Since that very first teenage breakout, you have internalized one of the fundamental truths of good skin: How you clean your skin matters.
Overdo it and you will strip your skin of natural oils, leaving your face dry, sensitive and — counterintuitively — maybe even greasier as your skin starts over-producing oil to compensate. But on the flip side, not cleansing your skin deeply enough can allow acne-causing gunk to build up in your pores. It is a bit of a skincare catch-22.
Striking the perfect no-I-did-not-filter-that-photo balance is not so much a question of how often to wash your face, but what type of cleanser to use when you do. We asked dermatologists to break it down.
Cleansers: What’s the Difference?
Water-based cleansers — think foaming washes, exfoliating lathers or hydrating creams — work by “rinsing away particles from the outermost layer of skin,” explains Lily Talakoub, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Virginia.
The cleansing action hinges on what’s called a “surfactant” — think of it as a type of detergent, Talakoub says. “Water-soluble particles, such as dirt and pollution, emulsify in the lather of the surfactant and rinse off the skin,” she says. “This, however, also rinses away the natural oils, so water-based cleansers are better for oily or acne-prone skin types.”
In short, water cleansers are just regular old soap that has been formulated specifically for your skin.
These types of cleansers range from heavy-duty to gentle. On the more intense end of the spectrum, water-based can contain sulfates, which are considered the big guns of facial cleansing. While powerful, they can easily cross the line into too irritating. Micellar water, on the other hand, is a much gentler type of water-based cleanser. “Micellar water is a non-lathering emulsion that gathers the dirt, bacteria and makeup on the skin and gently removes them without making the skin dry,” Talakoub says.
The idea of using an oil to degrease your skin at the end of the day seems contradictory. Excess oil is what you are trying to remove, after all.
Surprisingly, that is exactly what oil-based cleansers do, according to the pros. “Oil cleansers work by the principle of oil attracting oil,” says Shari Marchbein, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University.
Because makeup and sebum — the waxy substance produced by your skin that can cause acne if it builds up — are both oil-based, oil cleansers break them down and lift the impurities, allowing you to wipe them away. (As opposed to operating like a water-based cleanser and simply scrubbing everything off your skin.)
“Oil-based cleansers are also gentler on the skin,” Talakoub adds. “They leave the natural oil layer on top of the skin, so for sensitive and rosacea-prone skin, there is minimal irritation.” But just because they are gentle does not mean oil-based formulas are not still powerful cleansers. “Oil-based cleansers are excellent at dissolving makeup,” Marchbein says, so if you tend to wear foundation or heavy makeup, using an oil-based cleanser can help you get the best clean.
Which type of cleanser is best for your skin?
Choosing between the different types of cleansers largely depends on your skin type, according to dermatologists.
If you have acne-prone skin, start with a water-based cleanser. “I do not typically recommend an oil cleanser for those with acne,” Marchbein says. “As someone who battles adult female acne, I always use a gentle or even an ultra-gentle cleanser to remove my makeup and avoid oil-based cleansers for myself.” If you are severely oily or can’t seem to get an upper hand on breakouts, you might need a heavier surfactant, Talakoub says. It is worth chatting with your dermatologist to figure out which formulas will work best with your skin.
To wash with a water-based cleanser, start by wetting your skin before using your fingers to massage one to two pumps of a foaming cleanser or a small dollop of cream cleanser over your face. Rinse it off and follow with a non-comedogenic (aka non-pore clogging) moisturizer to prevent your skin from drying out.
If you are not acne-prone — and especially if your skin is sensitive, prone to getting dry, flaky patches or if you have a more is more makeup routine —Talakoub recommends trying an oil-based cleanser. “For most skin types, oil-based cleansers are gentler and better for the skin,” she says.
To use an oil cleanser, massage several drops into dry skin and wipe off using a cotton pad.
Clay-based cleansers could be considered a hybrid of oil- and water-based formulas.
But what if your skin does not fit into one of these perfect buckets (which, TBH, is true for just about everyone at some point or another)? Using micellar water to cleanse the skin can be a nice middle ground, according to the experts. “I’m obsessed with micellar water, which is made up of micelles — tiny balls of cleansing oil, suspended in soft water,” Marchbein explains.
Many people wonder, is micellar water oil-based? The answer is no and although it’s a water-based cleanser, micellar water acts kind of like an oil cleanser, making it the best of both worlds. “Micelles are attracted to dirt and oil, so they are able to thoroughly cleanse the skin and draw out impurities without drying it out,” Marchbein says. The result? Skin that is clean without being stripped.
If you are wary of putting oil onto your skin but do not want to risk water-based cleansers being too harsh, clay cleansers can be a good middle ground. “Clay cleansers are best suited for those with oily skin or anyone who feels they have clogged pores,” says Marchbein.
Like an oil-based cleanser, these formulas do not froth or foam and are gentle on skin. But like water cleansers, they leave you with that feeling that every pore has been scrubbed clean. Formulated with mineral-rich clays, “clay cleansers can help draw impurities, bacteria, oil and sebum out of pores,” Marchbein says. Sebum especially is what contributes to clogged pores. “It’s the stuff that comes out when we squeeze our pores,” Marchbein says. Clay cleansers are like magnets for sebum. “They not only deeply clean but can gently exfoliate the skin as well,” says Marchbein.
Should you mix oil and water?
You might not need to choose between an oil-based or water-based cleanser at all. Double cleansing — aka using both an oil and water cleanser in tandem — is “the backbone of many skin care regimens, especially Korean beauty routines,” Marchbein says.
Double-cleansing works exactly how it sounds: instead of picking one type of cleanser over another, double-cleansing uses one after another. “The first cleanse cleans the products off the skin, Talakoub says, while “the second cleanse actually cleanses the skin itself.”
Start with an oil-based cleanser to lift impurities, dirt and makeup, Marchbein says, and follow it with micellar water or a gentle foaming cleanser to “soak up excess oil and remove anything left behind.”
When it comes to finding the right cleanser it can take some trial and error to figure out what works best for your skin type. With that said, it’s well worth it to explore the options since a cleanser is the foundation of your skincare routine. Try not to test out too many products at once so you can really evaluate the effectiveness of each and listen to your skin as it reacts. Finally, you can always get a professional opinion on which product would be best for you by speaking with a certified dermatologist.
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