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Cleansers and cleansing - a guide

The best cleansers and advice on how to use them

Author: Doreen Corbey November 14 2007

woman cleansing her face

Cleansing is one of the most important parts of a skincare routine, in fact, as important as moisturising. The reason most women give for not cleansing is time, but in fact cleansing doesn't have to be time consuming – if pushed for time, you can cleanse your face in the bath or the shower. And cost should be no excuse either, as cleansing doesn't have to be expensive.

Why cleanse?

During the day, the oils in our face attract dust and dirt from the air, as does the moisturiser we put on. Every 24 hours, the skin cells in the epidermis (the outer layer of skin) is constantly renewing and leaving a layer of dead cells on the surface. On top of all this comes make-up and sweat, and if all of this is left on the skin day after day, it dulls the complexion and clogs pores.

There is a plethora of products on the market for us to choose from, so it can be confusing for the 1st time buyer to know what to go for. When I first started a skincare routine as a teenager, I was ill-advised and bought a load of products that were unsuitable, so I hope the following list will give you a good starting point as to what you could use or whether you are using the right cleanser.

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One of the favourites, but whether you use ordinary detergent soap, or a facial bar depends on many factors. If you don't wear make-up, your skin is oily and the water is soft, then you can use pretty much any soap. Even normal household soap contains detergents which will cleanse adequately, and this is certainly the cheaper option. If using soap with hard water, then it does not rinse off easily so you are likely to get a scum residue, such as the one you leave in the tub after a bath. And soap is not good at removing make-up, which is nowadays is formulated to have better staying power.

Soaps remove the skin's natural oils as well as the dirt, which can lead to moisture loss and an entry for bacteria. The skin should be able to replenish its oils within 24 hours and so correct this deficiency, but drier skin often cannot do this. Do not be fooled by the soaps that advertise they are the same pH as distilled water and therefore lead you to believe they are not drying. Distilled water is pH 7.0 and is itself drying to skin, while soaps are alkaline, above pH 7.0. The skin's pH is about 5.5.

If you have oily skin and still like the idea of using soap, then try a bar that is mainly made up of vegetable oils, or a glycerine bar. Oily soaps are less drying but are also less efficient at cleansing because the oily residue left contains some dirt. Glycerine soaps can cleanse well and are also less drying but do not lather well so you tend to use more of it. Facial bars are also a good option. These often contain detergents in order to cleanse efficiently, but at the same time, can be drying to dry or sensitive skins.

One of the most important things when using soaps, particularly if you are prone to spots, is to keep them dry and clean, so invest in a large covered soap dish with a draining capacity.

Cleansing milks, lotions and creams

These are all oil and water emulsions, made to different consistencies depending on how thick a texture you are looking for. They are especially good at cleansing as the oil part removes the make-up, at the same time taking away as little of the natural oils from the skin as possible, while the water carries away the water-soluble waste.

For oily skins, these may not remove enough of the skin's oil to keep it free from spots. I recommend applying the cleanser with your hands, not with cotton wool. This way, you use less of the product and you can also give a light massage to the face as you gently rub in. Remove with a face cloth dipped in warm water. Do not use a normal face flannel, as you will be tempted to rub and the material can be too rough for the skin. Choose something very gentle that will not scratch the skin. Don't use tissues or cotton wool as these may scratch and are not efficient at removing the cleanser.

Cleansing gels

Foaming gels that lather up contain detergents, as soap does, and can have the same effect, so are best suited to oilier skins. There are also gels that are suited to dry or sensitive skins and these should not lather up. Gels are often removed by just splashing with water.

Cleansing oil

Although there is not as vast an array of cleansing oils or cleansing balms on the market as other cleansing products, in my opinion they are the best thing to use. Also going under the name of Pre-Cleanser, these are an oil formula that you massage into the skin using fingertips, then remove with (preferably) a face cloth. Oil formulas are more efficient at removing excess oil and grime from the skin, without stripping or drying it. Even if you have an oily skin, one of these cleansers is still going to remove sufficient grease!

How often should you cleanse?

Cleansing for most skin types should be ideally twice a day. It need only take a couple of minutes. Your moisturiser will work more effectively once your skin has been prepped to accept it. If you really cannot get yourself to cleanse twice daily, then do it at the end of the day. This way, you take off all the day's dirt, sweat, dead skin cells and waste materials. If you have dry skin, you can get away with a splash of water, or preferably non-alcohol toner in the morning and a proper cleanse in the evening.


I cannot talk about cleansing without including toners or tonics. The traditional mantra used to be that you had to cleanse, tone then moisturise. Nowadays toning is not as essential, it is more a matter of choice, and depends on the brand of cleanser.

A toner for oily skin will contain up to 70% alcohol and is astringent; it will be effective at removing the oils but cannot stop the skin from producing more – such oil production is down to your hormones and your diet. If you do use astringent products on oily skin to the extent that they remove the natural oils, your body will just produce more to make up for the deficiency, so by removing all the oil, you are not always doing your skin a favour.

Don't believe the brands that boast that their toners shrink pores. The toner can only irritate the skin to cause the tissue around the pore to inflame, so giving the appearance that it has shrunk, and this is only temporary.

A toner for normal to dry skins should preferably be without alcohol or solvents. This will put a fine layer of moisture over the face but this is temporary. If you have not removed your cleanser properly, then toner is necessary to remove the last traces. Apply with a damp cotton wool pad. If you remove your cleanser with a cloth as mentioned above, then it's your choice if you feel you need a toner, but I find it useful for correcting the pH of the skin after cleansing, for example after soap.

I like to use toner to refresh the skin, no matter what type and then follow this up straight away with a moisturiser. This helps to seal in the fine moisture that the toner gives to the skin and keeps it softer for longer. I don't believe in using toner on cotton wool as you use up so much. Instead, I either splash a little into the hands and then onto the face, or even better, decant into a spray bottle. The latter can only be done if the toner has no alcohol and is safe to use around the eye area. A good all-round toner is natural rose water, but make sure it’s the real thing and not a synthetic one.

About the Author

Doreen has had a passion for massage since she was 15 years old. She still has that passion, and offers massage, specialist facials and other beauty treatments in her home-based salon in Surrey. With any energy left over she will devour all the beauty pages of all the magazines she can lay her hands on!

Doreen's homepage: Bellessence

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Posted on 20/03/08 21:03 by: Charlie Kuchinsky

I am really bad at doing this properly, I know. You have encouraged me to do better.

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