Understand your options and choose the right cleanser for your skin.
There are so many options for keeping your skin clean.
You can choose solid bar soap, liquid soap, and a variety of hand, face, or body washes.
Our names are Michelle and Marissa. As instructors at Aromahead Institute, we’ve worked with students for years to guide them in choosing (and making!) the best products for their skin. In this post, we’ll give you the information to make an educated decision about what’s best for you.
You’ll also learn about the role essential oils can play in soaps and cleansers.
What is a cleanser?
A cleanser is a product used to remove dirt, natural oils, germs and other undesirables from the skin.
These cleansers usually contain some kind of surfactant.
Surfactant is another word for “surface active agent,”a fancy way of saying that something gathers up dirt and oils and removes them from surfaces (like your skin).
Surfactants are used in the cosmetic industry in products that are designed to cleanse and get foamy and bubbly…think shampoos, body washes, soaps, and hand washes. They can be completely natural, naturally derived, or synthetic.
Here’s how they work…
A surfactant substance is made of molecules with two ends:
- One end that’s attracted to water.
- One end that’s NOT attracted to water. This end is drawn to other substances, like dirt.
When a surfactant molecule is applied to a surface—such as your skin—one end of the molecule is attracted to dirt. But the water-loving end of the molecule is just hanging out there, not doing anything… until water comes along!
Then the water-loving end of the molecule grabs onto the water and gets rinsed away. (Imagine the entire molecule “surfing” away on the water.)
That’s how surfactants wash dirt and other substances away from your skin.
Let’s explore some cleansers!
Soap is a very precise term, and yet we have so many varieties and ways to enjoy it!
Technically, soap is always made from two main ingredients: fats (such as carrier oils), and alkali (which is a material with a very high pH, also known as a “base”. Alkaline substances can be found in various places in nature. (Ash is a natural alkali that was used in traditional soap making throughout history.)
In soap making, fat and alkali combine in a chemical reaction called saponification.
Soap also contains a little naturally occurring glycerin, which is a humectant that attracts moisture to the skin.
Soap can be used undiluted, so it’s easy to enjoy working with as an aromatherapist.
Soapmakers specialize in creating different formulas to suit your needs, producing either finished bar soap or soap that you can customize with essential oils—such as melt-and-pour soap or liquid castile soap. The specific carrier oils and butter used in a soap’s formula have a huge influence on how it feels on your skin and how it lathers, so it’s fun to find the ones that fit your skin best!
“Soap Free” Cleansers
Hand or body washes labelled as “soap-free” include surfactants with a different chemistry and manufacturing process than soap.
How natural are these surfactants?
Some are direct plant extracts, such as yucca extract, quillaja bark extract, and soapberry saponin extract.
Others are naturally derived, where a component of the plant is modified into a surfactant.
And some surfactants are fully synthetic.
Some examples you might see in a cleanser’s ingredients list include:
- coco betaine
- coco glucoside
- caprylyl/capryl glucoside
- decyl glucoside
Each surfactant has different chemical properties and foaming abilities, and a different skin feel. They can even be mixed together to customize their performance and texture.
When properly formulated, cleansers made with these surfactants are ideally pH balanced between a range of 4.5 and 5.5, and often contain other ingredients such as skin softeners (emollients) to keep your skin in good shape.
Oil-Based and Lotion Cleansers
Oil-based and lotion cleansers work in a similar way as surfactants—they bind to dirt and other molecules, allowing them to be easily removed from the skin.
Oil-based and lotion cleansers are remarkably gentle and are popular with people who have very dry or sensitive skin, who don’t want to rely on soap or surfactant cleansers. They’re often made with light, non-pore-clogging oils (such as hemp seed oil or argan oil).
Using them involves massaging the cleanser into your skin, then rinsing or gently rubbing the cleanser away.
About the Authors
Michelle Gilbert, CCA, APAIA, R.SPE.P. is an instructor at Aromahead Institute, where she mentors aromatherapy certification students through their case studies and provides support on the student forum.
While working at a stressful job in health care in the 1990s, an aromatherapy spray got her hooked on the benefits of essential oils.
She went on to become the creative director of a successful natural bath and body company, and eventually a clinical aromatherapist, practitioner, writer, and business consultant.
Michelle is passionate about helping students bust through the knowledge gaps and creative blocks that keep them from feeling confident.
In her free time, Michelle enjoys finding new life in old stories, whether renovating her historic home or writing love letters with vintage fountain pens.
Marissa Berghuber, CA is a certified aromatherapist and medical laboratory scientist from Perth, Western Australia.
She is a case study and forum instructor for Aromahead Institute, where she helps to guide students through their course work. Since Marissa’s first aromatic encounter, she was fascinated by essential oils and understanding how they work.
This initial curiosity has led her on an enriching path in fostering relationships with essential oils, herbs and other plant life.
Marissa takes great joy in working with students and supporting them in their own journeys, knowing that their studies are creating strong advocates for the safe and effective use of aromatherapy.
Outside of work, Marissa enjoys spending time with her family, gardening, growing herbs & vegetables, and formulating skin and body care products.