How Do Oil Cleansers Work and How Do I Use Them?

Oil cleansers are a massively popular form of cleansing in Eastern and Western skincare philosophies. Although oil cleansing has been seen as an at-home makeup remover or commercial eye makeup remover it never really caught on as a mass market face cleanser until the Korean skincare routine blew up the beauty community.

How do they work?

Not all oil cleansers are created equally. Some cleansers like Tatcha’s Camellia Oil Cleanser is rather gentle and won’t get the heaviest of full coverage makeup off in a single pass whereas something like Clinique’s Take the Day Away balm with get it all off without a problem.

All Oil cleansers contain compounds collectively called emulsifiers. These are common in lotions, serums, and toners as well as oil cleansers. Popular emulsifiers include polysorbates, laureth-4, laureth-3, and potassium cetyl sulfate.

The ‘How’ of oil cleansers is simple enough

  • The oil cleanser does not contain water (or very very little) in the packaging. If you get water in your oil cleanser remove it so it doesn’t go rancid.
  • The oil is spread over the face and neck and rubbed well into the skin trapping oil makeup, powders, and bringing waterproof makeup into the oil layer you’ve put on your skin. This is rubdown number 1.
  • Add water, which creates little droplets of oil within the water and rub some more. Those oil droplets suspended in the water contain your makeup you wish to remove. You keep rubbing at this point to breakup the oil and move it into the water suspension. This is rubdown number 2.
  • At this point your cleanser will have a milky appearance. That milky color is all that makeup suspended in all those tiny oil droplets which is an emulsion and where the emulsifier is coming into play.
  • Next you rinse your face normally revealing clean skin.

My cleanser isn’t working? My face still feels gross.

Oil cleansers do require more rubbing because you have to go through a two step process:

  • Move the makeup, oil, and dirt into that oil cleanser
  • Move the cleanser that has our makeup, dirty, and debris trapped in it into the water suspension

If you don’t rub enough during rub down number 1 you don’t move your makeup into the oil cleanser which will result in makeup left behind. This first rub down is where the cleansing process occurs. This is where you’re moving everything off your skin. Once an oil cleanser is emulsified (water is added) it’s ability pull makeup, dirt, and dead skin from your face is greatly diminished.

The second rub down after you’ve added the water breakups up that oil layer which is holding your makeup, dirt and debris into the oil droplets that are suspended in water. The emulsifier is what keeps the oil droplet suspended in water. If you don’t rub enough at this point you don’t break down all the oil into the water emulsion and can leave some of your oil cleanser and makeup on the skin. The second rub is what draws the oil off the face so it can be rinsed down the drain.

Why Are Some Oil Cleansers Stronger Than Others

We’ll use Tatcha and Clinique’s cleansers as an example.

Tatcha’s Camellia Oil Ingredients:
Cetyl Ethylhexanoate, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Oil, Polyglyceryl-10 Dioleate, Polyglyceryl-2 Sesquicaprylate, Camellia Japonica Seed Oil, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Algae Extract, Water, Glyceryl Behenate/Eicosadioate, Glycerin, Ethylhexylglycerin,Fragrance (Natural), Alcohol, Phenoxyethanol.

Clinique Take the Day Off Cleansing Balm Ingredients:
Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil, Caprylic / Capric Triglyceride, Sorbeth-30 Tetraoleate, Polyethylene, PEG-5 Glyceryl Triisostearate, Water / Aqua / Eau, Tocopherol, Phenoxyethanol

The first ingredient used by both is the same size, very similar chemical structure. Both are emollients. The only difference between the two compounds is where the double bonded O is located which will affect the electron pull but only minor change since they both lay immediately adjacent to the other Oxygen atom anyway and an ethyl group right there as well. So that’s not the big change.
Second ingredient on both is the seed oils. Tatcha uses rice bran oil whereas Clinique uses safflower seed oil. Difference isn’t going to be see there either. Where the real difference is located potentially is after the second ingredient and it’s in the emulsifiers.

Emulsifiers don’t need to be a super high concentration so they won’t be high on the ingredients list. Less than 5% is all that’s really needed to get an oil emulsified.

What is an emulsifier?

A straight forward definition is that an emulsifier stabilizes an emulsion. An emulsion is a dispersion of droplets from one liquid into another that do not mix. Oil and water do not mix. The easiest example of a stable emulsion come from cooking. If you mix oil and water they form an emulsion; however, it’s short lived. Eventually the oil and water separate forming two distinct layers. An emulsifier allows those two to remain mixed. Mayonnaise is an emulsion of lemon juice or vinegar and oil (canola, vegetable, or olive oil). The emulsifier is egg yolks with allows us to have a stable, creamy emulsion of oil and water as our sandwich spread. And if you’re from the south, it’s in salads, salad dressing, and I swear some people just eat it.
In our example cleansers the emulsifiers are:
Tatcha – polyclyceryl-10 dioleate, polyglyceryl-2 sesquicaprylate
ClinquePEG-5 Glyceryl Triisostearate and Sorbeth-30 tetraoleate. Polyethylene is added to stabilize the emulsion once made.

There are a few ways to stabilize an emulsion once it’s been put in water but the most reliable is to use a chemical especially since we’re dealing with a cleanser and not looking for long-term stability. Clinique is going that route with the Polyethylene and Tatcha is using
Glyceryl Behenate/Eicosadioate . It only needs to last a few seconds so it can be rinsed away. The glycerin in the Tatcha doesn’t act as a stabilizer. Glycerin is water based and I believe is acting like a stable environment for the extracts to reside which are going to be water based as well. It also adds to the velvet and luxurious feel in the hand and makes it a little more silky. What that glycerin also does is ‘deactivates’ some of the emulsifier in the Tatcha cleanser. It doesn’t so much deactivate as its already active keeping the glycerin and extracts in suspension leaving less available to pull your makeup into suspension and down the drain.

That seems to be the biggest difference between the two compounds. Tatcha has more water content in it than the Clinique balm. Even when I compared the Clinique cleansing oil to the Tatcha cleansing oil the Clinique did a better job of removing stubborn makeup. On the whole the ingredients are the same but the price point isn’t. The Clinique cleansing balm is $36 at Ulta. Clinique Take the Day Off Cleansing oil is $34 for 6.7 fl oz. Tatcha’s Camellia Cleansing oil is $50 for 5.1 fl oz. That’s less product and a $14 increase in price and it doesn’t clean away stubborn makeup as well either. If you have more sensitive skin Tatcha may be a better fit. Safflower oil is a known irritant for some but it’s a rare irritant and has more to do with the smell.

Although we used Clinique and Tatcha oil cleansers as our example all oil cleansers operate in a similar way.

if you are big on probiotics all work in a similar manner and in order to get the maximum benefit from their cleansing power they have to be used in that I described above with a double rub system. If you don’t feel like your oil cleanser is giving you the best cleansing power you might need to rub longer at one or both cleansing stages or you might even need more water to get that oil cleanser into a full emulsion. If you’ve ever made hollandaise sauce or mayonnaise by hand you know how much work you have to put into creating an emulsion and oil cleansers aren’t any different although you don’t need a wire whisk or a blender in order to get it into a full emulsion thank goodness.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully this helps you if you’ve ever wondered how oil cleansers work or helped trouble shoot why your oil cleanser isn’t living up to the hype everyone seems to be showering on them. Personally, I adore oil cleansers and will keep that in my skincare routine because it’s such a gentle way to remove makeup without stripping natural oils away.

Comment below what your favorite cleanser is and give this post a like if you want to see more posts like this. And of course you can also subscribe using an email address so you can get a notification each time a new post has gone live!


5 thoughts on “How Do Oil Cleansers Work and How Do I Use Them?

    1. Quick response is yes. All emulsifiers are surfactants. But not all surfactants are emulsifiers. Surfactant contains a huge group of chemicals that include detergents, wetting agents, defoamers, and thing that help ‘relax’ tension of a solution. Hope that helps. Thanks for the great question.

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