Soap or not? Cleansing bars or pads? Exfoliate? Dermatologists (search) can help you sift through the choices and find what works best for you.

“There are an overwhelming number of facial cleansing products, implements, and tools available today,” says Zoe D. Draelos, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology, Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. “Dermatologists agree that there are many acceptable methods for removing oil and dirt from the face, but each individual’s needs are different and what works for one person may not work for another.”

Speaking at the American Academy of Dermatology annual meeting here, Draelos explains that there are three ways to cleanse the face: facial cleansers, cleansing implements, or the use of a cleansing product along with a supplemental tool.

“There are an incredible number of successful products out there today,” says Alexa Boer Kimball, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “But many in the general public can’t distinguish between them.”

Cleansing can remove oil, sweat, dirt, bacteria, fungus, and dead skin cells, Kimball says.

But what it should not do is remove the fat between cells that make the skin soft and supple, nor should scrubbing be so rigorous that it removes the skin barrier that protects the skin, Kimball says. One rule of thumb: “Facial cleansing should not be painful.”

Many dermatologists advise patients not to use soap on the face, depending on the skin’s sensitivity, she says. Some soaps, typically a deodorant or highly fragranced cleaners, are too harsh for the face.

Many of these soaps — “like grandma made in the backyard” — are alkaline (search) detergents that dry out the skin, Draelos says. “This is why soaps can remove oil between the skin cells and make the skin tight and flaky.”

Soap-free cleansers are more appropriate for use on the face, depending on the skin’s sensitivity. These include beauty bars, mild cleansing bars, sensitive skin bars and liquid facial cleansers. While the bars are closer to the skin’s natural pH level, the cleansers aren’t as able to remove oil from the skin in individuals troubled by oily skin.

Latest and Greatest Facial Tools

In terms of cleansing implements or tools, the newest and most popular are net sponges, woven disposable pads, and woven cleansing pouches, says Draelos. She adds that many of the first-generation net sponges were made of polyester fibers, which were too abrasive. Newer net sponges use softer fibers that are gentler on the face.

“But the scrubbing sponge is giving way to scrubbing particulates such as aluminum oxide (search), ground fruit pits, polyester beads, and dissolving granules,” Draelos says. But she says that these products require careful use. “Unfortunately, the overzealous cleansers — aluminum oxide and ground fruit pits — can, at times, result in too much skin removal.”

Another option is the woven face cloth, she said. “High pressure water is used to glue the fibers together so the skin can be exfoliated without injury.”

Still another innovation is the cleansing pouch; its ingredients are placed between two fibered cloths containing holes, allowing the contents of the pouch to be released to the skin’s surface. While the pouch gives a regulated delivery system, Draelos says, it does not produce as much exfoliation.

And finally, for those who like high-tech cleansing, there is the electric face brush. The hand-held device features an oscillating brush head that cleanses the face with applied cleanser. These offer unique advantages, Draelos says, but she adds that effectiveness depends on the bristle type, pressure applied, and the type of cleanser.

“Washing the face is a complex interaction,” concludes Draelos. “Cleansing the skin is a fine balance between balancing the skin's hygiene and leaving substances that are integral for the functioning of the skin."

And one last word of advice for those worried about their own face washing routine. Draelos suggests that the best advice about face washing can be obtained by a visit to a dermatologist.

By Peggy Peck, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: American Academy of Dermatology press conference. “Cutting through the clutter: making the most of your facial cleansing routine.” Zoe D. Draelos, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C. Alexa Boer Kimball, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology, Harvard Medical School, Boston.