The Different Types of Face Cleansers, Decoded

BY Kat Sherbo · February 17, 2020

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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.

With so many cleansing options available, and with each one touting different benefits, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and get swayed by false marketing claims. Knowing the difference between each type allows you to filter your options and makes the hunt for the perfect cleanser a whole lot easier. If you have a normal skin type, feel free to try any type of cleanser as long as your skin tolerates it.

1. 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.

Ideal for: Oily and combination skin

2. Cream Cleansers

Cream cleansers are usually thick, creamy and contain moisturizing ingredients like botanical oils. They gently cleanse your skin without stripping it of its natural oils. Cream cleansers can also come in the form of “milk” or “lotion.”

Ideal for: Dry and sensitive skin

3. Foam Cleansers

Foam cleansers are lightweight cleansers that 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.

Ideal for: Oily and combination skin

4. Oil Cleansers

Washing your skin with oil may sound like a recipe for breakouts, especially if you have oily skin, but most experts disagree. An oil cleanser is a gentle way of removing pore-clogging debris—including waterproof makeup—without drying your skin.

Ideal for: Most skin types

5. Clay Cleansers

Known for their absorbing power, clay cleansers purify your skin by drawing out excess oil and toxins from your pores.

Ideal for: Oily and combination skin

6. Micellar Cleansers

Originating in France, micellar waters feature “micelles”—or tiny oil molecules suspended in soft water—that attract oil, dirt and makeup. Another great thing about them: You don’t need to rinse them off with water.

Ideal for: Dry and sensitive skin

7. Powder Cleansers

Powder cleansers are nothing new, but they are certainly having a big moment right now. These cleansers—powdery soft when dry—dissolves into a creamy concoction upon contact with water, thoroughly cleansing your skin while providing gentle exfoliation. Unlike old-school physical exfoliants like those containing beads, powder cleansers can contain ingredients like rice starch or chickpea flour, which are kinder on the environment.

Ideal for: Oily and sensitive skin

8. Bar Cleansers

After years of staying out of the skin care spotlight, bars are slowly sneaking back in. This new breed of bars—some contain very little soap, others have none at all—are just as skin-friendly and luxurious as their liquid counterparts. They also offer more skin-friendly pH levels in addition to nutrient-rich, highly moisturizing ingredients, such as glycerin and essential oils. Extra points for being a greener choice than liquid soaps because the packaging materials—primarily paper and cardboard—break down more easily in landfills than plastic packaging.

Ideal for: Oily and combination skin

9. Cleansing Cloths, Mitts and Sponges

There are cleansing wipes, and then there are cleansing cloths, mitts and sponges. These cleansers are made with special fibers—some are plant-derived and don’t typically require the use of any traditional cleansers—to thoroughly remove impurities while also sloughing off dead skin cells. A few examples are muslin cloths, kassa/kessa mitts and konjac sponges.

Ideal for: Oily and combination skin


Kat Sherbo

Kat leads the editorial and SEO team at Dermstore, where she's spent three years learning about skin care from the savviest buyers, dermatologists and brand founders in the business; while also testing out everything from microneedling to supplements... Read More >