Water Based Cleanser 101: What They Are and Which Ones You Should Add to Cart

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In this day and age, navigating the world of skin-care products can feel almost impossible, but trying to find your way around the expanses of skin-care ingredients is a whole different ball game. From AHAs to hyaluronic acid to retinol and more, it seems that new, powerful skin-care ingredients are popping up on the daily, and figuring out how and why to use them is not easy. Recently, new variations on the tradition cleanser—oil-based, cleansing balms, foaming cleansers—have come into focus, as brands are emphasizing the importance of understanding how different types of cleansers can impact the skin. As a result, searches for “water based cleanser” have been on the rise, but many people don’t know why or how these viral cleansers work. Ahead, skin-care experts give us the 411 on all things water based cleansers, from how they work, to how to use them and which you should try.

What Is a Water Based Cleanser?

“When you think of a typical cleanser, whether its foaming, non-foaming, hydrating or exfoliating, it’s probably a water-based cleanser,” begins Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD, “Water is often the first ingredient listed in water-based cleansers, which helps to act as a solvent, or to dissolve the beneficial ingredients and surfactants in the formula.” Expanding on Dr. Schlessinger’s sentiments, cosmetic chemist and co-founder of Chemist Confessions, Victoria Fu, explains that “Water-based cleansers are exactly as they sound—they are cleanser formulas with predominantly water-based ingredients, and they typically include products like micellar waters and gel cleansers.”

How Do Water Based Cleansers Work?

“Water-based cleansers work by attracting and then dissolving water-soluble debris that sit on the surface of the skin, like dirt and sweat,” says Dr. Schlessinger “When you massage a cleanser onto your skin, that debris is emulsified into the cleanser and rinsed away along with it.” As Fu adds, “These surfactants have a unique property where they have an affinity towards both water and oil, which allows the cleanser to cling to dirt and grime and get washed away with water when you rinse.”

How Are These Different Than Other Popular Cleansers?

“Oil cleansers and cleansing balms are completely anhydrous, using oils and waxes,” Fu explains, “This simply means that the surfactants found in oil and balm cleansers tend to have higher oil affinity than the ones found in water-based cleansers. Oil and balm cleansers on average do better at removing makeup, but the downside is that they can leave a filmy, oily residue after rinsing off, which is why most people who use oil cleansers prefer to ‘double cleanse‘ with a gel or cream cleanser afterward.”

Adding on, Dr. Schlessinger emphasizes that “the purpose of a cleanser depends on its ingredient base.” Dr. Schlessinger explains that, when choosing a cleanser, its important for clients to keep in mind the concept of “like attracts like.” “For example, oil-based cleansers are ideal for attracting and removing oil-based materials from skin, like makeup. Alternatively, water-based cleansers attract and remove water-soluble (hydrophilic) debris like sweat and dirt, but often have a hard time effectively removing makeup. For this reason, it’s recommended to ‘double cleanse,’ first with an oil-based liquid cleanser or cleansing balm and then, follow up with a water-based cleanser that will do the real work of cleansing and rinsing away impurities from the outer layer of skin.”

Who Should Use Water Based Cleansers?

One main reason why water-based cleansers have gained so much popularity is on account of the fact that they’re suitable for almost all skin types. “Water-based cleansers come in a variety of formulations and nearly every skin type can find one that works,” says Dr. Schlessinger, “Pay attention to the other ingredients in water-based cleansers to find one that works for you. If you have dry or sensitive skin, look for cream formulas with humectants that help attract moisture to skin. If you have oily or acne-prone skin, look for exfoliating ingredients like salicylic acid or glycolic acid.”

Ones to Try

1 / 5

LovelySkin LUXE Clarifying Gel Cleanser ($45)

“This water-based cleanser, which I recommend the most to my patients, is especially helpful for those with acne-prone skin,” says Dr. Schlessinger, “It exfoliates and keeps pores clear with a combination of 2% glycolic, 2% salicylic acid and 3% afaLUXE™, which is a dermatologist-developed ingredient that is comprised of amino-based filaggrin antioxidants, vitamin C and Dead Sea Minerals. It balances skin’s moisture levels so skin never feels stripped.”

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2 / 5

Colorescience Barrier Pro 1-Step Cleanser ($46)

“If you don’t have the time to double cleanse, this multitasking cleanser is a great choice,” Dr. Schlessinger explains, “It offers the benefits of a water-based cleanser, yet also includes ingredients that help break down and dissolve mineral sunscreens, oil-based makeup and excess oil. It also helps support the skin’s microbiome and maintains barrier health.”

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3 / 5

Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micellar Water ($21)

“Micellar water, which is considered a very gentle water-based cleanser, also bears some of the benefits of an oil cleanser,” explains Dr. Schlessinger, “Tiny cleansing oil molecules, called micelles, are suspended in a water solution and effectively trap and remove makeup, dirt and oil in one step. I like this one because works for sensitive skin and is great for on-the-go because it’s rinse-free.”

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4 / 5

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Gel Facial Wash For Oily Skin ($23)

One of Fu’s favorite water-based cleansers is La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Gel Facial Wash for Oily Skin. Formulated with zinc pidolate and tested on acne-prone skin, this water-based cleanser removes dirt and oil from the skin without disrupting the skin’s pH or over-drying.

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5 / 5

Chemist Confessions Blank Slate Gel Cleanser

A hero product from Fu’s own line—Chemist Confessions—the Blank Slate Gel Cleanser “a low foam, amber-gel cleanser created to target that sweet spot between gentleness and cleansing power.” Described as a “one-and-done” cleanser for removing makeup and cleaning the skin without stripping, the Blank Slate Gel cleanser is a great option for individuals with sensitive skin types.


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