8 Types of Face Cleansers - Which Are Best for Cleansing Dry Skin?

Posted by Dr. Natasha Ryz on

8 Types of Face Cleansers - Which Are Best for Cleansing Your Dry Skin?

Why Cleanse Your Skin?

Cleansing your skin is essential to keeping your skin healthy. 

All types of skin, from healthy to diseased, infant to aged, need to be kept clean in order to preserve the skin barrier (Mijaljica et al, 2022).

The main purpose of skin cleansing is to remove impurities from the skin’s surface, including make up, dirt, grime, and daily skin debris. 

Cleansers are designed to remove dirt, sweat, sebum, and oils from the skin (Ananthapadmanabhan, et al, 2004).

To goal is to cleanse skin, without disrupting the skin barrier - i.e. not disrupting the skin pH, nor altering skin microbiota, nor removing the protective lipids and proteins found in the stratum corneum (Mijaljica et al, 2022).

The stratum corneum is the outermost layer of your skin barrier.

Learn More: What is the Skin Barrier?

Gentle skin cleansing can be challenging, as the skin’s composition and barrier integrity are intricate, inconsistent, and dynamic (Mijaljica et al, 2022).

8 Types of Face Cleansers

There are many different types of face cleansers with unique compositions and specific skin benefits.

  1. Bar Soap and Liquid Soap Cleansers
  2. Syndets - Bars and Liquid Cleansers
  3. Cold Cream Cleansers
  4. Cleansing Milk 
  5. Cleansing Oil 
  6. Cleansing Balm
  7. Micellar Water Cleanser
  8. Non-Foaming Cleanser

1. What is Bar Soap and Liquid Soap Cleanser?

The term soap is often used to refer to any cleanser; however, this is not correct as 'soap' means a specific chemical entity (Draelos et al, 2018).

Soap is created when a fat is mixed with a base (alkali) resulting in a fatty acid salt with detergent properties (Willcox et al, 1989).

Modern soaps are a blend of animal fats (tallow) and/or vegetable and nut oils, and fatty acids derived from these products, in a ratio of 4:1 of fats to alkali (Draelos et al, 2018).

Changing the amount of fats modifies the cleansing ability of the soap.

For example, adding more fat or oils results in “superfatted” soaps, which are praised for their cleansing “mildness.” It is the excess fatty acid that reduces the ability of the cleanser to remove lipids from the skin barrier; thus, these products are marketed as “sensitive skin” cleansers (Draelos et al, 2018).

Soaps are available as bars or liquids.

The Problem with Soap

Soaps typically have a high pH of 9-10, and soap can disrupt your skin barrier.

The pH of the skin is generally in the range 4.5 to 6.5.

The pH numbers refer to the acid, neutral or alkaline nature of the skin. The number is a range from 1 to 14, where 1 is highly acidic and 14 is highly basic (or alkali).

The pH at the surface of healthy adult human skin is slightly acidic, around pH 5 (Schade et al, 1928; Lambers et al, 2006).

A proper skin pH is important to maintain healthy skin conditions, cutaneous homeostasis (Flur et al, 2002, Rippke et al, 2002; Parra et al, 2003; Hachem et al, 2003) and microbial flora (Leyden et al, 1987, Lambers et al, 2006).

Many factors can affect the pH of the skin, including age, sebum, sweat, detergents, cosmetics, and irritation (Ali et al, 2013; Yosipovitch et al, 1996).

Even rinsing your skin with water alone produces an immediate but transient increase in its pH (Gfatter et al, 1997). 

The High pH of Soap Can Disrupt Your Skin Barrier

The high pH of soap causes swelling of the stratum corneum, which allows unwanted deeper penetration of the soap into the skin possibly causing irritation and itching (Prottey et al, 1975).

Soap can also bind to stratum corneum proteins further inducing swelling and hyper hydration of the skin. Following the completion of washing, the excess water evaporates leading to skin tightness and dryness because the soap binding reduces the ability of the skin proteins to hold water. This explains the reduction in skin hydration and elasticity following soap cleansing (Draelos et al, 2018).

Finally, the ability of the cleanser to rinse completely from the skin is important.

As all soaps and syndets are irritating, they must not remain on the skin any longer than necessary. In cases where patients have mistakenly thought a moisturizing cleanser should remain on the skin to maximum benefit, irritant contact dermatitis has occurred (Draelos et al, 2018).

2. What is a Syndet Bar and Syndet Liquid Cleanser?

Syndets, which are short for "synthetic detergents" are the most common cleanser formulations available today (Draelos et al, 2018).

Syndets are made by combining different surfactants.

Surfactants are broadly categorised into four major types based on the charge present in the hydrophilic head group:

  1. non-ionic surfactants (no charge)
  2. anionic surfactants (negative charge)
  3. cationic surfactants (positive charge)
  4. amphoteric/zwitterionic surfactants (dual charge)

Different types of surfactants are used individually or more commonly in combination with each other. Non-ionic surfactants are the mildest for dry skin (Mijaljica et al, 2022).

Syndets have a lower pH, compared to soaps, and result in less removal of intercellular lipids from the skin.

Soaps typically have a pH of 9-10 while syndets are formulated at a pH of 5.5-7, closer to the natural neutral skin pH (Wortzman et al, 1991).

It is possible to combine both soap and syndet cleansers into a formulation known as a "combar", short for 'combination bar', providing better cleansing with less lipid disruption of the skin barrier (Draelos et al, 2018).

Liquid cleansers have a composition similar to bar cleansers, except they can be poured from a bottle.

Water can be added to liquid cleansers, and is often the primary ingredient with the syndets added to solubilize lipophilic dirt and provide bubbles and lather, which most consumers view as necessary for effective cleansing (Bechor et al, 1988). 

To the syndets, lipophilic moisturizing ingredients can also be added, such as petrolatum, vegetable oils, or shea butter. A liquid cleanser can both cleanse and leave behind a moisturizing residue, which is useful for dry skin  (Draelos et al, 2018).

3. What is a Cold Cream Cleanser?

The Roman physician Galan (AD 130-200) is often credited with inventing the first Cold Cream- a rich blend of olive oil, rose water and beeswax.

Cold Cream was considered state-of-the-art skin care for more than a thousand years and was used for everything from cleansing, make-up removal, moisturizing, after sun care and shaving. 

Over the years, the original formula was modified; mineral oil replaced the olive oil, since it was less prone to rancidity, borax was added to stabilize and whiten the cream, fresh rose was replaced with artificial fragrance to reduce cost and other preservatives were added to improve shelf life. Interestingly, spermaceti, a wax found in the head cavities of the sperm whale, was a key ingredient in Cold Cream for many years. Today, the closest products on the market include Pond’s Cold Cream, which Unilever dates back to 1846.

Pond's Cold Cream was invented by Theron T. Pond in 1846 and is still popular today.

The original Pond's cleanser was used for cosmetic removal and mild facial cleansing.

Cold cream cleanser is composed of water, beeswax, and mineral oil, uses fats to solubilize lipophilic skin soils (deNavarre et al, 1975). Beeswax and mineral oil function as lipid solvents that combine with the detergent action of borax, also known as decahydrate of sodium tetraborate, to cleanse the face (Jass et al, 1975). The formulation also contains ceresin and carbomer to thicken the cream and fragrance (Draelos et al, 2018).

Cold cream cleanser is wiped on with the fingers, wiped off with a tissue, and may be rinsed or left on the face.

Cold cream cleanser is an excellent facial cleanser and cosmetic remover for dry skin.

4. What is a Cleansing Milk?

Cleansing milk face cleansers are a thinner version of cleansing creams, and do not contain viscous waxes.

Cleansing milks can also contain water and lightweight oils, such as olive oil, sunflower oil, jojoba oil, or sesame seed oil, and emollients, such as glycerin, making it less likely to leave a facial residue (Draelos et al, 2018).

The oils are emulsified into the water making cleansing milks an oil-in-water emulsion providing cleansing by dissolving, as opposed to emulsifying, skin soils. The liquid is dispensed from a bottled and wiped over the face with cotton pad (Barlage et al, 2016).

The cleanser can be wiped off or wiped first followed by water rinsing.

Cleansing milks are commonly used for the removal of eye cosmetics; as they are nonirritating and do not readily blur vision with an oily residue.

Cleansing milks are designed for normal to combination skin, but can also be used for dry skin.

5. What is a Cleansing Oil?

Oil cleansers are soap less cleansers that are composed of oils. 

Most oil cleansers do not contain water.

An oil cleanser is made from plant-based oils, and may also include mineral oils, animal-based oils, and/or esters. 

An oil to milk cleanser is similar to an oil cleanser, but is also contains an emulsifier to help it rinse away clean with water.

Oil to milk cleansers can emulsify dirt, oil and microorganisms on the skin surface so that they can be easily removed with water. 

The cleansing oil is spread over the face, massaged and rinsed away with water. The clear oil will turn milky when water rinsed. 

A facial cleansing oil can be used as a face cleanser, and as a mask.

Oil cleansers are best for dry to very dry skin but can be used for all skin types.

Learn More: What is an Oil to Milk Face Cleanser?

6. What is a Cleansing Balm?

Oil cleansing balms are gentle cleansers and are used for cleansing, to remove make up as well as waterproof sunscreens. The thick balm is oil based containing mineral oil, sunflower oil, olive oil, coconut oil, mango seed butter, apricot kernel oil, sweet almond oil, grapeseed oil, orange peel oil, avocado oil, etc.

These oils are combined with either beeswax or shea butter to create a thick spread massaged over the face with the fingers in a circular motion to also remove waterproof products from the skin.

Oil cleansing balms are thick at room temperature, and liquify when they come in contact with the warm facial skin.

A cleansing balm can be used as a face cleanser, and as a mask.

Cleansing balms are best for dry skin, but can also be formulated for other skin types.

7. What is a Micellar Water Cleanser?

Micellar water cleansers contain water and a very mild surfactant representing a dilute cleansing solution. A micelle is a molecular cluster with a hydrophilic and a hydrophobic end, in this case, dissolved in a water solution. The hydrophobic end attaches to the skin grime, dissolving the soil in water through the hydrophilic end and allowing water rinsing to cleanse the face (Draelos et al, 2018).

Micellar water is stroked on the face with a cotton pad, rubbed to remove make up and skin debris, and then a final rinse with water.

Micellar water can be formulated specifically for dry sky, and is excellent at facial cleansing dry, sensitive skin.

8. What is a Non-Foaming Face Cleanser?

Non-foaming face cleansers are similar in texture to a lotion, and they do not lather. They typically contain water, oils, and emulsifiers that help prevent the separation of the ingredients (Draelos et al, 2018).

These cleansers are applied to either dry or water-moistened skin, rubbed, and water rinsed or tissue wiped away.

Non-foaming face cleansers leave behind a thin moisturizing film on the skin surface.

Non-foaming face cleansers can be used effectively to cleanse skin and remove make up. They are often recommended for dry skin.


There are many different types of face cleansers that are beneficial for dry skin.

For daily cleansing, there are many options, including syndets, cold creams, cleansing milks, cleansing oils, cleansing balms, micellar water and non-foaming cleansers.

For removing heavy make-up and sunscreens, cleansing balms and cleansing oils are the best choice.

These cleansers can all be formulated specifically for dry skin, as well as other skin types.

These cleansers can all be great choices for dry skin, depending on your preferred texture and after-feel. 

Soaps and cleansers that are high in pH should be avoided, as high pH soaps can be irritating and disrupt the skin barrier.


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Author Information

Dr. Natasha Ryz, Scientist and Founder of Dry Skin Love Skincare

Dr. Natasha Ryz is a scientist, skin care expert and an entrepreneur. She is the founder of Dry Skin Love Skincare, and she creates skincare products for beauty, dry skin and pain relief.

Dr. Ryz has a PhD in Experimental Medicine from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and she is a Vanier scholar. She also holds a Master of Science degree and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Natasha is the former Chief Science Officer of Zenabis Global, and she oversaw cannabis extraction, analytics, and product development. Her team brought 20 products to market including oils, sprays, vapes and softgels.

Why I Started A Skincare Company

Email: natasha.ryz@dryskinlove.com
Twitter: @tashryz
Instagram: @tash.ryz
LinkedIn: @natasharyz

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