Often overlooked in favour of cleansing balms , cleansing jellies, foaming cleansers and micellars, the powder cleanser for face has been used in Asia for centuries. Now with sustainability at the forefront of our beauty buying choices, it's finally having a moment.
Cleansing powders are typically finely-milled powders made of rice bran or ground oat kernel. These days, they are often combined with actives such as blemish-busting salicylic acid, vitamin C and enzymatic exfoliators such as papaya. You simply mix them with water in the palm of your hand to turn them into a liquid cleanser. This year, Chanel launched its first sustainable range No1 De Chanel, showcasing powder face cleanser. And now cult Japanese-inspired skincare brand Tatcha has finally landed in the UK, allowing us all to get our hands on some of the best powder cleansers on the planet.
Here's why cleansing powders are so right for now, and the nine we rate.
They last a long time
A powder cleanser is highly concentrated so you don’t need to use very much. Once you’ve cleansed your face to remove any makeup, tip a small amount (aim for about half a teaspoon) into the palm of your hand, mix with water until it becomes a lovely creamy lather and then massage into your face using circular motions. Rinse with water. See? Simple.
They’re travel friendly
Their waterless formula makes them handy if you’re on the go, too, as consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible Dr Anjali Mahto tells me. "They can be convenient, particularly so for travel purposes when there are restrictions placed on quantities of liquids we can take.” Plus they are incredibly lightweight.
They both cleanse and exfoliate
Unlike your bottled cleansers, with a powder cleanser you can customise your texture to suit your skin type by dialling up or down the amount of water you add. Looking for a gentle cleanse? Add more water to get a smooth lather; for oilier skin that needs more exfoliation adding less water will create a thicker, grainier paste.
The slightly grainy texture, which varies from product to product, acts as a very gentle exfoliant, so there’s no need for that extra step in your routine. It makes for a more thorough or even second cleanse. Tatcha recommends its Rice Polish as a second step after a makeup-removing oil cleanser.
However, the gritty texture of some could mean sensitive types need to be wary, as Dr Mahto explains. "Powder cleansers are probably suitable for most skin types depending on the ingredients but I would use them with caution in those with chronic inflammatory skin conditions such as rosacea or eczema, where there is a high chance of irritation or sensitivity .”
They’re a sustainable skincare alternative
As predicted in our 2022 beauty trends report year, waterless beauty is one way to adapt your beauty routine to be more environmentally friendly. Water often makes up 90 per cent of the entire product! Not in a powder cleanser though; not only does this cut down on unnecessary use of this scarce ingredient, but it also decreases C02 emissions. When water is added products are heavier to transport.
If you prefer your skincare preservative-free then a waterless beauty product such as a powder cleanser for face could be for you. The absence of water means that bacteria or mould is less likely to grow so preservatives aren’t always needed. Powder cleansers often contain no, or at least fewer preservatives than other cleanser types.
Cleansing powder for face: the verdict: For travelling, they’re a no-brainer, delivering a thorough cleanse (don’t even go there with suggesting face wipes) without contributing to your liquids limit in your hand luggage - plus they’re much lighter too. However, you’re not likely to use these around your eyes (ouch), so they work best as a second cleanse or at least after the removal of your eye makeup. It’s also worth treading carefully if you have sensitive or dry skin. There are also very few budget options, however, they last several times longer than a liquid formulas.
As for how cleansing powders work, they do take a bit of getting used to if you’re more of a pump-and-go kind of cleanser, and mixing the water can get messy, but with many including added ingredients such as vitamin C along with the advantage of knocking an exfoliating step out of our skincare routine, powder cleansers have plenty of beauty benefits.
Here’s our edit of the best cleansing powders on the market…
The powder cleanser loved by Meghan Markle
It was in Kyoto that Tatcha founder Vicky Tsai learned about Geisha beauty rituals, and became mesmerised by how healthy the women's skin looked, whether they were 18 or 80, and despite wearing heavy makeup. Forget complicated, multi-step Asian skincare routines, at Tatcha simplicity is key and that ethos is summed up in the Duchess of Sussex’s favourite Tatcha product, The Rice Polish Classic. According to Tsai, Meghan owes her flawless complexion to this little pot of powder.
The fine and foaming enzyme powder comes in four variations to suit different skin types; gentle, classic, deep and calming. It uses papaya enzymes and rice bran to gently break down dry, dead skin cells and lift them, along with any dirt away. Rice also helps encourage skin cell turnover, so with continued use skin will look fresher than ever. Skin is left feeling incredibly soft, and looking as if it’s been given a lovely polish. Which it has. The Classic is one of the more hydrating powder cleansers in our edit and didn't leave out skin 'squeaky'.
The instant cult classic
When Dermalogica founder Jane Wurwand instructed her team to create a powder exfoliant, they thought she was mad. “They thought people would think it was talcum powder or powder makeup,” reveals Wurwand in her memoir, Skin In The Game Everything You Need Is Already Inside You , £14.99. How wrong they were. When Dermalogica launched Daily Microfoliant in 2001, it sold 13 million in the first year.
The ultra-fine rice-based powder is formulated for daily use for all skin types, there are no artificial fragrances or colours so the decongesting benefits can be enjoyed by sensitive skin types too. Papain (a naturally exfoliating enzyme found in papaya), salicylic acid and rice enzymes provide both a physical and chemical exfoliation. Although the name suggests that this is an exfoliant, it's not a scrub. We'd place it more in the cleanser category. Plus, the addition of breakout busting salicylic acid makes this a great choice for blemish-prone skin. It's refillable (refills cost £49) and while it might seem pricey you get three times as much as in the Chanel (below) for example.
The luxe one for mature skin
The No1 de Chanel range is the luxury brand’s first foray into the clean and sustainable beauty category, with formulas that are 97 per cent natural, refillable jars (although not this) and a reduction in single-use products. The range focuses on one ingredient, the red camellia. It makes sense then that a more sustainable range would include a powder cleanser. Enriched with red camellia extract and red camellia oil, a sweetly-scented red flower that contains a high concentration of protocatechuic acid (a powerful antioxidant that is thought to help slow down the cell ageing process) this super fine powder turns into a rich, creamy foam. This is definitely more 'team cleanser' than 'team exfoliator', there’s no ‘scrubbing’ element. However, it feels more drying on the skin than other powder cleansers we’ve tried so we’d recommend it for those with oilier skin. The subtle, floral scent is pretty delicious as well.
The one for blemish-prone skin
Formulated for oily, combination and blemish-prone skin this stuff is designed to clear away excess oil, dirt and dead skin cells. The brand stipulates that this powder cleanser is strictly secondly cleansed only, although we think if you’re wearing no makeup then you can definitely use it for your first wash.
As with all Tropic skincare products this cleanser is 100 per cent natural, the only ingredients included are plant enzymes, blue spirulina (you'll get Smurf vibes as the paste turns blue) and hyaluronic acid. There’s a bit of tag-teaming going on here; the plant enzymes break down dead skin cells and the blue spirulina then draws out any excess oil, sebum and grime. If you’re worried that your skin will be left stripped, and drier, don’t be. The presence of hyaluronic acid ensures that any moisture lost is replaced so skin is kept hydrated too. For an even deeper cleanse try Tropic Clear Slate Deep Cleansing Powder, £18 which swaps blue spirulina for volcanic ash and bamboo charcoal to mop up oil and grease and unclog congested pores.
The one for all skin types
With a minimal ingredients list, this super fine fragrance-free powder in a substantial 75g size creates a far softer lather than many of the other options here, making it feel more like a foaming cleanser than an exfoliant. It's an effective but gentle cleansing powder for oily skin, reducing excess oil with brightening vitamin C and enzymes to buff away rough skin. Best of all it leaves skin feeling fresh, smooth and looking instantly more radiant. Our tester reported soft but shiny skin after using this.
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The one for brightening
Given that so many powder cleansers tend to have a brightening effect (thanks to their exfoliating properties) it’s no surprise that many also contain vitamin C for extra glow power, although it’s worth noting that to get the best of the ingredient's benefits you’d need a leave-on product. Clinique’s Fresh Pressed cleanser arrives as a box of 28 individual sachets (hence the ‘fresh’) with a fairly hefty ten per cent ascorbic acid and is of course fragrance-free as per the brand’s ethos so it could be beneficial for more sensitive types. It’s a good way to top up on your vitamin C skincare (the skin-brightening ingredient naturally degrades with oxygen so these sealed sachets are ideal), and it also contains spot-fighting salicylic acid for extra oomph. Once mixed with water, simply leave on for a minute to let it work its magic and then rinse away for a more sparkling complexion.
With a succinct ingredients list that combines calming rose, calendula and chamomile with oats and walnuts for gentle exfoliation, this more luxurious clay-based powder can be massaged in for a speedy cleanse or left to dry for extra exfoliation. It's sensitive skin-friendly (except perhaps the peppermint - steer clear if your skin barrier is already compromised), and its anti-bacterial properties and pore-cleaning powers give great afterglow.
Thought matcha was just for drinking? This powder-to-foam cleanser available on Cult Beauty uses the supergreen together with spirulina for a deep yet gentle cleanse that leaves skin soft rather than squeaky clean (because healthy skin does not squeak). It’s 100 per cent natural, works for all skin types and uses baking powder, honey and organic aloe vera powder as well as ‘baby foam’, a coconut-derived surfactant that carefully cleanses without stripping. Green tea and an innovative formula? A true J-beauty-inspired must-have.