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Cleansers are the second most important skin care product after sunscreen. A cleanser balances the skin’s PH levels, controls oil production and removes makeup and environmental pollutants from the skin’s surface.

It is widely believed that the benefits of cleansers are to:

  • cleanse the skin without robbing it of moisture
  • remove all the impurities
  • allow penetration of active ingredients applied afterwards
  • keep skin pores clean and clear
  • treat acne
  • leave the skin soft and supple
  • moisturize the face
  • help prevent blemishes

The natural oil (sebum) produced by the skin creates a very fine, slightly acidic film on the surface called the acid mantle. This acts as a barrier to bacteria, viruses and other environmental pollutants that may penetrate the skin.

Normal healthy skin has a PH value of between 4.5 to 6; with 7 being neutral. As we age our PH levels slowly move towards neutral, our skin can weaken and cuts and abrasions are slower to heal. The PH levels can also change or become more alkaline, increasing the PH level, due to certain skin problems such as eczema and atopic dermatitis. Diseases such as diabetes can also alter the PH levels of the skin. If the acid mantle is disrupted or the PH value moves towards alkaline, bacteria can thrive and cause mild to severe acne and other skin problems, depending on the age and health of the skin.

The many hormonal changes that take place during adolescence can affect the skin’s PH balance. During this time, the sebum production increases and can become sticky and waxy. This may block the pores to create blackheads (known medically as comedones) and, eventually, pimples and pustules. The use of soap or a foaming cleanser should be discouraged as this can strip away the acid mantle and irritate the skin further. The removal of the acid mantle will cause an increase in the production of sebum, making the skin even oilier. A PH balanced cleanser will restore the natural acidity and help to control the excess production of sebum.

Know your skin type – cleansers

Combination/Normal skin. To maintain the natural moisture balance, use a water-based cleanser that contains light weight oils such as olive extract or those derived from coconut. (Cetyl Alcohol)

Dry skin. To restore moisture to dry skin, choose a heavier, oil-based cream cleanser. For very dry, cracked skin a cold cream cleanser or an oil cleanser would be beneficial. They have more staying power than creams do and are more effective at preventing water from evaporating from your skin.

Oily skin. It is best to choose a water-based cleanser and one that is labeled “non-comedogenic,” which means it won’t clog pores and create blackheads.

Sensitive skin. Use a non-foaming cleanser that is specifically designed for sensitive skin and doesn’t contain potential allergens such as synthetic fragrances or dyes.

Mature skin. Choose an oil-based cream cleanser; these contain moisturising and conditioning ingredients such as aloe vera, chamomile or ceramides.

It’s important to avoid facial cleansers made with harsh chemicals, such as sulfates or artificial fragrances, particularly if you suffer from acne breakouts or have sensitive skin as they can cause further irritation. There are over 200 synthetic fragrances currently used in cosmetics and, as they are not required to be individually listed, it is difficult to know which fragrance is used.

There are two basic types of facial cleansers, and they have different effects on the skin. These are:

  • Foaming cleansers
  • Non-foaming cleansers

Foaming facial cleansers

These facial cleansers lather and are just rinsed off. They can come in a variety of types, including:

  • Lotions
  • Creams
  • Gels
  • Self-foaming cleansers
  • Aerosols

The common foaming agents found in most foaming facial cleansers are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate (aka SLS and SLES). These products can cause mild skin irritation especially for those with sensitive skins.

Non-foaming facial cleansers

The non-foaming facial cleansers tend to be the mildest of cleansers because they are closer to a moisturiser in texture and ingredients and they must be physically removed. Non-foaming cleansers typically include:

  • Lotions
  • Liquids
  • Creams
  • Cold creams

Online resources and opinions

Many dermatologists advise their patients never to use soap on their faces, instead a syndet or soap-free cleanser is a good alternative. Beauty bars, mild cleansing bars are examples of syndets. These have a lower PH value than soaps and foaming cleansers and include synthetic detergents to clean the skin.

Commercially available foaming soaps have a high alkaline value of between 9 and 11 on the PH scale. These products strip away the acid mantle, greatly reducing the skin’s natural ability to heal.

In a piece published on the Huffington Post, Prof. Albert Klein of the Medicine and Dermatology unit at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine recommends the use of a simple liquid cleanser such as Cetaphil® or Aquanil®. These are inexpensive cleansers for sensitive or dry skins that cleanse without disrupting the delicate acid mantle, but they are not as effective for oilier skin types or for the removal of heavy make up.

A cream cleanser can be used on all skin types and are extremely useful for drier skins as they replenish lost moisture. They effectively cleanse without stripping away the natural oils and leave the skin feeling soft and relaxed. “Cream cleansers are a convenient one-step process, providing both removal of cosmetics and cleansing all in one.” (Dr Zoe Draelos).

There is a wide array of cleansers available on the market. A product containing a large proportion of natural ingredients is the best option, as these tend to be milder on the user’s skin.

To be able to choose the right cleanser you must first determine what skin type you have. Within the basic types of cleansers there are products specifically designed for combination/normal, dry, oily, sensitive and mature skins. All have varying effects on the surface of the skin and its appearance.