Friday, January 28, 2022

How They Work, Benefits and More

  • Oil-free facial cleansers are less likely to clog your pores than traditional products
  • They are commonly marketed for acne-prone, oily and combination skin, but there are mild strength formulas designed for sensitive and dry skin
  • A range of moisturizing agents are typically added to oil-free cleansers to counteract their drying effects

Cleansers are an essential part of a daily skin care routine to effectively clear skin of dirt, debris and excess oils. There are a wide range of cleansers available, each designed to accommodate different skin types and target specific concerns. One example is oil-free cleansers; these are noncomedogenic, making them an ideal choice for anyone seeking a deep cleanse without adding unwanted shine.

What Is an Oil-Free Cleanser?

Oil-based cleansers bond with all the impurities and oils on the skin and are then gently removed with a washcloth or rinsed off with water.

Conversely, oil-free or water-based cleansers are lightweight in consistency and formulated without oils. They are known as surface-active agents, or surfactants and are water-soluble. They break down and remove oils and dirt on the surface of skin which is then rinsed away.  

These cleansers typically have a foam or gel-like consistency, but some are available in lotion form as well. While they are intended for oily or combination skin, there are a variety of formulas with a range of active ingredients to benefit other skin types.

How does it work?

Most oil-free cleansers contain foaming agents to thoroughly clear away oil and dirt from the skin. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium cocoyl glycinate (SCG) are two ingredients widely used in oil-free cleansers to create a foamy lather that lifts away impurities.

Other active ingredients are typically added for additional benefits such as salicylic acid to target blackheads and whiteheads, glycolic acid to smooth rough skin and breakouts, and hyaluronic acid to lock in moisture and protect the skin barrier.

Importantly, as oil-free cleansers can all have a drying effect on the skin, most cleansers contain moisturizing agents such as lipids, occlusives and humectants to reduce the effects of  surfactants and to balance moisture levels.


Oil-free cleansers are ideal for acne-prone or oily skin as they excel at dissolving oil, clearing pores and providing a thorough cleanse.  

Compared to oil cleansers, these formulas are lightweight in consistency and are unlikely to clog pores.

Who Should Choose an Oil-Free Cleanser?

Oil-free cleansers are an excellent choice for those with acne-prone, oily or combination skin and can be found in varying strengths, from mild to strong. Mild cleansers are suitable for dry or sensitive skin, especially when they have added rich moisturizers to ease dryness.  

Best Oil-Free Face Cleansers

Not all oil-free cleansers are created equally; some contain harsh ingredients such as alcohol, preservatives, fragrances and dyes which can all irritate, dry and damage skin.

The best oil-free cleansers will contain added active ingredients and nutrients that are tailored to your individual skin type. 

Best types

Foam and gel cleansers are lightweight and contain higher concentrations of ingredients that target acne, eliminate excess oil and exfoliate. This makes them appropriate for oily, acne-prone and combination skin. 

While foaming cleansers tend to be too drying for dry or sensitive skin, gel cleansers can be suitable for these skin types if they contain a high concentration of hydrating ingredients.

Although they are less common, some oil-free cleansers are available in lotion formulations. These typically contain a greater concentration of moisturizing ingredients than foam and gel cleansers, and therefore are optimal for dry and sensitive skin.

Ingredients to look for

Hydroxy acids are a mainstay of skin care products as they have a number of highly effective properties: they can soften the appearance of wrinkles, increase skin’s elasticity and tone, and improve hydration.

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are common additions to oil-free cleansers. AHAs are water-soluble, and work to exfoliate dead skin and surface debris; BHAs are oil-soluble, and penetrate deep within pores to dissolve excess sebum and slough off dead skin cells.

For normal, sensitive or dry skin, a mild concentration of an AHA would be ideal as they are gentler on skin than BHAs. Cleansers well-suited for these skin types typically include hydrating and nourishing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, glycerol, niacinamide and ceramides.

Oily or combination skin would benefit from ingredients that target excess oil both on the surface skin and inside pores. Such ingredients include benzoyl peroxide and the most common BHA,  salicylic acid.

How to Use an Oil-Free Cleanser

As with any cleanser, an oil-free cleanser should be the first step in your skin care routine to wash away oil, dead skin cells and debris, and to benefit from the active agents. 

To use an oil-free cleanser, take the following steps:

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly
  2. Wet your face with lukewarm water
  3. Apply a pea-sized amount of product to your fingertips and gently massage into skin, including the eye area; rinse well
  4. Pat your skin dry and continue with your regular routine


Oil-free cleansers are formulated without the potentially comedogenic effects of oil-based cleansers, and effectively cleanse the skin without depositing unwanted shine. They can be formulated with an array of ingredients to suit most skin types, and can be found in foam, gel and less commonly, lotion formats.

Foam or gel cleansers that contain ingredients to effectively break down excess oil, such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, are ideal choices for people with oily or combination skin. Dry or sensitive skin would benefit from gel or lotion cleansers containing AHAs and ingredients that support skin hydration. 

All skin types should avoid cleansers made with irritating additives such as alcohol, parabens, artificial fragrances and dyes.


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  • Moghimipour E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2012;7(1):9-10.
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  • Fluhr JW, Darlenski R, Surber C. Glycerol and the skin: holistic approach to its origin and functions. Br J Dermatol. 2008 Jul;159(1):23-34. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.2008.08643.x
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