Cleansing Creams 101

Crème cleanser dispenser.
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The face wash aisle of the pharmacy or supermarket can be overwhelming -- hundreds of brightly colored bottles and tubes, all claiming to keep your skin looking perfect. But everyone is different and should use a product that's tailored to his or her own skin type.

One popular type of face wash is cleansing cream, which washes and moisturizes your skin, getting rid of dirt, sweat, makeup and bacteria. It is usually made from a combination of mineral oil, petrolatum, water and waxes [source: Draelos].


Cleansing creams were high in popularity several decades ago, back when the only other option for a cleanser was usually a variety of harsh bar soaps [source: Draelos]. Even though today there are lots of products on the market that offer alternatives for different skin types, cleansing creams are still a popular choice.

These cleansers may come in many different kinds of creams with their own methods of application. Some kinds might need to be applied to wet skin, massaged in until it forms a rich lather and then rinsed off. Others, such as cold cream, simply might require being applied to the skin and allowed to sit for a period of time before being either wiped off or removed with water.

If cleansing creams have maintained their popularity for so many years, there must be something to their success. What about the ingredients make this type of cleanser different from others?




Chemistry of Cleansing Cream

We've already established that cleansing creams are usually made up of petrolatum, mineral oils, waxes and water. But how do these ingredients work together to rid your skin of dirt and excess oil?

Water by itself might be enough to rid your skin of dirt, but it can't remove excess oil and many types of makeup alone. That's where the cleansing cream comes in. At the molecular level, the petrolatum and oils (the lipids) have a hydrocarbon chain that is hydrophobic, mean it repels water and attracts dirt and oil. Once you apply the cleansing cream to your skin, the hydrophobic components attach to the dirt and oil, loosening them from the skin and making it easier for the water to remove them [source: New Zealand Dermatological Society, The Soap and Detergent Association].


Most cleansing creams are oil and water emulsions, or moisturizers [source: Schoen and Lazar]. The oil (usually mineral oil) is gentler than fat in removing excess oil from the skin. Because there is always the risk of removing too much oil from the skin and losing the natural moisture barrier, cleansing creams generally leave behind a protective layer of moisture to prevent skin from getting too dry [P&G Beauty and Grooming].

Now you understand just how cleansing creams work, but what makes them different from a regular soap?


Cleansing Cream vs. Cleansing Soap

True soap can be very harsh on skin and remove too many necessary oils, which is bad enough for normal or oily skin, and even worse for dry or sensitive skin. Cleansing creams are different because they tend to add moisture, which is especially helpful for dry or problematic skin.

You might also prefer cleansing creams to deodorant bars and soaps that are made with certain alcohols or a heavy fragrance; these substances can also take away natural oils and dry your skin out [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. If your skin is very sensitive, you might want to look for mild soaps or cleansing creams labeled as hypoallergenic or noncomedogenic.


Another reason that some people opt for cleansing creams over soap is that when soap is used with hard water -- water that has high calcium levels -- it doesn't work as well as it would otherwise, so you might end up using more of the soap to get the job done [source: New Zealand Dermatological Society]. Also, using soap with hard water means you're more likely have soap scum on your sink when you're through washing.

Aside from soap and cleansing creams, there are other face washes that might be good for your skin type. Lipid-free cleansers do not have fat in them, so they don't remove as much oil and are best if you have dry skin, are older, or have eczema. Astringents and toners do the opposite -- they are designed to remove as much oil as possible, and often work well for people with acne. Exfoliants contain tiny scrubbers that wash away the dead or dry skin on your face, but they should not be used on a daily basis.

If you think cleansing creams might be worth a try, read on to weigh the pros and cons of this skin care product.


Pros and Cons of Cleansing Cream

Though cleansing creams might be the right choice in skin care for some, others may prefer soap, liquid cleansers or other types of face wash, depending on their skin type.

One advantage of cleansing creams across all skin types is that they are good for removing makeup [source: Draelos]. They're gentler than soap and lighter than cold creams, which often include borax, so they're usually great for people with dry or sensitive skin.


On the other hand, cleansing creams aren't great for people with oily skin, because they might leave behind a residue on the skin that leaves you feeling just as greasy as you did before you washed. Some skin care experts may recommend following up with either a mild soap or astringent to remove the film.

And even though cleansing creams are gentle, people with sensitive skin might still be allergic to some of the ingredients, such as preservatives, fragrances, emollients and the rosin that holds the cream together.

If you're not sure which skin type you are, or even if you just haven't found a cleanser you like, you might need to experiment with different brands until you find one that works for you and your skin type. For even more information on cleansing creams and how to find the right one, continue on to the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Dry Skin and Keratosis Pilaris." (Accessed 08/21/09).
  • Draelos, Zoe Diana, M.D. "Reexamining Methods of Facial Cleansing." Cosmetic Dermatology; Vol. 18, No. 2. February 2005. (Accessed 9/17/09)
  • Draelos, Zoe Diana, M.D. "Skin and Hair Cleansers." eMedicine from WebMD. May 14, 2009. (Accessed 9/17/2009)
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  • P&G Beauty and Grooming. "Skin Cleansing." (Accessed 9/18/09)
  • Schoen, Linda Allen; and Paul Lazar. The Look You Like: Medical Answers to 400 Questions on Skin and Hair Care. American Academy of Dermatology. Oct. 1, 1989. (Accessed 08/21/09).
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  • The Soap and Detergent Association. "Soap Chemistry." (Accessed 9/18/09)
  • WebMD. "Skin Conditions: Cysts, Lumps and Bumps." March 1, 2007. (Accessed 08/21/09).