Cleanser vs Face Wash – 7 Main Differences You Need to Know

Cleansing is the first step and the foundation of any good skincare routine, whatever the age or the season. It doesn’t matter if you are wearing makeup or not, the skin needs cleansing both in the morning and evenings. Washing the face with water and soap is not recommended as it can dry the delicate skin of the face and strip it of natural oils. Just like it is the case with any other skincare product, the cleanser or face wash, or face gel should be chosen depending on your skin type and skin condition.

All types of cleansers have the same role – to help you get rid of impurities, dirt, excess sebum, and makeup from the face. However, they come in many shapes, forms, and consistencies. Let’s have a look together at what is the difference between a cleanser or a face wash and which one is better for you. 

Cleanser vs Face WashWhat Is the Difference?

Is face wash and cleanser the same thing? This is a popular question among skincare enthusiasts. Is it a real difference between the two, or just marketing and packaging? Well, the truth is that the cleanser – or what we usually call a cleanser has a different texture, consistency and even plays a different role compared to the face wash. 

Face WashCleanser
FunctionRemoves debris from deeper layers of skin and cleanses poresRemoves the dirt, makeup residue and excess oils from the skin’s surface
Suited forOily and combination skin typesDry and sensitive skin types
FoamingUsually well foamingNon-foaming
GentlenessGentler than a soap barGentler than a face wash
MoisturizeLess hydrating and moisturizingMore hydrating and moisturizing
UsageIn the morningIn the night
RinseRinsing requiredRinsing may or may not be required
Source: Skincraft

Face Wash / Gel Wash

The face wash or the face gel is usually great at eliminating the excess sebum from the skin’s surface and the bacteria that can accumulate there. These bacteria and sebum can cause acne and trigger breakouts, so it’s always a good idea to use products to get clean skin with cleansed pores. 

In terms of texture and use, the face wash is usually a foam or a gel that we need to mix with water to get a foamy consistency. When using a face wash, you should first get your skin wet, apply the foamy face wash, massage for a few moments, and then rinse with plenty of water. If you are wearing makeup, there is no need to wet the face before; you can start by applying the foam. 

The face wash is efficient in removing impurities, hence it is great in preventing potential breakouts. 

The Advantages of Using a Face Wash:

  • It cleanses the skin
  • It eliminates all traces of dirt, sebum, makeup
  • It leaves the skin clean and refreshed.

The Disadvantages of Using a Face Wash:

  • It needs to be rinsed off with water
  • You can’t use it in the eye area (so you’d need another cleanser specially designed for the eyes if you are wearing makeup)
  • It might get your skin a bit too dry.

Cleansing Lotion / Cleansing Milk / Water Based Cleanser

The cleansing lotion or milk is the most well-known cleansing product. This is the reason we associate the cleansing with a lotion or milk. This is a hydrating skincare product that doesn’t make foam, and it doesn’t need water to be activated. With a light or rich texture, the cleansing lotion is easy to apply either with the fingers’ tips or with a cotton pad. Massage the lotion into the skin with circular, gentle movements, then use a clean cotton pad to remove the excess from your face. 

We also have the micellar water that works by drawing out skin impurities without drying out the skin. Therefore, it can be used as a light makeup remover and cleanser all in one. It also doesn’t require water to work, nor does it need to be rinsed off afterwards. And because it’s so gentle and hydrating, micellar water seems perfect for those with dry and/or sensitive skin.

Cleansing lotions are a great option for people with sensitive skin and also for rosacea skin. Overly dry skin and mature skin can also benefit more if you are using a cleansing lotion or milk.

The Advantages of Using a Cleanser:

  • It efficiently eliminates makeup and impurities
  • It leaves the skin soft and smooth
  • You don’t have to rinse it off with water.

The Disadvantages of Using a Cleanser:

  • In most cases, you need to follow up with a toner to eliminate the product leftovers
  • The skin might not feel as refreshed as when using a face wash.  

Which Is Better, Face Wash or Cleanser?

Which Is Better, Face Wash or Cleanser?

When it comes to skin care, there isn’t such thing as a “one size fits all.” Hence, there is no simple yes or no answer to this question. Each skin type needs specific care. So, if you have dry skin, you might prefer a different type of cleanser compared to someone with acne-prone skin. 

Washing the face with a mild cleanser is generally recommended for acne care. Occasionally, the general public has the misconception that acne is exacerbated by cleansers and furthermore it has concerns about inducing skin irritation and xerosis by intensive washing.

One study found significant improvement of the acne was observed within 2 weeks, and acne lesions were not detectable in 25% of the subjects at week 4. Sebum secretion levels on the skin significantly increased on the forehead, but significantly decreased on the cheek which correlated with the improvement.

The face wash is also a great option for people with a blemish or acne-prone skin as these products often have an antibacterial ingredient that can make all the difference in terms of preventing breakouts. People with oily skin might also prefer a face wash to eliminate the excess of sebum and leave the face clean and refreshed. 

However, the face wash can contain ingredients that are too harsh for sensitive or overly dry skin. That’s why we recommend the use of natural and organic facial cleansers.

A more hydrating product such as the cleansing milk is a more suitable choice for people with mature, irritated, sensitive skin, but also for people with dry and even normal skin. The extra hydration is great to leave the skin plump and soft, and this is important. 

If you are unsure about how your skin would react to one product or the other, better test the product for a day or two before committing to investing in a whole bottle. 

Can You Use a Cleanser and a Face Wash?

cleanser vs face wash

Maybe you’ve already tried a face wash and love the fresh sensation it leaves at the level of the face, but you don’t like the skin dryness associated with it. Maybe you’ve also tried the cleansing milk and love the hydration but hate the fact that it seems less efficient in eliminating makeup compared to the face wash. What could you do to be happy with your skincare routine without making compromises? Well, you can definitely use both products!

In terms of cleansing, nowadays, the golden standard is double cleansing, so you’d be right on the spot with these two products!

Start with the face wash to get rid of all the impurities, and use the cleansing milk for the step two of the cleansing! Make sure to use a correct technique when using the cleansing lotion – start at the base of the neck or the face and spread the lotion up and to the sides of the face, without applying too much pressure or pulling on the skin. Applying the cleanser from the hair down can pull on the skin in the wrong direction and hence cause wrinkles and skin sagginess with time. 

Final Words

The cleanser has a different consistency and action compared to the face wash. The face wash is efficient in eliminating all traces of makeup and impurities from your face, but it can also have a drying effect, so it’s not always indicated for people with dry, mature, or sensitive skin. The cleansing milk has a hydrating action; aside from the cleansing effect, it doesn’t require water to rinse off, but you’d need a toner to close the pores and get a refreshed sensation after using the cleanser. 

The best skincare product between cleanser and face wash is the one that makes your skin clean and hydrated at the same time and ready for the next steps of the beauty routine.

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About The Author

Elena D. is a passionate advocate for ethical consumer choices and sustainable living. With a deep commitment to clean, organic, and non-toxic products, Elena is on a mission to promote a healthier, planet-friendly lifestyle. Her expertise in non-toxic skincare and eco-conscious alternatives to traditional beauty products reflects her dedication to a more sustainable and compassionate world. Elena's goal is to empower readers to make informed choices that benefit both their well-being and the environment. Join her on the journey towards a cleaner, greener future.