Traditionally, cleanser has had one job: To take off your makeup. For years, products in the category have been marketed as “mascara melting” and “foundation erasing”—a necessary step in washing off the dirt and grime of your day to leave your skin with a clean canvas for the rest of your routine. So last year, when skin care dethroned makeup as the best-selling beauty category—which means for the first time in recent history, people were buying less makeup—one would expect that they’d be buying less cleanser, too. But instead, something interesting happened: Cleanser changed its messaging. Suddenly, there was a new class of do-it-all cleansers with a job description bigger than simply of sudsing up your skin.
“Every cleanser should clean your skin—that should be a non-negotiable,” says Emily Parr, who founded her cleanser-only skin-care brand, Holifrog, in 2019. “But now people can go in and say, ‘This is what I’m looking for out of a cleanser,’ and give their laundry list of goals and desires in the same way they go shopping for a cream.”
With a rise in education about the importance of treating and protecting your skin—combined with the fact that most of us don’t have time to slather on 10 steps worth of a routine every night—there’s a new hunger for cleansers that do it all in one fell swoop. “The thought of not wasting our cleansing step on just cleansing that’s appealing, because why not multitask?” says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD. “We have all of these technologies now, and are inundated with information about needing this or that active ingredient, so there’s a sense of ‘Why not incorporate it at every step?'” Read on to find out why that’s such a good thing.
Cleanser has long been more than just soap and water, but now it’s a treatment of its own
Cleansing is the foundation of a solid skin-care routine. In 2019 the facial cleansers segment in the United States generated sales of nearly $1.57 billion, making them the most profitable category in the U.S. skin-care market. In the simplest sense, cleansing is critical for removing dirt, oil, and environmental irritants, which keep your pores clear. “Cleansers” date back to early civilizations, when people used bone fragments to scrape grime off of their faces, but until relatively recently, people were using good, old-fashioned soap and water to get the job done.
With a high pH, “soap” which is made by taking a fatty oil or butter and adding water and lye to it, is known to strip your skin of nutrients and disrupt your barrier. “Regular soap and water, have detergents that can really can strip the skin of its natural oils and moisturizers, leaving it dried out and potentially irritated,” says Dr. King. “So that tight feeling that some of us equate to feeling clean, really that means your skin’s been stripped of some of its oils and you’re going to have to replace them with moisturizer.”
Non-soap cleansers, however, have replaced their soaping elements with gentler surfactants that make that squeaky clean feeling a thing of the past. “Traditional, old-school cleansers really weren’t doing much for your skin—they were literally soap and water, and at the bottom of the ingredient list there may have been one or two plant extracts or some ceramides thrown in there,” says Parr. “But because the formulas are becoming more advanced, I think you can start looking at cleansers as part of the treatment category.”
What to know about using your daily facial cleanser as a treatment
While derms have long sung the praises of gentle, non-soap cleansers you can get at the drugstore, using one of the fancy new active options has its own set of benefits. “These cleansers give you a nice, additional opportunity to treat your skin with actives,” says Dr. King. “You don’t have to worry about mixing multiple actives at the same time and worrying that one is diluting or deactivating the other. It’s nice if you have one active in your cleanser and another in your leave-on, you don’t have to worry about the compatibility as much.”
For certain, potentially harsh ingredients—like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and alpha hydroxy acids—your cleansing step is the best place to integrate them into your routine to avoid irritation, since you’re washing them away with water. “You’re having shorter contact, so you’re able to get some of the benefits without as much irritation risk,” says Dr. King.
However, there are some actives that need to stay on your face to work properly, and those should have no place in your cleansing routine. I’m a little bit more skeptical about using ingredients you need to leave on to get the benefits of in a cleanser,” she says. “Antioxidants, for example, need to stay on your skin to help minimize free radical damage from UV or pollution exposure throughout the course of the day.”
So while it’s generally best to reserve your vitamin C for the parts of your routine that won’t ultimately make their way down the drain, like a serum or moisturizer, there’s one exception to the rule. “If you’re super sensitive and have had a hard time finding a vitamin C serum that doesn’t cause irritation, getting it in your cleanser can be helpful,” says Dr. King.
When it comes to choosing an active cleanser, there are a few things to keep in mind. “Think about your skin type, and then target it with the actives that make sense for you,” says Dr. King. “If you want to target clogged pores, then a salicylic acid cleanser might be a great option; if you’ve been having acne breakouts, then a benzoyl peroxide cleanser might be a good choice; and if you want to minimize signs of aging, fine lines, dullness or discoloration opt for an AHA.” Below, some of our favorite new-to-market picks that fit the bill.
The enzymes in this cleanser—which come from pineapple—work to gently exfoliate dead skin cells away as you lather. After you rinse it off, it leaves behind argan oil and marshmallow root extract to soften skin and maintain balance.
Made with a blend of papaya and yuzu lemon, this vitamin C cleanser has gentle exfoliating properties, and thanks to its gel texture will leave some level of antioxidant protection on your skin.
If you want antioxidant protection that will stick around all day, this vitamin F-infused balm is the perfect pick. It’s made with jojoba, and in addition to offering environmental defense, it works to preserve the moisture in your skin and keep its barrier protected.
This gel cleanser is made with PHAs, which gently melt away dead skin cells to leave skin glassy. It’s also got a laundry list of botanicals, including orange, lemon, rosehip, goji berry, and sea buckthorn, to condition skin for added smoothness.
With 27 percent glycolic acid, this cleanser is the closest thing you’ll get to a derm-level chemical peel from your cleansing step. Despite its high intensity, it won’t strip skin, but instead will leave your complexion smooth, radiant, and totally clear of dead cells.
This cleansing oil is unlike most others on the market in that it’s packed with enzymes and has a grainy texture to chemically and physically exfoliate skin at the same time. Thanks to marine botanicals, it also hydrates in the process.
Calming it down is only one of a number of things this gel cleanser will do for your skin. It’s made with rosehip seed oil, which is packed with vitamins A, C, and E to add antioxidant protection and stimulate cell turnover.
Thanks to adaptogenic reishi, this cleanser is formulated to give skin exactly what it needs. It hydrates, aids in defending against environmental stressors, and improves barrier protection, and keeps working long after you’ve finished your face washing routine.
Give your complexion a boost of radiance every time you wash it thanks to the vitamin C in this cleanser. In addition to adding glow, it hydrates and plumps skin, too.
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