Face wash, facial cleanser, cleansing wipes, makeup removing cleanser, foaming cleanser, non-foaming cleanser, cream cleanser, oil cleanser, treatment cleanser—there sure are a lot of different names for things that all serve the same basic purpose: to get your skin clean. But the real reason for the various monikers is that not all cleansing formulas are alike and many are far from basic. They all clean, but cleansers contain different ingredients. Some foam, some don’t and some cleansers offer additional benefits, such as calming, exfoliating and hydrating. Here, we come clean about the sometimes confusing world of facial cleansers and have expert tips on how to pick the right one for your skin’s needs.
But First, What’s In A Cleanser?
The thing that’s actually doing the cleaning in any type of cleanser, whether we’re talking facial wash or your laundry detergent, is a surfactant (short for surface active agent). Surfactants are molecules that have both a hydrophobic part and a hydrophilic part. Quick science lesson: hydrophobic means it shuns water and instead sticks to oil; hydrophilic means it prefers water. That means a surfactant cleans in two steps. First, the hydrophobic part attracts dirt and oil. Then the hydrophilic part rinses it away clean when you add water.
Foaming Vs. Non-Foaming Cleansers
So, you may be wondering where the bubbles fit in. It’s sort of a dirty little secret: While they’re often associated with cleansing, they’re not actually doing anything. Foam, lather and bubbles are simply byproducts of certain surfactants. They’re nothing more than air entrapped in the liquid. Sulfate-containing surfactants produce more bubbles - like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. Some sulfate-free surfactants, like lauryl glucoside, produce less foam. Others produce none at all. PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Triglycerides are a type of surfactant often found in micellar water cleansers. Regardless of how much or how little a cleanser foams, it’s still doing its job. The connection between foam and cleansers is so tightly linked that many of us think we need to see foam to know our skin is getting an effective cleaning. But science tells us that’s nothing more than a myth.
On the flip side, there’s another common myth people believe about foaming cleansers: they’re bad for your skin. Where did this idea come from? Old-school surfactants (think traditional bubble bath) were a little harsh on the skin's surface, removing skin’s essential moisture. Since then, surfactants have evolved and can clean without stripping your skin. Plus, many cleansers are formulated with ingredients to replenish moisture. Typically, the milder the surfactant, the less lather it produces. That’s why cleansers formulated for sensitive skin tend to produce little to no foam. But if your complexion isn’t sensitive, a lathering face wash isn’t bad for your skin.
Your Perfect Perricone MD Cleanser
Identify your skin type. Then find the ideal cleansing solution for your complexion.
Your skin type: oily or acne-prone
Your ideal cleanser: Acne Relief Gentle & Soothing Cleanser
Foaming or non-foaming: No Foam
This cleanser doesn’t foam, but that doesn’t mean it’s not cleaning. It’s formulated with a mild surfactant that dissolves dirt and oil, but doesn’t disrupt skin’s delicate balance of moisture and healthy bacteria. This cleanser is ideal for acne-prone skin because it’s formulated with exfoliating salicylic acid and sucrose, which clear away dead skin and debris from pores. This prevents pimples from forming and visibly reduces pore size. The fragrance-free formula may feel rich, but it contains non-greasy squalane to soften skin and glycerin, which is a mega-hydrator that doesn’t clog pores.
Your skin type: dry
Your ideal cleanser: High Potency Classics Nutritive Cleanser
Foaming or non-foaming: Foaming
This gel cleanser, now in a new, squeeze-out tube, works into a light lather as it whisks away dirt and oil without stripping skin. It contains alpha hydroxy acids to gently dissolve dull, dead skin. It also includes alpha lipoic acid (ALA), a potent antioxidant that helps visibly smooth fine lines and wrinkles, while tightening the appearance of large pores; and a copper complex to help visibly firm skin. The gel formula feels lightweight and gentle on skin, and has a powdery-clean, fresh scent.
Your skin type: oily or combination
Your ideal cleanser: No Makeup Easy Rinse Makeup-Removing Cleanser
Foaming or non-foaming: Low foam
This gel cleanser, also in an easy-to-use tube, works into a milky lather when applied. But don’t underestimate its lightweight feel, because it breaks down makeup and excess oil effortlessly. There’s no need to aggressively rub, especially around the delicate eye area. It’s ideal for an oily and combination complexion, but it won’t dry out your skin. It’s formulated with olive leaf extract to maintain skin’s moisture levels as it deeply cleans. Plus, the antioxidant turmeric extract helps support skin’s natural defenses against oxidative stress. It has a subtle scent of cucumber and green tea.
Your skin type: oily or normal
Your ideal cleanser: Vitamin C Ester Citrus Brightening Cleanser
Foaming or non-foaming: Foaming
This foaming gel cleanser (which also got a makeover moving from a bottle to a tube) contains a dose of Perricone MD’s proprietary ingredient, Vitamin C Ester. This highly stable and potent form of vitamin C, an antioxidant that visibly brightens a dull, uneven skin tone, gives skin a smoother, suppler look over time. It also contains DMAE and Perricone MD’s Copper Complex to boost the appearance of skin’s firmness. And as it wakes up your skin, it wakes up your senses with an invigoratingly fresh citrus scent.
Your skin type: all skin types
Your ideal cleanser: No:Rinse Micellar Cleansing Treatment
Foaming or non-foaming: No foam
The type of surfactant in a micellar cleanser makes no foam at all, and doesn’t even require water to rinse it off. Here, surfactants are added to a water-based formula. The combo forms micelles that attract dirt, makeup, and oil. The fragrance-free formula feels lightweight—almost like water. Simply wipe it on with a cotton pad and the micelles grab on to the gunk without drying skin. This lightweight solution also includes vitamin B5, a hydrating vitamin that helps strengthen skin’s moisture barrier.
Your skin type: dry or delicate
Your ideal cleanser: Hypoallergenic Gentle Cleanser
Foaming or non-foaming: Foaming
When your skin is easily upset, prone to redness, or reactive to harsh ingredients, your ideal cleanser is ultra-gentle, sulfate-free and cleans without irritating skin. This lightweight gel cleanser contains mild surfactants, so it foams, but it’s a very low-lathering cleanser. It gently exfoliates dead skin with alpha hydroxy acids and is infused with soothing green tea to calm your sensitive skin, but you won’t smell it; it’s fragrance-free to minimize the potential for any irritation.
Bottom line: Picking a facial wash shouldn’t be based on whether it’s a foaming cleanser or a non-foaming cleanser. What really matters is whether it’s formulated for your specific skin type and complexion concerns. With a wide variety of cleansing options, Perricone MD has the right solution for your skin.