There was a time when the only alternative to harsh soaps was a pot of cold cream. Thankfully, we have come a long way since then and a good facial cleanser is a treatment in its own right and, I am convinced, the most important element of any beauty regimen. So it is worth understanding how they work so that you can choose the right cleanser for your aging, oily, dry, whatever skin.

Cleansers are tricky things to formulate because they are supposed to tell the difference between the oils and dirt that you want to remove and the natural ones in the skin that you'd like to keep. It is easy to see why so many manufacturers go for anionic (negatively charged) surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate. They lather well and rinse away easily. Unfortunately, they also irritate the skin.

Cationic surfactants (positively charged) are less irritating but tend to bind to the skin and do not easily rinse away. It is often necessary to follow up with a toner in order to remove residue.

An alternative is decyl glucoside. It is used in Tracie Martyn's Amla Cleanser (still my all time favorite) along with sodium lauroyl lactylate, a salt derived from the lauric acid ester of lactyl lactate (or milk and coconut oil). As a lactylate, it penetrates the skin easily, providing moisturization and enhanced delivery of actives.

Oil based cleansers have made a big come back recently. The oils are saponified to become a soap and they reduce and dissolve excess oil on the skin. Olive, kukui nut (the base for Epicuren's cleanser) and apricot remove impurities and even makeup and sunscreen without compromising the skin's barrier, in fact they are helpful antiagers. Saponified olive is the base for Olive's Organic cleanser, which got a two thumbs up from our reader reviewer Terri. Olive oil and vegetable glycerin come together to make a soap that does no evil in the cost-effective CSI Rose Hips Facial Cleanser.

As Copley pointed out in her post on pore minimizing, a thorough cleansing regimen is critical for doing right by your pores. Stick to natural soaps and cleansing gels, especially those with bacteria-busting agents like azelaic acid. Steaming your skin (by draping a towel over your head while positioning your face over a bowl of steaming water for fifteen minutes) opens up the pores and clears out clogging residue. Exfoliating cleansers that incorporate an active amount of salicylic acid typically reduce pore size, scrub away dead skin cells, and extract dulling toxins. Salicylic is classified as a beta hydroxy acid, a natural acid derived from willow bark, sweet birch bark, and wintergreen leaves. It is a clogged pore’s worst nightmare.

Alpha hydroxy acids, such as glycolic, lactic, and citric,  help disintegrate the “glue” that holds dead cells inside the pore. Even though their water-soluble nature prevents them from penetrating deep through the epidermis to remove debris (like oil-soluble salicylic acid), alpha hydroxy acids are proven to unblock pores. AHAs can also minimize the use of surfactants in a cleanser as they dissolve dirt and exfoliate cells. However, they can be a little harsh at first, as Copley found when she tried the exfoliating cleanser by Mango Madness.

Acne sufferers should make their cleanser their BFF, providing they choose the right one of course. Skye's African Black Soap is worth a try as it is blissfully simple and has plantains, a very good source of vitamins A and C and with a reputation for soothing irritated skin and even combating acne. Our reader reviewer also liked Belli's Acne Clearing Facial Wash with a gentle, but effective 7% penetration of lactic acid.

There is even a plant that behaves like a soap. The cleansing action in Devita's cleanser is provided by the saponaria plant. Commonly called soapwort, the leaves have been used to make soap and shampoo for centuries. If the mood takes you, it is easy to make your own by boiling up a few leaves and stalks.