On a recent internet escapade, I stumbled across a couple of cleansers and could not believe what I was reading. I pulled this straight off an actual product description: “Soothes and hydrates while promoting healthy tissue regeneration; protects skin from sun damage & oxidative stress; protects skin from free radicals.” And another product claimed to “‘wash away’ the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”

Can a cleanser really do all that in a 30 second stint on the skin? While a decent leave-on product can probably fulfill some of those functions when used in ample doses over longer periods of time, I bet there’s little “sun damage protection” going on in a hasty wash on/wash off moment that would make Mr. Miyagi cringe (Karate Kid fans be like oh no).

Exaggerated marketing claims set us up for epic disappointment when the product doesn’t meet expectations. But what results can we expect from a cleanser?←Tweet this!

Talk to the pros

Enter three beauty pros to the rescue: Julie Longyear, a chemist and founder of Blissoma Skincare who taught us a thing or two about how to really use the EWG Skin Deep website; Dara Kennedy, founder of Ayla who dispelled four major beauty myths in a previous post; and Vered Back, who recently added the first cleanser to her cult classic line, the eponymous Vered Organic Botanicals.

Given their knowledge of skincare, they’re the perfect experts to give us the scoop on what to look for in a cleanser—and help steer us through a load of suds and lather.

Dara Kennedy, Ayla: “It’s important to select a cleanser (or two) that works well for your skin type and concerns.”

Dara has tried her fair share of cleansers as the founder of Ayla. And she has probably heard it all when it comes to marketing hype. Her sensible approach is: choose a cleanser based on skin’s fluctuating needs.

“I’m always disappointed when I see lofty claims coming from cleansers. You’re massaging it onto your face for very little time, usually, and rinsing it off; it’s not going to work miracles.

“But at a minimum, you should expect a cleanser to remove makeup and/or sunscreen, dirt and other impurities, and leave your skin feeling comfortable. It’s important to select a cleanser (or two) that works well for your skin type and concerns. Based on that, you might look for specific things in a cleanser.”

Elave products

Photo courtesy of Ayla Beauty

Dara’s recommendations for dull/congested, acne prone, oily, or dry skin conditions

“It’s handy to have an exfoliating cleanser on hand, for instance, if your skin tends to be dull or congested and you don’t exfoliate much elsewhere in your regimen. Lots of our customers love Elave’s Rejuvenating Cleansing Treatment, $38, a creamy cleanser with glycolic acid, because it’s very gentle and can be left on for 5-10 minutes as a mask if you’re looking for a deeper exfoliating treatment.

“And if you’re acne-prone, it’s a good idea to look for a cleanser that’s geared towards that, like The Organic Pharmacy’s Peppermint Face Wash, $67, (which is a favorite of a local facialist here, Lori Anderson) or Medik8 PoreCleanse Gel.

“I usually find that I switch cleansers far more often than I switch other products in my regimen; I keep a few different ones to choose from based on how my skin is feeling on that particular day and at that time time. I most often find myself using BioRecept’s Mousse de Peau, $33, since it’s so versatile—it leaves skin feeling fresh and clean but not at all dry, due to the humectants in the formula, and it removes makeup incredibly well. If my skin feels greasy and congested, particularly towards the end of the day, I’ll use Medik8 PoreCleanse Gel, $35. It has a blend of exfoliating acids that are particularly good at purifying and decongesting skin. And sometimes I’ll use Voya’s Cleanse & Mend, $46, which is really light and milky, very soothing, and can even be left on skin as a moisturizer. (I’m not sure if anyone actually does that, but it’s a nice bonus benefit.)”

Clearly, Dara’s advice supports my healthy(?) obsession with owning a quality cleanser for every mood my skin is in. Of course, one for every day of the month isn’t necessary at all. But cleansing efficiently is necessary, according to Julie Longyear.

Though Blissoma offers only two cleansers—both bestsellers—Julie says cleansing not only removes dirt, but also sets the groundwork for beautiful skin. That’s why she uses a long list of carefully selected herbs and botanicals in the ingredients to nourish skin health.

Julie Longyear, Blissoma: “The right cleanser can make a huge difference for people’s skin.

Julie created her cleansers to work without needing a toner because they’re thorough enough to clean skin while maintaining the optimum pH balance of the skin. It’s no wonder that Blissoma sells two to three times more of their cleansers than practically anything else besides Smooth A+.

“Cleansers are obviously a huge strength for us. The right cleanser can make a huge difference for people’s skin. I know folks tend to think the serums and moisturizers are doing the heavy lifting, but if people are using a cleanser that’s not right for their skin or is disrupting their balance they’re starting off on the total wrong foot every single day.

“I can tell you where some cleansing products and practices go wrong:

1 – pH. IMHO no one with any kind of tendency towards persistent skin irritation like acne, dryness, eczema, etc should ever use a soap based, alkaline facial cleanser. It disrupts the pH of the skin and that alone can cause a half a day of problems for the acid mantle at a time, which means if people are washing twice a day then their skin is never the right pH, which can wreak havoc.

2 – I think it is a great chance to really work a product in, and a good, balancing cleansing product sets the stage for every product that follows afterward.

3 – This is a skincare step that almost everyone does, and it is sometimes the only step some people do, so it really is a great chance to soothe and repair or irritate skin.

“Which one happens is really a result of what product the person is using and if it is a fit for their skin or not. The pH issue is huge and is one that I personally think a lot of naturally based lines get wrong.

“I have an article on my blog about the importance of proper pH for skin, and it encompasses cleansing. A lot of naturally based facial cleansers are soap-based. We have a couple bar cleansers in our line, but I never recommend them to anyone with ongoing skin problems, only to those who have intact, resilient skin.”

I use both Blissoma cleansers at different times. Fresh is wonderfully soothing and offers the ideal gentle wash in the a.m., while Free has a gel-like consistency that’s more effective at removing makeup in the p.m. My skin always feels comfortably clean after use but never taut or flaky.

A more recent find has been Vered Organic Botanicals Herbal Balancing Oil Cleanser, $64. It is hand-crafted in small batches and has taken Vered years to perfect due to her very specific demands of a cleanser. Similar to Julie, Vered emphasizes the importance of not disrupting the skin’s pH with the formula.

Vered Back, Vered Organic Botanicals: “Your skin should not feel dry or irritated after cleaning.”

“The most important thing about a cleanser is to remove dirt, make up, bacteria, yeast, and excess sebum without disturbing the skin’s natural moisture barrier,” she emphasized. Her 28 years in skincare confirm Dara’s take that using different cleansers on rotation is a good idea if you want to incorporate the acid washes.

“Harsh based cleansers can’t distinguish between the good or bad lipids. Using ingredients that are too strong on a daily basis such as Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), Glycolic acid, Citric acid, or Retin-A will dry the skin and cause sebaceous glands to produced more sebum. You want to keep the pH of your product closest to the normal pH of your skin 4.5- 6.5. Your skin should not feel dry or irritated after cleaning. If you want to use more harsh ingredients use it in a product that you use once a week but not on a daily basis.”


Bottom line: Seek cleansers that clean skin without disrupting the pH balance, but don’t expect to go bake in the sun with one. As Mr. Miyagi says: “Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Understand?”

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