Ask a Beauty Editor: How to Choose the Best Cleanser for Your Skin Type

From oil-based and water-based to gels and foams.


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Ever wanted to pick the brain of a beauty editor? Or get beauty product recommendations from someone who has tried them all? You've come to the right place. In our weekly series, beauty editor Hana Hong answers your biggest skincare, hair care, and makeup questions, all submitted by Real Simple readers. Tune in every Tuesday and submit your own burning beauty questions here for a chance to be featured.

Reader question: How do I know which type of cleanser I should be using?  —Wendy Vazquez

Whether you’re a skincare minimalist or maximalist (i.e. me), there is one non-negotiable that everyone participates in (or, at least I really hope so)—and that’s washing your face. Even though it might not be as ~stimulating~ as silky serums and whipped moisturizers, the right cleanser acts as the foundation for the rest of your routine. In other words, it’s really important. Using one that’s too light can leave leftover makeup and grime on your face, leading to breakouts and irritation. On the other hand, using one that’s too heavy can strip your skin of its natural oils, leading to, well, breakouts and irritation. Either way, not good.

So, how does one find the perfect cleanser? Sure, you can go for the buzzy brand names and dermatologist-recommended seals, but everyone’s skin is different—i.e. what works for your mom won’t necessarily work for you. That’s why choosing the right type of cleanser is so important. 

But first, a disclaimer: As long as you’re not washing your face with dish detergent or body wash (yes, I’ve unfortunately witnessed both) and your skin is free from apparent irritation, then you’re probably doing okay. That being said, there are benefits to each type of facial cleanser, and knowing them can help you better align your routine to your current skincare goals.

From oil-based and water-based to gels and foams, keep reading to find your perfect match.

01 of 07


Ideal for: Oily skin

You’re probably familiar with clay-based products because of how IG-friendly they are (they make for the perfect serial killer/self-care selfie). But aesthetics aside, it also has some pretty great skincare benefits. “Clay is a popular ingredient because it absorbs sebum and has antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Hadley King, MD, board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “Depending on the formulation, clay can be too drying for already dry or sensitive skin.” Since clay works by drinking all the oil from your face, be careful not to leave any clay-based product on for too long.

My recommendation: Kiehl’s Rare Earth Deep Pore Daily Cleanser ($25,

02 of 07


Ideal for: Dry or dehydrated skin

If you’re trying to remove a lot of stubborn makeup, oil-based cleansers are optimal. “Oil-based cleansers can be helpful for removing oil-based makeup because like dissolves like,” says Dr. King. Generally speaking, cleansing oils and milks will be best suited for dry and sensitive skin types because they don’t contain an excess of surfactants that strip the skin of its natural oils.

My recommendation: Laneige Cream Skin Milk Oil Cleanser ($34,

03 of 07


Ideal for: Oily or combination skin that is acne-prone

Gel cleansers are typically water-based and contain gentle surfactants. This means you’ll get less fun foam/bubbles, but the formulas tend to be lighter, cooling, and refreshing. But don’t think that means they don’t cleanse effectively—in fact, the thinner consistency is choice for decongesting clogged pores (read: great for acne-prone skin). “There is a wide array of gel cleansers, so it’s best to look at the specific actives in the product if you're trying to get something specific out of your cleanser,” says Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist in Miami, Fla. “For example, if you want hydration and anti-aging benefits, you may look for a gel-based cleanser with peptides.”

My recommendation: Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel Cleanser ($3,

04 of 07


Ideal for: Normal to dry skin

Cream cleansers are generally, well, creamy in texture. According to Dr. King, cream cleansers are also usually more gentle, with humectants to hydrate and emollients to support the skin barrier and prevent overdrying. Because cream cleansers are usually infused with a hydrator of some kind, it’s ideal for people with drier skin.

My recommendation: Korres Mini Greek Yoghurt Foaming Cream Cleanser ($28,

05 of 07


Ideal for: Combination skin

Think of foam cleansers as the middle ground between gel and cream cleansers. “They’re more likely to be water-based but may have variable amounts of humectants, emollients, and surfactants to give that sudsy effect,” says Dr. King. These formulas will start out as cream or gel and sud up into a foamy lather upon pumping. Something to keep in mind: If you have sensitive skin, scan the ingredients label for sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, which is a surfactant that is irritating to some people. That doesn’t mean it’s bad for your skin necessarily, but I would recommend initiating a patch test first.

My recommendation: Caudalie Vinoclean Gentle Foam Cleanser ($28,

06 of 07


Ideal for: Sensitive skin or step one of a double cleanse if you wear makeup

Micellar water is made up of micelles (tiny balls of cleansing oil molecules) suspended in soft water. “The idea is that micelles are attracted to dirt and oil, so they can draw out impurities without drying out the skin,” says Dr. King. “Micelles cling on to the dirt, oil and makeup on your skin and dissolve them while leaving behind a hydrated finish.” In other words, think of micellar water like the ultimate superpower cleanser—it can moonlight as a facial wash, makeup remover, and moisturizer all in one. 

“Although anyone can use micellar water, sensitive skin types who have a hard time with normal cleansers will especially benefit because it is so gentle,” says Dr. King. “A typical foamy wash can strip the skin and leave behind harsh chemicals. And unlike many toners, micellar water does not contain alcohol and never stings.” If your skin is especially sensitive, we recommend looking for one that’s fragrance-free (see below!). 

My recommendation: Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micellar Water ($17,

07 of 07

Cleansing balm

Ideal for: Dry skin or step one of a double cleanse if you wear makeup

As you can probably infer from the name, cleansing balms are made with extremely hydrating ingredients—i.e. balms, butters, and oils—that deeply moisturize and melt away makeup. Just one thing to note: “These balms tend to leave behind an oily film that can still linger on skin after rinsing,” says Dr. King. This is not a bad thing (in fact, it helps!) for dry skin, but it may be better used as the first step in a double cleanse if you’re prone to breaking out. 

My recommendation: CeraVe Cleansing Balm ($9,

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