I remember my first foray into cleansing oils. I was a college student staying with a friend during the summer at her grad student co-op. TSA had lost my bag with all my skincare products so when night time came, my friend shared her products with me and I was immediately drawn to the chic bottle of Shu Uemura Cleansing Beauty Oil. “Wait, what is this? An oil… to cleanse your face?” I asked – keep in mind this was a time before people were putting face oils on their skin much less cleansing with them – “Yes, it’s an oil but trust me, it’s really good and cleans well just try it!” my friend reassured.
To my surprise, the oil felt soothing and not greasy, cleansing and not messy. I became a convert and upon returning to work at Neiman Marcus, I immediately got a bottle for myself.
I imagine this is an experience that many who have discovered cleansing oils may share. Now, it seems that every brand has a cleansing oil and for those of you not acquainted with cleansing oils, I put together this little guide to help.
Cleansing Oils: What are they?
Let’s start at the beginning. Cleansing oils are not new, they’ve been around. In Fiore (who has their own LUSTRA Cleansing Essence) purports that oil cleansing is steeped in practices traced to antiquity, as chronicled in beauty rituals in ancient East Asian, Egyptian, and Greek civilizations.
In modern times, it was first prominently used as a dutiful makeup remover by makeup artists on fashion shoots and for performances. The oils are able to dislodge water-proof makeup including mascara and stains that water-based cleansers have a hard time removing and where strong soap-based cleansers may agitate skin. The oil’s powerful performance in removing makeup yet gentle nature (as only mild gliding on the skin is necessary), resulted in them becoming the go-to medium for makeup removal.
However, in the 90’s and early 00’s, the skincare game was dominated by “oil-free” products and any oil based product brought to mind a product that would be heavy, greasy, and skin-clogging, so cleansing oils remained an industry secret. Micellar Water, a suspension of oils in water was introduced as it was thought to be more easily accepted by the mainstream oil-phobic shopper, despite their performance being a literal watered down version of pure cleansing oils.
Although we now place them in their own category of cleansers, functionally it’s more accurate to class cleansing oils as makeup removers. Cleansing oils dislodge surface level impurities and are great for removing makeup and sunscreen. The oils can also be massaged around bare skin to help dislodge trapped and oxidized sebum on the skin surface, including pore-clogging blackheads.
Can any skin type using cleansing oils?
Yes, with caveats. As I stated before, cleansing oils should be thought of as make-up removers or what some people like to call the “first step cleanser”. It’s not a product that I recommend using as the sole cleansing step because it works on a surface level so you aren’t giving your skin that deeper level of daily cleansing maintenance.
As a first step cleanser/makeup remover, even those with acne prone skin and sensitive skin will benefit because cleansing oils work very gently, are good at removing surface level impurities that can contribute to irritating skin, and the oils do not strip skin which is really ideal for the skin barrier. Bonus: if the oils come from good plant oils, skin receives a wonderful addition of antioxidants and vitamins.
Do follow through with an actual cleanser, which can be a cream or gel, that cleans deeper and you’ve got a great system in place.
What types of cleansing oils are there?
I categorize cleansing oils as those that emulsify with water and those that do not. There is no clear-cut winner because there is a trade-off: purists may prefer straight oil blends that are filled only with the good stuff (see May Lindstrom Pendulum Potion) even if they’re harder to wash off, while the performance-minded may prefer cleansing oils (like One Love Organics Vitamin B Enzyme Cleansing Oil) that have emulsifiers that rinse cleanly.
I prefer cleansing oils that emulsify with water for an easy rinse to make sure no residue is left on my skin. I do not want there to be an excess layer of oils that can block the penetration of essences and serums that follow cleansing. Pure oil blends also require muslin cloth, steaming and/or hot water to wash off, a process that I believe to be too abrasive for daily cleansing that it could actually sensitize skin. With that said, if you have a great 2nd cleanser (I swear by YÜLI Halcyon Cleanser), you can do a casual rinse and follow with your second cleanser to get everything off.
How do you determine if a cleansing oil is good or not?
Always read the ingredients list. I like my cleansing oils to be made from high-quality plant oils, so if I see a cleansing oil made from mineral oil or plant oils that are not organic, it’s a no go. You might as well buy a bottle of organic Sweet Almond Oil or Olive Oil instead.
Also, if you have a preference between emulsifying cleansing oils versus pure cleansing oils, check the ingredients to make sure the product is the type you like by looking for emulsifiers which typically have a non-botanical name. It also helps to read the “how to” to see if things like muslin clothes are required to get an idea of how easy the oil is to rinse.
If you are able to sample the cleansing oil, find an oil that has a nice “bouncy” texture where you can glide it around your skin without it pulling or tugging. That weighty texture also helps nourish skin and is a good indicator that the oils have a larger molecular size so they stay on the skin surface which is good in an oil cleanser as you do not want the oils to sink into your skin.
What are your favorites?
Similar to face oils and juicing, for cleansing oils, I will only buy clean formulas made from organic plant oils.
Jose Rosebrook, May Lindstrom, In Fiore oils are where I’d steer you toward if you want a pure oil that does not emulsify. You can’t go wrong with any of their formulas which use high-quality organic plant oils, just play around and see which texture or scent suits you.
Now, onto the emulsifying oils that I prefer to use: the green community long-standing favorite, One Love Organic’s Vitamin B Enzyme Cleansing Oil is one that I’ve tried, loved and repurchased. It’s a nice hefty weight, made from sunflower and papaya seed oil, smells like pina colada, and emulsifies for easy and fuss-free removal.
I’ve purchased Tata Harper’s Nourishing Oil Cleanser which I honestly thought was going to blow all other oil cleansers out of the water but it left me surprisingly disappointed. The oil is great, it smells wonderful, feels fabulous, and even has this ability to soften skin. Where it falls short is how it emulsifies, upon contact with water, the cleanser congeals with the surface impurities (sunscreen and makeup) into a sticky almost rubbery white film on the skin surface that is nearly impossible to rinse off without the help of a cloth and second cleanser that foams. I don’t think this is a case of a product not working with my skin or individual preference, the formula falls short in delivering the cleansing experience because I can’t imagine anyone would find the stubborn rubbery film desirable.
A new release from Kahina Giving Beauty, the Oil Cleanser, is one I’ve been testing for the last two weeks and it’s been an absolutely flawless experience. The oil’s subtle fragrance reminds me of the Kahina Giving Beauty Essaouira Perfume Oil which is one of my favorite oil perfumes (bright, fresh and crisp). I used 3 pumps and it cushioned my skin with soothing sunflower, argan, carrot seed and calendula oils. Although I was done, I kept massaging the oil on my skin as it just felt so good. Upon rinsing off, the entire formula just melted off with water. The packaging is also gorgeous as you get to see the beautiful oils. I’m not going to beat around the bush here, Kahina Giving Beauty’s Oil Cleanser is hands down, my favorite cleansing oil.
If I left anything out or if you have a question about cleansing oils/any of the products I mentioned, please leave a comment!