Evaluating Your Routine: Cleansers

So in my previous post, “Evaluating Your Routine: The Very Basics,” I posed the following question:

What does your skin feel like after you cleanse? Does it feel dry – parched and tender? Does it feel dry but quickly become oily? In my experience, this is usually a cleanser issue. It’s generally recommended that everyone should use “creamy” cleansers (these are usually cleansers that do not suds due to lacking the sudsing ingredients of sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate), and are advertised as “gentle,” “hydrating,” and “creamy”), and there are more options than ever within this category, from CeraVe to Skin Laundry.

However, if you find that creamier cleansers give you problems, you may need something that is a bit more translucent in appearance (meaning less moisturizing agents). These can be a bit tougher to find that fit within the usually-strict guidelines of no SLS/SLES (sodium lauryl sulfate or it’s gentler cousin, sodium laureth sulfate), so I usually advise people to experiment with what works. For me, this is Paula’s Choice Hydralight Cleanser, but there are also options like La Roche Posay Effaclar or Glossier’s Milky Jelly Cleanser.

In this post, I’ll be breaking down general cleansers as well as oil cleansers (or the oil-cleansing method aka OCM) and micellar cleansers. Let’s dive right in!

Cleansers work by dissolving or binding to things on the skin that aren’t normally rinsed away by water, such as the waxes or oils produced by our skin.

Without getting too into the weeds, they are able to do this with surfactants  (or “the thing that makes cleansers sudsy”). The most common surfactants, and the ones you may have heard of are SLS and SLES (sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate). These ingredients work by binding to the lipids (oils such as jojoba oil or silicones like dimethicone) and then being whisked away by their water-loving properties. Once mixed with water, surfactant molecules cluster together into little spheres known as micelles. Some surfactants molecular size allows them to penetrate deeper into the skin (namely SLS), where they can bind to skin cells. As you can imagine, this is very irritating to skin, and is what causes the eventual drying that you may experience after using some products.


So by increasing the size of these molecules or adding additional ingredients, we get a gentler cleanser.

If you’ve hung out in any beauty circle, you’ve probably also heard chatter of pH – “What is the pH of that cleanser? Have you tried the CosRx Low pH Cleanser?”. The pH value of a cleanser can have an impact on how harsh your cleanser is on your skin as well, and simply put, it’s because the surface of your skin is naturally pretty acidic.

Going back to Chemistry class really quickly, you’ll probably remember something called the “pH Scale.”


Things on the left side of the scale (1-6) are considered acidic. Things on the right side (8-14) are considered basic or alkaline. And of course, there is what is considered neutral, or pH 7. Skin has a pH of around 5.5, but becomes more basic the further down into the dermis you go, reaching a pH of about 7. Why is this important, you may be asking? Well, if you think back to your high school Chemistry course, you may have remembered the good ol’ baking soda and vinegar reaction. When this reaction — called an acid-base reaction — occurs, the baking soda and vinegar exchange atoms and form different compounds, namely water and carbon dioxide. This is because bases are compounds that generally want to donate atoms and acids are compounds that generally want to accept atoms.

As skin comes in contact with other ingredients, even water, the pH temporarily raises and other compounds are created. Fatty acids (read: acidic components) of the skin are removed.

Healthy skin can usually re-balance itself within an hour or so. Some skin takes longer to do this, especially skin that is prone to irritation, such as skin with acne, rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis. This is why your boyfriend can cleanse his face with a Dial soap bar and have glowing skin an hour later, while you’re busily slathering on layer after layer of moisturizer.

Using a cleanser that is closer to our skin’s natural pH is the obvious solution to this problem, and most modern cleansers are formulated much better than those of the past.

So now you’re probably asking yourself: Well, how can I test the pH of the cleanser I would like to buy? And how do I know the surfactant isn’t going to irritate my skin?

A general rule of thumb is to look for mild surfactants, such as decyl glucoside, or multiple surfactants, like decyl glucoside, coco-glucoside, disodium cocoyl glutamate, disodium laureth sulfosuccinate, cocoyl methyl glucamide, sodium cocoyl isethionate, and lauryl lactyl lactate.

You should also look for moisturizers, like oils, ceramides, cholesterol, and humectants (water-binding ingredients such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid, or squalane). Avoid saponified oils (please don’t use Dr. Bronner’s on your skin) and bar soap.

Now I know you’re asking: What about oil cleansers then?

What if I told you that your grandmother was ahead of the game?

Nearly all of us have seen a tub of Pond’s Cold Cream hanging out in our grandmother’s bathroom or on her vanity. You might’ve seen her dab some all over her skin and wipe away all of her makeup with a tissue. She may have sworn by it as the thing that kept her looking young, and she’s not entirely wrong.

I like to think of oil cleansers as being broken down into two types of cleansers — wipe-off cleansers like your grandmother’s Pond’s, and emulsifying cleansers like the translucent oil cleansers that come in a pump or tub.

The former — wipe-off cleansers — are the most common mixtures in the cosmetics industry. They are usually simple mixtures of oil and water, and are high in water content, which makes them inexpensive.


They spread easily and often leave an oily or richly moisturized feeling behind. They’re typically purchased by people with mature skin, but are a great alternative for people with dry skin.

The latter — emulsifying cleansers — are also mixtures of oil and water, but are higher in oil content, which makes them more expensive. They contain emulsifiers that bind well to water, which allows them to rinse away in water.


The benefit of these cleansers is there is no real “sudsing” action on the skin. Indeed many of them can actually feel “moisturizing” due to their ingredient makeup. They are also excellent for breaking down make-up and other waterproof things, such as mascara, due to the high oil content.

When picking out an oil-cleanser, look for shortened ingredient lists. Don’t be swayed by extracts or other frills that will wash away. The oil itself will be the biggest point of irritation (or not) for your skin, so don’t be afraid of “boring” oils like mineral oil or petrolatum, which is one of the blandest, most non-reactive molecules around.

Just one more to go…

Micellar water is quite literally made up of micelles, or the molecular bunches of surfactants that group up, their water-loving butts faced outwards. These larger bunches of molecules, diluted in combinations of water and hydrating ingredients (such as glycerin), are the most mild of cleansers.

The percentage of surfactant to other ingredients is generally so low that micellar water does not need to be washed away. This allows the hydrating ingredients, such as glycerin, to stay on the skin after the debris has been removed.


This makes micellar water ideal for sensitive skin or prepping the skin for product application, when cleansing with a standard cleanser and water will be too drying.

So what does this all mean? Here are some general skin cleanser guidelines to follow:

  • Cleanse your skin at least once a day. At the end of the day, your skin not only has a build-up of oils, but also debris and particulates in the air.
  • Don’t pile it on. Your non-sudsing cleanser does not need to suds to work.
  • Two-step cleanse for removing make-up. Most make-up is waterproof and does not easily cleanse away. Use an oil cleanser to break down the make-up and remove it.
  • Use cottons to remove cream cleansers like Pond’s. The friction will help to remove grime and dirt. Splash with water after to remove any leftover emulsifiers.
  • Use cool water when cleansing. Hot water can make surfactants penetrate deeper by reducing the size of the micelles, which is why your hot shower is more irritating and drying to your skin than the less-fun cooler shower.
  • Moisturize. Even water strips away the valuable fatty acids in your skin. Using a moisturizer on your skin after will help your skin to re-balance itself quicker.

Sources and Further Reading:


3 thoughts on “Evaluating Your Routine: Cleansers

  1. Pingback: Rosacea: The Curse of the Celts – S K I N O L O G I S T

  2. Pingback: Skinologist - Dehydrated Skin and How to Heal It

  3. Thank you for the amazing post. Just to clarify, would using only micellar water generally be sufficient as a cleanser for someone with sensitive combo acne-prone skin (who doesn’t wear makeup)?

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