Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oil Review

Oil cleansers, sigh.  I have a toxic, co-dependent relationship with them; on the one hand, I need them to properly remove my sunscreen and makeup, but on the other hand they're highly comedogenic for me because my skin's mission in life is to clog its pores at all costs.

This means I buy, try, and hate a lot of oil/balm/sherbet cleansers in my quest to find something that 1. takes off my sunscreen and makeup completely, 2. rinses/emulsifies completely, and 3. doesn't break me out.   I am asking a lot, I know.

This week I will be reviewing the Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oil (travel size) which I managed to completely empty despite it being, well, an oil cleanser.

This weekend I needed to take a picture that spanned about 5 feet, so my lightbox was useless; deciding to go ahead and continue with the same set up including the dark background = regret
I was quite pleased to see that the Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oil comes in sample/travel sizes, because I can safely assume every oil/balm/sherbet cleanser out here is going to be hated passionately by my skin.  It's just statistical probability at this point, and becomes a matter of how much my skin is going to hate it.

So why do I use them?  I'm a firm believer in the Double Cleansing Method, which is a key feature of the Asian skincare philosophy, if sunscreen or makeup is involved.  If you are new to Asian skincare, you can read more about Double Cleansing and the products recommended/formulated for that use here: Cleansing Megapost: Double Cleansing, Cleanser Types, Tools, & Techniques.

In  this post:
  • Product Details
  • Ingredients Analysis
  • Effectiveness Demo
  • Final Thoughts

Just as a quick reminder: this blog uses both affiliate and non-affiliate links, and if you choose to click the fomer before you shop, your purchase may contribute a tiny amount to the maintenance of this blog.  See full details at the end of this post! #receipts

Product Details

Full product name: Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oil
Purpose: Oil cleansers are not the same as the Oil Cleansing Method (OCM) as they are not straight oils that require a fancy removal technique; oil cleansers are formulated with ingredients that allow the oil to emulsify with water, which lets you rinse off the oil cleanser with water!  Oil cleansers are recommended for a 1st cleansing step, and are excellent for breaking down sunscreen and makeup.  They are commonly followed by a 2nd cleanser (usually foaming) to remove the oil cleanser residue and fully clean the skin.  So they're like an ultra makeup remover for your entire face.

According to Sulwhasoo's US site, this cleanser's main features are:
  • White Birch promotes the skin's natural circulation and turnover cycle to restore a healthy glow
  • Spreads smoothly over the skin to remove makeup and pore-clogging impurities
  • Delicate enough to be used around lip and eye area
Scent:  This product has a very strong, very Hanbang (traditional Korean herbal medicine) scent; it's very potent and it lingers.  I enjoy herbal scents, but those who dislike fragranced products may want to skip this one.
Quantity: 50ml, which is a travel size and a nice amount to test it properly without investing in a full size.  (This is especially important for me with my ... unfortunate history with oil cleansers.)
Price: I purchased it from TesterKorea for 8,000 krw, which is about $7.40 USD.
Availability: I usually get my travel-sized luxury cosmetic fix via eBay (50ml for less than $10 shipped) which is actually cheaper than TesterKorea once you factor in shipping.  You can also get the full size from Amazon Prime for $37, but I'd test it out first.  TesterKorea is the cheapest, if you are hauling from them anyway and are already paying for shipping, but be warned they have ongoing issues with delayed shipments.
Rating: 3/5, which is quite good for a cleansing oil in my book.
Repurchase:  Unlikely, because I am still searching for a cleansing oil that won't clog my skin; that's not the oil's fault though- that's just my stupid skin.  More on that later.  If your skin likes oil cleansers, it's a nice, luxurious, gentle option.  My skin just hates them in general.

Here's the travel size next to my Missha Special Edition Magic Cushion Case, which is a standard Cushion size, for scale:

I am so never using a dark background ever again, at least not until I get a new camera; the oil bottle is not white balance, camera! What is with the soft glowing ninbus that looks like I dropped my lens in grease?! 

Ingredients Analysis

Handily enough, the ingredients are listed right on the Sulwhasoo US page. Cosdna flags of 2 or higher are in red.
  • Isopropyl Palmitate: Cosdna flags this with a whopping 4 for Acne and a 1 for Irritant.  Although it's not flagged for safety by cosmeticsinfo, the 4/5 rating had me off to research more.  Cosdna tags it as a Solvent, Fragrance, Synthetic ester, Moisturizer, and cosmeticsinfo labels it a Binder.  Further investigating indicates that Isopropyl Palmitate is derived from coconut oil and may be comedogenic for some people.  I don't react to coconut oil per se, but my skin does not like oils in general and is easily (even eagerly) clogged, so beware if you are avoiding coconut oil products.
  • Prunus armeniaca Kernel Oil: aka Apricot kernel oil.  This only scored a 2/5, and appears to be potentially comedogenic.
  • Sesamum indicum Seed Oil: aka Sesame seed oil.  Ditto to the Apricot kernel flags: 2/5 for comedogenic risk reasons.
  • Squalane gave me a bit of a pause because it's a refined version of Squalene, which is historically harvested from the livers of sharks.  Er, what?  I am not cool with non-sustainable animal-derived ingredients in general, so this was of immediate concern to me. However further investigation showed that while shark liver was the first popularized source, it can also be derived from vegetable oils. [source: abstract]  There may be benefits of Squalene/Squalane for skin conditions per that abstract, but the important thing to keep in mind here is that this is an oil cleanser, so it's not going to stay on your skin for long.  
I would be interested in researching Squalene/Squalane in more depth if this was a leave-on product like a cream or facial oil, but I think packing your cleanser full of amazing ingredients that are going to be washed back off within minutes is a bit useless?
  • Pinus koraiensis Seed Oil: aka Korean pine.  This wasn't flagged for anything, but I believe this is the culprit of the "a forest just sucker punched me in the face" scent of this product.  I like it, but it's ... potent.
Mysteriously missing, unless I'm just blind:  White birch?  The Sulwhasoo US site listed it as the first feature of this cleanser, but I don't see it in the ingredients list.  White birch is 
Betula papyrifera, which I don't see in the ingredients?  Ok, how about just ... birch?  Anything related to birch?  Wikipedia says:
Birch is a broadleaved deciduous hardwood tree of the genus Betula in the family Betulaceae, which also includes alders, hazels, and hornbeams, and is closely related to the beech/oak family, Fagaceae. 
If there are any Botanists out there who want to drop me a comment about how XYZ extract/oil in the ingredients list is actually birch, please do!

In the meantime, have a close-up of the gorgeous packaging.  Sulwhasoo is a prestige/Hanbang brand, and as usual their packaging does not disappoint.  It's hard to photograph, but the box has this subtle pattern overlay that's a sheen/satin filigree over a subtle gradient:

I admit I did not throw out this box even after taking pictures for this review.  It's just so pretty.  Can you blame me?!
Even the sample sizes of Sulwhasoo products are beautiful; Sulwhasoo knows how to catch people's eye and infer luxury and quality in their products via the packaging.

Effectiveness Demo

Ok, so ingredients are one thing, but what matters with a cleanser is how well does it clean?

Left: a 'full face' of makeup after 8 hours of wear. Right: the last drops of this oil saved just for this review.
One thing I always wonder about demos of makeup removal is whether it's replicating taking your makeup off after an entire day of wear and sinking into your pores.  I think fresh makeup, especially sunscreen, is actually easier to remove than makeup that's been taking up residence in the depths of your pores all day.  So, all day I wandered around, carefully not washing the back of my left hand so I could test the 'end of the day' removal powers of this oil cleanser.  I applied:
  • Sunscreen (Sunkiller Baby Milk SPF45 PA+++ [reviewed])
  • Mizon Multi Function Formula Snail Repair Blemish Balm SPF32/PA++ [reviewed waaay back, oh god those swatch pictures D:])
  • Mac Studio Fix Concealer in NC15
  • Urban Decay eyeshadows in Sin and Perversion
  • Urban Decay 24/7 Glide-On Eye Pencil in Perversion (very difficult to remove)
  • Holika Holika Wonder Drawing Dot Liner (used to write my initials)
  • Smashbox Soft Lights Duo Blush
  • Tonymoly Catchu Wink Tony Tint in Cherry Pink [reviewed]
  • Urban Decay 24/7 Glide-On Lip Pencil in Naked and Paranoid
So as you can see, the eye and lip products really stuck around after a full day's 'wear'.  How did the oil cleanser do to remove them?

With flash at left, without flash at right (but with lightbox lights) because my camera refused to take a flash picture that did not completely white out my skin due to the dark background. Argh!
At left is the oil massaged into my skin for a few minutes using gentle tiny circles- using no pressure, just resting the tips of my ring and pinky fingers on my skin so there is contact.  I am a big fan of oil massage to get out 'grits' (sebum clogs, blackheads, and sebaceous filaments which are not blackheads) because I have very congested skin, but it has to be done gently or you are begging for broken capillaries.

At right is after the cleanser has been emulsified with water and rinsed off.  As you can see, the Holika Holika liner and the Tonymoly tint are both still faintly there.  The Holika Holika is still going strong 24 hours after taking these photos through a shower and a day's worth of washing with hand soap.  So, no knock against the Sulwhasoo oil for failing to take it off!

It did clean off the base makeup perfectly fine, including the pencil liner and the non-stain lip products.  So you might need to use an eye/lip makeup remover with this, but it should do fine for base products.

Final Thoughts

To be completely honest, I don't use makeup much because I work from home, but I do use sunscreen almost daily, unless I'm deliberately working with windows closed and not going out during the day to give my skin a rest.   I also have a serious 'grit' problem due to having dehydrated skin that can get oily + constant patina of dust in the air = clogged pores by nightfall.  If you oil massage, please keep in mind that not everyone has issues with clogs and you shouldn't over-massage your face in an attempt to release clogs that may not be there.

My skin doesn't agree with oils in general, and especially not with oil cleansers; my pores are so deep and huge and tyrannical that products are easily trapped down in them and it's hard to get them back out.  No matter how carefully and thoroughly I emulsify/rinse and then double cleanse, 90% of oil cleansers get stuck in the depths of my pores only to seep out hours later- this is especially obvious when I am using a heavily fragranced oil cleanser.  Like clockwork, when I oil cleanse, 2 mornings later I have clog-type breakouts waiting to greet me.

I will say that this cleanser broke me out less than many of the other cleansers I have used.  It has a thicker texture but still smooths easily over the skin and does a decent job of oil massaging out grit without irritating my skin.  It's a little more challenging to emulsify/rinse off cleanly, so I definitely recommend following up with a gentle, low-pH cleanser to remove the residue. [Click here to read about why the pH of your cleanser matters.]

Will I repurchase it?  I might if we end up moving to a more humid environment because it's really not the cleanser's fault that I broke out; if anything it gets kudos for doing so less than oil/balm/sherbet cleansers normally do.  Otherwise, the search for my HG 1st cleanser/massage product continues. [Update: I have since found a 1st cleanser that doesn't break me out, and you can read about it here: My Favourite K-Beauty Products of 2015]

Have you managed to use up an entire product despite knowing it was breaking you out?  Hit me up on Facebook or Twitter and let me know!

Have something you'd like to share with me in general?  Snap a pic and tag me on Instagram at @snowwhiteandtheasianpear because I'd love to see it!

All the best,

**Disclaimer: All products reviewed/mentioned in my blog, are 100% purchased with my own money, with a single exception of a press sample I tested & reviewed in 2015 which swore me off of them forever.  This blog contains  both affiliate and non-affiliate links, and clicking the former before you shop means that this blog may receive a small commission to assist in this blog supporting itself.  Please see my Contact Info & Disclaimer policy for more information.

1 comment

  1. They've removed white birch from the discription. Someone probably made a similar comment to yours about it (and if it was a Korean person, they're unrelenting, haha), and changed the discription.

    I'm having the same problem as you with oil cleansers. I like using straight grape seed oil and do an OCM cleaning, because my skin loves it, but God, it takes forever. And I'm constantly having to buy and wash face cloths, lol. I bought the Hado Labo cleansing oil to store at my boyfriend's place when I'm over there (which is only once or twice a week), and my skin had no problems, so a few months later I bought some for my place for everyday use. Yeah, major breakouts around my chin and jawline, kinda sucks. I wanna try this one to see if it's any better, because I'm too lazy to do straight grapeseed oil every night.