Demystifying Facial Care Products: Face Wash vs. Cleanser vs. Face Scrub


You’ve found yourself in the bathroom without your phone, and you’re desperate for reading materials.

What do you read?

Maybe you are a planner, and you have magazines or books in there for just such an occasion. I’m not that good at planning for a scenario like this.

So, in your aversion to quiet, you reach for the closest thing you can find; your gal’s collection of cleansers and creams.

Up until this point, maybe you’ve never given any thought to those little bottles that have been encroaching on your sink space for the last few months.

But today, that all changes.

You read some of the claims of these cleansers and scrubs. You start to get interested in what they advertise. Maybe you’re even tempted to smear on some of that gloop to try it out for yourself.

But here’s the bad news.

You don’t know the first thing about using any of these washes, scrubs, oils and cleansers.

Your partner has years of experience on you with these products. She’s been delving into Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Seventeen since before her first period.

You have only been interested for the past 5 minutes.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably never going to ask her about it.

So, here’s the good news.

I, just like you, never wanted to ask my wife about it either. She already has enough material to mock me with for the rest of our lives together. Why bother adding more by asking her when to apply an exfoliant?

So, I did what any red-blooded male would do…

I just slathered it on.

view of face wash in palm of hand

I tried it for a bit, but I didn’t see the instant results of a clear and unblemished skin that I first learned about sitting on the commode that fateful day.

Instead, just the opposite happened:

My skin dried to a crisp.

It itched…


Needless to say, it wasn’t good times.

So I researched it. I researched the hell out of it actually. It’s just my natural curiosity, but once I started getting into it, I found all sorts of benefits that every guy should enjoy.

I learned all about my own skin type.

I learned about the products I should use (and the products I should NEVER use) on my face.

I learned about all these words like alpha hydroxy, micro-cleansers, and anti-aging.

And do you know what I found?

These products actually worked for me!

They weren’t just for women.

These washes, wipes, cleansers and exfoliators were good for MY skin, and improved MY appearance.

And what’s more…

I felt good looking after my own skin.

After all, I take care of many other parts of my body without even thinking too much about it.

I like to exercise to improve my physical appearance.

I like to eat right to keep my body in good working order.

I like to read to improve my mental abilities and keep me sharp.

So why did it take me so long to neglect looking after my own skin?

Here, I’ve tried to put together all the information you need that you were not ready to ask your SO.

But before we dive right in…

Do You Know Your Skin Type?

Typically, your skin will fall into one particular type. This is genetics, and you can either thank or curse your parents for what category you fall in.

  • Normal
  • Dry
  • Oily
  • Sensitive
  • Combination

By learning what your skin type is, you’ll know which products to use, and which to avoid at all costs.


If you’re blessed to have a normal, or balanced, skin type, consider yourself lucky. You aren’t prone to any naturally occurring skin problems. You don’t get pimples or acne, but the occasional blackhead will pop up. You have a smooth skin that looks free from any marks or blemishes. It feels dry (but not too dry) and healthy.

You have the gold standard of skin, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care for it. Maintaining a normal skin can depend on the seasons and the weather conditions outside. Long hot showers can dry your skin out, and too many chemicals can leech out the oils that you naturally produce.

Doing too much to your normal skin can be a bad thing.

Your key word is “Moderation”. Sunlight in moderation. Junk foods in moderation. Active ingredients in your soaps in moderation.


The word ‘dry’ can be deceiving. It’s not that you lack water on your face; you lack oil. Your natural oils help retain water (moisture), but if you don’t have enough, your skin gets exposed to the elements and air, drying out faster.

It can look rough or flaky. You could have premature lines or wrinkles. Cold weather can give you a red face faster than that time you accidentally sent that text meant for your girlfriend to your Mom.

Sun and dry air are NOT your friends. They will age your skin and make you look older than you are.


Oily skin is a symptom of overactive glands producing the natural sebum oil your skin needs. Basically, you’re making too much of a good thing.

Oily skin types get acne more often. In fact, if you have oily skin, you silently curse whoever told you that only pubescent teens get pimples. It seems that your pimples never got that memo. A shiny appearance on your forehead, nose and cheeks is a good sign that you have oily skin.

You may have the benefit of looking younger, but at the cost of blackheads, clogged pores, and constant acne.


Normally, people with sensitive skin have another type mixed in. Sensitive skin is commonly not really a type, but more of a condition. It can be something that develops over time, due to where you live, how much you expose your skin to the outside elements, or over-using harsh chemicals. However, many skin care products use the term “type” so it’s valuable to note if your skin has these traits.

You will find that people with sensitive skin react more often to medications and food. They notice those side-effects of eating too much chocolate or taking a certain blood pressure medication.

Your key word is “Diligence”. You need to be aware, more so than other skin types, of what you’re eating, what medicine you’re taking, and what soaps you use on your skin.


Hey, congratulations.

If you have combination skin, you have a bit of everything. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. Most combination skin types aren’t rigidly in one category, but can change with the weather, the season, and what your diet looks like.

Maybe you’ve heard the word “T-Zone” before.

This area, that is your forehead and down your nose, forms a natural ‘T’. This skin can get oily while the remainder of your face can remain healthy or dry. It means that require care for two different conditions on different parts of your face. Pay attention to what different parts of your face require.

If you can identify your skin type, that’s the first part of understanding how to use all those mystifying facial products. You’ll see results faster, and you’ll be caring for your skin, a part of the body that sadly, most men tend to neglect.

But as you’ll see in a minute, it’s a lot easier than it appears. But before we get into that, let me give you a tiny bit of background on what common problems your skin faces.

Common Skin Aliments

Sebaceous Filaments: If you’re ever bored on a Friday night, I definitely recommend you get on YouTube and search for pimple popping videos. It’s not for the squeamish, but it’s immensely rewarding and satisfying watching other people squeeze their pimples and bumps.

If you’ve watched these videos, or maybe attempted to squeeze a pimple yourself, you might find these long yellowish strands come shooting out of your pores. They are mainly found on your nose, but they can appear in other oily parts of your skin.

Hope you weren’t eating just then.

These are sebaceous filaments. They help disperse sebum (the oil your body produces) on to your skin. It’s essentially a wick that soaks up oils and gets it on to your face.

The problem is that they look a lot like blackheads. Sebaceous filaments are no real threat to your skin, and shouldn’t be treated like you would a blackhead.

They can be treated with a BHA agent using salicylic acid.

More on this in a minute…

Blackheads: Every pore on your body produces sebum. (Add ‘sebum’ to the list of words that you cringe to say like ‘Moist’ and ‘Nickelback’)

That oil can get clogged in your pores if it isn’t expressing out correctly. If that oil gets stuck, it oxidizes, much in the way copper turns green after it gets exposed to the air, and turns black.

That’s your blackhead.

A good way to determine if that mark on your face is a sebaceous filament or a blackhead is to look for this color. The blackhead also forms a raised bump on your skin.

You should never just squeeze out a blackhead. That can infect the pore and aggravate the skin. The best way to remove blackheads are to use a BHA agent that gets right into the pores. The salicylic acid in the BHA loosens up the clogged pores and naturally allows you to cleanse it away.

Side note: You’ll find products that claim that if you apply a pore strip on your nose, it will rip out all those pesky blackheads. Those products lie. They are deceptive and should be treated with contempt. They only remove those sebaceous filaments, making it look like you did something when the problem is never resolved. Do NOT go there.

ACNE: Acne is a disease that so many people have. I’m not giving you the entire birds and bees talk here, but as a teenager, your body goes through changes. It starts to produce oils on your skin. Acne is the excessive production of those oils. Up to 85% of teenagers between 12 and 24 experience this disease in some form.

People misunderstand when they say that pimples or blackheads are ‘acne’. Pimples and blackheads are the symptoms of acne. Acne is too much oil on your face.

Acne can be treated, although it can take many months. Popping a zit or squeezing a pimple isn’t solving the problem. Treatment should be prescribed from a dermatologist with much more experience than me. It can be as simple as an over-the-counter medication.

Those with acne still need to care for their skin and the products I’ll talk about in a minute can aid with the symptoms of pimples and blemishes.

Before We Begin…

Before you ever put anything on your face, it’s ABSOLUTELY crucial that you do one thing.

The patch test.

Find one patch of skin that’s discreet and won’t be easily noticed. Apply a test portion of your product there, and check it again in 24 hours.

Especially since you (probably) haven’t been regularly using these creams and soaps, you need to test your skin for any allergic or unseemly reactions.

If, after the 24 hours, you haven’t had any noticeable problems, you should be good to go.

DISCLAIMER: I am NOT a doctor. I do not have the ability to write prescriptions. I know basic CPR and that’s mainly from the movies. Do not take any of this as medical advice. I am simply sharing what I have learned and compressing it into an easy-to-understand guide. If you have questions or concerns, always, ALWAYS, ALWAYS consult your physician.

Another important note when it comes to skin care products is that it’s very much a case of YMMV (Your mileage may vary).

Therefore, what can work for 75% of men may not necessarily work for you.  It’s always important to remember that you skin is a living organ.

Hence the important of the patch test.

Face Wash

No, your face wash isn’t a shampoo substitute when you’ve forgotten to buy it last time at the store.

Face wash is designed for your (shocker, I know) face.

The key factor that makes a face wash different is that it foams up when you put it on. It’s a soap that cleans your skin and needs to be rinsed off with water.

The reason it suds up is the addition of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate or SLS. SLS is used in many cleaning products like shampoo, toothpaste and normal detergents. It breaks down the surface tension of those nasty dirt molecules, and it makes it easy for the soap agents to access the skin.

But SLS can be harmful to sensitive skin. Most gentler soaps advertise their products as sulfate free. Other products normally found in face washes include:

  • Salicylic Acid
  • Glycolic Acid
  • Glycerin
  • Allantoin
  • Propylene Glycol

So, if you want to remove all the daily gunk your face builds up, start with a face wash first thing in the morning. It sets the right tone for your skin, and keeps it clean from too much build up deep in the pores.

How to use Face Wash

The best way is every day. You can remember it with that rhyme. Or you can remember this: Your teeth, your face, your junk. Whatever works.

Start with a good face wash after you brush your teeth, but before you hop in the shower. That gives your face a gentle, refreshing clean from your sleep, and it gets into the pores to empty out whatever you collected during the night.

If you work in an environment that exposes you to pollution or you have to apply products to your face (clowns and mimes, I’m talking to you), end your day with a good face wash as well.  

Ideal Skin Types

  • Oily
  • Combination
  • Normal
top down view of cleanser in palm of hand


The big difference between a face wash and a cleanser (because they often get mixed up) is that a cleanser doesn’t foam.

Foam? Face Wash.

No Foam? Cleanser.

It will feel milky and smooth.

When you apply a cleanser, you’re replenishing and moisturizing your skin while also providing a very gentle cleaning.

Soaps can strip away the natural chemicals your body builds up. A cleanser helps restore all that with a gentle hydrating compound. Again, using a cleanser is best when done every day.

Cleansers will include each of these elements:

  • A soap or detergent – a gentle removal of (surface only) dirt. This soap is quite mild because the purpose of the cleanser isn’t to strip anything away.

Cleansers contain glycerine soaps that are hygroscopic. That means that the soap attracts water molecules and binds them together on the skin’s surface.

  • A moisturizer – A type of oil-based compound. It actually forms a thin film on your skin to seal in the moisture.

Usually, you’ll find the moisturizing agents in cleansers are natural like cocoa butter or sunflower oil. This, along with the glycerol, retains the moisture of your skin, adding to your skin’s healthy appearance. A healthy, moisturized skin looks younger and feels smoother.

How to Use Cleanser

Because you’re adding moisture and hydration to your face, try to make this a nightly routine. In fact, you’ll see why it’s so important when we talk about scrubs in just a minute.

Apply it at night, get ready for bed and then simply wipe it away. Because it doesn’t have any suds, there’s no need to rinse it off.

Ideal Skin Types

  • Dry
  • Normal
  • Combination
  • Sensitive

KEY POINT: Because a cleanser ADDS moisture, don’t use this if you have a natural oily skin. You’ll increase the problem by adding an extra moisture layer to an already overly-hydrated face. I know this because I slathered it on when I DEFINITELY shouldn’t have. Lesson learned.

Most cleansers are made for those with normal or dry skin. However, there are exceptions as there are some cleaners suited for men with oily skin. These cleansers will contain a BHA agent that unclogs the pores. Don’t worry, we’re getting to the BHA/AHA discussion portion of this guide soon.  Remember, while a face wash or a scrub strips away from the face, a cleanser adds to the face. What you find in the ingredient list of a cleanser could either be synthetic or natural. If you have sensitive skin, read the labels and be diligent about what you’re adding to your skin.

Scrubs & Exfoliators

Besides being an excellent TV show, scrubs are important for a guy’s skin.

I like to use a scrub, (or an exfoliator as it can be called) because it makes me feel manly. The rough, grainy texture of a good scrub feels good and strips away dead skin cells.

To me, this is the one product that you can notice is working immediately after using it.

Let me put this caveat here. You’re going to enjoy using this because you’ll notice a difference. All guys like seeing instant results. BUT it’s not a daily product. You WILL be tempted to use it often.

Resist that temptation. It is wrong.

I’ll tell you why in a minute…

A scrub will look and feel grainy. It may have a soap or cleansing agent in it. Or it may not. But it probably will have some active agent doing the heavy lifting.

Now is as good a time as any to create a side note here. Let me break down Alpha and Beta Hydroxys for a moment. There’s a LOT to learn, but that will have to be another post for another day.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid: (glycolic, lactic, or mandelic acids) AHAs are added agents that basically ‘detach’ your loose particles. This could be dead skin cells or clinging dirt molecules. It strips away those particles using a form of acid that ‘unglues’ the dead cells to make your skin feel noticeably different. (Detach. Unglue. These are all technical terms that you shouldn’t concern yourself with too much).

AHAs don’t cut through oil, so don’t use them on oily skin types. Humectants in AHAs add moisture to your skin after your dead cells are washed away.

AHAs commonly use glycolic, lactic or mandelic acids, and although it sounds odd putting acid on your face, the results are worth it.

Besides that feeling of being clean and clear, your face will noticeably look different as well. Your little lines and rough skin patches will improve with consistent use. It firms your skin up and can remove colored spots and blemishes.

If you’re in the sun, or your skin looks like it’s been through the wars, AHAs are a MUST as a foundation to nurture a better skin.

Beta Hydroxy Acid: (normally salicylic acid) BHAs are for deeper results. They break down the pores and eliminate everything inside that shouldn’t be there. You’ll find BHAs in face washes and cleansers advertising deeper cleans.

Salicylic acid (the common active ingredient in BHAs) is great at breaking down oils. While an AHA is water-soluble, meaning it isn’t effective on an oily skin, a BHA contains the salicylic acid compound for precisely that reason.

If you’ve been suffering from excessive oils (See: Acne) and the signs are on your face, choose a BHA agent. It’s not a treatment for that excessive sebum on your skin, but it’s great at treating the symptoms of it.

Acne can produce bumpy skin and scarring. A BHA helps smooth out that skin by eliminating the clogged and gunked-up pores. It smooths out the signs of acne on your face.

Back to the scrubs.

How to Use Scrubs and Exfoliators

This is NOT a daily product. I repeat again, even though I said it before, do not use this every day.

The AHAs in a scrub cause your skin to become extremely sensitive to UV rays. You’re going to want to use this at night, right after you use your cleanser. Go to sleep after using a scrub so that you aren’t exposing your exposed and raw face to harmful sunlight right after using.

Simply scrub, but not too vigorously, every area of your face. Pay close attention to any flaky or scaly sections. Then, simply rinse away the scrub and you’re done.

Like I said, it feels great and you’ll enjoy the noticeable result.

Ideal Skin Types

  • Dry (AHA agents using lactic, mandelic, or glycolic)
  • Normal
  • Combination
  • Oily (BHA agents using salicylic acid)
  • Sensitive (Start out with once a week. Please use discretion and judgment)

Should I Incorporate Face Washes, Cleansers, and Scrubs?

After trying out these products in the way recommended for your skin type, you’ll wonder why you didn’t try it out before.

You’ll probably also wonder if it’s really worth it.

Once the novelty of using cleansers and scrubs wears off, you might be tempted to give it a break. Adding something to your daily routine isn’t easy.

I mean, how often are you REALLY flossing? Honestly?

But I recently came across an interesting fact…

Men and women’s skin are different. It’s true.

Men and women have different skin thickness, different declines of the texture and collagen in the skin, and different hydration.

But, get this, when compared to a woman’s skin, a man’s skin looks 15 years younger.

Yes, I had to verify that myself again when I read it in this article.

A man’s skin has the natural tendency to age slower and look younger than a woman’s.

But men regularly don’t care for their skin. That’s the key. You can actually look 15 years younger than a woman the same age…

…if you care for your skin.

I’ll admit that facial products are NOT the be all and end all. Deodorant is required. Toothpaste is required. Or so my wife tells me.

But skin products aren’t the absolute essential agents that some of the big name brands may have you believe.

That being said, you will notice a healthier, better skin when you start to incorporate these products into your routine. Try to add elements like anti-ageing compounds and sunscreens in your routine as well. If you’re going to the measure of caring for your face, protect it from the sun and natural elements.

That’s just common sense. Protect that which you value.

But most of all, enjoy it.

Love your new face.

Relish in the compliments you’ll get from your partner.

Feel good about caring for your skin and looking after it. It will pay dividends years down the road.

Adam Williams

As the lead editor of Tools of Men, Adam loves men's grooming products. Particularly of interest is managing facial hair and perfecting the art of the modern man's skincare routine. His work has been featured or quoted in several publications, including New York Magazine, Vice, Sharpologist, MIC, Elite Daily, and more. When Adam isn't working, he enjoys spending time with his two little kids who keep him both on his toes and young at heart.

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