Take It All Off: a Few Words on Makeup Remover

I’ve been smearing makeup on my arm (and cleaning it off) for about 3.5 years now. As a result, I have quite a lot of opinions on makeup remover — I’ve tried just about everything you can find at the counter (plus a few more).

Makeup remover is, to some extent, a matter of preference. What are you used to, what format do you prefer, how much makeup do you wear? When I’m swatching, my goal is to get my arm completely clean of often-stubborn products (like heavy-duty foundation, bright lipsticks, and long-wear eyeliners) as quickly as possible, with a minimum of scrubbing, no residue, and without drying my skin. Hands-down, the most effective category is oil cleansers. I prefer them to foams, lotions, cold creams, other liquids, and soaps.

You apply oil cleanser to dry skin, massage it around, add water (to emulsify), massage again, and rinse clean.

Cleansing oil doesn’t leave your skin feeling oily, and it won’t clog your pores or cause acne (the molecules are too large to penetrate). I’m probably going to horrify some aestheticians by saying this, but I don’t use a second product after washing my face with oil cleanser. Once the makeup/sunscreen is off, I’m done.

Anyway, having tried a number of oil cleansers, I wanted to share with you my personal rank list, from best to worst.

Shiseido, Ultimate Cleansing Oil1. Shiseido Ultimate Cleansing Oilicon ($25, 5 oz)
This is, unequivocally, the best cleanser on the market. Designed to remove Shiseido’s notoriously protective sunscreens, it’s the most effective, gentlest, least obtrusive, no-residue, non-drying, best-thing-I’ve-tried. It’s my #1 choice at home and “in the field.” I never need a second product to get my arm “all the way clean.”

Oil cleansers turn cloudy/white when you get them wet (somehow this makes me feel that they’re working), and Shiseido’s does this best.  If you plunge an oiled hand into a bowl of water, it makes a satisfying “poof” of white as the oil dissipates into the water.

Bobbi Brown, Cleansing Oil2. Bobbi Brown Cleansing Oilicon ($39, 6.7 oz)
If Shiseido’s Cleansing Oil is, for some reason, unavailable, my second choice is Bobbi Brown’s. It gets almost everything off (though if I’m swatching something particularly tenacious, I might have to follow it with a chaser of Chanel Gentle Biphase Eye Makeup Remover).

With repeated use, I feel like it builds up a bit of residue. But you’re probably not going to feel that in a single face-washing.

Shu Uemura, Premium A/O Beauty Oil3. Shu Uemura Cleansing Beauty Oil Premium A/O Advanced Formula ($75, 15 oz)
Shu Uemura Cleansing Oils come in several “flavors” — Pore Clarifying (pink) for oily/acne-prone skin, White Recovery Brightening (purple), Classic (yellow), Premium for dry/sensitive skin (this used to be called “Rich” and it was orange… they’ve reformulated and now the bottle is yellow).

Anyway, my favorite is “Green,” which is supposed to address aging concerns, yet still feels light. I think it has the best scent, and it seemed to me to be the most effective of Shu’s oils. (Green is also their #1 seller.)

Shu has a sterling reputation for cleanse off oils (and many people feel they basically invented the category), but in a head-to-head (or should I say arm-to-arm?) test, Shu would sometimes leave behind “ghosts” that another cleanser (Shiseido, Laura Mercier’s old Light formula) would remove completely.

Honestly, Bobbi Brown’s Cleanse Off Oil and Shu Uemura’s Premium A/O are probably a tie for me, but since Shu no longer has a physical presence in the U.S., it’s a little harder to get. (You have to order from their website. Though, on the plus side, free shipping and no tax.)

Laura Mercier, Purifying Cleansing Oil4. Laura Mercier Purifying Cleansing Oilicon ($40, 6.8 oz)
Laura Mercier used to make two formulas of cleansing oil (Light and Rich) — and Light formerly held my #2-favorite spot.

“Rich” oils, oils intended for dry or mature skin, often don’t rinse clean. They seem like leave-in conditioner for the skin… they feel sort of oily even after you’ve washed them away.

Maybe a year ago, Laura Mercier reformulated their oil cleanser, and the new edition feels like a combination of the old Light and Rich. I’m not a fan.

MAC, Cleanse Off Oil5. MAC Cleanse Off Oilicon ($26, 5 oz)
MAC’s Cleanse Off Oil just isn’t my favorite. It simply doesn’t seem as effective as the others when it comes to removing makeup.

Lumene, Lift Touch Revitalizing Cleanse Off Oil6. Lumene Lift Touch Revitalizing Cleansing Oil ($10, 6.8 oz)
Lumene is just about the cheapest cleanse off oil you can buy, and a while ago I bought some for home use (both face and arm). It was even on sale at CVS when I bought it, so I only paid $5 a bottle.

Now this sounds absolutely crazy, but I stopped using Lumene on my face because it was drying my skin. How can a cleanse off oil (which even mentions dry/mature skin on the bottle) be drying? Well, the bottle also mentions “toning,” so maybe that ingredient is the culprit. Has anyone else had this experience? I did buy this about a year ago, so it’s possible the product has been reformulated since then.

What’s your favorite makeup remover, readers? Are you on the oil bandwagon? Do you have a favorite that I haven’t tried yet?

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36 Responses to “Take It All Off: a Few Words on Makeup Remover”

  • Me says:

    A few of your oil cleansers contain mineral oil which is a big no-no for me. Here are my favorites:

    Boscia Makeup breakup cleansing oil
    Nude cleansing oil

  • KarlaSugar says:

    Ooh, I forgot to mention Boscia. I disliked its mint scent and the way it seems to thicken on the skin. I’ll have to go back and do more arm testing to decide where I’d rank it in terms of efficacy.

    I had a tiny sample of Nude ages ago… it seemed very nice for face, but I didn’t have enough for arm tests. Another one I should explore further. I just looked it up on Sephora and it is also MUCH cheaper than I remembered — $36 for 3.4 oz.

    Why is mineral oil a no-no?

  • Amy says:

    I’ve used Softymo Kosé Deep Cleansing Oil (got it off eBay, ~15 for 6.7 oz) for a year or so and I really like it, though I do find it doesn’t quite take off staining lipsticks or really long-wearing eyeliner. I’m going to have to try the Shiseido! Thanks for the post, it’s extremely helpful (much as your swatches are!).

  • isabella says:

    i think generally mineral oil breaks out a lot of people. have you tried DHC cleansing oil? I feel like oil cleansers break me out :/

  • Nelly says:

    I love moogoo.com.au purifying cleansing oil because it’s about the purest thing I’ve ever used. I used to use Laura Mercier, but that’s $80 here. Moogoo is about $17 by comparison and cleanses better.

    To be honest, I’d rather use just sweet almond oil than fancy oil cleansers – it’s moisterising without being greasy and leaves no residue when washed away. Can’t beat $12 for a large bottle, either. It takes off everything, even the stuff others leave behind.

    Worst = MAC oil cleanser – it sets off my dermatitis something fierce.

  • Kelly says:

    I’m a fan of the Origins Clean Energy Gentle Cleansing Oil. The bottle lasts ages, provided you purchase the separate pump, and work a lot better for me than MAC, Nude, DHC and Shu :) Plus it smells nice, which is always a bonus ;)

  • Roxanne says:

    Karla, what have you tried Dermalogica precleanse and Nars?

  • Kelly C. says:

    I agree with the other kelly above, lol! I LOVE Origins Clean Energy. One bottle lasts me at least six months, using 8-10 pumps a day for morning and evening. It also leaves my oily skin feeling fresh but not stripped. Its all I use anymore!

  • Snickers says:

    Like the two Kellys above, my favorite is Origins Clean Energy (with the purchase-separately pump)! I use 3 pumps at night and it’s great on waterproof mascara. I have “thirsty” skin and follow with moisturizer only. Though I haven’t tried most of the ones listed… yet!

  • Sarah says:

    I agree with Nelly–homemade is the way to go. I have used sweet almond oil, jojoba (a must for acne prone skin), but my favorite is a combo of castor and olive oil. It can leave a bit of sheen on your face, but I use it at night, and count this as extra moisturizer.

    If I had to buy one, I would go with DHC. I have used it before, and liked it, just not the price tag compared to my own concoctions. And I agree with the first comment, Karla–steer clear of the mineral oil! Your body will not absorb it, and it is a major pore clogger. Not to mention full of nasties for your body, and for the environment.

  • Kate says:

    I like Decleor cleansing oil, not sure if it resembles the one from Shiseido since it is after all now owned by Shiseido. Next fave would be Bobbi’s.

  • Lori says:

    As anyone tried Lancomes? I’ve been considering it for awhile, good reviews on Sephora.com!

  • jeanette says:

    thanks karla! i feel like this is such a coincidence. i’ve actually been researching best make-up removers/cleaners just this week. you’ve made my search easy.

    i’ll try out the shiseido oil cleanser. i’ve tried bobbi brown’s but like you, experienced some build up with repeated use. shiseido being almost half the price is a definitely plus too since i tend to follow-up make-up removal with my kate somerville cleanser.

  • KarlaSugar says:

    Naturally, don’t use a product or ingredient that you’ve found doesn’t work for you. But if you haven’t tried a cleanse-off oil and are wondering whether you should, a study from 2005 (in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology) tested products containing .5% up to 30% mineral oil and found them to be non-comedogenic.

    The first studies testing whether ingredients were comedogenic or not were done in the 80s, and tested the pure ingredient on the insides of rabbit ears. (Not human and not the concentrations these products contain.)

    In the end, everyone’s skin is different, so the best way to know whether a product works for you is to try it for yourself.

    Sounds like my “to explore” list includes DHC (by the way, which formula does everyone like? It looks like there are two?), Origins, sweet almond oil, Nude, Boscia, Lancome, NARS, Decleor, and Dermatologica.

  • Rachel says:

    My first thought was to ask whether you’ve tried DHC, but looks like many ladies beat me to it. :) Would love to know what you think of their oil as well! I’ve only tried the Deep Cleansing Oil and like it a lot.

    They always include samples in their catalog. Great way of testing out their most popular items. The little oil packages are great for traveling.

  • Mary says:

    I love jojoba oil…it’s natural and why put something on your face even if it’s only 5% that you don’t need?

  • Nicole nelson says:

    I manage a Bobbi Brown counter, but yay, Bobbi Brown! It removes makeup and debris so gently, and does not leave a greasy film. In addition, it takes off my gel liner and No-Smudge mascara all in one fell swoop. Hooray for Bobbi Cleansing Oil!

  • Liz says:

    I became an oil cleansing method convert a year or so ago. Nothing else works as well for removing sunscreen and long-wearing eye makeup. I’ve only tried a few brands, notably Shu and Bobbi Brown. I was going to try DHC next since it’s cheap and people seem to love it, but I may have to go for Shiseido instead!

  • Angl says:

    Main reason I don’t use products with mineral oil on my face is they break me out, plain and simple. Just as silicones are touted as non-comedogenic, they also break me out big time. While many people can tolerate mineral oil on their skin with no problem, peeps with acne have cause to be concerned. I’m actually a bit tired of hearing how great it is for your skin. I’ve been duped for the last time. Ok, getting off my soap box.

    As far as cleansing oils go, I’m loving Josie Maran Argan Cleansing Oil. It’s a bit pricey for me, but I have to say my skin has never looked better. I have cystic acne. I’ve never had a blackhead issue, but I occasionally get a regular old pimple. JM’s cleanser has almost eliminated the standard pimples, and my cystic acne looks so much better. My old cleanser seemed to be drying my skin too much, thereby exacerbating the acne. It even gets off my stubborn eye makeup. Boscia left a weird film on my face, didn’t actually rinse off and there were always traces of makeup left. I don’t have that problem with JM.

    As a side note, it tastes awful LOL! Not like I’m eating the stuff, but if it accidentally runs into your mouth, ugh!!! Very bitter and gross.

  • nikki p says:

    Hey Karla, iv tried all of them, but the best of the best is dermalogica pre cleanse! Expensive though :(

  • Pam says:

    I’ve been using DHC’s original Deep Cleansing Oil for years. DHC is from Japan. I tried MAC’s one time (I used the whole bottle up), but didn’t like it as well as DHC.

    Full size is $26/6.7oz. They now also have a travel size $12.50/2.3oz, and a mini $4.95/1oz. You can request a free sample which they will send out with no shipping charge. I hope you will try it out, and let us know how you feel it compares to your favorite!

    Now you’ve got me curious to try the Shiseido Ultimate Cleansing Oil. Maybe next time after I run out of my DHC…

  • Evelyn says:

    I am based in Malaysia and there are two Japanese brands available here which I feel is on par with Bobbi Brown, Shu Uemura and Mac. Both are made with olive oil and they are DHC Cleansing Oil and Hada Labo Cleansing Oil.I am using Hada Labo after trying all others I mentioned here. Hada Labo is value for money with 200ml priced at about RM 50 and does a great job of removing Bobbi Brown eyeliner gel and waterproof mascara.

  • Meera says:

    I have been using Dermalogica pre-cleanse for the last year. Its great for all but my very stubborn Lancome waterproof mascara. The thing I like the most is that I seem to break out much much less when I use it than if I wash my face without it!

  • Bella says:

    It’s great that cleansing oils work so well for others, but I cannot get on the bandwagon. These just seem to be horrible for my skin. I have tried: DHC, Nude, MAC, Shu Uemura, Nars, Clinique Take the Day Off Balm (which becomes oil when it warms up) and maybe others I’m leaving out. They all seem to dry, irritate or break out my skin (or some combination of the three). Cleansing creams work much better for me.

  • Anna says:

    You’re not crazy. I find the pink Shu Uemura dries out my skin (super tight within 10 seconds) and I would have to rush to put moisturizer on after I had rinsed. Now I’m onto the normal yellow one. Green does seem most most. I will invest in that one next when I’m done yellow.

    Great post! I will keep an eye on the Shiseido one.

  • Edelmc says:

    Great post! I have tried a few oils but my favourite is clarins pure melt. It’s starts out as a gel and then when you massage it onto your face it turns to an oil so I find it’s not as messy as other oils. It also takes all my make up off without making my skin feel tight

  • Nina says:

    Very interesting post! I have tried oil cleansing (Shu, Bobbi, DHC and a few others) at various times and it has always clogged my pores. Strangely enough, applying oils to my face as night treatments or for added day moisture (Josie Maran, Mario Badescu, Nude, Jojoba) doesn’t break me out! Everyone’s skin is different but it is great to hear about others’ experiences. @Angl – your comment made me laugh – Argan oil is great externally, but tastes vile!

  • LiliVonSchtupp says:

    I’ ve used Shu pink and purple; I find Boscia’s does a better job of taking off mascara than either Shu version. Don’t like the menthol-y scent of Boscia, but I do like the “cushiony” feel on my face

  • borgabato says:

    Most cleansing oils I’ve used contain some formulation of mineral oil, whether it’s high end of low end, Japanese, European, or American. It never breaks me out because it is meant to rinsed away off the skin. Cleansing oils rinse completely off with a splash of water. Another thing, the reason mineral oil is used is because of shelf life. Even my YSL one contained a mixture of jojoba and mineral oil. It has certainly kept it from spoiling after months and years. My DHC one (olive oil) contains preservatives most likely because it is the most irritating but it starts to smell rancid after awhile.

    “why put something on your face even if it’s only 5% that you don’t need?”

    It’s meant to dissolve and rinse makeup away, not to be absorbed into the skin.

    People who compare using natural oils straight from the pantry don’t understand what a Cleansing Oil is. And I will never understand the “fear” people have about mineral oil, vaseline, etc.

  • Jill says:

    Karla, there are a large array of products from Japan and Korea. Probably not necessary,since you can get others more easily here. But, they are cheaper and better quality. Although, I would bet that Bobbi Brown is a formulation from a Korean lab. Anyway, look up Korea, Japanese cosmetics. I live in SF and can readily get all the brands in the Japanese and Chinese markets. I was in cosmetic manufacturing in a previos lif and amslightly OCD with respect to quality.

  • becca says:

    Im curious about the shiseido now…I use origins and I love it but its not that much cheaper than the origins since it went up in price. I also like mac cleanse off tranquil

  • Jessy says:

    I’m so happy that you did a review of cleansing oils. Almost picked up the Lumene oil the other day and now I’m really glad that I didn’t. I usually just use coconut oil, or jojoba oil to take off my makeup and then use a cream cleanser to clean. Really interested in the Josie Maran cleansing oil.

  • Lisa says:

    Shiseido’s Ultimate Cleansing Oil is my fave too. I used to have trouble with my face not being clean enough, and clogged pores, and this oil sorted it all out for me. I know lots of peeps don’t approve of the mineral oil, but Boscia stung my eyes and made them water, Shu did nothing beyond being a pretty bottle, DHC was so-so – the mineral oil in Shiseido’s is a small price to pay for something that actually works.

  • Meo says:

    I know this is an old post, but Lush’s Ultrabland is what I use to get everything off for day to day or post photo shoot.


    Smear, then wipe with warm wash cloth. It’s the ish.

  • Poodle says:

    I’m surprised no one mentioned Bioderma

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