Let’s Talk Cleansers: A Comprehensive Guide

Let’s Talk Cleansers: A Comprehensive Guide

Skin is your body’s largest organ, so it’s no coincidence that we spend so much time caring for it. From moisturizing lotions to wrinkle-reducing serums, there is no shortage of products out there to help keep your skin feeling and looking its best. And with so many products out there to choose from, you may find yourself standing in the beauty aisle wondering what to buy. 

Don’t worry — we’re here to help! There are five essentials that dermatologists recommend to keep your skin healthy:

  • Cleanser
  • Antioxidant
  • Moisturizer
  • Sunscreen
  • Retinoid

Since cleanser is typically the first product in a skincare routine, you’re going to learn what to look for and how to use it in this article. You’re also going to get the scoop on how cleansers can help prevent and treat photoaging (premature skin aging). Are you ready to take your skincare to the next level?

Why cleansing your skin is important

Before we dive into the different types of cleansers, it’s important to understand why cleansing is so crucial for your skin. Think about it this way: Your skin is constantly exposed to the sun, pollution, and other environmental stressors. These elements can leave your skin feeling dry and irritated.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many of these environmental stressors and makeup products you put on your skin aren’t water-soluble, so washing with water isn’t enough. That’s where cleansers come in! 

By removing the dirt, oil, and makeup that have accumulated on your skin throughout the day, you’re giving your skin a chance to heal and restore itself. Cleansing also helps prepare your skin for the next step in your skincare routine, whether that’s applying a serum, moisturizer, or sunscreen. 

Cleansers can be used to treat the following skin conditions:

  • Acne
  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Rosacea

Most importantly, it can be used to prevent and treat photoaging.

What is photoaging?

Photoaging is skin damage caused by prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Sun is your skin’s natural source of Vitamin D—but it also damages collagen and elastin, leading to fine lines and wrinkles.

Not only that, but it can also cause skin cancer. That’s why you should never skip wearing sunscreen, especially when you consider the sun’s UV rays are responsible for up to 80% of skin damage!

Signs of photoaging include:

  • Blotchiness and redness
  • Broken blood vessels (spider veins)
  • Decreased elasticity
  • Rough, uneven skin texture
  • Pigmentation changes (age spots, freckles and liver spots)
  • Fine lines and wrinkles

An effective skincare routine to combat photoaging includes cleansing your skin every morning and night. Even if you don’t wear makeup, removing impurities from your skin every night at a minimum is a must!

Now that you know why cleansing is so important, let’s dive into what and what not to look for when selecting a cleanser.

Why you shouldn’t use soap to clean your face

We get it. You love the scent of the bar soap you use during your daily shower. But don’t be tempted to use the same soap when you wash your face — here’s why: 

  • Bar soaps can be drying. The harsh chemicals in soap can dry out your skin and cause irritation.
  • They are often dyed and scented. The dyes and scents in soap can irritate your skin, leaving it blotchy, itchy, or red.
  • They have a high pH. Soap can interfere with the natural balance of your skin’s oils, leading to acne and eczema.

That’s why it’s essential to use a facial cleanser specifically designed for the delicate skin on your face. The good news is, we’ve come a long way since the first known use of DIY soap thousands of years ago. We now have a variety of cleansers made with ingredients designed to minimize damage to the skin and even moisturize it. So what should you use to wash your face?

Cleanser v. face wash: What’s the difference?

If you thought a cleanser and face wash was the same thing, you’re not alone.  Many people use the terms interchangeably, but there is a difference.

  • Cleanser – A cleanser typically has a creamy, gel-like, milky, or watery texture. It’s designed to hydrate and moisturize your skin.
  • Face wash – A face wash is a water-based product that foams up like soap. It provides a deeper clean, which helps clean your pores and sweep away oil.

With that, most derms recommend a cleanser to prevent and treat photoaging. Now it’s time to figure out what type of ingredients to look for.

What to look for when choosing a cleanser

There are so many different options for cleansers out there that it can be hard to pick just one. Let’s see if we can make that decision a little easier.

When choosing a cleanser, you should look at the ingredient list and consider the following type of cleansers:

  • Soap-free – Soap cleansers tend to strip your skin of the natural oils that keep it moisturized and healthy. That’s why it’s important to find a soap-free cleanser that won’t dry out your skin.
  • Low pH – These types of cleansers are typically non-drying and help restore your skin surface pH (ss-pH) to normal levels. Soaps and cleansers can significantly change ss-pH, which can increase after a single wash or even after rinsing with water.
  • Emollient – An emollient soothes and softens the skin. It helps improve the skin’s appearance and feel by enhancing its elasticity. Natural emollients include argan oil, cocoa butter, jojoba oil, and shea butter.
  • Humectant – A humectant draws in water and moisturizes the skin. Natural humectants include aloe vera, honey, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and seaweed.

Like with any other product, always read the ingredient list before buying. This is especially important if you have sensitive skin, which brings us to our next point.

Finding the right cleanser for your skin type

Now that you know what to look for in a cleanser, it’s time to find one that works with your skin type. 

  • Combination skin – Look for a gentle, water-soluble cleanser. A gel-based or mildly foaming cleanser won’t leave your skin feeling dry or tight.
  • Dry skin – Look for a creamy, moisturizing, and soothing cleanser. Cleansers containing glycerin and hyaluronic acid are good choices because they draw water to the skin’s surface.
  • Normal skin – To be honest, you can use just about anything because your skin isn’t picky. Look for a non-drying cleanser that hydrates and cleanses without stripping away your skin’s natural oils.
  • Oily or acne-prone skin – Look for a gel-based or foaming cleanser, which will help clean out pores and strip away excess oil.
  • Sensitive skin – Look for a cleanser with glycerin, which is not only gentle but also helps hydrate and protect the skin. It’s also a good idea to choose fragrance-free products since sensitive skin is more prone to irritation.

Regardless of your skin type, everyone can benefit from using a gentle cleanser.

How to use a cleanser – the right way

By now, you should know that skipping your skincare routine isn’t a good idea since consistency will help you achieve your skin goals. 

Not washing your face will cause any residue left on your skin to either clog up your pores, cause breakouts, or make your complexion look dull and — nobody has time for that!  Follow the simple steps below for the proper way to cleanse your face.

  1. Wet your face and hands and apply the cleanser directly to your skin in an upward circular motion.
  2. Be sure not to scrub too hard. This will irritate and inflame your skin. For best results, leave the cleanser on for about two minutes so it can break down any makeup or dirt that’s built up on your face.
  3. Use warm water to rinse off the cleanser then pat your skin dry. Your skin is now ready for the rest of your skincare routine!

How to use a cleanser with retinoids

Retinoids (like retinol or Tretinoin) are used as part of a nighttime skincare routine to help prevent and treat:

  • Enlarged pores
  • Pigmentation
  • Uneven skin tone
  • Wrinkles
  • Acne

With decades of research backing up the effectiveness of retinoids, it makes sense that it’s become a staple in many people’s skincare routines. But of course, you have to make sure you’re using it correctly, and having a clean foundation is a must.

That’s where your evening cleanser comes in. A retinoid serum should be applied to clean skin. Leaving any residue on your face will not only interfere with the absorption of retinoids but can also cause irritation and clogged pores. So before you apply your retinoid serum — wash up!

It’s best to use a gentle cleanser and avoid cleansers with harsh, drying, or exfoliating ingredients like:

  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA)
  • Beta-hydroxy acid (BHA)
  • Benzoyl peroxide

Avoid using a physical exfoliator like a scrub or brush until your skin has adjusted to the retinoid. And always follow up with a moisturizer because it reduces the risk of irritation.

Now that you know all about cleansers and how to use them, it’s time to put this information into practice! Remember, less is more when it comes to ingredients, so read those labels carefully. If you’re still not sure what cleanser to use, you can always ask your dermatologist for recommendations. 

Working with dermatologists and our Dear Brightly community, we’ve done the work for you and have formulated a cleanser. Sign up today for early exclusive access to our derm-tested milky cleanser. By joining the waitlist, you’ll be the first to get updates and exclusive offers related to the launch.


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Walters RM, Mao G, Gunn ET, Hornby S. Cleansing formulations that respect skin barrier integrityDermatol Res Pract. 2012;2012:495917. doi:10.1155/2012/495917

Ananthapadmanabhan, K. P., Moore, D. J., Subramanyan, K., Misra, M., & Meyer, F. (2004). Cleansing without compromise: the impact of cleansers on the skin barrier and the technology of mild cleansing. Dermatologic Therapy, 17(s1), 16–25. doi:10.1111/j.1396-0296.2004.04s1002.x 

Blaak J, Staib P. The Relation of pH and Skin CleansingCurr Probl Dermatol. 2018;54:132-142. doi:10.1159/000489527