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Cleanser vs Face Wash: Understanding Face Washing Products

Is there really a cleanser vs face wash debate? Or are we actually talking about the same skincare product under two different names?

In my opinion, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

From my point of view, there’s no cleanser vs face wash debate because they’re both actually referring to the same thing. At least, that has become the case now, even though in the past we could be talking about two different products for washing the face.

If you’re searching for the best face wash on the internet or even if you’re asking someone to recommend you the best face wash for your skin type, you’re actually going to receive answers for the best cleanser.

Nowadays, major beauty websites, when they write about cleansers and face washes, they use the term interchangeably.

That’s why, both cleansers and face washes mean the same thing to me and I don’t think this is a proper debate.

What Do a Cleanser and a Face Wash Do?

washing face vs cleanser

Nowadays, cleansers have become the word that most of us use when it comes to the skincare products that we use for washing the face.

We cleanse (wash) our skin in order to remove excess sebum (oil), dirt pollution, and impurities and even for removing makeup from our faces.

Those wearing makeup should double cleanse, although that’s a completely separate discussion.

Washing our faces is the foundation of any beauty routine. Whether we’re talking about a morning or night-time routine, the order for skin care routine starts with cleansing.


We usually cleanse twice daily. Most people also cleanse their faces after exercising for the same reason for which we wash our bodies: because we sweat. Nowadays, most of us also have to cleanse our faces after wearing masks, especially those with acne-prone skin.

Which brings us to a criteria used to set apart cleansers from face washes, if we’re really keen on setting them apart and not considering them the same thing, as I do. And as most people do, nowadays.

Cleanser vs Face Wash: Nowadays, They’re the Same

Call it however you want, the purpose is the same: removing every unwanted thing from our face and even bringing some helpful ingredients to the skin when we gently massage the gel or foam into our skin.

There are so many wonderful cleansing skincare products on the market, most of them very affordable and in large quantities because we do use a lot when washing our faces.

And it’s not something that you can skip over, just like you shouldn’t skip wearing sunscreen daily throughout the year, even if you don’t see the sun up in the sky.

Let’s define both terms and see how the two have evolved in order to better understand them.

What Are Cleansers?

Cleansers were considered to be better for those with sensitive skin or those suffering from dry skin or for those with conditions like rosacea or eczema.

Today, however, cleansers work for all skin types and each will indicate the skin type that it’s best used for.

We have cleansers for dry, sensitive, oily, combination, aging, and acne-prone skin. Just like we have face oils for all those skin types, too. And moisturizers and serums and so on.

Milk cleansers are a particular category that are renowned for their gentleness when it comes to face washing for all skin types, not only dry sensitive ones.

Cleansers also contain moisturizing ingredients or antioxidants, besides the ingredients needed to remove the dirt, makeup, and excess oil. But they can also contain salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide in order to help those with breakouts.

In short: cleansers are considered to be more gentle than face washes.

But that, in my opinion, is a notion that no longer applies today and it’s my reason for writing this cleanser vs face wash post.

Because, nowadays, if you’re looking for a cleanser or a face wash, the results are the same. The same product will be called both a cleanser and a face wash to make people more easily understand what it’s for.

Since a product intended for washing our face in order for us to be able to continue with the rest of our beauty routine can be called both a cleanser and a face wash, then there’s no real difference between the two.

What Are Face Washes?

Face washes were compared in their harshness to soaps and where considered appropriate for those with oily or combination skin.

Not even those skin types will benefit from harsh cleansing products, those notions are long gone.

Because now we know that if you strip the skin of its essential oils, it will feel the need to produce excess sebum, which will lead to even more clogged pores and, subsequently, breakouts.

That’s why, instead, manufacturers have turned their attention to ingredients that can balance sebum production because it’s much more beneficial to have a healthy skin barrier if you want a healthy skin with fewer problems.

We know better now and manufacturers definitely know better: a face wash must be gentle and achieve that balance of not irritating the skin, even when it contains more powerful active ingredients, like benzoyl peroxide. Salicylic acid is very gentle.

Those ingredients can target specific problems, like it’s the case with cleansers (face washes) for acne-prone or oily skin or like it’s the case with those formulate for sensitive or dry skin or like it’s even the case for those addressing aging skin.

How Do We Use Cleansers and Face Washes?

The steps are the same because both are the same product:

  • wash your hands first
  • then wet the skin with lukewarm water
  • there are two consistencies: gel, which will not form a lather exactly, and foam, which is self-explanatory – I have used both types and they both cleanse the face thoroughly if they’re from a good manufacturer, you don’t need to see excessive foam to know that they work
  • massage gently the skin with the gel or foam
  • you should massage for about a minute
  • then rinse with lukewarm water
  • pat dry with a towel, always a clean towel every time, don’t rub the skin just pat it dry

As I said, those wearing makeup should double cleanse. It means that they should use two separate products for cleansing the face in order to remove absolutely everything.

Most cleansers/face washes will state that they remove makeup as well so you can try a single product and see how that goes.

Or you can use face wipes or a makeup melting balm or any other form of makeup remover and then wash your face with a cleanser.

As for our cleanser vs face wash debate, I think we all now understand that nowadays, with how things have evolved in the beauty industry, they refer to the same product.