How to Pick the Right Cleanser

Guidelines for picking the best cleanser for your skin type |

Earlier we talked about the importance of cleansers and their basic function. Here we will discuss guidelines for what to look for in a good cleanser.

Part 2: Good Cleanser Guidelines

To pick the right cleanser for your skin, consider the following three questions before you buy a new face wash:

  1. Is the cleanser too drying or stripping?

  2. Does the cleanser clean well? Remove makeup? Take off sunscreen?

  3. Does it have any "bad" ingredients? Such as sodium lauryl sulfate or alcohol?

When picking a cleanser, you want to find one that strikes a balance with your skin. You want a gentle cleanser, but gentle doesn’t mean Cetaphil only. Your cleanser has to be strong enough to clean but not so harsh that it leaves your skin feeling stripped and dry. You want to remove sebum, grime, and pollution from your skin, but you don’t want to wash away your natural skin barrier.

I like to think of my skin as a potato and sunscreen/makeup/oil/grime as the dirt on a potato. A good cleanser should be able to wash away the dirt but not any of the potato's actual skin (if you've scrubbed a potato before, you'll know that you can scrub and "thin" it out).

You won't know whether a cleanser will dry you out unless you test it out yourself. You could use a cleanser on your hands before using it on your face, but your hands are not the most accurate indicator. However, if you use a cleanser and it makes your skin feel immediately dry, taut, or squeaky, then it is way too harsh and you need to choose one that is less drying. A good cleanser should make your skin feel pretty much the same (except a bit lighter) as how it feels before you wash your face.

Similarly, you won't know whether a cleanser will clean well unless you try it yourself. "Cleaning well" is often misinterpreted. Some people assume that if a cleanser strips everything from your skin and makes it squeaky clean, then it is cleaning well. However, a good cleanser is one that removes the things that have to be removed (excess oil, sunscreen, makeup, etc) and leaves behind the things that have to be left (natural skin oil). If you find that you need to use a toner to remove leftover makeup or cleanser residue, then you need to find a better cleanser. If a cleanser makes it feel like it just spread the oils around on your face instead of taking excess oils off, then you need a stronger cleanser. If a cleanser makes your skin feel tight after rinsing, you need to find a less stripping cleanser.

Whatever you do, before you buy a new cleanser, make sure to check its ingredient list. Large amounts of detergents like sodium lauryl sulfate can be quite drying. Sodium laureth sulfate is often mistaken for sodium lauryl sulfate, however sodium laureth sulfate is milder and gentler, but nonetheless, still irritating for some people. Looking for "bad" ingredients in a cleanser will reduce the likelihood that your cleanser will be overly harsh. This doesn't necessarily mean that you should avoid all cleansers with these ingredients. Just make sure the ingredients aren't listed at the top of the ingredient list for the product (the higher something is on that list, the more of it is in the product).

Many people also use two different cleansers. Some people use lighter cleansers during the winter, when skin is more prone to being dry, and stronger cleansers in the humid summer months. Other times, people use a light cleanser in the morning when there isn’t much to wash off and then one that’s a bit stronger in the evening. Do you really need to use two different cleansers? It all depends on your skin.

To pick a good cleanser for your skin, you want to follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Check to see if the cleanser is suitable for your skin type. For example, if the cleanser is for oily skin, you probably don't want to use it if you have dry skin since cleansers for oily skin types will probably be stronger and too stripping.

  • Step 2: If the cleanser is suitable for your skin type, check the product ingredients to see if there are any harsh detergents. If there are harsh ingredients, such as sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), menthol, or alcohol, listed high on the product ingredient list, pick another cleanser and go back to Step 1.

  • Step 3: Before buying a cleanser, it's always a good idea to read product reviews. See what others are saying about that particular cleanser and if it caused any adverse reactions in the people that used it. If you can get a sample of the cleanser before buying the full product, that would be a great way to see how your skin likes it before spending any money.

  • Step 4: If everything looks good, test out the cleanser on your skin. See how your face feels when the cleanser is first washed off. If rubbing your skin makes a squeaky sound or the cleanser leaves your skin feeling too dry, return it and find a new one. Don't go with the notion that a moisturizer can fix any dryness stripped away from a cleanser because no moisture is as good as the one your skin naturally provides, so you don't want to wash too much of it away. If your cleanser feels fine (i.e. your skin feels "normal" after washing), then move on to the toner test.

  • Step 5: After washing your face with the cleanser, use a cotton pad and wipe some alcohol-free toner, cleansing oil, makeup remover, or plain oil on your skin. If the cotton pad has lots of leftover makeup and/or looks very yellow (from sebum or something, not the color of the toner itself), then your cleanser probably isn't cleaning well enough. If this is the case, then you need to find a stronger cleanser or use a makeup remover/ cleansing oil of some sort before your regular cleanser to remove all waterproof products.

    You can also try what I like to call the mirror test. After washing your face with a new cleanser, touch your skin (while still wet) with your index finger and drag it along a mirror. If the water is clear, then your cleanser is cleaning just fine. If it is murky or cloudy, then your cleanser is either not cleaning well or leaving behind some sort of residue.

The actual process of finding and test driving cleansers can be pretty frustrating. Learning about what types of cleansers are suitable for what types of skin will make finding your holy grail cleanser much less difficult. For more information about this, jump to the next section.

Last updated: September 19, 2012

Next »

Part 3: Cleansers Based on Skin Type