Long before they lined the shelves of Sephora and esteemed medicine cabinets, cleansing balms were made to wash the udders of farm animals. The rudimentary formula at the time included lard, honey and herbs and was effective at removing dirt and impurities, soothing and protecting the skin and imparting antimicrobial benefits. “I’m actually familiar with this because I grew up on a horse ranch in Idaho,” says Kim Walls, founder and CEO of Furtuna Skin. By the mid-1800s, the balm was reinvented as a “cold-cream cleanser” by Pond’s, says Walls, and it contained a mix of mineral oil, beeswax and water. Women sat at their vanity tables and applied it generously before wiping it away with a tissue to take the day off their face. (A little-known fact: Kleenex was invented precisely for this reason.) In the 1960s, cleansing oils came along thanks to Shu Uemura, but they tended to leave a residue that no one liked and never really went mainstream. Presumably that’s because we have generally been convinced that oil is bad for our skin and thus prefer suds, believing they’re the best way to get it clean. “We’ve been trained—by Johnson & Johnson in particular—to love that foamy lather,” says Walls.

But modern cleansing balms have been growing in popularity over the years, and a spate of new ones have come out recently. “I think that makes sense from a zeitgeist perspective,” says Walls, whose brand recently introduced its Cleansing Oil Balm. She believes the demand is there because consumers are realizing that balms are a healthier way to clean the skin. Relatively solid to start, they soften up once massaged in and begin to do their job of melting down sunscreen, makeup and anything else that needs to be whisked away. “It’s bonding chemically with dirt, grime and pollution,” says Walls. And then it’s all rinsed off without leaving the skin’s barrier feeling dry and tight. This result is key because a stripped barrier leads to collagen breaking down more quickly, which diminishes the barrier’s fundamental function.

For my part, I, too, fell victim to the belief that foam is better until I discovered the utterly transformative experience of cleansing with a balm. It changed how I approach washing my face entirely; I look forward to it, and it has become a ritual I take my time with, doing it early in the evening rather than leaving it until five minutes before bed. I wear a lot of sunscreen, and I know the balm is breaking down every last bit. And as Walls says, if you really lean into it, the gains go beyond just getting your face clean. “Massage it in, and use your knuckles so you’re getting lymphatic drainage,” she says. “It’s got comprehensive, multi-sensory benefits as well as physiological ones that come from enhanced nutrient absorption, better oxygenation and more nutrient delivery to the surface of the skin.” I remain convinced that even if you don’t take those few extra minutes to give yourself a spa experience, a balm is the ideal way to wash your face, and it seems that Walls agrees. “You get the best cleanse,” she says. “And the least damage.” 


Cleansing Oil Balm, Furtuna Skin

This balm is made from a potent variant of extra-virgin olive oil that is packed with antioxidants and fatty acids and sourced from the brand’s own estate in Sicily. It powerfully removes dirt, dead skin cells and pollution residue while leaving skin incredibly soft and nourished.


Price: $114



Nourishing Cleansing Balm, Keys Soulcare

Beyond cleansing, this balm draws out excess oil and debris thanks to the addition of bamboo charcoal, while manuka honey provides anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits.


Price: $48



Cleansing Balm & Exfoliating Refiner, Noble Panacea

Eight different oils—grape, olive, moringa, black cumin, jojoba, camellia, papaya and rosehip—work together to deeply clean. The set includes an exfoliator powered by AHAs and PHAs to remove dead skin cells at different levels and damask-rose water to soothe skin and balance pH levels.


Price: $257