Skincare Discovery: Cleansing Part I - Double Cleansing & Cleanser Types

Sometimes it's a good idea to reflect not just what you put on you face, but how you take it back off.   The last Skincare Discovery post was on layering products (click here for Part I, click here for Part II) to custom-fit your skin's needs rather than struggling to find something that tries to do everything at once and therefore accomplishes nothing.

Cleansing is one of those things that everyone does (at least, I hope they do) but few people really think deeply about.  Or it was possibly just me.  Derp!

Now that I've been obsessed with asian skincare for a few years, the way I clean my face has drastically changed.

Included in this megapost:
This post will be a collection of tips and techniques I have gleaned through hours of watching korean beauty shows, videos, and consuming vast quantities of blog posts.

Double Cleansing:

If you've been researching skincare for a while, I am sure you've come across the admonishments on the danger of over-cleansing.  Don't discount that; it's a real thing.  Your skin needs balance, specifically the balance between hydration (water) and sebum (oil) and most cleansers strip your skin of oils in an effort to produce clean, glowing skin free of dirt and grease.  The thing is, your skin needs sebum to function, especially if you are acne-prone, as it lowers the PH of your skin as part of its efforts to fight off acne-causing bacteria, and sebum also keeps your skin supple and moist.

If you strip all that off, usually with harsh surfactants, your body triggers a sebum production response to the deficit and your pores go into sebum overdrive, resulting in a greasy face, blocked pores, and then eventual acne when excess sebum, dirt, and bacteria get trapped together in an unholy trifecta inside your pores.  This leads people to misunderstand their skin, and they try harsher and harsher cleansers in an effort to rid themselves of greasy face.

This is pretty much why I hate western skincare aimed at teenagers.  When I think of the terrible things I did to my acne-riddled teenage skin, I get so angry at how they mislead people into purchasing horribly harsh products that lock them into a self-perpetuating cycle that will ensure they continue to purchase those products even though it's actually harming their skin.

Anyway, with all that being said, I do support double cleansing but it's something that has to be done carefully and with the right products.  If you want to try double cleansing, take a look at your current cleansers.  Wave at them.  Then put them back in the medicine closet, because they're too harsh for this purpose.

You need ultra-gentle cleansers, in my experience, to pull off this type of cleanse.  The usual suspects are a gentle oil cleanser, followed by a very gentle surfactant-type cleanser such as a foaming, gel, stick, or bubble cleanser.  In all the products I pictured above, only one of them is gentle enough for this technique.

The premise is pretty simple.  Like dissolves like.  Oil cleansers are excellent at breaking down and loosening makeup, sunscreen, sebum, and whatever sort of goo has built up on your face over the day.  Then you follow up with a surfactant cleanser to actually clean your skin, plus remove any of the now-dirty oil off your face.  Think of the oil step as makeup remover.

Some people do really well with just oil cleansing, but I find that the dry areas of my combination skin really absorb the oil and I have to use a foam-type cleansers to get it back out of my pores.

Also, not all oil cleansers are alike.  OCM (oil cleansing method) refers to using specific oils (often a DIY blend) and using heat to open the pores (usually with a warm washcloth) and the oil is wiped off the skin rather than 'soaped' off (please don't use actual soap on your skin) with another cleanser.

If you are interested in trying tradition OCM cleansing, please research it carefully and don't just head into your kitchen and start rooting through your cupboards looking for oils.  Olive oil, for example, is comedogenic for many people.  You also need to remove it properly without over-working your skin.

Conversely, asian-style oil cleaners are formulated with additional ingredients that react with water and allow the oils to be 'emulsified' (which is a dangerous buzzword) much the same way that mustard or mayo acts as an emulsifier in your salad dressing to bind together water and vinegar, or whatever watery thing you threw in there.  Now I'm hungry.  Excuse me while I go put this into action for my lunch.
Mmm, delicious emulsification in salad dressing form.  
I don't even care that having avocado and feta in the same salad is a cultural travesty!
Back to skincare!  Much the same way I had to use mustard in my lunch to bind the oil and vinegar together, asian oil cleansers have added ingredients to assist with emulsifying the oil off your face and rinsing it clean.  As soon as you apply water (I find warm water works best) they start to turn milky and can be rinsed off easily.  For this reason, I personally find asian oil cleansers to work better than traditional OCM cleansing for my skin.

Nonetheless, if I don't follow up with a surfactant-type cleanser, I can't seem to get all the cleansing oil out of my pores and I break out as a result.  So, after lightly rinsing off the oil (as in, I don't use the mega rinsing technique I will talk about later) until I don't feel it under my fingers, I break out a foaming cleanser to clean off the dirty oil residue and properly clean my skin.

Double cleansing didn't work for me at first because all my foaming cleansers were too harsh. I cannot stress this enough.  I thought double-cleanse aficionados were delusional or had skin of steel.

My foaming cleansers including stick, gel, bubble types.

Although all my foaming cleansers are perfectly fine for single cleansing, when I paired them with oil cleansing, it was just too much.  The only exception is the much-hyped and sadly discontinued Su:m37 fermented and PH-balanced Miracle rose Cleansing Stick, pictured in the centre.

I am currently hunting for a PH-balanced (meaning between 3.5 and 5.5 on the PH scale) foaming cleanser to take the place of this product, so if you have found one, let me know.  I do have a bubble cleanser from Missha on its way which is supposedly PH balanced, so crossing fingers here!

The Su:m37 stick is very gentle, and non-drying. This is due in a large part, I believe, to its PH level (5.5) so although it has a smooth, fine-grained foaming action, it's ultra gentle on my skin and pairs well with an oil cleanser.

That pretty much sums up double cleansing- ultra gentle cleansers, one oil to remove makeup and sunscreen, one surfactant-style to remove the oil cleanser residue and any lingering dirt on your skin.  I only use this method if I have worn makeup or sunscreen, because it's a pretty deep clean and it's too much for me for daily use, even with the gentlest foaming cleanser known to the blogging world.

Cleanser types:

I used to think cleansers = foaming.  Gel, bar (shiver), stick, liquid, whichever form it came in, it would lather up when you applied water to it.  Oh, how naive I was.  I have learned that there are cleansing milks, creams, massage gels, balms, sherbets, waters, and even bubble cleansers which are like foaming cleansers but you apply them to a dry face and they react to the air by turning into a frothy foam on your face.

It's hard to categorize them as many of them overlap, but I personally group them into the following:
  • Oil-based cleansers
These include oil cleanserscold-cream cleansers (one of which I have on my wishlist), cream cleansersbalm cleansers which are basically oil cleansers in solid form until they melt onto your skin, and sherbet cleansers which are very close to balm cleansers although with a different texture pre-application.

All of them work off the premise of 'like dissolves like' and are usually meant to be cleaned off with another cleanser, or come with emulsifying agents mixed in to rinse off with water, or are meant to be wiped off the face without adding additional water.  

Oil cleansers can be very gentle on the skin since they're working with the natural oils and not against them, but they can also be a challenge to completely remove without over-working your skin in the process.   Oil-based cleansing can both be very beneficial for dry skin types who feel foaming cleanser are too stripping for their skin, but paradoxically oily skin types can find them drying because they're shifting large amounts of sebum out of your pores so you will need to find the right cleanser for your skin.  

I have not yet found my HG oil cleanser; the Etude House (above left) may be breaking me out, and the Holika Holika (above right) is a little too harsh.  I also have a nameless Japanese oil cleanser which I have decanted and thus is not pictured.

I don't currently own any cream cleansers, but I have used and liked them, such as the Eminence lemon cleanser (right) but found them not robust enough for my needs.  (Note: Eminence is not an asian brand, it's a European-style and very expensive western brand that I used before blissfully falling into the asian skincare rabbit hole, where products are as good or better, and much, much cheaper.) Now that my skin is more sensitive due to regular acid treatments, I have a few back on my wishlist.  

Oil Cleansers
Cream Cleansers
You'll notice I also included the Tonymoly Appletox Smooth Massage Peeling Cream in this category, despite it being a supposed acid peel and massage gel and exfoliator all in one.  The reason I am including it in cream cleansers is that it's a nearly useless product (for me) as a peeling gel as it doesn't actually 'peel' anything (the 'peels' are the balled-up product, not your actual dead skin), it's not particularly great as a massage gel because the balled-up product is physically exfoliating, but it did sort-of work for me as an occasional cream cleanser when I was trying to find a use for it.  Let me clear, I am not recommending this product as a cream cleanser.  I'm just trying to repurpose it so it doesn't go to waste.  It goes on as a cream, reacts with the oils in your skin, and then you rub off the product as it takes the oil and dirt from your skin with it, then rinse it off and remove any residue with either a mild cleanser or a toner-soaked cotton pad, much like you do with a cream cleanser, hence its inclusion in this list.
  • Water-based cleansers
Although milk-type cleansers sort of overlap between oil-based and water-based cleansers, I am including them here because they're very liquid in texture and don't have a powerful cleansing action.  There are actual cleansing waters which are supposedly very gentle and good  people with dry and sensitive skin which doesn't need a heavy cleansing. I have not used any cleansing waters as I have oily and congested skin that is bombarded with dust particles all day, but I have used cleansing milks and they just weren't robust enough of a cleanse for me.  
  • Foaming cleansers
From L-R: 
Shiseido FT Sengansenka Perfect Whip Facial Wash
Mizon Skin Turn Around Pore Refine Deep Cleansing Foam
Su:m37 Miracle Rose Cleansing Stick
Skin79 Smart Clear All In One Cleansing Gel
Mizon Snail Repairing Foam Cleanser
Bottom left: Skin79 O2 Bubble BB Cleanser sample size
Bottom right: Eminence Mineral Cleansing Concentrate 
The ol' standby of cleansers.  We are convinced that things are not clean unless we see a glorious spill of suds that cover our faces with a thick layer of lather.

The problem with these cleansers is they work really, really well.  A little too well.  In my experience, unless a foaming cleanser is PH-adjusted for the skin, the alkaline nature of foaming cleansers is just way too harsh and results in stripped, irritated skin that goes nuts with sebum overproduction to compensate and starts breaking out in reaction.  Unless your cleanser contains an active ingredient in sufficient concentrations to bring things to the surface of your skin (such as AHA and BHAs), if your skin is breaking out after using a cleanser, it's not purging, it's reacting.

They can also be filled with ingredients that aren't great for your skin, but boy do they produce an attractive lather for that lovely mindclean feeling.   They're also excellent at cleaning oils off your skin, so if you can find a really gentle one, it will make a great partner to the oil-based cleanser you removed your makeup with.

All foaming cleansers need water to create lather, with the exception of bubble cleansers like the Skin79 O2 Bubble BB Cleanser (pictured in sample size, which I had 10 or 20 of, and kept the last for posts like this) which is used on a dry face and reacts with air, expanding from it's gel or cream form into a froth on the skin.  Bubble cleansers also can be assisted by their dispensers, which I believe mix in air as they are pumped out, resulting in quicker froth.  If I've totally confused you, chances are you've encountered this function in a shaving cream, which either froths immediately as you pump it out, or starts as a gel and then converts to froth in the air, resulting in a horrible mess as you look up and see your shaving cream bottle somehow has goop all over which wasn't there 5 minutes ago.

I am leery of foaming cleansers that lather up really dramatically with just water, because I am suspicious of the ingredients that made it possible.  On the other hand, since you don't want to use your skin as the scrubbing surface to work up foam and getting a good lather using just your hands can be time-consuming and messy, this brings us to Part II: Cleansing Tools, Cleansing Techniques, and why the pH of your cleansers matter!

Click here for Part II.

*Disclaimer: All products I review are 100% purchased with my own money and my opinions are entirely my own. 

Note: As usual, I will be skipping next weekend's review due to this doublepost.


  1. Such a good and extensive post!

    I just realized that you may want to look into Powder cleansers for a gentle ph friendly cleanser. They have a lot less ingredients since they aren't necessary since they are dry and tend to be much gentler than regular foam cleansers

    1. Tell me more! I have heard of Tatcha having a powder cleanser but I've never personally tried one. I'd be happy to add it if you can give me more info! :)

      (Also, clearly I now need to try this myself, not because of nebulous reasons that are rooted in my urge to buy all the things, oh no. It's er ... for the sake of thorough blog reporting. Yesss, yes that's it!)

  2. Regarding oil cleansers, the Banila Co Clean It Zero cleanser is fantastic. It's a balm cleanser, I think--comes as a solid but melts to liquid. I have very sensitive combination skin, and rosacea, and the stuff cleans well and gently. I highly recommend trying it out.

    1. I have been eyeing that balm cleanser, in fact! I have a balm cleanser in my shopping cart and I am looking forward to trying it. I do find the oil cleansers to be a bit messy to apply so I'm intrigued to see how it's different.

    2. Yes, that's one of the best things I've found about the balm cleanser--it's very non-messy. It stays solid until you start rubbing it in your hands or on your face. I never spill any.

  3. hi Cat, Is it fine to use a mineral oil as the first oil cleanser? I already have wood oil

  4. Hi Cat

    Thank you for the informative post!

    I'm wondering since you say that you only use double cleansing on days that you use make up or sunscreen, are there days that you don't use sunscreen? I feel like I've always read that it is a necessity to use sunscreen every day (!!!!) and thus I'd have to double cleanse every night. I also feel like it's a bit harsh. Do you have any insight as to whether the CosRx morning gel cleanser is able to dissolve sunscreen?


    1. Hi cat.. im a newbie here on the asian korean skin care. I came across cremorlab sample kit. Do u happen to know the ph level of cremorlab triple bright white facial wash? Was thinking of getting the samole kit to try if the priducts are great but i held off cause i couldnt find it on your spreadsheet under the ph levels of cleansers. Btw, youband your blog is an eye opener and a great guide for us mere mortals who tread on the path towards the korean skincare phenomenom. Thanks and god bless!