Skin-care rules may be fickle, but there's one that will always remain true: You have to wash your face. We're taught the importance of cleansing from a young age (moisturizing, toning, exfoliating — all that comes later), but that doesn't mean you should still be using the face wash your mom bought you to fight off teenage acne. These days, there are so many products out there beyond the harsh face washes and scrubs of our formative years.
Recently, a sea of new cleansing options has flooded the market. But these waters (as well as gels, balms, and powders) can be difficult to navigate, so we enlisted some industry experts to tell us about the pros and cons of the latest cleansing alternatives — and product suggestions, too.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Unless you’re an ahead-of-the-curve makeup artist or a jet-setting Francophile, micellar water probably wasn’t on your radar until it started getting buzz in the States a couple of years ago. Hell, it might still sound foreign to you. But the French have been using it for years — originally to avoid the harsh tap water of Paris. Yes, micellar water is meant to take the place of regular old water, but it has a magic ingredient: micelles, or little oil molecules that absorb other oils and dirt.
Pros: Micellar water is great for all skin types because it doesn’t strip the skin — which could leave it prone to acne and irritation. It even works for those with extremely sensitive skin, eczema, or rosacea, says Dendy Engelman, MD, dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery. But its most appealing quality? It's a one-step, no-rinse situation — the low-maintenance, low-attention-span, late-night girl’s dream product. Cons: Nothing can be that easy, right? Mary Schook, a licensed esthetician and cosmetic formulator in New York City, is a fan of micellar water because it doesn’t coat the skin with residue and it saves time, but she doesn’t think it should be used every day. “It’s a great quick-fix,” she says. “But I really find that the ‘lazy’ cleansing method is not always a daily solution, and still needs a rinse at times followed by some toner and a good serum and/or cream. Sometimes, there are no shortcuts in skin care.” Especially if you wear a lot of makeup — micellar water won't always remove those pesky leftover mascara particles.
"Originally, [micellar water] wasn't good as a long-term skin-care strategy, especially for troubled or oily skin because the micelles — additional oil — can clog the skin," says Schook. "But Bioderma created its Sébium H2O especially for oily skin."
Bioderma Sebium H2O, $12.95, available at Beautylish.
La Roche-Posay has been making derm-approved products for over 30 years in France, and its micellar water is one of the most popular. It's especially good for those with sensitive skin.
La Roche-Posay Physiological Micellar Solution, $16.79, available at Drugstore.com.
This micellar water gets a little boost from the soothing rose de France, so it not only removes makeup and gently cleanses the skin, but it also smells dreamy.
Lancôme Eau Fraîche Douceur, $38, available at Lancôme.
One of the first micellar waters to hit stateside, Simple has become a favorite of beauty editors and makeup pros alike — especially now that you can also get the ultra-gentle formula in
wipe form. Micellar Cleansing Water, $5.99, available at Simple Target.
Garnier recently released a very refreshing, very affordable option that works on all skin types.
SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water, $8.99, available at Garnier Garnier.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Like its French cousin micellar water, cleansing balm uses oil to latch onto and remove makeup, without stripping the skin. But this guy has a completely different consistency and takes a whole lot more of a commitment — it's not for lazy girls. First, you apply the thick formula (which may seem closer in texture to something you would swipe across your lips) to dry skin, and then you massage it in. It will begin to melt off even the toughest waterproof makeup. Add water, and it will emulsify so you can rinse it off. Dr. Engelman suggests wiping it off with a muslin cloth to exfoliate, tone, and improve circulation. Balms are best for normal to dry skin.
Pros: Cleansing balms are great for taking off heavy makeup. They are especially good for those with dry skin, and in the winter if your skin needs a moisture surge — you can even use some of them as overnight masks, says Schook. If you massage a balm into your skin, Dr. Engelman says it can "decongest and help drain toxins [while] thoroughly cleansing and exfoliating. This will support natural skin-cell regeneration and provide a vital receptive base for [additional skin-care] products to work at their best." Plus, they condition the skin, leaving it soft to the touch. Cons: “Be careful if you have sensitive skin,” warns Schook. “Some of the essential oils that many brands use can cause breakouts, some brands can still feel like Crisco on the skin, and some oily-skin users report that their skin doesn’t feel clean after using cleansing balms.” If you are acne-prone and want to try a balm, be sure you remove every last trace of it with a washcloth, says Schook. If there's still residue after that (test with a swipe of toner and a cotton ball), you may need to use another cleanser after, or balms may not be right for you. As you can see, they are a bit of a commitment.
This OG cleansing balm from British facialist Eve Lom was once dubbed "the best cleanser in the world" by
Vogue. 'Nuff said. Eve Lom Cleanser, $50, available at Sephora.
Our beauty editor Maria Del Russo swears by this product. "It melts my makeup off in one step," she says. "And unlike some of the other cleansers I've used, it is incredibly moisturizing, too."
The Organic Pharmacy Carrot Butter Cleanser, $74, available at The Organic Pharmacy.
This balm is noticeably more lightweight than some of the others, yet still effective at removing makeup and moisturizing.
Clinique Take the Day Off Cleansing Balm, $29, available at Clinique.
This balm is infused with rose and soothing chamomile for an extra-gentle (and sweet-smelling) cleanse. It whisks away stubborn eye makeup, while conditioning your lashes (and brows!) in the process.
Ren Rosa Centifolia No.1 Purity Cleansing Balm, $48, available at Sephora.
Cleansing balms tend to run on the expensive side, but the Korean beauty brand Banila Co. offers up a plush, creamy version that cleanses and softens skin — for a comparative steal.
Banila Co. Clean It Zero Classic, $16, available at Soko Glam.
Not to be confused with the oil-cleansing method, in which you rub a fragrance-free oil on your face and remove it with a damp cloth, cleansing oils are more like balms (in liquid form). The oils in the product bind to any dirt, impurities, and makeup on your skin, and then emulsify when they come in contact with water, and can be easily rinsed away. Dr. Engelman advises massaging the oil into your skin to ensure this binding occurs.
“Although these are not supposed to be pore-clogging, I usually reserve these recommendations for people with dry, sensitive skin, or as a dry-weather cleanser,” she says. She also suggests cleansing oil for those who get easily irritated and those who are just starting a retinoid regimen. Though some people use cleansing oils on their own, Schook recommends using them in a two-step cleansing method followed by a cleansing gel or cleansing water to break down any leftover oil. Pros: “They dissolve makeup, dirt, and grime without leaving the skin feeling tight,” says Dr. Engelman. “When you rinse off, skin glows!” “They can clog pores by compounding dead skin into [them], because it is only a surface cleanse," says Schook. "It doesn’t help to remove oils that may be building deep in the pores and can dehydrate the skin by not allowing moisture to get in."
"Choose a cleansing oil that goes milky when water is added to it," says Schook. She suggests looking to South Korean brands that have perfected the cleansing oil. We also love this classic from Japanese brand DHC — one of the first cleansing oils to gain popularity in the States.
DHC Deep Cleansing Oil, $23.50, available at DHC Care.
This blend of plant-derived oils does not have the "oily" feel that might deter some people. It's gentle, yet still somehow manages to dissolve all the sooty, black mascara residue from under your eyes.
BareMinerals Oil Obsessed Total Cleansing Oil, $30, available at BareEscentuals.
For those who don't mind dropping a little cash, Dr. Engelman suggests this cleansing oil, formulated with SK-II's hero ingredient Pitera (a unique yeast strain found in sake) and apple-seed extract, to get a serious deep clean — and as one that is suitable for those with oily skin.
SK-II Facial Treatment Cleansing Oil, $70, available at Sephora.
Our beauty news editor Taylor Bryant swears by this brightening cleanser. "Cleansing oils tend to be on the heavier side, but this one is the complete opposite," she says. "It's super-lightweight, and the apricot-seed oil and grapefruit extract pull double-duty by cleansing and brightening."
Fresh Brightening Cleansing Oil, $35, available at Laneige Target.
If you're still a little unsure about oils, this Julep offering is a good place to start. The antioxidant-rich formula, brimming with grape-seed, olive, and rose-hip oils, is super-hydrating and practically weightless. Bonus: It doesn't leave behind slippery residue.
Julep Love Your Bare Face Hydrating Cleansing Oil, $28, available at Nordstrom.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Moving away from the world of oil, we come to cleansing gel. “The new cleansing gels are meant to replace facial soaps because they don’t ‘strip’ the skin and throw off the delicate pH,” Schook says. They are usually best for those with normal to oily skin — even those who are acne-prone.
Pros: Not only are cleansing gels smooth and rinse clean, for all of you who dislike the feeling (or the idea) of oil, they keep the skin’s natural pH and moisture balanced. Many are formulated with helpful skin-smoothing and brightening acids and botanicals, but Schook says to be sure to stay away from products with too many ingredients. "The simpler the list, the better." Cons: Some formulas can be too dehydrating for dry and sensitive skin. And although they will remove some makeup, you can't depend on them to get rid of everything. If you're a more-than-no-makeup-makeup kind of person, you might need to add a full-duty remover to the mix as well.
Dr. Engelman suggests this cleansing gel, formulated with glycolic and salicylic acids, for those over 30 who are prone to breakouts.
SkinCeuticals LHA Cleansing Gel, $38, available at SkinCeuticals.
This is our beauty director Cat Quinn's top cleansing pick. "I use it every day," she says. "It's great for combination and acne-prone skin. It takes off all my mascara, and leaves my skin feeling cleaner, with very minimal breakouts."
Phyto Nutrient Cleansing Gel, $24.09, available at Le Mieux Amazon.
Dr. Engelman recommends this glycolic acid cleanser, which also works as a toner. Its star ingredient? A natural humectant found in berries called sorbitol, which will hydrate and soften your skin.
Jan Marini Bioglycolic Face Cleanser, $29.70, available at Jan Marini.
This gel-to-oil hybrid should be on your radar. When you massage it into your skin, the gel transforms into a light oil cleanser. The result is not only super-soothing and hydrating, but also kinda magical.
Bliss Fabulous Makeup Melt Gel-To-Oil Cleanser, $28, available at Ulta.
Here is another awesome gel-to-oil transformer. The most exciting part? The price.
E.L.F. Hydrating Gel Melt Cleanser, $10, available at E.L.F.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
For the uninitiated, cleansing powder may seem a little strange — almost science-experiment-like. You pour the baby-powder-y product onto the palm of your hand, add a few drops of water, and voilà! It fizzes into a creamy or foamy lather right before your eyes. But cleansing powder is not a gimmick; it's a great cleansing alternative and gentle exfoliant that works for all skin types — especially for dry or sun-damaged skin. "I can't think of many cons for cleansing powders," says Schook. "They're some of my favorite cleansers because they are better than a cleanser-scrub combo."
Pros: A powder is great for the jet-setter or gym rat — just throw it in your bag, and it won't spill or get flagged going through security. But more importantly, powder cleansers don't need many of the preservatives, alcohol, or detergents your average liquid cleansers do. Cons: Some may contain enzymes that can be a little aggressive for sensitive skin.
Schook recommends this formula. It not only has lactic acid to slough off dead skin cells, but chickpea flour to absorb excess oil, oats to soothe, and strawberry to cleanse.
Éminence Strawberry Rhubarb Dermafoliant, $48, available at Dermstore.
This soft powder, made from the enzymes of "seven white flowers" (how lovely is that?), will cleanse and brighten even the most sensitive skin without irritation.
Papa Recipe White Flower Clear Up My Enzyme Powder Cleanser, $14.95, available at Amazon.
If you're looking for a little luxury, Schook recommends this gentle Japanese powder with papaya extract. It's great for those with dry skin, and can help with fine lines or wrinkles.
Tatcha Polished Gentle Rice Enzyme Powder, $65, available at Sephora.
This hardworking drugstore option may sound humble, but packs a powerful punch. It effectively removes dirt and gently sloughs away dead skin cells with baking soda.
Baking Soda Cleansing Scrub, $9.99, available at Bioré Ulta.
Linda Rodin actually opts out of oil when it comes to cleansing (oh, the irony). Instead, she developed this exfoliating-and-cleansing powder, formulated with rice bran and sea algae, to get the job done. The coolest part? You can control the degree of exfoliation you want — add less water for a heartier scrub; more to tread lightly. Rodin Facial Cleansing Powder, $45, available at Rodin Olio Lusso.
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