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?