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The Ideal Skin Care Routine in Detail

Cleansers: Overview

The concept of cleaning the skin with soap and water has existed for thousands of years ago. But for those thousands of years, the choices have always been the same. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that the choices in cleansing options multiplied. These days, there are shelves upon shelves of cleansers available for purchase at your local pharmacy or drugstore. But clearly, there can’t be that many TYPES of cleansers, right?

Well, this section of the Ideal Routine page will answer just that, by analyzing what components constitute a cleanser and how the manipulation of these components can give rise to different types of cleansers. The short- and long-term effects of cleansers on the skin, will also be examined. Finally, a short guide on how to choose an appropriate cleanser will conclude the series.

The Types and Composition of Cleansers:

There are two primary types of cleansers: solid cleansers and liquid cleansers. Solid bar cleansers have the distinction of being hated by most of the consumer base for being overly harsh and leaving behind a scummy-feeling residue. However, synthetic detergent bars “syndet” bars are actually quite gentle and rinse without leaving much of a film behind. But because they look the same as true bar cleansers, they are typically ignored. 

Liquid cleansers on the other hand, are touted to be the exact opposite of bar cleansers. They are supposedly gentle and easy-to-use. Ironically enough however, the same compounds (called surfactants) used in bar cleansers, can also be found in liquid cleansers. And with the former containing less emollients, they can actually be even more irritating than their bar counterparts. Fortunately, because there is such diversity among liquid cleansers, virtually everyone can find a suitable product. Therefore, liquid cleansers are the way to go!

For more information and details, be sure to read this article that touches on manufacturing processes and the differences between solvent- and surfactant-based cleansers.

The Types of Surfactants

That's not a caterpillar, it's sodium lauryl sulfate!

That’s not a caterpillar, it’s sodium lauryl sulfate!

Surfactants are typically fatty acid salts that contain a hydrophilic section (like a carboxylate) and a hydrophobic section (like a long carbon chain). By being dual-natured, surfactants possess the ability to reduce the tension between more water-soluble compounds and more oil-soluble ones, thereby allowing them to  mix readily.

The four main types of surfactants are differentiated by the charge of their respective head groups–the area that contains the hydrophilic section. In order of decreasing potency they are as follows:

Anionic = cationic > amphoteric > nonionic       <———————————————— Keep in mind that this is simply a trend, NOT a rule.

For more information and details about surfactants, be sure to read this article that provides specific examples of several families of surfactants, and why they have different levels of potency.

The Effects of Cleansers

Cleansers have many positive effects on the skin. They remove excess oil and makeup in order to reduce clogged pores and create a clean canvas. From there, moisturizers and other treatments can more easily penetrate into the skin unperturbed, which will allow for more pronounced improvements.

Like with any skin care product however, overusing it and/or using the incorrect formulation, can have negative effects. Our focus here, will therefore be on these negative effects and how to prevent them.

Short-Term Effects

Micelle formation

Micelle formation.

The stratum corneum (SC) is the very top layer of the skin–this is what cleansers act upon. It consists of about 70% proteins, 15% lipids, and 15% water.

When there are too many surfactants or too much of one in contact with the skin, they will have a meaningful effect on the proteins and lipids of the SC, which in turn, affect the water content. The proteins’s ability to retain water will be inhibited due to denaturation. The lipids will be damaged via solubilization and insertion with micelles and surfactant monomers.

For more information and details, be sure to read this article and find out what solubilization and insertion actually mean, as well as how the total water content of the SC is affected.

Long-Term Effects

The skin is remarkably resilient. All that damage to the lipid matrix and protein structures, hardly phase the skin. It’ll simply produce backups. Over time however, the skin will start to noticeably lag behind the onslaught of excessive and overaggressive cleansing.

The skin will let you know by becoming increasingly sensitive. Erythema (redness) and pruritus (itchiness) are the most common manifestations of this sensitivity. While not irreversible, a weakened and damaged SC will render the living parts of the skin more prone to external elements including climate changes, foreign infection, and even light energy AKA the sun.

For more information and details, be sure to read this article that discusses how the skin produces these signals as well as how pH affects the skin.

A Guide on How to Choose a Cleanser

While there’s no real science to how to find the best specific cleanser for you, it is my hope that this guide will help narrow down your list of potential candidates.

Good luck!

About John

The Triple Helixian is an unbiased science and research-based site that attempts to clarify and elucidate questions about skin care, while aspiring to be the most thorough and complete source of information.


8 thoughts on “Cleansers: Overview

  1. Hey, I am so glad that you are back! Your posts are always so informative and I love all the scientific, chemistry terms.. haha..

    Can I ask if you would be covering the different types of surfactants in your later posts?

    What’s your take on SLS surfactants? I am sure you know how the natural groups have branded how bad/cancerous SLS is. I have worked with my formulator to try out different milder surfactants but none worked for my skin except SLS.

    Posted by SkinLYcious | May 22, 2014, 10:32 pm
    • Haha, I’m glad that you like complicated posts! I know I do.

      The second part of this cleanser series has actually just been posted! It talks about the different types of surfactants and a bit more.

      As for sulfates, they widely misunderstood, sadly. While SLS can be quite potent and even irritating, it’s in a sense more economical for formulators to use because they can use less of it and still make cleansers that provide an effective cleansing experience. And no, it does not cause cancer, which I’m sure you already knew. 🙂

      Posted by John | May 23, 2014, 5:32 pm
  2. Very informative article – will you update it soon with the links as well?

    Posted by sanzienesimatraguna | May 18, 2014, 11:50 pm
  3. A new post! Made my day. I guess there are trends even with face cleansers. Now the craze seems to be balm and hot cloth cleansers.Thanks for the note on syndet cleansers. I wouldn’t have considered them otherwise. Great post–as always!

    Posted by amy | May 18, 2014, 3:56 pm
    • Thanks! Yeah, cleansing balm are like cold cream-style cleansers. They can certainly be an option, but not for everyone. I hope to see more of your comments as we go through each part of this series! 😉

      Posted by John | May 19, 2014, 7:40 pm
  4. It sounds like “Syndet” (Synthetic Detergent) bars are gentler than the traditional harsher more hated (by me too) soap bar cleansers. I didn’t know such a bar existed (“Syndet”). Is it difficult or simple (based on an ingredient list) to distinguish between “Syndet” and traditional soap bar cleansers? I would find it really interesting to hear more on what makes a “Syndet” bar gentler 🙂 I think I’ll still prefer liquid cleansers ultimately, but I’m really curious of an example of a “Syndet” bar and/or what I would look for to determine that I’ve found one. Also, there’s a Korean product that’s apparently really popular over there that’s a cleansing stick and I’m curious if we’ll see that trend come into the U.S. eventually or different brands or formulations pick up in this new to me form of a cleanser.

    Posted by Cynthia | May 18, 2014, 5:16 am
    • It’s quite easy to tell the difference, and you can find out how in the post that I publish tonight, which will discuss all the different types of cleansers. The one posted after that one should help too! Dove makes some syndet bars. Haven’t you seen their advertisements with the “no soap scum” comparison? 😉 Eucerin makes some too.

      Posted by John | May 19, 2014, 6:47 pm

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