If you have oily skin, can you still use an oil-based cleanser?

Is more oil the answer?
Oily skin got you down? Shop around to find what works best for you.
Oily skin got you down? Shop around to find what works best for you.

There's no absolute yea or nay when it comes to which type of cleanser works best for people plagued with oily skin. Water-based and oil-free cleansers tend to be the most commonly recommended, although some people are in the oil-based cleanser camp. For those enthusiasts who do advocate oil-based cleansers, the theory basically goes like this: There's a general rule of thumb in chemistry called "like dissolves like" that describes how substances of different polarities tend to interact. Water (which is polar) cannot dissolve oil (which is nonpolar) and vice versa, but they can dissolve substances of their respective polarities. Therefore, if you're trying to clean off an oily face, oil can do the trick.

Nevertheless, most experts say stick with the traditional recommendations. Consider focusing on products that are oil-free, non-comedogenic (claiming to not clog pores) and contain ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide (which can help fight acne). Warm water is better than hot, and the process should be gentle -- even washcloths can be too abrasive.

When it comes to oil and acne advice, even more discussed than the type of cleanser is the strength of the cleanser. It might feel satisfying to scrub your skin raw with harsh cleansers, scour it off with coarse exfoliants and polish it up with more than a touch of toner, but chances are good that after this treatment your skin will be shouting for a timeout. Attention overload tends to irritate it and strip away too much of the beneficial protective barrier. Plus, irritated skin loves to return the favor by pumping up oil production and popping out more pimples. It can also leave skin feeling dry and decimated -- a real no-win situation.

Perhaps most importantly, you should be open-minded and flexible when it comes to settling on an ideal skin care routine. Different products work better or worse for different people, so if you've given one a fair shot and the results aren't great, try tweaking things around. An oil-based cleanser might be the ticket for someone whose skin protests the use of water-based cleansers.

It also helps to experiment with how often you wash your face (twice a day is a good place to start) and the type of moisturizer you use, since other factors could be jinxing you in terms of skin care success. And speaking of moisturizer, even if people have oily skin they should still definitely moisturize, although it's good to go for a lighter one.

On the next page are lots of links to help you clear up any other skin care questions you may have.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • "12 Ways to Get Better Results from Acne Treatment." AcneNet. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://www.skincarephysicians.com/acnenet/twelve_results.html
  • "Benzoyl Peroxide Topical." WebMD. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://www.webmd.com/drugs/drug-1344-Benzoyl+Peroxide+Top.aspx? drugid=1344&drugname=Benzoyl+Peroxide+Top
  • Bouchez, Colette. "Oily Skin: Solutions that Work." WebMD. Oct. 19, 2007. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/acne/features/oily-skin-solutions-that-work?page=1
  • Case, Marianne. "The Chemistry Behind Moisturizers." Illumin. Dec. 4, 2003. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://illumin.usc.edu/article.php?articleID=118&page=2
  • "Examples: Water and Carbon Tetrachloride." Clackamas Community College. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://dl.clackamas.edu/ch105-03/examples1.htm
  • Lehrer, Michael. "Oily Skin." Medline Plus. Oct. 28, 2008. (Dec. 15, 2009)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002043.htm
  • Libov, Charlotte. "Adult Acne: Why You Get It, How to Fight It." WebMD. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/acne/features/adult-acne-why-you-get-it-how-fight-it
  • "Like Dissolves like rule." South Seattle Community College. (Dec. 15, 2009)http://faculty.southseattle.edu/ashvichilana/Chem139/Assignments/Ch15Handout.pdf
  • "Makeup Removers: Does Oil Cleansing Really Work?" The Beauty Brains. March 15, 2008. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://thebeautybrains.com/2008/03/15/makeup-removers-does-oil-cleansing-really-work/
  • "Saving Face 101: How to Customize Your Skin Care Routine With Your Skin Type." American Academy of Dermatology. Nov. 10, 2009. (Dec. 15, 2009)http://www.aad.org/media/background/news/Releases/Saving_Face_101_How_to_Customize_Your_Skin_Care_Ro/
  • "Skin Care products -- Cleanser." RealAge.com. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://www.realage.com/look-young-stay-sharp/simply-beautiful-skin/skin-care-products-choosing-a-good-cleanser
  • "Skin Cleansing." P & G Beauty & Grooming. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://www.pgbeautyscience.com/index.php?id=664
  • "Skin Qualities -- Skin Type." RealAge.com. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://www.realage.com/print-this/look-young-stay-sharp/simply-beautiful-skin/skin-type?kw=ist
  • "Soaps and Cleansers." New Zealand Dermatological Society Incorporated. (Dec. 15, 2009) http://dermnetnz.org/treatments/cleansers.html
  • Tortora, Gerard and Grabowski, Sandra. "Principles of Anatomy and Physiology." John Wiley and Sons. 2000. (Dec. 15, 2009)

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