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How to choose the right facial cleanser for your skin type

Updated: May 19, 2023


Disclaimer: The information in this article is not meant as specific individual medical advice. Please consult your dermatologist or other medical professional about your skin or medical condition.


There are so many facial washes and cleansers out there, and it can be hard to know which to choose. Using the wrong cleanser can lead to excessively dry or oil skin, or aggravate sensitive skin. The purpose of using a facial cleanser is to clear your face of unwanted dirt, oil and other debris that may have settled on your face over the cause of the day. It is important to choose the right facial cleanser for your skin type.

What is your skin type?

Knowing your skin type is the first step to choosing the right facial cleanser for you.

There are five basic skin types:

1. Normal

2. Dry

3. Oily

4. Combination

5. Sensitive.

Skin types can change over time, usually becoming more dry with age.

Normal skin type

Normal (ideal) skin type is generally the baseline where the skin barrier is well balanced. It is characterized by an even skin tone and soft texture. It is not too dry, oily or sensitive, and free of acne.

Dry skin type

Dry skin type is characterized by rough texture and a tendency to flake, crack or peel. When dry skin is severe, there may be redness and itching. Dry skin may be genetic in nature, or aggravated by our environment or excessive removal of our skin’s natural oil barrier.

Oily skin type

Oily skin type is characterized by greasy feel and shiny appearance and sometimes large pores. It is typically the result of excess sebum (oil) production that begins during adolescence, and this is usually genetic in nature. People with oily skin are prone to plugged pores and acne.

Combination skin type

Combination skin type refers to a pattern where there is an oil T-zone covering the forehead, nose and chin, with dry skin involving the other parts of the face.

Sensitive skin type

Sensitive skin type refers to skin that is more prone to turn red, peel itch or burn. This is usually due to an impaired skin barrier or overactive immune system. It can be caused by skin conditions such as eczema or rosacea.

Acne-prone skin

In addition, there are some people with skin that is genetically more prone to breaking out in acne (acne-prone skin). This results from plugged pores and inflamed hair follicles.

Mature skin

Lastly, as our skin ages (mature skin), our skin may develop wrinkles, dark spots, looseness, dryness and fragility. This results from the decreased production of collage, sebum, hyaluronic acid that our skin need to maintain moisturize, texture and elasticity.

Types of facial cleansers

The main types of facial cleansers are:

1. Gel cleansers

2. Cream cleansers

3. Foaming cleansers

4. Clay cleansers

5. Oil cleansers

6. Micellar water cleansers

Gel cleansers

Gel cleansers have a thick, gel-like consistency, and effectively removes make up and excess oil. They generally produce lather, and are designed to clean your skin without removing its natural oils. Gel cleansers are a good option for people with oily or acne prone skin.

Cream cleansers

Cream cleansers have a thicker consistency and usually contains moisturizing ingredients. In addition to removing makeup and dirt, these products hydrates and moisturizes the skin. They are a better choice for people with dry or sensitive skin.

Foaming cleansers

Foaming cleansers help remove excess oil from the skin with their foaming qualities. These come in different levels of lather. These are generally recommended for oily and acne prone skin.

Clay cleansers

Clay cleansers contain clay as one of the main ingredients. Clay is thought to have strong absorbing properties, which helps draw out excess oil. They are best suited for people with oily skin.

Oil cleansers

Oil cleansers are effective in removing debris from your skin without being excessively drying. It is useful for removing makeup, sunscreen and excess oil. While it sounds counterintuitive to use an oil cleanser, It is thought that oil cleansers prevent the overproduction of oil by reducing dry skin. It can be used in dry skin types.

Micellar water cleansers

Micellar water cleansers remove makeup, dirt and oil without having to rinse. These type of cleanser contains micelles, which are molecules that hold onto dirt and oil. This can then be wiped off without requiring a rinse. These cleansers can be used in most skin types.

Common ingredients found in facial cleansers

Lactic acid is a humectant, which means it holds and attracts water to itself, which hydrates the skin. In addition, lactic acid is also an alpha hydroxy acid, which is helpful as a gentle exfoliant. Lactic acid is often added to cleansers to moisturize and gently exfoliate the skin.

Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide (large sugar molecule) found in our body’s connective tissue, including our skin. It is a strong humectant and holds water molecules very efficiently. When added to skin cleansers, hyaluronic acid functions to keep the skin hydrated.

Ceramides are naturally occurring fatty acids in the outer layer of our skin that helps retain moisture in the skin. They play a vital role in our skin barrier function. People with eczema often have lower levels of ceramide leading to dry skin. Ceramides are most helpful for dry skin type and eczema.

Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, is a popular ingredient in cleansers and skin care products. It is thought to help build keratin, reduce redness and pigmentation. Niacinamide is also thought to protect the skin from oxidative stress from the sunlight. It may be helpful for reducing inflammation in people with eczema and acne.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) are water soluble exfoliants. These include glycolic acid, malic acid, lactic acid and tartaric acid. AHAs is moderately strong exfoliating agent that removes excess dead skin from the surface of the skin. While it is helpful for severely sun damaged skin, it has a drying effect and may be too strong for dry and sensitive skin.

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid which penetrates deeper into pores. It is helpful in cleaning out pores and is commonly found in acne cleansers. It also gently exfoliates the skin. However, it may irritate dry and sensitive skin. This is best suited for acne-prone skin.

Benzoyl peroxide is a common ingredient found in acne cleansers. Benzoyl peroxide clears pores and also has an antibacterial effect, which decreases inflammation in acne.

Facial scrubs

Facial scrubs contain fine pieces of abrasive materials that help to physically exfoliate the skin by removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. This makes the skin feel softer and smoother. Facial scrubs may be used in normal and oily skin types, but may be too harsh for people with dry and sensitive skin.

How to choose a facial cleanser for your skin?

Generally, people should choose a facial cleanser that is most suitable to your skin type.

People with oily skin should choose a cleanser that removes excess oil without excessively drying your skin. It is best to avoid alcohol-based cleansers because they can cause the skin to dry out, which may trigger the skin to react by producing more oil. Gel and foaming cleansers are best suited for oily skin type.

Many facial cleansers may be too harsh for dry skin type, leaving the skin feeling flaky and irritated. Cream cleansers are hydrating and are most suitable for people with dry skin.

For people with sensitive skin, a gentle skin cleanser that is free of fragrance, alcohol and dyes are the safest.

For acne prone skin, it is important not to over-clean your skin with a strong cleanser, especially if you are also using topical prescriptions which dries your skin. Instead, there are certain ingredients such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide that is helpful is unplugging pores and reducing inflammation. If you have acne, choose products that are labelled ‘oil-free’ and ‘non-comedogenic’.

How to use a facial cleanser in your daily skin care routine?

Cleansing is the first step in the skin care routine, and can be performed once or twice a day.

The best way to use a facial cleanser is

1. Wet your hands and face with water

2. Using your fingertips, apply a small amount of cleanser to your face

3. Gently rub the skin in a circular motion, paying more attention to the oily parts of the face

4. Rinse the face off with water and pat dry

After cleansing, you can apply your other skin care products starting with toner (if needed), topical prescriptions and serums, moisturizer and sunscreen.

I hope this article has been helpful in informing you about facial cleansers, and how to select the right one for your skin type. If you are using a prescription treatment for your skin condition, always review your skin care routine with your dermatologist.

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