Cleanser vs. Face Wash: A Showdown for Cleansing Supremacy

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Skin care has become more than just a routine; it’s a self-care ritual.  

It’s our armor against the daily onslaught of environmental impurities and a chance to indulge in a little TLC.

But amidst the vast array of products lining the shelves, one particular dilemma has left us scratching our heads: cleanser vs. face wash.

a woman with hair wrapped in a white towel has foam cleanser all over her face while posing happily at the camera

Are cleanser and face wash the same?

Shockingly, these two products are not the same. How they cleanse your skin is quite different.

And your skin type and concern will dictate which skincare product you should opt for. 

If you’re also one of the millions of people who once wondered which product is for you, join us as we unlock the secrets of cleansers and face washes and finally put an end to this dilemma. 

Prepare to bid adieu to the days of mistaken identities and embrace the path toward a clearer, more luminous complexion by choosing the right cleansing product for your needs. 

Cleanser vs. Face Wash: An Overview

CleanserFace Wash
PurposeRemoves dirt, makeup residue, and excess oils from the skin’s surfaceCleanses pores and removes deep-seated gunk and grime 
Suited for Dry and sensitivities skin typesOily and combination skin types
FormulationMost popular formulations include cream, lotion, and oilMost popular formulations include gel and foam
Foaming Non-foamingFoaming
Gentleness Gentler than face washGentler than a soap bar
HydrationMore hydratingLess hydrating
Usage Morning routineEvening routine
RinseMay or may not be requiredRequired

Cleanser or Face Wash: Understanding the Basics

When it comes to cleanser vs. face wash, knowledge is power, and with great skin care comes great confidence.

So let the quest for a radiant visage continue!

What Is a Cleanser?

A cleanser is made to purify, hydrate, and soothe your skin.

It is considered by many skincare enthusiasts as the unsung hero of skin care, dedicated to the noble mission of vanquishing dirt, oil, and impurities from our beloved visages. 

A woman is putting on her facial cleanser in front of a mirror.

There are five popular types of cleansers: cream, oil, gel, balm, and micellar water.

  • Cream. Cream cleansers are perfect for dry skin or mature skin. They are formulated with nourishing oils and can effectively remove dirt and makeup, making skin feel softer and moisturized.
  • Oil. While it may sound counterproductive to use an oil cleanser on oily skin, oil-based cleansers actually work on all skin types. This type of cleanser works by melting away makeup, sebum, and dirt on the face, leaving your skin silky and smooth.
  • Gel. A gel cleanser is refreshing and lightweight. It has a clear consistency and aims to decongest pores and keep acne at bay. These also usually have soothing qualities to help reduce redness and irritation.
  • Balm. Cleansing balms are super-rich concentrated cleansers formulated to remove dirt and impurities without drying your face. They typically have a buttery texture that melts into an oil-like consistency while being used.
  • Micellar water. A newer cleanser that has become popular is the French-favorite micellar water, powered by oil molecules or tiny micelles, which are magnets that help lift off oil, dirt, and makeup from the skin’s surface. Best part? No rinsing required.

Regardless of their diverse textures, cleansers all share a common mission: to rid your face of the villainous grime that accumulates throughout the day.

They work tirelessly to dissolve dirt, melt away makeup, and excess oil, all while ensuring our skin stays balanced and refreshed. 

Their gentle cleansing ability makes facial cleansers the best product to use in your morning routine. 

What Is a Face Wash?

Asian woman applying facial wash onto her face.

While cleansers are a broad category of skincare warriors, face washes are a specialized squadron with a laser-focused mission: to cleanse the face with precision.

Face washes are gentler than soap and tackle the specific needs of our skin. They are tailored to remove surface dirt and makeup remnants that plague our complexion. 

These products are typically foamy and sometimes have astringent properties.

They penetrate deeper into the skin, unclogging blocked pores, ensuring every nook, cranny, and contour of your skin get the attention they need. 

Due to their heavy-duty cleansing abilities, face washes are best used in the evening to ensure all the makeup, grime, gunk, and dirt accumulated during the day are effectively washed away.

What Is the Difference Between Cleanser and Face Wash?

To get a clearer picture of the differences between a cleanser and a face wash, we compare these products based on three major categories: formulation, ingredients, and purpose. 


When it comes to formulation, face cleansers offer an array of options.

From gels to creams to oils to water-based cleansers, they offer a symphony of textures and consistencies, ready to cater to your unique preferences. 

Cleansers are typically formulated to gently cleanse your face without stripping your natural oils or disrupting the delicate harmony of your skin.

On the other hand, face washes are often available in foam or gel forms that create a rich lather and effortlessly glide across the skin.

The foam-like consistency of face washes allows for easy application and thorough cleansing, making them ideal for those seeking a deep yet gentle cleanse. 

So while cleansers offer versatility, catering to different preferences and skin types, face washes take a streamlined approach to cleansing with precision and finesse.


Cleansers blend a wide range of ingredients. From soothing botanical extracts to nourishing super oils, they craft formulations that soothe the skin and leave your face glowing.

Some products are also added with moisturizing agents that pamper our skin while they whisk away impurities like humectants like glycerin and ceramides that act as a protective barrier on the skin to lock in moisture.

Some cleansers also have vitamin C, which helps brighten the skin and protect against free radicals.

Meanwhile, face washes often come with ingredients targeting specific concerns.

For example, if you have acne, you will find a facial wash with acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid or green tea extract to help combat breakouts.  

However, it’s important to remember that face wash tends to be more deep-cleaning, and they will contain astringents and even sulfates like sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) that cause the foaming lather. 

This may be too drying for sensitive skin and should be avoided when possible.

Purpose and Usage

Both are highly effective facial care products, so another determining factor in selecting between them is understanding their purpose and how and why you’d use them.

Cleansers are like the chameleons of skin care.

They adapt to the needs of various skin types and can generally be used on all kinds of skin, from sensitive to oil to dry.

A cleanser is a versatile product that cleans the skin and serves as a good primer for the rest of your skincare routine.

If cleansers can be considered chameleons, face washes are the skin care specialists.

They address specific concerns and come to the rescue when your skin needs targeted assistance, ensuring that every wash gets you closer to the skin of your dreams.

Because of the differences in their purpose and ingredients, the time you use them may also vary.

A face wash is often recommended to be used at night.

After a long day, a deep cleanse is good for removing makeup and the day’s impurities from pollution and other environmental factors.

This way, you go to bed with a clean face and pores free from debris.

In the morning, a gentle cleanser will clean and prep your skin as you prepare for the day and apply your skincare and makeup.

Facial Cleanser vs. Facial Wash: Which Is the Right One for Me?

Learning more about cleansers and face washes is a good first step when it comes to deciding which product is the best for you.

Choosing the right one to use depends on your skin type, skin concern, and the ingredients or skincare actives that can help you achieve your goals. 

For dry, sensitive, and sun-damaged skin, a moisture-rich cleanser will work best for you. 

These types of cleansers gently wash away impurities and are helpful even for those with skin conditions such as rosacea and eczema.  

Find a cleanser that contains

  • hyaluronic acid or glycerine to support your skin’s natural barrier and lock in moisture;
  • lactic acid, a gentle exfoliant, to help remove dead skin cells and promote cell turnover;
  • ceramides to improve hydration and the appearance of dry skin;
  • natural moisturizers like jojoba oil and avocado oil; and/or
  • vitamin C to help brighten the skin and improve the skin’s appearance.
A smiling woman is cleaning her face with a cleanser in front of a mirror.

To help you narrow your choices, CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser is a great product. It contains gentle and effective ingredients specifically formulated for dry or sensitive skin. 

If you are more of a conscious beauty, IT COSMETICS Confidence in a Cleanser is a vegan option that combines the power of a foaming cleanser and the hydration of a serum.

Or if you are looking for a more affordable option, Neutrogena Hydro Boost Lightweight Hydrating Facial Cleansing Gel is a hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic cleanser that effectively removes makeup and dirt.

For oily skin, combination skin, and acne-prone skin, use a face wash that is tough on grease and has exfoliating properties. 

The foaming action of these facial washes removes deep-seated oils and unclogs pores to help prevent future breakouts.

Choose a face wash that contains

  • salicylic acid, an effective acne-fighting compound that helps exfoliates your skin and cleanse clogged pores;
  • green tea extract, which is known for regulating sebum production;
  • pyrithione zinc, which has powerful antimicrobial properties that help improve acne; and/or
  • benzoyl peroxide to fight acne-causing bacteria.

You can never go wrong with Cetaphil Acne Face Wash. It has 2% salicylic acid that deeply cleans and treats acne-prone skin.

PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash Benzoyl Peroxide 10% is another great option for clearing existing acne and preventing the formation of new blemishes. 

Lastly, Philosophy Microdelivery Face Wash contains vitamin C and gentle exfoliants that help remove dead skin cells, combat acne, and reveal brighter new skin.

For combination skin, you can also use both a face wash and a face cleanser to balance the dry and oily regions of your face.  

You can start by using an oil-based cleanser, such as Mario Badescu Cleansing Oil, and follow up with a foamy face wash to remove dead skin cells and impurities from your skin.

Ingredients To Avoid in Your Face Wash and Cleanser 

When it comes to choosing a cleanser or a face wash, it’s not just about what ingredients to look for but also about what ingredients to avoid.

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). While they create that satisfying foam we all love, they strip away your skin’s natural oils, leaving it dry and irritated, which is problematic for sensitive skin.
  • Parabens. Parabens, often used as preservatives, can disrupt your hormonal balance and have been associated with potential health risks, including breast cancer. 
  • Phthalates. On the other hand, phthalates are sneaky additives that can interfere with your endocrine system. 
  • Alcohol. While fatty alcohols like cetyl and stearyl alcohol provide moisturizing benefits, denatured alcohol or SD alcohol can be harsh and drying to the skin.

    They may give you that temporary squeaky-clean feeling, but in the long run, they can lead to skin dehydration and irritation. 
  • Synthetic fragrances. They may smell good, but they can also cause skin sensitivities and allergic reactions.

    Instead, look for products that are fragrance-free or contain natural, non-irritating fragrance alternatives. 

How To Use Face Washes and Water-Based Cleansers

When it comes to skin care, establishing a consistent routine is the key to glowing skin.

Committing to a regular skincare regimen provides your skin the love and care it deserves, day in and day out. 

Using a face wash and water-based cleanser is like embarking on a refreshing journey for your skin. 

Here’s a simple guide on how to use face wash and water-based cleanser for a delightful skincare experience:

  1. Start by splashing your face with lukewarm water to awaken your skin and prepare it for the cleansing process.
  1. Squeeze a small amount of your chosen face wash or cleanser onto your palm. Some cleanser types may require a cotton pad.
  1. Massage the lather to your dampened face in a circular motion. 
  1. Be gentle and avoid harsh scrubbing as that can cause irritation. Let the product work its magic for about 30 seconds to a minute.
  1. Be sure to cover your entire face and neck, paying attention to areas prone to congestion.
  1. Rinse off the face wash or cleanser thoroughly, ensuring no traces are left behind. 
  1. Pat dry; don’t rub. Use a clean, soft towel. Avoid rubbing your face vigorously as rubbing can cause unnecessary friction and irritation.
  1. Follow with the serum and moisturizer suitable for your skin type to hydrate and nourish your skin.

Wash your face twice a day to lift impurities from the skin that have accumulated throughout the day.

Remember, consistency is key. Aim to cleanse your face with a cleanser in the morning and a face wash in the evening to keep your skin happy and balanced.

Choose face washes and cleansers tailored to your skin type too.

What About Double Cleansing? Is It for Me?

Double cleansing, or “the double cleanse,” is a two-step cleansing method that involves using two different types of cleansers in your skincare routine.

Why Double-Cleanse?

Now you might be wondering, “Why go through the trouble of double cleansing?”

Well, double cleansing offers a multitude of benefits:

  • Thorough cleansing. Double cleansing ensures that your skin is thoroughly cleansed by effectively removing both oil-based and water-based impurities.

    It’s like giving your skin a fresh start, free from any lingering grime.
  • Improved product absorption. By removing the layers of makeup, sunscreen, and excess sebum, double cleansing allows your serums, moisturizers, and other skincare products to penetrate deeper into your skin.

    With better absorption, this means increased effectiveness of your skincare goodies.
  • Prevents breakouts. Double cleansing unclogs your pores, reducing the likelihood of breakouts and congestion.

    It’s particularly beneficial for those with oily or acne-prone skin types.
  • Hydration retention. Contrary to popular belief, double cleansing doesn’t necessarily strip your skin of moisture.

    When you follow up with a hydrating water-based cleanser, it maintains your skin’s natural hydration, leaving it balanced and refreshed.

Who Can Benefit From Double Cleansing?

Double cleansing can be beneficial for various skin types, particularly for those who wear makeup or sunscreen daily, have oily or acne-prone skin, or live in urban environments with high pollution levels.

However, it’s essential to tailor the double-cleansing method to your individual needs and skin type.

If you have dry or sensitive skin, for example, you may want to choose gentle cleansers and adjust the frequency of double cleansing to avoid over-cleansing.

Steps for Double Cleansing

This process starts with an oil-based cleanser, followed by a water-based cleanser.

  1. Oil-based cleanser: This type of cleanser, often in the form of oils, balms, or cleansing creams, is excellent at breaking down and dissolving oil-based impurities such as makeup, sunscreen, and excess sebum.

    When massaged onto the skin, the cleanser oils attract and lift away these impurities, leaving your skin clean and refreshed.
  1. Water-based cleanser: Once the oil-based cleanser has done its magic, it’s time for step 2: the water-based cleanser.

    This is typically a foam or a gel that is designed to remove any remaining water-based impurities like sweat and dirt.

    It helps to thoroughly cleanse your skin, leaving it feeling balanced and ready for the next steps in your skincare routine.

    You can use a second cleanser for this or a gentle facial wash. But because it’s the second cleanser, look for a gentle facial wash and not one with heavy exfoliation.
A woman in a robe is washing her face in the bathroom sink

Frequently Asked Questions About Cleanser vs. Face Wash

Why Do Face Washes Lather Better?

The lathering effect is a result of the surfactants present in the face washes. Surfactants are cleansing agents that help break down dirt, oil, and impurities on the skin’s surface.

The most commonly used foaming agents are sulfates. 

However, SLS and SLES are harmful chemicals. Try to read labels and opt for natural surfactants such as coco glucoside or decyl glucoside. 

Cleanser or Face Wash — Which Is Better?

There is no definitive answer. It’s about finding the right product that suits your skin’s needs, provides effective cleansing, and enhances your overall skincare experience.

We can look at it based on skin type. If you have dry or sensitive skin, then a gentle cleanser is for you. 

On the other hand, if you have oily or acne-prone skin, a face wash with targeted ingredients for deep cleansing and oil control is more suitable. 

Remember, skin care is a highly personal journey, and what works for one person may not work for another. 

Listen to your skin, experiment with different products, and adjust your routine as needed to find the optimal balance and results for your unique skin.

Cleanser vs. Face Wash: Wrapping Up the Battle

We’ve journeyed through the world of cleansers and face washes and unraveled their mysteries. 

But before we part ways, let’s recap the key takeaways because goodbyes should always be accompanied by a dash of wisdom.

Remember that cleansers and face washes may share a common goal of cleansing, but they each have their unique qualities.

Cleansers come in various forms and are versatile in catering to different skin types and preferences. 

On the other hand, face washes are targeted specifically for skin concerns, addressing your skin’s unique needs. 

Choosing the right product is like finding the perfect partner for your skincare journey.

It’s essential to consider your skin type, concerns, ingredients, and preferences when selecting between cleansers and face washes.

Take the time to understand your skin’s needs and seek products with ingredients that nourish, cleanse, and suit your individuality.

Your skin is as unique as your fingerprint, so treat it with the care and attention it deserves.

Don’t be afraid to venture beyond your comfort zone and explore different cleansers and face washes too. Experiment, try new formulations, and see what works best for you. 

Stay curious, adapt your routine as needed, and enjoy the process of self-care and exploration.

Keep shining and take care of your beautiful selves.

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  • Stephanie Martin

    Stephanie Martin blends her beauty industry background with expertise in communications to lead in the fashion and beauty world. As a fashion and beauty editor, she is known for engaging and informative articles. Her lifelong passion for fashion, makeup, and hair shines through her work, earning her widespread respect among readers and clients. Stephanie's style, a mix of classic and contemporary, makes her a dynamic and influential figure in the industry, inspiring others with her knowledgeable and approachable insights.

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