The Ideal water temperature is warm - even luke warm. If you wash your face in the shower, do it last and turn the water to an appropriate temperature.  


+ If you tend to get clog pores or break out around your hairline and near your ears, reevaluate your cleansing technique. The normal motion when most people wash their face is in a circular motion ending right at the ear, hairline and jaw area. Essentially you are pushing the dirt, makeup, bacteria that you are trying to wash off right into that area. And since it is an area that is hard to see being the side of the face, all that junk could be settling there! 

+  Now this tip may be a little strange for some people. Unless you have oily skin, don't wash your face in the morning. Now stay with me here, if you give yourself a good cleanse in the evening before bed and you have slept on (what I hope) are clean sheets, how "dirty" could have gotten? If you have dry, sensitive or even combination skin you can totally get away with a simple splash of water or a few sprays of toner on the skin before applying day products and SPF. It will add some hydration and overall it's great for the skin to bask in its natural oils!

A word on Cetaphil

Yes, yes, I know this product is dermatologist recommended. Many advise patients on using Cetaphil when a person is reactive to many other products and their skin needs a break. Or they are using topical prescription treatments for acne which tend to be drying and harsh. But why is that? It's because there is nothing in it! There is literally nothing beneficial for the skin in this cleanser. No vitamins, antioxidants or nourishing skin oils. In fact, I will tell you what's in it, there are eight ingredients in the classic formula and all are man made except water. Three of those ingredients are parabens, (THREE!!) because apparently, a bottle of this stuff needs to last until the year 2050! Do yourself a favor and get a sensitive skin organic cleanser with skin benefiting ingredients like this one from Acure that is Babe on a Budget friendly! (Under $10!)