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7 cleanser types: Which suits your skin?

The right cleanser will leave your skin feeling fresh.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Oct 10, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
Woman feeling refreshed after face cleaning
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Oct 10, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Cleanser is the first step in any skincare routine—it prepares your skin for the treatments that lie ahead. A good cleanser must be gentle and free of irritants your skin doesn’t need. But it also needs to do its main job: cleaning your skin. 

Although most cleansers remove impurities from the skin, such as dirt and excess oil, many varieties exist for different skin types. Here we’ll explain what cleansers are and what effect they have on the skin, highlight the needs of various skin types, and lay out the most common cleanser types. We’ll also touch on how and when to use cleansers to wash your face.

What exactly is a cleanser?

A cleanser washes away impurities, such as dirt, grime, dead skin cells, and excess oil, ridding your skin of the buildup that can lead to clogged pores and breakouts. Its efficacy depends on the ingredients, and different cleansers provide different benefits. It does a lot of heavy lifting, so be sure to choose one that’s right for you.

So, what’s wrong with using plain water? Environmental pollutants, cosmetics, and sebum (skin oil) are not water-soluble, which means using water alone will leave these oily substances behind. Cleansers lower the surface tension on the skin and emulsify substances into finer particles, so they rinse off with the cleanser.¹

Get to know your skin type

Skin type is not an official medical categorization, but it is commonly used in skincare to determine the most effective products for your skin’s needs. Skin type can vary throughout a person’s life—even from day to day!

Dry skin might react differently to products than oily skin, so it helps to know your skin type. Here’s a quick guide to help you distinguish seven common skin types:²

  • Normal skin is clear, well-balanced, and usually not sensitive. Its appearance is neither oily nor dry.

  • Dry skin generally produces less sebum. It’s often confused with dehydrated skin, which lacks water. Both dry and dehydrated skin can feel tight and rough with a dull appearance. Dry skin is often flaky. 

  • Oily skin is the opposite of dry skin; there’s excess sebum production. It often appears shiny.

  • Combination skin is the most common skin type. It’s characterized by oily zones and dry zones. Skin in the T-zone—forehead, nose, and chin—may appear shiny, while the cheeks appear normal or dry. 

  • Sensitive skin is most vulnerable to irritants. It may react to fragrances and other ingredients in skincare products. Different cleansers may help or potentially exacerbate sensitive skin symptoms, such as dryness, itchiness, redness, burning, and stinging.³

  • Mature skin is, as the name implies, more common in older individuals. Signs of aging include dark spots or sunspots, sagging skin, fine lines, and wrinkles. Mature skin may often appear dry. 

  • Acne-prone skin is caused by excess sebum and clogged pores. Acne-prone skin often has visible pimples, whiteheads, blackheads, or signs of recent breakouts.

7 common cleanser types

Choosing a cleanser is much easier once you know your skin type. Fortunately, most products clearly state which skin type they may work on best. Still, there’s no “best cleanser” for every skin type because everyone’s skin is unique.

Here’s the info you need to choose the right type of cleanser for your skin:

  1. Foaming cleansers. These are well-suited for oily skin and often great cleansers for combination skin. Foaming cleansers range from mild lather to rich and foamy. They remove makeup, dirt, and oil for a deep cleanse and rinse off easily. 

  2. Cleansing gels. Gel facial cleansers are lightweight but do some heaving lifting. They effectively remove makeup, dirt, and excess oil. Many may include active ingredients such as hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin or salicylic acid to exfoliate. Gel cleansers usually work for normal, oily, and sensitive skin. 

  3. Cream cleansers. Cream and lotion cleansers are often better suited for dry or mature skin. They do it all, removing excess oil, makeup, and dirt while moisturizing and soothing your skin. Some cream cleansers will lather, and most are formulated to address dry skin. Look for ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and Vitamin C.

  4. Cleansing oils. Despite being formulated primarily with oil, oil cleansers’ benefits extend beyond dry and mature skin. They remove oily buildup without stripping or drying the skin. Oil-based cleansers contain oil, cleansing balms, and oil-based cleansing creams. 

  5. Micellar water. Although it’s renowned as a makeup remover, it also cleans and moisturizes. Micellar water is a water-based formula containing micelles—tiny molecules that work like magnets to lift away buildup on the skin’s surface without stripping its natural moisture. This product can be used on its own or for double cleansing. Micellar water may be a great facial cleanser for sensitive skin types and sensitive areas, such as around the eyes. It also works for acne-prone skin, but check the ingredient list for irritants or ingredients that can cause breakouts. 

  6. Cleansing bars. A facial cleanser in a bar is usually gentler on the skin than soap but powerful enough to clean your face. Cleansing bars are also a great soap-free option for treating body acne or other skin conditions. Bars containing zinc pyrithione fight bacteria and fungus,⁴ while sulfur bars can treat acne, rosacea, and seborrheic dermatitis. Sulfur is antibacterial, antifungal, and sloughs dead skin cells.⁵   

  7. Antiseptic skin cleansers. These are medical cleansers formulated to clean and disinfect the skin following an injury or before a procedure or surgery.  

If you’re beginning a skincare routine for the first time, stick to a gentle cleanser that you can use morning and night. You will get more from your treatment cream (applied at night) than from mixing and matching cleansers. And definitely check the ingredient list for pore-clogging ingredients. (We’ve got a cheat sheet!)

How often should you use a cleanser?

As a general rule of thumb, you should wash your face twice daily — in the morning and in the evening before bed. One study showed that washing your face twice daily reduced non-inflammatory whiteheads and blackheads.⁶ Consider using a gentle cleanser on some days and an acne-fighting cleanser on others to minimize dryness from ingredients such as zinc pyrithione and benzoyl peroxide. 

Here’s a simple skincare routine you can stick to: 

  • In the morning: Wash off the previous night’s treatment creams, oil, and dirt from your pillowcase, and prepare your face for moisturizer and sunscreen. 

  • At night: Cleanse your face of accumulated impurities before applying a treatment cream (for acne, anti-aging, or other skin conditions) and moisturizer. 

We’re here to help you with your skin concerns!

Here at Curology, our goal is to help take the guesswork out of skincare. Our licensed in-house dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin and review your skincare goals to determine the proper routine for your unique needs.* They can prescribe a personalized prescription formula and recommend dermatologist-designed products. The Curology Gentle Cleanser is a gentle, hydrating, non-comedogenic lightly foaming cleanser formulated for all skin types, including acne-prone and sensitive skin. If you want to upgrade your everyday cleanser—and skincare routine—sign up for a consultation to get started.

FAQs

What is a cleanser?

A cleanser washes away impurities, such as dirt, grime, dead skin cells, and excess oil, ridding your skin of the buildup that can lead to clogged pores and breakouts. Its efficacy depends on the ingredients, and different cleansers provide different benefits.

What type of cleanser is better for me?

Choosing a cleanser is much easier once you know your skin type. Fortunately, most products clearly state which skin type they may work on best. Still, there’s no “best cleanser” for every skin type because everyone’s skin is unique.

How often should I use cleanser?

As a general rule of thumb, you should wash your face twice daily — in the morning and in the evening before bed. Consider using a gentle cleanser on some days and an acne-fighting cleanser on others to minimize dryness from ingredients such as zinc pyrithione and benzoyl peroxide.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1.  Mukhopadhyay, P. Cleansers and their role in various dermatological disorders. Indian Journal of Dermatology. (January-February 2011). 

  2.  American Academy of Dermatology. Skin care tips dermatologists use. (n.d.).

  3.  Subramanyan, K.K., et al. Developing an ultra mild cleanser for sensitive skin. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2005 March 1). 

  4.  Schwartz, J.R. Zinc Pyrithione: A Topical Antimicrobial With Complex Pharmaceutics. J Drugs Dermatol. (February 2016). 

  5.  Gupta, A.K, Nicol, K. The use of sulfur in dermatology. J Drugs Dermatol. (July 2004).

  6.  Kimball, A, et al. A single-blinded, randomized, controlled, clinical trial evaluating the effect of face washing on acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2005 March 1).

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. 

Elise Griffin is a certified physician assistant at Curology. She received her Master of Medical Science in physician assistant studies from Nova Southeastern University in Jacksonville, FL.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Elise Griffin, Physician Assistant Curology

Elise Griffin, PA-C

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