What's the Difference Between Face Wash and Face Cleanser?

It's not the same thing, Susan!

Difference Between Face Wash and Face Cleanser
Photo: Robin Lynne Gibson/Getty Images

We have something frightening to tell you: Once upon a time, it was perfectly acceptable to use bar soap as a face cleanser. *shudder*

Don't get us wrong, bar soap is just fine—great, even!—for washing your hands and body. We love a classic bar of slippery, sudsy soap as much as the next gal. But most derms will back us up when we say that using bar soap on your face is asking for a topical disaster. Unless you're using one of those trendy "beauty bars" specifically made for your face, of course.

Don't Use Bar Soap on Your Face

You'll find that many plebeian bar soaps contain sodium lauryl sulphate (or other irritating ingredients), which is no good for your complexion. Moreover, most body bar soaps aren't fortified with the hydrating, antioxidant, or pore-clearing ingredients your skin needs.

This is how you know: Have you ever noticed that using bar soap on your face (in times of absolute necessity) makes it feel super squeaky-clean? Like, suspiciously clean? That's your skin barrier, stripping and drying out. And crying for help.

We'll get off our soapbox now. (Pun intended.) But if you're ever wondering what kind of cleansing product to use when washing your face, the first step is picking between a face wash and a face cleanser. Oh, it's not the same thing? Nope!

There's actually a subtle difference between the two, and while each is better for your skin than a bar of soap, picking the right one can make all the difference depending on your skin type. So let's get into it.

What's the Difference Between Face Wash and Face Cleanser?

A face cleanser is made to purify, hydrate, and soothe your skin. The texture will be creamy, milky, gel-like, or even watery. Conversely, a face wash is made to clean your pores more deeply. The texture is often foamy or will lather into a foam when applied to your damp skin.

And it makes sense if you think about it. "Cleanse" sounds gentler—spa-like, if you will. "Wash" feels more no-fuss, right to the point.

Note: It's become quite trendy to call all of these products "cleansers." We get it—it sounds more posh. To be safe, look to whether it's creamy or foamy to effectively tell the types apart.

Which Type is Best for Me?

If you have dry skin, a face cleanser will better keep your skin barrier moisturized and healthy. Look for formulas with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid or glycerin, such as drugstore-favorite CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser or Renée Rouleau Moisture Protecting Cleanser. If you're using a retinol, which makes your skin more sensitive and prone to stripping, this type of cleanser helps avoid irritation.

If you have oily or acne-prone skin, you'll likely want to use a foaming face wash. It's what your skin needs to keep pores clear and remove the oil, dirt, and impurities that can exacerbate sebum production (which is what makes your face oily).

Our favorite face washes include Cetaphil Gentle Foaming Facial Cleanser for sensitive skin, Dermalogica Active Clearing Skin Wash for breakout-prone skin, and Olehenrikson The Clean Truth Foaming Cleanser for uneven skin tone.

Our secret: Use both! No matter your skin type.

Double-cleansing is a technique in which you use two different cleansers back to back. To do it correctly, you need to pick a combination that balances itself out, instead of giving too much of one thing. For instance, using two deep-cleaning cleansers might strip your skin, but using a hydrating cleanser or cleansing balm before finishing with a deep-cleaning foam cleanser creates balance.

Trust us, this will make your skin next-level good. Mark our words!

How Do I Double Cleanse?

When it comes to double-cleansing, the order is key. It's like a one-two punch. The first cleanser should be gentle, hydrating, and is used to remove makeup, oil, and dirt. We'd pick something along the lines of Clinique Take the Day Off Cleansing Balm.

Now that most pollutants are gone, it's time to focus on deep-cleaning. You don't necessarily need anything harsh, like benzoyl peroxide or Bentonite clay, but make sure to pick a foaming face wash. It will clean and prep your skin effectively for the rest of your routine.

This one needs to be customized according to skin type, which determines if you should use something more sensitive (for dry skin or skin that's already using harsh products like retinol) or more clarifying (for oily and acne-prone skin).

Double-cleansing is more time-consuming, to be sure—but it's worth it for all skin types. Start with these guidelines, and work your way to glowing skin. Baby steps!

Now that you're stocked with everything you need to know about cleansing, let's talk the rest of your routine.

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