How to Choose the Right Facial Cleanser for Your Skin

Welcome back, everyone! Here at Alabaster, we are all about the basics. That is why this week in the newsletter we wanted to share some knowledge about one of the most basic components of skincare—cleansing. How cleansers work, how to pick the right cleanser, ingredients to look out for—all of it will be laid out right here.


To start, what exactly do we mean when we say “cleansing?” Cleansing is simply the act of removing pollutants from the skin’s surface using a soap or synthetic detergent. Here are a few of the things your cleanser washes off your face every night:


  • dirt
  • oil
  • makeup
  • excess sebum
  • bacteria
  • viruses
  • dead skin cells


Facial cleansers use molecules called surfactants (surface active agents) to collect impurities from the skin’s surface, bind them together, and prepare them for an easy rinse-off with water. Surfactants really are the star of the show when it comes to cleansers. Therefore, choosing the right one for you depends largely on the type surfactants contained and at what concentrations. If you have dry skin, you’re going to want to use a cleanser that contains gentle surfactants to avoid over-drying. Any of the following ingredients are mild and generally safe to use on dry skin:


  • cocamidopryl betaine
  • ammonium laurel isenthionate
  • caprylic acid
  • polysorbate 85
  • polysorbate 60
  • disodium cocamphodiacetate
  • sodium cocoyl glutamate
  • sodium cocoyl isethionate


Look for these names in the top half of the ingredients list, as ingredients are written on product labels in order of their predominance. Another thing to focus on if you have dry skin is bringing in more water. More water in the skin increases the overall amount of moisture, reducing cracking and flaking and encouraging a healthy turnover of dead skin cells. When shopping for a cleanser, you want to look for one that contains a special type of moisturizer called a humectant. You can think of humectants as tiny water-magnets. One of the most famous humectants you will see in skincare products is hyaluronic acid, which is a compound found in many moisturizers and known to make the skin appear more soft and supple. Other great humectants include:


  • glycerin
  • propylene glycol
  • sorbitol
  • allantoin


To lock in the water attracted by humectants, you need an occlusive substance in your cleanser. Occlusives are basically shields that hold moisture in the skin. They include things like squalene, shea butter, and coconut or jojoba seed oil derivatives, and will make sure that the water brought in by humectants actually stays within the skin barrier.  Cleansers that contain the above categories of ingredients—mild surfactants, humectants and occlusive moisturizers— will help replenish dry skin to keep it healthy.


For oily-skinned folks, the correct approach to cleansing is slightly different. While you still want to prevent potentially over-drying the skin, you can be a little more aggressive in removing excess oil that leads to acne. Great cleansers for oily skin contain active ingredients such as sodium laureate sulfate, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. These compounds are excellent at getting rid of oil and other substances that get trapped in pores and work well in oily skin types. One thing to be aware of, however, is that they can be quite drying for some people, especially those who have never used them before. If you are not used to using a cleanser that contains these ingredients, we recommend you start by using it just a few nights a week and gradually building your tolerance—you never want to do too much too fast, as this can exacerbate problems. In the interest of nourishing your skin after using a stronger cleansing agent, opt for a product that contains a moisturizing ingredient like glycerin. This will help rejuvenate the skin barrier and prevent dryness. Some other ingredients that can accomplish this include:


  • alpha hydroxy acids
  • ceramides
  • hyaluronic acid
  • sodium PCA


Finally and as always, avoid products that contain any kind of fragrance ingredients—they play no role in skin care and have a track-record of causing problems (we have an entire article about this topic which you can read here). We hope this information helps point you in the right direction for the next time you go shopping for a cleanser. Because cleanser is such a vital component of skincare routine, using the right one is truly the basis for optimal skin health.

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