Aesthetic Dermatology Update

Cleansing balms


A skin care trend, particularly in the Korean beauty product market and now worldwide, cleansing balms are a soft, yet solid variation of an oil-based cleanser. The solid oily component is combined with a surfactant or emulsifier. The cream balm texture melts into more of an oil texture once warmed with fingertips and applied to facial skin. The oils are effective at breaking down or attracting skin care products, oil, and grime on the skin surface. Once warm water is added, the oil emulsifies, and after it is wiped or rinsed off, what’s left behind is clean, hydrated skin.

Dr. Naissan O. Wesley, a dermatologist who practices in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Dr. Naissan O. Wesley

Unlike surfactant-based liquid cleansers that typically produce foam, cleansing balms are thicker in consistency and do not foam. These products are often packaged in a jar as a thick creamy cleanser or a solid stick. They don’t tend to compromise the moisture barrier or disrupt skin pH, thus, resulting in less dry skin and have less potential to cause irritation. These products are particularly useful during drier, colder months, or in dry climates, and for those who have dry skin or eczema.

The popularity of cleansing balms has largely been based on their ability to remove makeup, similar to an oil cleanser, without the need to necessarily “double cleanse” with a regular cleanser afterward.

Alternatives to remove makeup besides cleansing balms, oil cleansers, and regular liquid water-based cleansers include micellar water (oil in water), chemical makeup removing cloths, and nonchemical makeup removing pads used with water. Micellar water is also gentle on the skin; it requires a cotton pad, tip, or cloth to remove makeup, without the need for water or washing. Both are effective, but it may be easier to remove makeup with cleansing balms, without the need for rubbing dry skin, than with micellar water. A study published in 2020 of 20 individuals reported that waterproof sunscreen was more effectively removed with a cleansing oil than a non–oil-based cleanser, with less irritation and dryness. Both were effective at removing non-waterproof sunscreen.

Both cleansing balms and oil-based cleansers need to be kept at room temperature (not in the refrigerator), since they may separate or solidify at low temperatures.

Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty Images

Most cleansing balms can be applied to dry skin, massaged, and rinsed off with warm water, but they are sometimes easier to remove with a wet cloth (typically either cotton or muslin). Many are nonirritating to the eyes, which is important when used to remove eye makeup and mascara on delicate skin. While many cleansing balms are noncomedogenic, residue from balms that are too thick or not rinsed off properly can contribute to comedones or milia. If residue is present after use, then “double-cleansing” with a water-based cleanser is reasonable, but not necessary for most users.

Did the development of Ponds cold cream mark the beginning of this trend? Yes and no. The creation of the first cold cream prototype has been attributed to the Greek physician, Galen (who lived in Rome), a combination of rose water, beeswax, and olive oil in 150 CE. While Ponds also has manufactured a cleansing balm, the original cold cream is a 50% moisturizer in a cleanser. So while similar in containing an oil, water, emulsifier, and thickener, and effective, it is more of a moisturizer and less of a solid oil/balm in its consistency.

Dr. Wesley practices dermatology in Beverly Hills, Calif. Write to her at She had no relevant disclosures.

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