Top 5 Tips for Choosing a Daily Facial Cleanser

woman washing her face
A crucial part of your morning routine. See more pictures of getting beautiful skin.
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When it comes to facial cleansers, there are as many to choose from as there are faces to be cleaned -- creams, lotions, pads, soap bars, gels, scrubs and self-foaming cleansers all fill the shelves. Clearly, there's no "one size fits all" product.

So what's all the fuss? You might be familiar with the phrase "Put your best face forward." In this situation, you can take it literally. The face takes quite a molecular beating each day. Some women cover it with makeup, and men hack away at it with razorblades. Our faces brave the elements, from wind and cold to heat and rain, and we touch them with our oily or ketchup-tainted hands throughout the day.


Facial cleansers can help with all of these facial dangers, primarily by clearing away the dirt, grime and dead cells, thus facilitating the production and easy travels of new skin cells. If you choose the right facial cleanser (or combination of cleansers), your face will regain a more youthful and healthy appearance. But how do you choose? Let's find out.

5: Know Thy Face

woman washing face
If you don't know what kind of skin you have, it will be tougher to find what you need.
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You probably have a preferred salad dressing, but before you put anything on a salad, you first like to know what kind of salad you're dealing with. Is it garden greens? Caesar, Greek or Cobb? Balsamic vinaigrette isn't quite as good on a taco salad.

Likewise, before you can pick out the right facial cleanser for your particular needs, you need to know what kind of face you'll be working with. Most of us never think about what type of skin we have, just that sometimes it's more presentable than others. But everyone has a basic "skin type," and this knowledge will help you determine what type of cleanser is called for. Using the wrong cleanser for your skin type can make matters worse by further contributing to dryness, irritation or oiliness.


Which skin type do you have?

  • Normal skin. This skin type has a proper balance of moisture, oil and durability.
  • Oily skin. Does your face look shiny, greasy or oily a few hours after washing it?
  • Dry skin. Dry skin features facial pores that are hard to see a few hours after being washed.
  • Sensitive skin. This skin type often feels tight or itchy, and experiences allergic reactions and flushing when put into contact with certain chemicals.
  • Combination skin. If some parts of your face are oily while others are dry or sensitive, you have combination skin.

Now then, what to wear?

4: Making a Match

woman taking a wire brush to her face
You don't need anything this drastic to get your makeup off.
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Now that you know your skin type, you can begin narrowing down your search for a facial cleanser. Armed with the knowledge that you have, for example, combination skin, you can peruse the labels of facial cleansers and dismiss all the products designed for other skin types.

For instance, if you have dry skin, you'll want to avoid products with a heavy alcohol content. If you have oily skin, you may want a cleanser with a low pH level, which will be more effective for gently washing away that oil. And if you have sensitive skin, you can swerve away from the selection of cleansers that have problematic chemicals or heavy fragrance (we'll discuss why shortly).


If you wear lots of makeup or wear it daily, you'll want to explore the options for facial cleansers with an eye toward makeup removal. If you work out (or work outdoors), you'll want something that is effective at keeping your pores nice and clean, so that they don't get clogged with sweat and grime.

Spending a little time reading labels and researching product lines will pay dividends in your quest for an effective facial cleanser. Most facial cleansers advertise right up front what type of skin and situation they are best suited for.

There's no reason why you should have to pause your perusal of facial cleansers just to save the world, as we'll next find out.

3: Go Green

If you have too much time on your hands, turn over a packaged facial cleanser and read the list of ingredients. Often, most items on that list will sound completely unfamiliar to you. Of course, the same holds true with soft drinks and just about everything else we consume on a daily basis. So what's there to worry about?

Quite a lot, actually. Some chemicals commonly used in facial cleansers can irritate the skin. Often, it's the chemicals involved in the cleanser's fragrance, such as form-providing plasticizers known as phthalates, which are believed to have negative health effects on humans. Additionally, the chemicals commonly found in facial cleansers ultimately get washed off you and then make their way through sewage systems and drain fields back into our environment. The amount of these chemicals being used and discarded on a daily basis worldwide means the environmental level of these chemicals -- some of which are carcinogenic -- is constantly rising.


Also, it's not always easy to find a cleanser's fragrance that you can tolerate on a day-in-, day-out basis, no matter how effective the cleanser may be. It might be wise to treat your cleanser and your fragrance as two different things and to seek out an unscented facial cleanser, preferably an organic or eco-friendly brand, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Next: a secret for your diary.

2: Keep a "Skin Journal"

man with wet face smiling
A smile is a good sign.
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With such a staggering number of facial cleansers to choose from, it can be hard to remember what has and hasn't worked in your early days of wild experimentation. Some cleansers may leave you feeling and looking squeaky clean, while others only exacerbate your underlying skin problems. It doesn't take long before all those brand names, cleanser types, fragrances and features become just one big blur.

Your face doesn't have to reveal its deepest secrets, but keeping a log of what facial cleansers you use and for how long will help you determine what's working and what's not. By using each facial cleanser you try out for an equal amount of time, you'll be able to make an apples-to-apples comparison when later glancing through your notes on how well each cleanser performed for you.


Next, the benefits of keeping up with the Jones' opinions.

1: Seek Counsel

Standing in a retail store and facing an endless aisle of facial cleansers can be daunting, if not outright terrifying. It's hard to know where to start.

But what are friends for? Ask around and see what is being used by the people you know. You can get a head start in your selection process by seeing which facial cleansers are liked and disliked by those around you. You might as well take advantage of all the "field research" that has already been doggedly conducted by your peers. Remember that different people have different skin types, so what works for your dry, itchy friend may not work for your oily or sensitive skin.


Talk to those who work in the skin care field (this doesn't necessarily mean a chemist; a salesperson will do). What products seem to gain loyal customers? Which ones do they personally favor? The same goes for aestheticians and dermatologists. These professionals will be more than happy to help you in your search for the perfect facial cleanser.

With a little luck, a little more research, and even more trial and error, you'll be able to choose a facial cleanser that meets all your needs. See the next page for more articles on skin care.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bouchez, Colette. "Oily Skin: Solutions That Work -- No Matter What Your Age." (Aug. 5, 2009)
  • Consumer Reports. "Facial cleansers: Choices abound." Sept. 2007.
  • GreenYour. "Body Cleansers." (Aug. 4, 2009)
  • Griffin, Morgan R. "What's Causing Your Dry Skin Problem?" (Aug. 5, 2009)
  • Jacknin, Jeanette, M.D. "Body Scrubs: Which One Should You Use?" Jan. 16, 2009. (Aug. 5, 2009)
  • KidsHealth. "Your Skin." March 2007. (Aug. 6, 2009)
  • McKeever, Kevin. "Chemical Used in Plastics May Affect Newborn Size." June 25, 2009. HealthDay News.
  • MedlinePlus. "Skin Layers." Aug. 22, 2008. (Aug. 5, 2009)
  • National Skin Care Institute. "Skin Types." (Aug. 5, 2009)
  • New Zealand Dermatological Society Incorporated. "The Structure of Normal Skin." June 15, 2009. (Aug. 6, 2009)
  • Organic Consumers Association. "Consumer Alert: Cancer-Causing 1,4-Dioxane Found in Personal Care Products Misleadingly Branded as Natural and Organic." 2008.
  • Organic Consumers Association. "EPA Report: Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products as Pollutants." July 12, 2004.
  • Pure Zing. "List of the More Widely Known Dangerous Ingredients in Body & Food Products." (Aug. 5, 2009)
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  • Snowdrift Farm. "Emollients & Humectants." (Aug. 5, 2009)
  • Stahlhut, Richard, MD; Hessler, Wendy. "Exposure to the phthalate DEHP may alter thyroid hormone levels in men." Environmental Health News. June 11, 2007.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Carcinogenic Effects of Benzene: An Update." April 1998.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Parabens." Oct. 21, 2007.
  • WebMD. "Anatomy of a Skin Cleanser." (Aug. 5, 2009)
  • WebMD. "Sensitive Skin: Causes and Treatments." (Aug. 5, 2009)