Skin Care Blogs

The Different Types of Face Cleansers, Decoded

At the end of a long day, nothing feels quite as good as cleansing your face. Removing every trace of dirt, sweat and makeup allows the skin to breathe, repair and renew itself. Having a spotless surface also helps your other skin care products to penetrate your skin more deeply and perform their tasks more efficiently. As the first step in your skin care ritual, it’s important to nail this part before even thinking about your serums and anti-aging creams.

Choosing the Right Type of Facial Cleanser

With so many cleansing options available, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed. Knowing the difference between each type allows you to filter your options and makes the hunt for the right cleanser a whole lot easier. To help us decode the different types of facial cleansers, we talked to Dr. Howard Sobel, M.D., founder of Sobel Skin + Sobel Skin RX and Clinical Attending Dermatologic Surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

  1. Gel Cleansers
    $45.00 Buy now with Dermstore

    Gel Cleansers

    Gel cleansers are clear and, as the name suggests, have a gel-like consistency. Generally designed for deep cleansing, they are effective at decongesting clogged pores, removing excess oil and killing acne-causing bacteria, thanks to their antiseptic and exfoliating properties. Dr. Sobel recommends gel cleansers for anyone with acne or oily skin.

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  2. Cream Cleansers
    $24.00 Buy now with Dermstore

    Cream Cleansers

    Just like gel cleansers, cream cleansers are pretty much exactly as they sound—very creamy and lush in texture. “Cream cleansers tend to be gentler and more hydrating than other cleansers, making them ideal for dry or sensitive skin types,” explains Dr. Sobel. They work hard to gently cleanse your skin without stripping it of its natural oils. They also make a great second-step cleanser if you’re into double cleansing.

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  3. Foam Cleansers
    $30.50 Buy now with Dermstore

    Foam Cleansers

    Foam cleansers are pretty much in between gel and cream cleansers, which makes them great for combination skin types. They start out as cream or gel and burst into a rich, foamy lather. This type of cleanser removes excess oil as effectively as gel cleansers. “If you have layers of makeup on after a long day, or sunscreen after a day at the beach, a foam cleanser will do the trick as a powerful cleanser to wash it all away,” says Dr. Sobel.

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  4. Oil Cleansers
    $29.00 Buy now with Dermstore

    Oil Cleansers

    “The concept of putting more oil on oily skin may not make sense, but these cleansers usually contain an oil base to help remove dirt on the skin without interfering with the skin barrier,” explains Dr. Sobel. The oil from your skin works together with the cleanser to balance the skin. An oil cleanser is a gentle way of removing pore-clogging debris—including waterproof makeup—without drying your skin.

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  5. Clay Cleansers
    $39.50 Buy now with Dermstore

    Clay Cleansers

    If you love a clay mask, then you’ll love a clay cleanser. Known for their absorbing power, clay cleansers purify your skin by drawing out excess oil and toxins from your pores. Perfect for oily and combination skin, clay cleansers are also suitable for sensitive skin as they don’t usually have any scrubs or harsh acids.

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  6. Micellar Cleansers
    $18.99 Buy now with Dermstore

    Micellar Cleansers

    Originating in France, micellar waters feature “micelles”—or tiny oil molecules suspended in soft water—that attract oil, dirt and makeup. Micellar cleansers are gentle and free of alcohol so it’s safe for all skin types and especially sensitive skin. “Many people are turned off by the gentle formula, but micellar cleansers are highly effective at tightening pores,” says Dr. Sobel.

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  7. Cleansing Balms
    $64.00 Buy now with Dermstore

    Cleansing Balms

    Cleansing balms are a great option for those who want to make their skin care routine simple, as many of these formulas don’t even need water to remove dirt, makeup or oil. “Cleansing balms are extremely moisturizing and can even provide hydrating benefits thanks to ingredients  like coconut oil,” notes Dr. Sobel. They usually don’t have any super harsh or stripping ingredients, which makes them a great choice for anyone with dry or sensitive skin.

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  8. Cleansing Bars
    $22.40 Buy now with Dermstore

    Cleansing Bars

    Cleansing bars are a wonderful alternative to traditional face cleansers and great for anyone looking to pack for a trip or keep sustainability in mind. They’re not like the regular bar of body soap you’re used to, which can strip away natural oils if used on the face. “Along with being sustainable, bar cleansers don’t contain any soap at all and will not dry you out, making it a great choice for those with dehydrated skin,” explains Dr. Sobel.

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Amanda Mitchell

Amanda Mitchell is a writer and podcaster with bylines at Marie Claire, OprahMag, Allure, Byrdie, Stylecaster, Bon Appetit and more. Her work exists at the apex of beauty, pop culture and absurdity. A human Funfetti cake, she watches too much television, and her favorite season is awards season. You can read more of her work at or follow her on Instagram and Twitter @lochnessmanda.