Using Oil Cleansers: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Clearer Skin
Main Image – Marina Kaiser/Adobe
I have a confession (not so much in a ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ way, more in an ‘I accidentally ate all the biscuits and forgot to replace them – sorry!’ sort of way).
And that confession…? I’m quite the oil cleanser hoarder.
Because while I know there are a lot of people who don’t like them, and I know that they’re (weirdly) often so much more expensive than their foaming or gel counterparts, I’m a big fan- and the proud owner of roughly 40,000 of them.
The thing is that although I hear a lot of concerns about how oils can leave a, well oily, residue, I’ve had one major advantage on my cleansing balm journey: I got a couple of great tips early on.
About 15 years ago I was ridiculously lucky enough to be getting a free facial (surely two of the sweetest words in the English language?) when I first came across a cleansing balm. And I was blown away by how sparkling-clean-but-not-uncomfortable it left my pores.
And because it was in a facial setting I really got a chance to listen to all the tips the beautician had for using it.
So in the interests of beauty, I thought I’d shamelessly commandeer those tips here and share them with you now; they’ve seriously made the difference in my own cleansing routine over the last decade and a half.
What Are Oil Cleansers?
For anyone new to oil cleansers, just know that the category covers a whole variety of oil-based formulas from liquid oils to solid balms.
They work on the basis that oil can break down other oils, making them famously effective at removing makeup, dirt, and yes oil, from skin.
It also means they can be used by most skin types- even oilier ones (although acne types might have to be slightly more strategic about the ones they choose. Don’t worry, I’ve added a list of recommendations for each skin type below).
Healthline backs this up, saying “When it comes to effective skin care, oil cleansing may sound like a major misstep. After all, you’ve probably come across plenty of warnings about avoiding oil on your face, and it might stand to reason that only oil-free products lead to clear, gorgeous skin.
“Plenty of well-known brands now include oil cleansers in their product lineups, and many people have turned to oil cleansing as a way to gently remove makeup, soothe sensitive skin, and reduce breakouts.”
Better still, because any cleansing agents used in them are generally very gentle, they achieve all that without that horrible tight feeling some cleansers can give you (there isn’t enough moisturiser in the world to persuade me to go back to foam cleansers).
This makes them perfect for dry or sensitive types, or anyone whose skin faces a lot of pollution throughout the day (that definitely means you, commuters).
Finally, while some of these cleansers start off in an oil state and remain that way (more suited to very dry skin types), most ‘emulsify’ -turn to a milk texture when mixed with water- meaning they wash away without residue.
Tip 1. Don’t Rush
While the emulsifying stage might be the bit where oil cleansers can really sink into pores, it’s actually when the oil is still on dry skin that you can get a lot of the makeup and dirt removing done; so I really make sure to take my time.
I generally spend a full minute or two really massaging an oil across my face, using small circular motions with my fingertips. This helps to make sure I’ve got every spot of oil and dirt on my face- plus taking that extra minute really makes sure my makeup and SPF get broken down properly.
As an added bonus, just the act of massaging skin helps boost circulation, giving a lovely glow. Just make sure not to pull or rub the skin too hard (no extra redness here thanks!).
Finally, I always think there’s something of a luxury to incorporating an oil into the routine- a nice little self-pampering moment- so go with the whole spa vibe and don’t rush this bit. Your skin (and stress levels) will thank you.
Tip 2. Press into Pores
This is the tip that really changed things for me. Because although most product instructions will tell you to take your time working the product across your face, very few of them offer this advice…
After you’ve massaged the oil or balm across dry skin, wet your fingertips and begin emulsifying the cleanser.
You’ll know whether you’ve got enough water by how milky the formula goes- but basically, it will look like you’ve actually got some amount of milk on your face (no one said the pursuit of great skin was always pretty…).
Now here’s the good bit: while the cleanser is still emulsified, use the palms of your hands to gently press it into your pores.
Because while the texture is as thin as it is, it’s great at getting into even the teeniest pores, rather than just tackling the dirt on top of skin.
This means a really really deep clean, which can help to prevent blackheads and breakouts- and just generally keep skin brighter and clearer.
The first time I ever did this (after a full day of commuting), the oil literally changed colour from a white to a light grey- so this stage can be pretty effective at clearing out unseen dirt.
Honestly try it- you might be surprised at how well it cleans skin (and if your cleansing emulsion stays white then congratulations, you’re definitely better at cleansing than I was 15 years ago).
One thing to note though, not all oil cleansers emulsify (although most do), so pure oil types will have to skip to tip 3.
But fear not, can also make sure to get deep into pores by steaming skin after cleansing too.
Tip 3. Remove with a Cloth
One of my favourite cleansing steps whether I’m using a foam, gel or oil is using a face cloth to gently remove my cleanser: a total game changer for glowing skin.
Because this step helps to give skin a light exfoliation every day, sweeping away dead skin cells and helping to keep pores clear. And in turn that does a great job of boosting skin glow, while also cutting out the call for a separate exfoliator (I actually can’t remember the last time I needed one and to be honest I find them a slightly unnecessary expense if you’re aiming for a skincare routine on a budget).
It also makes knowing whether you’ve properly cleansed skin super easy (as long as you use a light-coloured cloth), as you should eventually be able to run it over skin without picking up any dirt or makeup.
And Some Favourites by Skin Type
I’ve been using oil cleansers for years, and in that time my skin’s gone through a lot changes, from super dry and sensitive to cystic acne prone. So here are my favourites for whatever skin is doing.
Normal Skin: Ren’s Perfect Canvas Clean Jelly Oil Cleanser
A gel-to-oil-to-milk formula, this is so so gentle on my skin, yet so ridiculously good at removing makeup, dirt and SPF (the last of which can be really tough to remove because I go heavy on the sun protection).
Dry or Very Sensitive Skin: The Inkey List’s Oat Cleansing Balm
Unscented and really soothing on stressed-out skin, this is one of the few cleansers I can use when my skin is rosacea-prone and leaves me super moisturised. The price-to-quality is also seriously impressive.
My one niggle? It’s so often sold out on Cult Beauty- so if you do like this one I’d buy a couple at a time to stay stocked up.
Combination or Oily Skin: Bybi’s Swipe Clean
Containing a blend of antibacterial and hydrating oils, as well as rosemary leaf extract to balance stressed skin, this emulsifies beautifully and cleans skin thoroughly without leaving a residue.
For (far) more of our thoughts on this one, see our Bybi Swipe Clean Review.
Acne Skin: Caudalie’s Makeup Removing Cleansing Oil
Because oil cleansers sweep away oil and dirt they can be really useful for acne skin; it’s just a matter of choosing the right one that won’t leave any residue behind to block pores (look for ‘non-comedogenic’ on the label).
One option is something gentle and un-fussy like Caudalie’s oil. Non-comedogenic, it won’t leave behind any residue, while also doing a great job of removing makeup.
For me cleansing oils are a game changer, both for their abilities to clean really really well, and for leaving skin soft- not stripped and dehydrated.
And since over-stripping skin’s natural oils can cause it to overproduce sebum, skipping that harsh foaming cleanser and switching to oils can help all skin types.
Just pick your product carefully, take some extra time to really break down dirt and makeup, and enjoy basking in the smug glow of knowing you’ve conquered cleansing oils!
For some extra tips on cleansing skin really thoroughly to prevent breakouts, take a look at our Cleansing Guide.