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cleansing balms: your rundown

Fall is a great time to switch up your beauty routine.

Cleansing balms can be a great way to give the lipid barrier an extra boost, insulating delicate skin from the drop in temperature and humidity. If you are used to a cleanser that suds, an oil-based cleansing balm can feel like an entirely foreign concept. I think the first question that comes to mind is “Does my skin actually get clean?!” The truth is that oil-based ingredients in cleansing balms can dissolve other oils quite well, removing makeup, dirt and impurities without stripping the skin of moisture. I still remember my grandmother, who had flawless skin, patiently massaging in Pond’s Cold Cream and removing it with a tissue. Similarly, cleansing balms are applied in the same fashion and massaged into the skin. Depending on the formula, some are rinsed off with water while others are removed with only a damp cloth.

In my search, I discovered that most cleansing balms fall into one of two categories: those containing surfactants, and those which are surfactant-free and entirely oil-based. Formulas containing surfactants can be less moisturizing as they emulsify with water leaving behind a thinner layer of moisture. These tend to be more suitable for oily to normal skin types. Balms without surfactants do not emulsify with water and are removed with a damp cloth or muslin, similar to cold cream. These formulas can double as a cleanser as well as a treatment and are best for sensitive or dry skin, but purportedly can be used on all skin types because they are so gentle.

Reviews are ordered from the most lightweight and clarifying, to the richest and most moisturizing cleansing balms.

Banila Clean It Zero
180 ml

This is a very popular cleansing balm from Korea and while it comes in many different variations, I did not notice a significant difference between the four that I tried. Its opaque whipped sorbet texture melts easily into an oil. It quickly dissolves even waterproof makeup, emulsifies with water, and rinses very clean compared to other cleansing balms in this line-up. I used this while on a trip and could not have been happier about its portability in my travel bag and its no-nonsense removal of everything I had packed onto my skin. My understanding is that the surfactant in this product works similarly to micellar water, so that explains why it is so efficient at removing makeup. However, if you have extremely dry skin, this may not be a great fit as it doesn’t leave much residual oil behind. Overall it has a reasonable price, a non-cloying sweet floral aroma and removes makeup easily.

Farmacy Green Clean

This is one of the very first cleansing balms that I tried and have come to love. In line with its brand, it comes in a light green opaque whipped sorbet formula, and evokes a “clean and green” aroma. It melts onto the skin and rinses clean because it emulsifies with water. It does a stellar job of removing heavy makeup and SPF. Similar to Banila, this is as close as you will ever get to one-step cleansing. This formula is slightly gentler than Banila but still contains surfactants which means that it leaves less residual moisture behind. It offers a refreshing light citrus scent that I really like, and currently comes in a limited edition trio of fruity scents such as strawberry basil, lemon mint and peach thyme. For combo and normal skin I think this is the sweet spot when it comes to balm cleansers that are also great at removing makeup.

Juno Skin Clean 10 Cleansing Balm
85 g

This balm was apparently a Tik Tok sensation so I felt compelled to try it out. It comes with its own plastic makeup spatula and looks like pale softened butter. It also has a cheerful light citrus smell. It is a clean formula with only ten ingredients and it features Japanese Pearl Barley as its magic antioxidant ingredient. As someone with a lot of unwanted melanin, the fact that pearl barley might regulate melanin production or fade dark spots sounded pretty alluring. But I know that my stubborn spots aren’t likely to budge so I wasn’t holding out for any real results. It doesn’t do a remarkable job of removing waterproof eye makeup, so I needed to use micellar water or eye makeup remover first and then apply the balm as a last cleansing step. It did leave my skin feeling moist, but it wasn’t doing much in the way of decongesting or nourishing the skin. Whatever oils are left post-cleanse rest on top of the skin which makes me want to follow-up with a sudsing wash. After trying out this product I get the sense that I should be more wary of social media marketing! It’s not bad, but also not great. It’s likely best for normal to dry skin.

Elemis Pro-Collagen Cleansing Balm
100 g

I initially really resisted spending as much as I did on this product, but it got me through a few winters of thick makeup and dry air beautifully. The texture is similar to softened butter and creamed honey. The name is a bit misleading as there isn’t any collagen in the balm but it does contain a blend of oils such as sweet almond, elderberry and starflower oils as well as other essential oils. I take a bit more time to really massage this in and enjoy the spa-like aromas of eucalyptus, lavender and essential oils. If you are not a fan of eucalyptus, then this product is not for you. Sometimes I leave it on like a treatment mask before washing it off, or run my Foreo device over it to really break down impurities and decongest the skin. It emulsifies and rinses well with water alone, although it is recommended to use the included washcloth. Because it contains surfactants it really does clean the skin quite well. But the added bonus is that my skin feels softer and moisturized with the ingredients in this balm, and the aromas are invigorating. This product is ideal for sensitive to dry skin and checks the boxes for effective makeup removal, moisturization, and some treatment benefits.

Inlight Beauty Face Cleanser
45 ml

This is an organic surfactant-free balm cleanser from the UK. The texture is like softened butter and it arrives with a cute little wooden scoop. It has a pleasant lavender and chamomile aroma with a hint of clove. The company recommends beginning your cleanse with a warm towel to dampen skin but I’ve gotten good results skipping this part. I also prefer to remove heavy makeup first with micellar water prior to using this balm. The formula contains base oils like sesame which absorb easily into the skin as you massage. It also contains antioxidant green tea extract which is one of my favorite ingredients. I let my tween daughter use this when she had a case of chapped skin from her mask, and she kept gushing about how soothing and good it felt. I can see how this could become a lovely night time ritual, but I admit it does take commitment to massage it in and carefully remove it with a separate cloth or muslin. This is not a wash-and-go situation, and I definitely have some extra laundry to do with all of the washcloths. But after removing it with a warm cloth, the skin feels balanced and soothed. There is a fair amount of residual product left on the skin, but it doesn’t feel like a bad thing. It’s recommended for all skin types including those with rosacea and acne, and I can attest that it did seem to calm redness and inflammation for me.

Luzern L’Essentials Emulsion 6
60 ml

This organic “3 in 1 melting balm” is composed of high quality organic oils and plant extracts, and can be used as a cleanser, mask treatment and “glow oil” because it is surfactant-free. It arrives with a metal spatula and cleansing mitt. The texture is like softened butter and melts nicely onto the skin. The aroma is subtly floral with flower extracts that remind me of luxury Swiss beauty products. While it does remove makeup and impurities with some vigorous massaging, I also preferred to remove heavy makeup prior to applying this for cleansing. As a treatment it gently breaks down congestion in the pores and contains antioxidants with organic plant extracts and green tea oil. Using the mitt or a cloth is essential for removal. My skin feels soothed, possibly more even-toned or less red. The texture is softer after use of this product and I definitely skip a step because my skin is well moisturized. I tried using a bit more as moisturizer for the “glow” but I can’t say that this is necessary for my skin. This could be great for travel though as I only need to bring one product for cleansing and extra moisturizing. For sensitive, dry skin this is a worthy splurge.

De Mariel Restorative Cleansing Balm
60 ml

This small batch balm from the UK is an aromatherapy experience, not just a cleanser! The first time that I tried this I felt transported into a state of relaxation by the calming essential oils. In that regard, this one is a standout. It is also surfactant-free so I removed heavy makeup before applying. The texture is slightly more solid than the others but it still melts easily. As a cleanser I felt it really worked best to remove it with a muslin cloth as the formula leaves behind a substantial layer of protective oils. I caught myself repeatedly touching my skin afterward because it felt so smooth. The camellia and marula oils really absorb deep into the skin. If I were going through a dry flaky episode, this would be wonderful for daily use. But for my normal to combo skin this balm would be ideal as a relaxing weekly treatment. My t-zone remarkably felt more balanced, so it seems to have some decongesting anti-sebum qualities as well. For extremely dry skin in need of some restoration, or just frazzled nerves, this is a one-of-a kind cleansing and treatment product.

Cleansing balms are an entirely different class of facial cleanser which can really change the way that your skin feels at equilibrium.

There is a broad variety of formulations and textures so there is something for everyone. For sensitive skin types or anyone suffering from chronically irritated, flaky skin, using a balm can help repair the lipid barrier making dry taut skin a thing of the past. If you really enjoy that squeaky clean feeling, double cleansing after using a rich balm with foaming cleanser is also an option. I tried this out a few times myself and found that my skin still benefits from the oils in the balm. Since I transitioned to using balm cleansers more frequently I’ve also noticed that it has removed my reliance on thick moisturizers and creams. It’s nice to have skin that just feels great after cleansing. I really enjoyed trying all of these and hope that you will give cleansing balms a try!

LiShan has always been a beauty and skincare enthusiast. With motherhood her priorities may have shifted but she still can’t resist a good product or two. She lives in Marin County, California with her family and two rambunctious long-haired chihuahuas.

lead photo by Viet Hwang.

all opinions are our own; no free products or compensation were received from manufacturers for these mentions.

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