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The Ultimate Guide to Facial Cleansers

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The Violet Files

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You may not know it, but your cleanser may be the one to blame for your less-than-ideal visage.

Written By
Jaclyn Little

If you're on social media, you’ve almost certainly been served up a bevy of bare-skinned, fresh-faced beauty influencers–phone propped/hair back/ring light ignited–as they invite you to #grwm (‘Get Ready With Me,’ a hashtag that currently has almost 81 billion views on TikTok alone). Whether it makes the final cut or not, what all of these covetable routines start with is a clean face, courtesy of a great cleanser.

While the #grwm craze is one reason that cleansers are having a total moment right now, it’s not the only reason. Cleansers have finally evolved from moisture-stripping, squeaky-clean formulas to luxury beauty staples boasting added active ingredients that serve to do more, much more, than just wash the face. Nowadays, the right cleanser can combat signs of aging, shrink pores, quell redness, maintain moisture, fade sun spots, etc.

So how to pick the right cleanser? First, know your skin type, then understand what to look for and what to avoid for that type. Also, think about your morning and evening routines and the best formulations (cream, foam, etc.) for what you need your cleanser(s) to do at that time of day. For example, if you have oily skin and wear SPF and makeup everyday, you may want to consider double-cleansing in the evenings with a micellar water followed by a cream cleanser.

But before we dive into skin types and cleansing formulations, a few tips from our editors to make sure you’re getting the most out of your cleansing rituals:

1. Your cleanser is for your face, not for your hands. Before washing your face, please be sure to wash your hands.

2. Always dry with a new, clean towel. Some like to keep a stack of fresh hand towels close, others swear by blotting with paper towels. Either way, don’t use anything that hangs on a hook.

3. Pat dry, don’t rub. Rubbing pulls at your skin, which should be handled with care.

4. Don’t dry all the way. Leaving some dampness on your skin will help your other products penetrate and activate.

5. We believe in both an AM and PM cleanse. It is as important to wash away any sweat or grime in the morning before you put on your other products as it is to wash off everything at night.

6. If your face ever feels tight and/or dry after washing, the formula is too drying. Your skin should feel soft and hydrated after using your cleanser.


NORMAL SKIN: While we don’t condone the term “normal,” this is currently the standard term for skin that is more baseline. It is uniform, not dry, not oily, has small and/or hard-to-see pores, and is not sensitive to ingredients or aggressors (sun, pollution, makeup, etc.). When shopping for cleansers for normal skin, look for ingredients that encourage cell turnover (salicylic acid, vitamin C, exfoliants, retinol), increase hydration (hyaluronic acid, glycerin), and soften the skin (conditioning oils and ceramides).

DRY/DEHYDRATED SKIN: Traits of dry/dehydrated skin include invisible pores, red patches, a dull/lackluster complexion, more visible lines, wrinkles, and creases, and generally less elastic skin. Intuitively, if you have dry skin, you should be using a cleanser that protects the skin barrier and locks in moisture. Look for ingredients such as hyaluronic and lactic acids, ceramides, and natural oils. Avoid ingredients that are recommended for those with oily or combination skin such as salicylic and glycolic acids which work to reduce sebum and oils and would leave already dry skin irritated and cracked.

OILY/ACNE-PRONE SKIN: A shiny complexion is the main thing to look for when diagnosing oily skin, but also keep an eye out for large/visible pores, blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples. To combat oil, congestion, and acne, find a cleanser with salicylic or glycolic acids, benzoyl peroxide, aloe vera and/or tea tree oil (a natural ingredient that kills bacteria and dissolves excess oil). It is also helpful to look for the word “non-comedogenic” which is an industry term that essentially means the product that is formulated to not clog pores.

COMBINATION: “Combination skin” refers to skin that can be a combination of oily, dry, and normal at the same time, though on different areas of the face. Typically, combination skin exhibits oily skin on the T-Zone (across the forehead and down the nose and chin), and dry or normal skin on the rest of the face. Because combination skin exhibits both dry and oily skin types, it is best to stick to ultra-gentle cleansers that are free of soap, parabens, fragrances, physical scrubs like microbeads, and are hypoallergenic.

SENSITIVE SKIN: Symptoms of sensitive skin include dryness, redness, itching, and/or burning caused by environmental aggressors such as sun, pollution, and certain common skincare ingredients. Those with sensitive skin should look for similar cleansers to those with combination skin: ultra-gentle formulations that are free of soap, parabens, fragrances, physical scrubs like microbeads, and are hypoallergenic. Pro tip: Several VG staff members with sensitive skin swear by micellar waters like this one by Bioderma.


GEL CLEANSERS: As the name suggests, these cleansers have a gel-like texture and are usually clear in color. In general, gel cleansers are good for oily/acne-prone skin as this delivery method is great at cleaning out pores.

CREAM CLEANSERS: These cleansers are rich and lush in texture and are usually opaque in color. This type of formula may be better for dry, combination, and/or sensitive skin types as they tend to be gentler and more hydrating.

FOAM CLEANSERS: Somewhere between gel and cream cleansers lies foam. Out of the bottle, they usually start out as a gel or cream, then develop into rich foams that are super-effective at removing excess oil, makeup, and sunscreen. Foam cleansers make a good choice for all skin types.

OIL CLEANSERS: Often the most misunderstood cleanser formulation, oil cleansers are able to gently lift makeup (including waterproof mascara) and dirt off the skin and out of pores without disrupting the skin barrier, meaning they won’t strip your skin of the “good” oils. Oil cleansers are a great first step in a “double cleanse” ritual and work well as a daily cleanser for all skin types. Oily skins should follow with a gel or foam cleanser. Pro tip: Oil-cleansers are great for cleaning makeup brushes and for creating extra slip for facial-sculpting tools like gua sha.

CLAY CLEANSERS: Like clay masks, clay cleansers have absorbing power that draws out oil from the skin to clear pores and fight acne. Those with oily skin may benefit most from clay cleansers, but they may also be suitable for combination and sensitive skin types as they are usually void of harsh ingredients, acids, and added scrubs.

MICELLAR CLEANSERS: Hailing from the land of best-in-class beauty (France, bien sûr), these ultra-gentle, alcohol-free, no-rinse cleansers are formulated with mild, non-irritating surfactants that cluster together in “micelles” that are suspended in purified water and work to attract dirt, oils, and makeup and lift them off the skin. These kinds of cleansers are best for those with sensitive or combination skin. Pro tip: they are also extremely effective at tightening pores.

CLEANSING BALMS: Where most delivery methods need water to be activated, cleansing balms are meant to be used directly on the face and then wiped away along with dirt, oil, and makeup. As balms are almost always oil-based (coconut, avocado), they are among the most hydrating cleansing options available and so are best for dry skin types.