Best cleansing balms and how to use them, according to experts

Most cleansers provide a foamy texture, while others contain an oil-based formula. But when it comes to removing all the grimy mascara and foundation from your face after a long day, a cleansing balm is the best solution for melting away every makeup residue from your skin.

Cleansing balms work to quickly dissolve even the most stubborn waterproof formulas, which makes it a solid first step for your nightly skin care routine. They also work effectively for acne-prone and dry skin due to its unique formulation.

To better understand the mechanism behind balm cleansers, Shop TODAY asked a few skin care experts for their insight.

What is a cleansing balm?

Basically, a cleansing balm is an oil-based cleanser that has a thick and solid texture.

“In addition to oils, it uses other ingredients like emollients and waxes to give it that added [consistency],” shared board-certified dermatologist Dr. Mamina Turegano MD “The oils in cleansing balms help with breaking down makeup, dirt, sunscreen and other products from the day; and they are suitable for all skin types (even oily skin) without leaving your skin feeling dry.”

Some balm cleansers also have a surface-active agent that emulsifies with water, leaving a moisturizing texture on the skin.

How do cleansing balms work?

The chemistry behind cleansing balms begins with surfactants. The structure of these molecules consists of both a hydrophilic polar head group and a nonpolar lipophilic tail, which drives surfactants to oil/water surfaces to facilitate cleansing. The surfactant molecules then group together into micelles when they are in a watery environment and instantly trap dirt.

Cleansing balms start out with a thick consistency, but then transform into a milkier texture once rubbed into the skin.

“The balm is great for penetrating makeup and SPF, which can be tricky to remove with regular facial cleanser alone,” said dermatologist Dr. Dendy E. Engelman MD “Then, the oil binds to dirt, makeup and oils on your skin so you can get a deep cleanse. Finally, the milky consistency washes off, leaving you with clean, fresh skin.”

What’s the difference between cleansing oils, micellar water and cleansing balms?

While these products work very similarly, the main difference with these oil-based cleansers lies in the packaging and formula density.

“Cleansing balms are in a solid state with more of a thick cream, gel or wax texture,” said Turegano. “This is because, in addition to oils, there are other emollients (ie shea butter) and waxes to give it more of that solid consistency. Because balms start out as a thicker texture, it takes a little longer for it to emulsify and turn into a liquid oil onto the skin.”

“Cleansing oils, balm cleansers and micellar water do not transform in a consistency like cleansing balms do,” added Engelman. “While each is effective for removing makeup and impurities and cleansing the skin, they don’t multitask quite as cleansing balms do.”

How to apply a cleansing balm

What’s great about cleansing balms is that you don’t need to wet your face before applying it.

“Take a small amount of cleansing balm and rub it between your fingers briefly until it just starts to melt, then work it around your skin in small circular motions. After about 30 seconds to a minute (or until you’ve thoroughly worked the balm around your face), rinse off with lukewarm water and reveal clean, hydrated skin,” guided Engelman.

Since cleansing balms are ideal for all skin types, you can add them to your double-cleansing routine. According to Mamina, it’s best to massage the balm cleanser into your dry skin, “then use a gel or cream-based cleanser as the second step in the cleansing routine.”

Finally, while more beauty lovers are using cleansing balms because of their effectiveness at removing makeup, they can get easily contaminated as you dip your fingers into the jar. Before using, make sure to use an applicator to scoop out the balm before use.

Cleansing balms to shop

elf Holy Hydration! Makeup Melting Cleansing Balm

elf’s popular cleansing balm uses key ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid and peptides that’ll hydrate and refresh your complexion while melting away all the makeup. Aside from not having to worry about stinging your eyes, it’ll easily swipe off heavy makeup with minimal effort.

“It’s perfect to apply and then get in the shower and rinse it all away. [It] takes off even the toughest waterproof mascara with no scrubbing,” said one verified customer that said goodbye to face wipes once and for all.

Juno & Co. Clean 10 Cleansing Balm

Whether you’re struggling to remove that sticky mascara or eyeliner, Juno & Co.’s Clean 10 is packed with key ingredients like Japanese pearl barley, which helps to moisturize and clean your complexion. This TikTok-lauded cleansing balm (seriously, its hashtag currently has over 137 million views!) also has thousands of glowing ratings thanks to its powerful cleaning properties.

The Inkey List Oat Cleansing Balm

If you’re dealing with acne or have sensitive skin, it’s crucial to avoid products that’ll add further irritation. “I recommend avoiding coconut oil and isopropyl myristate if you have acne-prone skin since they are comedogenic (pore-clogging),” added Mamina.

For nights when your heavy-wear foundation needs extra care, use this gentle cleansing balm from The Inkey List. Aside from its smooth texture, the gentle formula is infused with colloidal oatmeal, which will help reduce redness.

Versed Day Dissolve Cleansing Balm

Dissolve your makeup with this eucalyptus-scented creamy cleanser from Versed. Not only will your face look glowing after using it, but it’ll also feel soothed.

“I love the feel of this cleansing balm, it breaks down my eye makeup without stripping my skin, which is essential in winter,” shared one Versed fan who gave it five stars.

Farmacy Green Clean Makeup Removing Cleansing Balm

Farmacy’s light green cleansing balm looks refreshing when you first lay eyes on it, but it’s everything else it delivers that’ll make you feel calm. The combination of sunflower and ginger root oils will break down all the dirt and stubborn mascara from your skin, plus its silky texture is hard to resist.

BANILA CO NEW Clean It Zero Original Cleansing Balm

With 6,000+ verified five-star ratings, this K-beauty balm transforms into a soothing oil to eliminate all the smudge and grease from your face. “It took a very small amount to completely melt off all my makeup, including my eye makeup,” added one verified shopper.

Seoul Cleansing Balm

A former New Beauty Choice Award winner, this cleansing balm’s formula is packed with peptides, hyaluronic acid and vitamin E to properly remove even the darkest of eye shadows.

Clinique Take the Day Off Cleansing Balm

Trouble with your long-wearing mascara and lipstick? This Clinique balm will just melt away all your makeup. Several thousand customers across Sephora and Ulta agree this is a great start to your double-cleansing routine, too — or, in the case of one verified shopper currently in chemotherapy, it’s perfect on its own.

“I know this is meant to take off make up and to follow up with the 3-step system, but this gets my skin so clean and fresh feeling that I use it as a face cleanser all on its own. There are lots of little things that come from treatment that are just a reminder that the cancer is there, like pain and sensitivity. I really like that I can depend on this to help me feel normal, at least when I wash my face.”

Glow Recipe Papaya Sorbet Smoothing Enzyme Cleansing Balm

A combination of papaya and blueberry extract will give you the tropical sensation you’re craving during colder stretches. This Glow Recipe find contains enzymes that are great for sensitive skin and won’t strip away your natural oils. Plus, customers say this balm feels like a silky sorbet on your face.

“This is my all-time holy grail makeup remover. It smells like a dream and really melts all of your makeup away so effortlessly,” one Sephora shopper said about its quality.

True Botanicals Ginger Turmeric Cleansing Balm

Makeup fanatics will love this turmeric- and ginger-enhanced cleansing balm packed with botanicals that have been wildly harvested. It also includes buzzy AHAs like lactic and azelaic acid to prevent moisture loss and protect your skin barrier. Several shoppers in their 40s and 50s also raved about this luxurious-feeling balm, noting how hydrating it feels almost immediately after using.

Trinny London Be Your Best Enzyme Balm Cleanser

This balm cleanser is targeted at those with rosacea who need a kinder formula. The enzymes help irritated skin feel smoother, plus the alluring aroma might make you feel like you’re taking a micro-vacation.

“From my first try with this cleanser, I fell in love,” said one verified shopper. “Its texture is beautiful and, best of all, I don’t have that unpleasant dry tight feeling after using.”

Vitabrid C12 Daily-C Cleansing Balm

The stabilized form of vitamin C in this product is the trick to preventing dryness while soothing irritated skin. Just take a pea-sized amount on your palms and feel the antioxidants and sorbet-like texture working on your face. One shopper said this balm “emulsifies easily and [leaves] skin feeling clean and moisturized at the same time.”

Elemis Pro-Collagen Cleansing Balm

Eliminate your cleansing conundrums with this collagen-boosting formula that features key ingredients like elderberry oil, padina pavonica and starflower oil. This balm transforms into three textures to deliver a spa-like experience to your regular beauty routine.

Augustinus Bader The Cleansing Balm

This rich concoction of vitamins, squalane, antioxidants and amino acids are meant to give you that luxury next-level pampering your skin needs. Plus, the avocado oil will protect your skin from environmental aggressors while delivering a smoothing effect.

Eve Lom Cleanser

This rich balm cleanser is an editor’s favorite for its buttery and chunky texture. It contains cocoa butter and Egyptian chamomile oil that helps to soothe the skin.

“It’s a pleasant ritual before bed that seems to stimulate circulation. I love the smell so it’s aromatherapy too,” shared one buyer who gave it a perfect rating.

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