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All the Best Face Washes We’ve Ever Written About

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

As the first step in your skin-care routine, face wash plays a very important role in keeping your skin balanced. Too harsh of a cleanser can strip the skin of precious natural oils, while too light of one won’t effectively wash away extra sebum and product residue, especially if your complexion leans oily. A good cleanser does no harm; after washing your face, your skin should feel refreshed, not tight and parched, while your pores should feel clear and primed for a serum or moisturizer. Because it can be tricky to find the perfect one for you, I combed through our archives and spoke to 17 skin-care experts from dermatologists to facialists about what to look for, plus which cleansers they recommend for each skin type. Whether you have combination skin or are acne-prone, there are options for you.

What we’re looking for:

Skin type: To get the obvious stuff out of the way first: Pick a cleanser appropriate for your skin type. If you’re a self-proclaimed beauty guru, you may be thinking, No duh. But in my experience, most people actually have no idea what their skin type is when asked. If you have zero problems, like acne or dry skin, you were most likely blessed with “normal” skin. But for those with more complicated issues — like excessive dryness that causes tightness and flaking, or blemishes stemming from oily skin — things aren’t quite as straightforward. You need to be mindful of ingredients and the texture of your cleanser, choosing one specifically for your dry, oily, acne-prone, sensitive, or combination skin type.

Texture: Once you figure out your skin type, take into consideration the texture of the cleanser. Dry skin needs creamy, almost moisturizer-like face washes or hydrating oil cleansers to remedy damage, while oily and acne-prone types should opt for foam or gels to sop up any excess oil. Oily skin can sometimes get away with cleansing oils, too, because believe it or not, oil attracts oil, which leaves your skin balanced. Sensitive skin should use something creamier because it’ll likely be less harsh and irritating on your already fragile skin.

Ingredients: What ingredients you need depends on your skin type. For most people, a good rule of thumb is to pick something that is “both oil-free or noncomedogenic,” which means it won’t clog your pores, says certified physician assistant Alexandra Gold of SmarterSkin Dermatology in New York City. If your skin tends to be dry, you should also look for ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid to lock in as much moisture as possible. They can also be helpful for those using drying ingredients to treat acne. But acne-prone and oily skin benefits most from exfoliating ingredients like “salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or alpha hydroxy acids,” Gold says. Those will remove extra oil, debris, and dirt buildup, which can cause acne. Sensitive skin types should avoid anything harsh altogether and focus more on “calming ingredients such as aloe, cucumber, or clay,” notes makeup artist Clara Rae.

Best overall face wash

$14

This Cetaphil face wash contains powerful ingredients like glycerin to hydrate, vitamin B5 to protect the skin barrier, and niacinamide to smooth and retain moisture. Dr. Sheel Desai Solomon, a dermatologist at ​Preston Dermatology + Skin Surgery, says the noncomedogenic formula works on every skin type, even sensitive skin, and he recommends it to patients with acne, eczema, and rosacea. It’s nothing fancy, and honestly, it won’t be life-changing, but it’s a simple, soap-free, hypoallergenic, and fragrance-free cleanser that removes dirt, oil, and makeup without stripping the skin or causing irritation. The best part is it’s extremely affordable, allowing you to focus your dollar on other products like moisturizers and serums that have a longer-lasting impact on your skin.

Best overall acne cleanser

Those with acne-prone skin should strongly consider using a cleanser with either salicylic acid, which reduces swelling and inflammation as it unclogs pores, or benzoyl peroxide, an antiseptic that decreases the amount of bacteria on your skin to prevent future breakouts. We deep-dive into all the best options here if you’d like to shop around, but overall, this Neutrogena cleanser with salicylic acid might just be your best bet, according to the dermatologists we consulted. Dr. Alicia Zalka, a dermatologist at Dermatology Associates of Western Connecticut, has recommended it to patients for 20-plus years, saying the salicylic acid helps break up the matrix of oil and dead skin cells that plugs pores. But because the concentration of salicylic acid is only 2 percent, the wash is gentle enough for sensitive skin while still being able to tame serious breakouts. The gel texture also makes it particularly good for treating oily skin without drying it out.

Best face washes for dry skin

$12

For acne-prone dry skin, Curology physician’s assistant Nicole Hangsterfer recommends Derma E’s gel wash because it uses hyaluronic acid, chamomile, and vitamins A and E to moisturize and cleanse. Note that Derma’s formula does not have any actives, so Strategist writer Tembe Denton-Hurst says to look to spot treatments with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide if you need stronger solutions for stubborn zits.

Dermatologists seemed to like CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser and this La Roche-Posay pick equally for dry skin. The CeraVe face wash has hyaluronic acid, which the La Roche-Posay cleanser doesn’t include. But in our expert opinion, the La Roche-Posay might actually be a little bit better because you get an ounce more product for the same price, and it has more actives than the CeraVe, including ceramides, glycerin, and niacinamide. It also features the brand’s famed thermal spring water, which hydrates and soothes irritated, dry skin thanks to its antioxidant properties. Ami Dalal, a certified physician assistant with Schweiger Dermatology Group, specifically calls out the glycerin within the formula, because it’s “a wonderful ingredient that helps hydrate your skin without the overproduction of oil.”

Best face washes for oily skin

CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser
From $15
From $15

Certified dermatopathologist Dr. Gretchen Frieling says she loves CeraVe’s noncomedogenic foaming facial cleanser for oily types because the formula’s three essential ceramides “cleanse the skin without stripping it in the process.” Frieling says they also help restore your face’s protective barrier to make it more resilient against future damage and signs of aging. Dr. Michelle Park of Washington Square Dermatology is also a fan of CeraVe’s formula, as she says a foaming wash is better than creams at removing dirt, oil, and makeup.

PanOxyl’s active ingredient is benzoyl peroxide, which New York City–based dermatologist Dr. Amy Wechsler says both kills acne-causing bacteria and helps control oil. Strategist beauty writer Rio Viera-Newton says it has “amazing acne-fighting properties,” and the cleanser “is an all-star product in my skin-care arsenal — it’s something I will always, and I mean always, have next to my sink in case I break out.” Though the formula’s 10 percent concentration of benzoyl peroxide is high compared to other brands, Viera-Newton says because it’s a face wash (rather than a serum), it’s only on your skin temporarily, which reduces the possibility of flakiness or dryness. “I use it once a week as maintenance to keep acne away, and whenever a few unsuspecting pimples sprout up during my time of the month, I increase my usage every night until the swelling goes down,” she says.

Much like a foaming face wash, a gel one will work best for those with oily or acne-prone skin because it can cut through excess oil on the skin’s surface (and inside pores). But the downside of gel face washes is that many can be too drying, causing more harm than good. Dr. Corey L. Hartman, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, and Dr. Hope Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Dermatology in Perrysburg, Ohio, say this face wash is an exception. It’s formulated with organic antioxidants like kale, spinach, and green tea, which Mitchell says “boost moisture in the skin, provide anti-inflammatory protection,” and won’t “leave the skin dry or tight.”

If you like the texture of gel cleansers like the Youth to the People option above but prefer something that exfoliates, two of our experts recommend this gentle cleanser from iS Clinical. “It works for all skin types and is sulfate- and phthalate-free,” says Dr. Jessie Cheung of Cheung Aesthetics and Wellness, noting that the willow bark in the formula (a form of salicylic acid) “helps break up oils, exfoliate skin, and tighten pores.” The inclusion of salicylic acid also makes this excellent for acne-prone skin because it will deep-clean your pores while reducing inflammation. On top of that, the antioxidants in the formula protect the skin from environmental stressors while also brightening.

Best face washes for combination skin

Cleansing combination skin can be like dancing a waltz: You have very specific steps you need to take, but one wrong move and the delicate balance of the routine can be thrown off. You have to take into account having both dry and oily skin, which can be tough, but that’s what makes this CeraVe cleanser so good. Mitchell says it’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario for combination skin. It transforms from a cream to a foam, giving dry areas the creamy, hydrating nourishment they need, while the foam removes excess oil “without leaving [the skin] feeling tight or dry,” Mitchell adds. The cleanser also contains essential ingredients like “ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and amino acids that help maintain the skin’s natural barrier and lock in moisture.”

For half the price of CeraVe’s cleanser, Ambi’s lightweight, exfoliating face wash is also recommended by Mitchell for combination types. It contains salicylic acid and jojoba microbeads — which Mitchell says safely exfoliate, remove oil, and prevent breakouts — and natural ingredients like oat and sea whip for hydration.

This Neutrogena cleanser is oil- and soap-free, which means it’s easy on sensitive combination skin. It comes recommended by Dr. Oma Agbai, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UC Davis, who says the lightweight cleanser’s “foaming action can remove oil and residue without overdrying.” Because the non-stripping formula is dye-free, hypoallergenic, and noncomedogenic, the brand says it works for most skin types.

And if you’re dealing with extremely oily and dry spots, this gel-based Neutrogena cleanser with polyhydroxy acid (PHA) is specifically formulated for combination skin. Dr. Caroline Robinson, the founder of Tone Dermatology, says combination skin responds exceptionally well to PHA because as both an exfoliant and a humectant, it helps balance skin by unclogging pores while evening texture and tone.

Best face washes for sensitive skin

Arguably, those with sensitive skin have it the hardest. Because your skin can react adversely to specific ingredients, it’s important to read labels and exclude any cleansers that are too harsh. A good place to start is this Fresh soy cleanser recommended by makeup artist Sofiia Strykova, who says it’s “perfect for extra-sensitive skin.” It gently cleanses while also leaving your skin “toned and brightened.” It has a gel texture, which typically we’d say is too harsh for sensitive skin, but this one is lightweight and feels cool and soothing. I credit that sensation to the combination of soy proteins, which keeps skin soft thanks to its high concentration of amino acids, and the cucumber extract and rose water, which hydrate and calm.

For something a little less expensive, Dr. Karan Lal, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology, recommends this cleanser from Aveeno that contains an “oat complex” and is made with essentially three types of oat: oat oil that conditions the skin, oat extract that soothes the skin, then oat flour that moisturizes. It’s formulated without alcohol, fragrance, sulfates, and phthalates, so you don’t have to worry about any of these ingredients irritating your skin.

If you struggle with acne, dermatologist Dr. Sonia Batra, co-host of the talk show The Doctors, recommends EltaMD’s pH-balanced cleanser (the brand also makes our best overall sunscreen). The formula has bromelain (an enzyme found in pineapple) to reduce inflammation caused by acne, plus apple amino acids for hydration. It’s sulfate-, oil-, phthalate-, and paraben-free, and it doesn’t contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, which may irritate sensitive skin when used as an all-over face wash. In contrast, with this gentle formula, you’ll avoid the tight, stripped skin and redness that can sometimes be caused by stronger cleansers, Tembe Denton-Hurst says.

Best face washes for hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation is a skin reaction that can be triggered by inflammation of any kind and leaves challenging-to-get-rid-of dark marks behind. While serums and retinols can be effective, a good cleanser is just as important. This one in particular, Hartman says, will complement “any skin-care regimen aimed at treating hyperpigmentation” and, in conjunction with a spot treatment, can also help even skin tone in the process. Hartman says it cleanses thoroughly enough to remove any impurities but has a gentle formula that won’t irritate — only refresh — skin. That’s because the main ingredient is glycerin, which improves overall skin health by increasing hydration, minimizing water loss, and protecting against irritation, Viera-Newton says.

Denton-Hurst says the main ingredient in SkinCeuticals’ Purifying Cleanser is glycolic acid, which provides gentle exfoliation to encourage cell turnover and lessens scarring and hyperpigmentation. And to prevent drying, the formula also contains glycerin, an “unsung skin-care hero” that Viera-Newton says retains water and provides moisture. According to the brand, the face wash is fragrance-, paraben-, and sulfate-free, so it’s gentle on sensitive skin and suitable for dry, normal, oily, or combination types.

Best cleansing oil

Oil attracts oil without stripping the skin and is “actually perfect for dissolving waterproof makeup and getting deep into pores to remove sebum,” Cheung says. This organic Pai formula contains a mix of rose-hip, olive, and sunflower oils, which are gentle yet effective ingredients for lightly cleansing, former Strategist writer Chole Anello says. Best of all, she says it works for every skin type.

Some more face washes we’ve written about

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All the Best Face Washes We’ve Ever Written About