Cleanser is probably the one can’t-do-without product for any beauty arsenal. As it happens, I am a bit of a cleanser obsessive and have tried, tested and (mostly) loved virtually every type of green cleanser available. In this series of posts I will discuss the advantages and drawbacks of different cleanser types and will highlight some of my favorites. In the penultimate entry of the series (I know! It’s almost the end of an era!) we will chat about the hardworking scrub cleansers.
Scrub cleansers differ from the other categories of cleansers in a number of significant ways. For starters, they tend to straddle the line between cleanser and treatment and while some, like True Nature Botanicals’ Pacific Exfoliating Cleansers, are very clear that their main job is to clean your face, with others it can get a little tricky. In fact, I long debated whether I should write about One Love Organic’s beautiful Brand New Day scrub because I mainly use (and love) it as a cleanser. In the end, I decided that the only way to narrow the field would be by limiting this post to products that have the some variation on the word “cleanse” in their name.
The other thing about scrub cleansers worth mentioning is that, personally, I would never use one to remove makeup. It’s not that these cleansers don’t clean your skin properly – it’s just that I would hate to waste their treatment aspect by making them remove makeup, rather than dead skin. Also, you can’t use a scrub cleanser to remove eye makeup (for reasons I would hope be rather obvious), so your best bet would be to use these cleansers as a second cleanse, in the mornings or on days when you are not wearing much makeup (a bit of tinted moisturizer is obviously fine). Finally, there is the eternal question of whether physical exfoliants are good for your skin. As I have written before, I think so and I prefer them. Obviously, if you are not a fan, you must tread carefully, though I think there are a couple of cleansers on this list that could work even for the scrub skeptic. And now that we’ve dispensed with the caveats, let’s get to the actual reviews!
May Lindstrom’s The Clean Dirt was one of the first green products I have ever bought and it gave me the biggest shock of the new: it was just that different from anything I had tried before. A dry mixture of clays, spices and botanicals that smells like a bakery at Christmas, it also has baking soda, which makes it turn into a slightly foamy, scrubby mousse when mixed with water. To this day, I really dig the mad scientist feeling I get when it starts to bubble and expand in my hand and to this day it remains a favorite and one of my go-to products for radiant skin.
Now here is the crazy thing: if I really think about it, The Clean Dirt just shouldn’t work. The warming spices all seem like potential irritants and the intense scrubbing action should be way too much for my thin delicate skin. And yet, it doesn’t just work – it works beautifully! The first time I used it I got an “Oh my god, you look incredibly glowing!” from the Englishman. He has now become jaded by my beauty experiments and is generally quite blasé about my glow, but using TCD pretty much guarantees at least a second look. I have also heard plenty of sensitive-skinned folks profess their love for TCD, so I know that I am not alone in my love and appreciation.
That being said, my love comes with one major caveat. The copy on the May Lindstrom website calls TCD “the daily micro-dermabrasion”, but I must vehemently disagree. Using all of May’s products is an exquisite sensory experience and TCD is no exception (although it will make your sink or shower look like you brutally murdered a mud monster), but it should be an occasional treat, not a daily indulgence. Used a couple of times a week, it’s a beautiful, effective exfoliating treatment, but overuse could quite possibly create, rather than solve your skin’s problems (apropos, this also applies to May’s equally fabulous Problem Solver mask). Naturally, if you are using TCD daily or every other day and your skin loves it, then do by all means continue – there is no reason why you shouldn’t do so, But if you started using TCD and noticed an increase in breakouts or sensitivity, it could likely be linked to over-use.
To use an analogy from So You Think You Can Dance (because why wouldn’t I – it’s amazing and you should watch it), De Mamiel Botaniques Brightening Cleanse and Exfoliate is the delicately pretty ballerina to The Clean Dirt’s bold, hard-hitting street dancer. Of course, as we know from SYTYCD, street dancers can also be elegant, refined and polished and ballerinas are bold, powerhouse performers. It’s no different with these cleansers.
Brightening Cleanse and Exfoliate shares a premise with TCD: it’s an dry exfoliating cleanser that gets activated by the addition of water. It also has some of the same ingredients: clays, baking soda that gives it the same bubbly mousse texture with the addition of water, and cocoa powder. However, despite these similarities the two products are really quite different. The most obvious differences are the color and the smell: whereas TCD is a chocolaty brown and smells of Christmas baking, BCE is a delicate pink and has the soft, powdery smell that reminds me of 1920s boudoirs, silk negligees and marabou slippers. It also feels differently upon application: softer and not as active-seeming. That’s only how it feels though: this stuff is plenty active. Filled with some truly special and lush ingredients (rose! frankincense!! gem powder!!! It’s like the gifts of the magi up in here), it can even be used as a mask and is also gentle enough for daily (or every other day) use. Of course, as with any scrub or active product, if your skin is especially sensitive, I would still use this sparingly.
I often get asked which of two similar products I would choose if I had to make a choice and I usually struggle with the question, partly because it’s usually two products that I equally love and party because they are often so similar that I cannot in good conscience say “you could really use both”. In this instance, I am happy to say that you can most certainly do with both and, to quote Ferris Bueller, “if you have the means, I highly recommend it”. Between the two, TCD is a powerful exfoliating treatment to give your skin a thorough clean sweep, whereas BCE is a gentler product for regular use. Of course, most people will only choose one of these products and I would suggest that you use your skin type and scent preference to pick a favorite. As a final note, neither of thee products is cheap (TCD is $60 for 6.76 oz and BCE is $64 for 2.5 oz), but they are extremely economical. You don’t need much for a single use and because the products are water-free, they last for ages. I just recently had to throw out a bottle of TCD that I bought about 3 years ago because it started to smell off. That’s a hell of a shelf life! And in case you are concerned that I hadn’t loved it enough to use it, the only reason it didn’t get used up is because I currently have 3 bottles.
We now leave the world of powder scrubs with a truly different, and even a little weird, product: Aurelia Skincare’s Refine and Polish Miracle Balm. Regular readers of the blog know that I am a big fan of Aurelia’s Miracle Cleanser, so when I found out that they released not just a balm cleanser, but an exfoliating one, I had to get my hands on its pretty, pink tube. The Miracle Balm contains Aurelia’s trademark mix of probiotics and peptides, along with exfoliating enzymes that help accelerate skin cell turnover (in fact, Aurelia suggests that the Balm can also be used as a mask). In addition to the enzymes, the Balm also contains rice brand beads that provide gentle, but efficient physical exfoliation.
The Miracle Balm is applied to dry skin (here I am glad to say that Aurelia agrees with me and suggests that it be used as a second step after an initial cleanse) and, after a few minutes exfoliating massage, can be emulsified with water and rinsed off. Product literature suggests that it can be rinsed off clean, but if you know me, you know I would never recommend you do that. This is a thick, heavy balm and if you want to avoid potential clogged pores, I would strongly suggest you use a washcloth to remove all traces of the balm, unless your skin is particularly dry. That being said, I have taken the Miracle Balm with me to SoulCycle and used the rinse off method and my skin was completely fine, so you really shouldn’t have trouble unless you use it daily and never use a washcloth to rinse it off.
The Miracle Balm has a scent similar to the Miracle Cleanser: slightly medicinal due to the eucalyptus, but really very nice. And don’t be fooled by its rich texture and pretty pink and gold packaging: the combination of enzymes and scrubbing particles makes it quite active. Sometimes it actually feels a little too active, mainly because I tend to be sensitive to exfoliating enzymes. I must confess that I actually find this product ever so slightly confusing. When I think of balms, I think of first cleanses and makeup removal, so having a balm combined with an exfoliator throws me a little. It’s also billed as a cleanser for congested skin types, but I’m not sure it would be my first choice for particularly oily skins, since it’s rather a heavy balm. Ultimately, the Miracle Balm is a lovely product, but I think of it as an Advanced Cleanser – this is not a product I would recommend for someone who is just starting to experiment with cleansers, partly because at $98 for 75ml it’s quite expensive. I do think, however, that it would be fabulous to help refine dull, rough skins, as well as for the mature skins that also struggle with congestion.
The last two products on the list are the only ones that I would truly consider daily cleansers. Both are creamy-liquid exfoliators and both can be used in the morning and evening either as the second or only cleanse if you are not wearing heavy/eye makeup.
Up first, is the Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser. So I am about to say something that might make you slam your laptop shut in disgust and never read the blog again, but bear with me: this cleanser kind of reminds me of the St. Ives Apricot Scrub. Now, now, please put away the pitchforks: the only similarity is the creamy peachy-pink color of the scrub and the fact that it uses apricot seed powder as an exfoliating agent (although St. Ives actually uses walnut shells). Speaking of the ingredients in St. Ives, I hope you will forgive this little aside, but I had rather a good giggle looking them up. For starters, the product copy boldly states that it is “sulfate free”. That it is, though it does contain sodium laurel sulfoacetate – another type of SLS that really not that different from your garden variety sulfate. I also love the fact that the eponymous apricot comes very last on the product’s ingredient list, meaning that there is likely less than 1% of anything apricot-like in the Apricot Scrub. But I digress.
The Regenerating Cleanser is nothing like that staple of 80s bathroom cabinets, of course. It’s an elegant, effective and sophisticated daily cleanser made with quality ingredients. If I am perfectly honest, I bought it primarily because it’s one of the big dogs on the green cleanser scene and has even been making waves in the larger beauty blogosphere, so I wanted to be able to include it in my roundup. To my surprise, it ended up being one of my most frequently used cleansers, as you can probably tell from the nearly empty bottle in the picture. One of the things that made this my summer staple is, surprisingly, the packaging. As pretty as the heavy, green glass bottle is, I most appreciated the stopper on the neck of the pump. One of the problems I have with a lot of my favorite cleansers is that they don’t travel well. Being able to toss this one in a bag and not worry about spills is a big help when extensive travel is on the agenda.
Now here is the thing: this cleanser is lovely and I have thoroughly enjoyed using it (and am continuing to do so), but I am not sure I am going to repurchase. Lovely as it is, I am not exactly wowed by its ingredients: at a time when so many green brands seem to be constantly trying to up the ante on formulation, this cleanser seems just a little… banal, especially considering its price ($75 for 125 ml). I am also the tiniest bit concerned about the use of apricot seed powder (which I am fairly certain is just apricot shell). However finely it might be ground, I think it could potentially still be too abrasive. I use a light hand when using this on my cheeks, although I do give my T-zone a decent scrub. Because I like to live on the edge.
The final entry on this list is True Nature Botanicals’ Pacific Exfoliating Cleanser and it might possibly be my favorite cleanser of all time. Ok, so this is a pretty big statement and I am feeling the immediate need to backtrack. In all honesty, it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite cleanser because I really do have different favorites depending on the state of my skin, my mood, the amount of makeup I’m wearing or even my tiredness level. Still, I am absolutely in love with the Exfoliating Cleanser and find it perfect for when I want an efficient and effective one-step cleanse that also feels like I am doing something for my skin.
True Nature Botanicals are at the top of my mind when I talk about brands that are constantly improving and innovating when it comes to their ingredients and products. In this particular case, what sets the PEC apart is a fungal extract that contains peptides and polysaccharides, which provide gentle exfoliation. I’m actually not usually swayed by proprietary ingredient formulas because more often that not, they aren’t much more than marketing-speak and don’t actually add much to the formula. In this instance it helps that because of TNB’s complete ingredient transparency, I know exactly what the “secret ingredient” is, but the true test, as always, is the result for my skin.
As I mentioned before (and as I will discuss at length in my next and last cleanser post), my skin does not like cleansers that use enzymes to exfoliate: they inevitably leave my skin dry and irritated. Not so with PEC: it cleans thoroughly and I feel like my skin gets a good (but gentle) scrub, but there is zero irritation. I also really love PEC’s earthy, yet elegant scent. It’s a true daily staple and I don’t ever want to be without it. I used to bemoan the fact that it didn’t come in a travel size, forcing me to go without on my trips or decant it into the little travel bottles, but TNB recently released a travel size – Huzzah!
I think the biggest testament to my love for this cleanser is the number of bottles I went through. Being a beauty blogger, a products junkie and a cleanser obsessive means that I have such an overwhelming number of cleansers that I almost never finish a bottle. If a product gets repurchased, it means that it has become not just a favorite, but a shining beacon in its category. I am pretty sure I have gone through about 5 bottles of PEC, which is especially impressive seeing as it’s a relatively recent release. At times, I have had a bottle on my bathroom counter and another in the shower for my morning cleanse. It’s a beautiful, effective and all-around fabulous product and if you are in the market for a great daily exfoliator that is gentle enough for virtually every skin type (as always, allergies are a tricky beast, so make sure to sample if your skin is especially sensitive) Pacific Exfoliating Cleanser fits the bill perfectly.