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Once upon a time, not so long ago, ‘oil’ was a dirty word in the skincare universe. After all, isn’t the goal to get rid of the grease on your skin, not add more? But as we started to wise up, and the skincare market took a cue from other countries (hello, Korea), oils became the new hot thing, particularly when it came to cleansing—and for good reason.
While oil and water repel one another, oil and oil attract (sorry, we’re trying not to cause traumatic flashbacks to high school chemistry class). In the case of your skin, that means that a cleansing oil is choice for helping to cut through the oils in your makeup, sunscreen, and those on your skin, dissolving them to leave your skin extra clean. And, unlike their sudsy, soapy face wash counterparts, there’s no risk of stripping or over-drying the skin, since oils are innately hydrating. While they’re an especially awesome pick for dry or sensitive types, they work well on all skin…yes, even acne-prone.
Read on for the best cleansing oils.
Best Overall: Shiseido Perfect Cleansing Oil
A cleansing oil from one of the world’s most-trusted beauty brands. This lightweight cleanser melts away even waterproof makeup and dirt without drying out the skin or making it feel tight. Use it on dry or wet skin as the first step to a clean, dewy complexion. This gentle cleanser is a great first cleansing step for all skin types.
Best Budget: Palmer's Skin Therapy Cleansing Oil
You may first think of this brand for their beloved cocoa butter, but don’t miss this affordable cleanser. It too contains cocoa butter, along with sesame oil and rosehip oil, a top oil for promoting healthy skin cells. Bonus points for the addition of skin-brightening vitamin C.
Best Antioxidant-Rich Formula: One Love Organics Cleansing Oil + Makeup Remover
A team Byrdie fan favorite, this earns big points for its straightforward ingredient list loaded with plant-based goodies. The oils it uses—namely pumpkin seed, papaya seed, and sunflower seed—are hydrating, but have the distinction of being packed with antioxidants. And the more antioxidants we can get into our skincare routine, the better.
Best Ayurvedic: Sahajan Essential Oil Cleanser
Moringa oil comes from the moringa plant found in the Himalayan mountains. It is rich in omega fatty acids and antioxidants, which soothe and protect the skin.
This rich blend of essential oils melts away makeup and pollutants to leave nothing behind but glowing skin. Moringa oil, squalene, and rose oils dissolve stubborn waterproof makeup, converting even oil cleansing beginners into believers. All you need to do is cleanse, rinse, and glow.
Best Drugstore: Neutrogena Ultra Light Cleansing Oil
Even fairly recently, you’d be hard-pressed to find a cleansing oil at the drugstore. It was a category largely reserved for prestige and masstige brands. Happily, that’s changing. Case in point: This formula, which is made with a blend of fine oils to remove impurities, and is also non-comedogenic and dermatologically-tested. Apply it on dry skin for a true cleansing oil experience.
Best for Bedtime: Kiehl's Midnight Recovery Botanical Cleansing Oil
Sure, you could totally use this in the morning, but we like reserving it for P.M. for several reasons. One, it’s awesome at taking off makeup and is gentle enough that you can even use it around your eyes. Two, it pulls double duty as aromatherapy, thanks to the addition of lavender essential oil; one whiff makes us instantly feel calm and relaxed.
Best for Combination Skin: Beautycounter Countertime Lipid Defense Cleansing Oil
Vitamin E is an antioxidant vitamin and oil often found in anti-oxidant blend topicals or moisturizers. It also helps soothe the skin and protects the lipid barrier.
Vitamin E and essential fatty acids help to hydrate dry spots, but this also has bakuchiol, a natural alternative to retinol that’s a great ingredient for oily or combination skin. It emulsifies into a milk-like texture when mixed with water, and rinses completely clean, without any leftover residue.
Best for Dry Skin: TATCHA Pure One Step Camellia Oil Cleanser
The star of the show here is Japanese camellia oil, which is higher in good-for-your-skin oleic acid than even olive oil, and is also a great source of vitamins A, B, C, D, and E. Translation: It’s a really good skincare ingredient, and super hydrating for even the most parched of complexions. Happy Sephora fans love how well it takes off makeup, and repeatedly comment on how gentle it is.
Best for Oily Skin: Erborian Black Cleansing Oil
We get it, no matter what we say, it can still feel counterintuitive to wash your face with oil when your skin feels like an oil slick to begin with, but just trust us. Reach for this option, which yes, is an oil, but is unique in its use of charcoal, a choice ingredient for helping to pull out grime and sebum lodged in your pores. It leaves your complexion feeling clean, but not tight, and stops shine in its tracks.
Best for Sensitive Skin: Biossance Squalane + Antioxidant Cleanser
If your skin skews on the sensitive side, cleansing oils should be your BFF; free from harsh soaps or detergents, they’re a great way to keep your complexion happy and prevent unwanted (and unsightly irritation). We especially like this guy, which touts eight plant-derived oils plus squalane. The plant-derived substance mimics your skin’s natural oil, making it a top pick for lightweight hydration.
Best Hydrating: DHC Deep Cleansing Oil
This oldie-but-goodie has been around for almost three decades but remains super popular—so much so that one is sold every 10 seconds worldwide (color us impressed). One of the OG cleansing oils to launch stateside, it uses hydrating vitamin E, organic olive oil, and rosemary oil, which gives it a refreshing fragrance. It rinses clean and removes every last trace of gunk and grime without drying out your skin.
Best for Removing Makeup: Boscia MakeUp-BreakUp Cool Cleansing Oil
When you’re wearing a full face of makeup, it’s a good move to use a cleansing oil first, even if you want to use a traditional cleanser after; the oil will be better able to remove and dissolve all the oils in the makeup. Reach for this, which takes down even the most stubborn, waterproof eye makeup doesn’t leave any residue, and is still ultra-gentle. The travel-friendly size is just a bonus.
Best Natural: Tata Harper Nourishing Oil Cleanser
The floral scent, a combo of rose and geranium, is definitely a large part of the reason we love this so much, but it doesn’t hurt that the ingredient list is crazy clean, either. We’re talking about a 100% natural formula made with 62% organic ingredients, a power combo of antioxidant-rich, skin-loving oils.
So it’s hard to pick favorites, but if we had to call out three, it would be the Tatcha Pure One Step Camellia Cleansing Oil, Shiseido Perfect Cleansing Oil, and Neutrogena Ultra Light Cleansing Oil. Tatcha is a nourishing, makeup-melting dream that’s perfect for dry skin, whereas the Shiseido option feels deeply cleansing but light, making it ideal for all skin types. And when it comes to drugstore options, Neutrogena is unbeatable. It’s effective, nice to use, and won’t clog your pores or leave you feeling sticky.
What to Look For When Buying a Cleansing Oil
The only real feature to seriously consider when buying a cleansing oil is the ingredients listing. These days, most cleansing oils utilize a blend of oils, from sweet almond to jojoba to grapeseed. Michelle Wong, scientist and the brains behind educational beauty platform Lab Muffin, likes sunflower and grapeseed to start because they’re affordable and less occlusive (i.e. not greasy or likely to leave a film).
More expensive oils like camellia, rosehip, argan, and sweet almond are also effective and can offer certain nourishing benefits and/or a beautiful experience when it comes to scent profile.
Wong does point out that coconut oil and olive oil are ones to potentially avoid; coconut oil because it can clog pores and olive oil because it’s often processed and this can lead to irritation. Each product and brand is different though, so be sure to do independent research.
Finally, check against any allergies you might have as plant and nut oils are common.
Slip and Texture
This is less important, but it’s still nice to end up with a product you actually enjoy using, right? Dry skin types might love a rich, viscous oil whereas oil-prone complexions will fare better with a lightweight product that rinses off well. The below list will help you find something that works for you.
How does cleansing oil work?
Cleansing oils work on the premise that like dissolves. According to Wong, a lot of skincare, SPF and makeup products are oil-based, meaning an oil-based cleanser can be more effective when it comes to removing them.
It’s not a hard and fast rule (micellar waters and other surfactants are also useful when it comes to removing makeup and sunscreen), but for many people, oil cleansers are both a luxurious and effective option.
How do you use cleansing oil?
Cleansing oils are typically suggested for use as a first cleanse to dissolve dirt, grime, makeup and sunscreen. Try applying into a dry face, emulsify with a little water and really massaging in, focusing on areas such as the eyes and lips. Once you’re satisfied, you can rinse with warm water or remove with a face washer.
How often should you oil-cleanse?
While the choice is ultimately yours, oil cleansers tend to work well at night as a first cleanse to remove everything that’s accumulated on your face during the day. We suggest going in with your favorite gentle cleanser directly afterward for a soft, clean complexion that’s primed for skincare. This will also work to remove any lingering residue.
Because cleansing oils are super nourishing, they can also function as a morning clean for skin that’s really, really dry—just be sure to pick a lightweight formula that doesn’t leave a filmy texture or remove more thoroughly with a face cloth so serums and moisturizers can penetrate.
Why trust Byrdie?
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. She's tested countless cleansers over the years—from foaming formulas to oils, gels, and creams.
How we test cleansing oils:
Our team works hard to be transparent about why we recommend certain products; you can read more about our product review methodology here.