The Best Facial Cleanser

Makeup doesn't stand a chance

Our Picks for Best Facial Cleanser

The cruel fact of skin care? It’s got to be done when doing it is the last thing on your mind: right after getting out of bed or right before getting back in. Unfortunately, a quick splash of water does nothing to remove makeup, dirt, or grease — that would be like walking in the rain to shampoo your hair — and the delicate skin on our cheeks betrays how often we skip washing it. Does it really have to be so hard? We talked to dermatologists and aestheticians about what should (and shouldn’t) touch our skin, and while they didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye, they did help us find the best facial cleanser. Our favorite, Cellex-C Betaplex Gentle Foaming Cleanser, made our faces feel so fresh (and is so packed with great ingredients) that we’re already looking forward to our next wash.

A face cleanser’s job is literally cleaning your skin. It uses a mix of surfactants, humectants, and exfoliants to remove makeup, oil, sweat, and even bacteria and pollution — and the best ones do it without irritating your skin or stripping it of its natural oils.

Our Picks for the Best Facial Cleanser

Best Overall (With Sodium Laureth Sulfate)

Cellex-C Betaplex Gentle Foaming Cleanser An easy winnner for its mild ingredients, uncomplicated components, and superior cleansing capabilities.

We love Cellex-C’s Betaplex Gentle Foaming Wash for its mild ingredients, uncomplicated components, and superior cleansing capabilities. Aloe, lactic acid, and bisabolol are some of the gentle goodies in this gel. It does include sodium laureth sulfate, which most agree is mild enough for everyday use, though those wary of any sulfates might be turned off.

Cellex-C gets extra points for having a mere 12 ingredients, which is nothing compared to the 25+ found in the Aveeno and Kiehl’s products we tested. It passed the makeup remover test with flying colors without having to scrub too vigorously.

After following the instructions (which whimsically instructed us to “whisk” a thumbnail-sized amount of product in our palms), our faces were completely rejuvenated. Dry patches of winter skin were suddenly smooth and moisturized, and it felt like our faces were rid of any impurities. Our skin wasn’t at all stiff after lathering it on, and good thing too: We couldn’t help but smile.

Best Overall (Without Sodium Laureth Sulfate)

Skyn ICELAND Pure Cloud Cleanser Its ability to remove every stitch of makeup cemented it as a winner.

Skyn won over our hearts by including a white muslin washcloth in its packaging (to help increase circulation, the company says), but the cleanser’s ability to remove every stitch of makeup cemented it as a winner. Our skin felt nice using it, albeit not remarkably so — but after three nights in a row, we were converts and seriously contemplated moving to Reykjavik.

Our faces felt exceptionally moisturized, thanks to the soybean oil and cocoa seed butter, and impeccably clean, in part due to antioxidants like thyme leaf extract and meadowfoam seed oil. The star ingredients, though, are arctic cloudberries and arctic cranberries. The berries are packed with skin-brightening vitamin C and are superb antioxidants. While cautious shoppers might not pursue this option (there aren’t many studies done on the cloudberry’s effectiveness in cosmetics), it could do us good to trust the skincare science of Scandinavians.

Best Drugstore Face Wash

CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser Most of our experts mentioned this drugstore staple by name; ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin take dirt off and keep moisture in.

Most of our experts mentioned this face wash by name, and that’s no surprise: Formulated with humectants like ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin, this drugstore staple takes dirt off and keeps moisture in. The cream has a very faint, innocuous smell to it — not too flowery or too medicinal — and it’s thin and glides on. The first word that came to mind once we toweled off was fresh. Our skin felt elastic, smooth, and undeniably clean.

CeraVe took off all the makeup in our hand test except for the mascara, which would have disqualified it except that small patch of skin felt so amazing we couldn’t stop ourselves from going all in. The downside: Anyone freaked by parabens will find two on this ingredients label.

Best Exfoliator

Kate Somerville Exfolikate Cleanser Daily Foaming Wash The sleek, simple design of the tube caught our eye initially, and it didn’t disappoint in our testing.

It was the sleek, simple design of this tube that caught our eye initially, but the Exfolikate Cleanser didn’t disappoint in our testing. Makeup was rendered nonexistent and the wash was equally effective on our faces: Two AHAs and anti-inflammatory ingredients (enzymes from pumpkins, pineapples, and papayas) exfoliated our skin without leaving it raw.

Our skin didn’t feel dry or too tight after we applied the pleasant-smelling wash, but instead was flexible and hydrated. Label-scanners might pause at sodium hydroxide (known better as lye), but it’s low on the ingredient list and an abundance of soothing agents should compensate for any drying or irritation it would cause.

The results of our effectiveness test against mascara, makeup, and oil. 1 Untreated, 2 Kiehl’s, 3 Urth, 4 Natural Escape, 5 Astara, 6 Koh Gen Do, 7 Aesop, 8 Juice Beauty, 9 Burt’s Bees, 10 Yes to Cucumbers, 11 Aveeno, 12 Cellex-C Foaming Cleanser, 13 Kate Somerville, 14 Skyn ICELAND, 15 CeraVe, 16 Neutrogena, 17 Cetaphil, 18 Philosophy, 19 Cellex-C Cleansing Milk.

Our Other Top Contenders

Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser

Our runner-up for best drugstore face wash! This one is a go-to recommendation from dermatologists and with good reason: It’s gentle enough for sensitive skin, does a bang-up job removing makeup, left our faces soft and smooth, and can be bought literally everywhere.

Juice Beauty Exfoliating Cleanser

A close contender for best exfoliator. Jam-packed with juices, humectants, and jojoba beads, this exfoliating cleanser soothed a face that had spent 24 winter hours next to a radiator — but didn’t do quite as good a job removing makeup.

Philosophy The Microdelivery Exfoliating Facial Wash

While it took all the makeup off the backs of our hands and left our faces feeling super smooth, this wash has exfoliants that teeter on too harsh. Overeager scrubbers: Proceed with caution.

Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Daily Cleanser

This new product replaced Neutrogena’s cult-favorite, discontinued Extra Gentle Cleanser. While it was probably the most effective at taking off makeup in one fell swoop, its dish-soapy texture, chemical scent, and the dry, tight feeling it left in its wake took this one down a few notches.

Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cleanser

We had high hopes for this one — Kiehl’s is a big name in the beauty industry and the ingredient list has everything we’re looking for — but it hardly removed our makeup and the gel was heavy and sticky.

Yes to Cucumbers Gentle Milk Cleanser

This gentle product, made with soy protein, glycerin, and decyl glucoside, smelled incredible and made our skin feel instantly hydrated. If it had taken off just a bit more makeup, it would’ve been a top contender.

Astara Skin Care Botanical Cleansing Gel

This gel smelled fresh and citrusy, and made our faces feel clean but not in a great way — our cheeks felt tight after we rinsed off, and drier than when we’d started. Minus a few points, too, for how little makeup it took off — it left most of the mascara and a smudge of foundation.

Burt’s Bees Orange Essence Facial Cleanser

This cleanser’s all-natural, expert-approved ingredient list and delicious citrus smell is impressive. The slightly oily, orange essence residue it left on our faces, however, moves it down to our “eh” list.

Aveeno Ultra Calming Foaming Cleanser

The Aveeno wash left most of the makeup on our hands, but it felt mild on the face and went on easily. Not bad, but not special. It’s feverfew extract (an anti-inflammatory in the same family as chamomile and bisabolol) and fragrance-free formula mean it’s worth trying if you have sensitive, inflamed, or ruddy skin.

Urth Face Wash with White Tea & Ginseng

Great smelling and gentle, this cleanser also was the worst at taking off makeup. It’s marketed toward men, so perhaps it’s missing a key solvent that helps take off makeup — but we’re not sold on gendered products. Next!

Koh Gen Do Oriental Plants Facial Wash

This cream went on thick like a mask, which made us feel like we were really getting to work on our skin. Our faces felt refreshed enough after using it, but the 36 botanical extracts and stunning packaging built it up a little too much and we were left underwhelmed.

Aesop Parsley Seed Facial Cleanser

This mild gel exfoliates with lactic acid and contains lavender and jojoba seed oil, and left us invigorated. The smell is herby and the product design is elegant, but it ultimately was too soapy for our liking; it went from a luxurious experience to a mildly unpleasant one fairly quickly.

Natural Escapes Detoxifying Facial Cleanser

This detoxifying cleanser lived up to its name — our fresh faces looked noticeably brighter and it gave us an undeniably clean feeling. This gel’s ingredients were pretty unique among our contenders, too: activated charcoal to absorb toxins; soothing willow bark and tamanu oil; plus the glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and decyl glucoside our experts recommend. It took off next to no mascara and foundation, though, making this a good option to pair with a designated makeup remover.

Find your favorite out of all our finalists.

Viewing 12 of 248

BrandProductPriceBuy Now
Peter Thomas Roth24K Gold Pure Luxury Cleansing Butter$55
Decleor3 in 1 Hydra Radiance Smoothing, Cleansing Mousse$25
RudolphAcai Cleansing Milk$44
red floweractive organic milk forest purifier$36
Ole HenriksenAfrican Red Tea Foaming Cleanser$30
SkinAgainAHA Exfoliating Cleanser$20
MuradAHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser$36
AnthonyAlgae Facial Cleanser$36
WeledaAlmond Soothing Cleansing Lotion$20
Tracie MartynAmla Purifying Cleanser$65
Bliss The Youth As We Know Itanti aging cleanser$30
H2O PlusAqualibrium Marine Cleansing Gel$18
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Did You Know?

Lots of ingredients have a bad rap — some might not deserve it.

Parabens. Parabens are preservatives meant to extend the shelf life of face washes and cosmetics by stopping the growth of microorganisms, keeping them out of your product and therefore off your face. These guys have been getting a lot of bad press; in 2004, a study was released regarding the presence of parabens in breast tumors. The research was inconclusive though, and the FDA has since deemed parabens safe for use. It does advise avoiding products that are more than 25 percent parabens (not difficult — most face cleansers’ paraben levels are less than 1 percent), but for those who want to avoid them altogether, there are a ton of paraben-free options.

Sulfates. Sulfates are surfactants — what puts the clean in cleanser — and were developed to replace soaps made from fat and alkali. According to Robert Ross-Fichtner, president and CEO of Focal Point Research, sulfates “are widely misunderstood and are often maligned for no good reason.” Dr. Heather D. Rogers, co-founder of Modern Dermatology in Seattle, is also pro-sulfate, acknowledging that while some, like sodium lauryl sulfate, might be irritating to the skin if left on too long, sodium laureth sulfate cleans well and won’t cause irritation.

"Your face wash is only on your skin for a short period of time. Its role is to take off the dirt, grime, and makeup of the day without irritation so your skin is clean and able to absorb as much of the active ingredients in your other skincare products as it can."

Alcohols. The ones people mean when they say to avoid alcohol in your face wash are simple alcohols — ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, alcohol denat. (denatured) — which are just like the alcohol that’s in vodka and that serve as the base for hair spray. They’re irritating to the skin for exactly the same reason they make great hair spray: They evaporate crazy fast. When they hit your skin, they obliterate the natural oils, then evaporate, carrying precious moisture with it. The Center for Disease Control found that frequently using alcohol-based products can cause dry skin. That impact is reduced if the formula includes emollients, humectants, or other skin-conditioning agents (which most face washes do), but the general opinion is why work to counteract the effects of something when you can just avoid them altogether? Fatty alcohols on the other hand — anything called cetyl, cetearyl, or behenyl — are derived from oils, and they are actually moisturizing. Just another misunderstood healthy fat.

Fragrance. The short answer: If you have sensitive skin, avoid face wash with fragrance listed in the ingredients. The longer answer: Fragrance is a blanket name for whatever proprietary concoction a brand formulates to scent its products. It doesn’t have to list out what’s inside as long as they can prove everything is safe to use if the instructions are followed. Dr. Peter Lio, a dermatologist and partner at Medical Dermatology Associates of Chicago, recommends to just avoid it: “It can be fine in certain situations, but I don’t think it’s good for a daily face wash for normal skin.”

Your face wash is only as good as the rest of your skin routine.

Ultimately, no matter how promising its ingredient list, your face wash can only do so much. Benjamin says the tools you use and your approach to the cleansing process are equally as important as the product you use. She recommends starting with a dedicated makeup remover, followed by a facial cleanser, and exfoliating with a weekly peel to slough off dead cells and reveal brighter, clearer skin.

And that skin care routine should include exfoliation.

An exfoliant can be chemical (think alpha hydroxyl acids) or physical (like a sugar scrub), but no matter what, it’s a pivotal partner in bright, smooth skin. Since exfoliators remove dead skin — a culprit of clogged skin — it’s a good idea to choose a wash with an exfoliating element.

It was tough to find a consensus on how often we should use exfoliating washes, though. While many of our contenders marked for daily use contain chemical exfoliants, Dr. Rogers advises having two separate face washes: “one for daily use and another to use once or twice a week that has a chemical exfoliant like glycolic acid for dry skin or salicylic acid for oily skin.”

One thing all our experts agreed on was the preference for chemical exfoliants over physical ones, whose rough edges can be too hard for delicate skin.

The Bottom Line

Cellex-C Betaplex Gentle Foaming Cleanser has it all: soothing agents, chemical exfoliants, and moisturizers galore. It got the job done and had our skin feeling like it should: tough but not rough, soft but not stripped, and radiantly healthy.

Take Action

Identify your own key ingredients. Do you wear a lot of makeup; go to the gym every day; or work as a chimney sweep, drag queen, or circus clown? You’ll want something with a strong surfactant to take everything off. Are you usually makeup-free with sensitive skin? Look for something especially mild with plenty of humectants.

Don’t change your entire routine at once. Flipping your skincare world upside-down all at once can cause a skin freak out. Not only that, but it’ll be impossible to determine which new product is guilty. Start new products one at a time, and introduce them gradually. Use them a few times a week until you’re sure your skin has a positive reaction.

Look at the bigger picture. Choosing a face wash might not seem like a political statement, but activists and concerned consumers recently took a stand against microbeads (those teeny plastic pellets suspended in cleansers for exfoliating purposes) because they never biodegrade. At the end of 2015, President Barack Obama banned the environmentally harmful ingredient. Other less-than-green ingredients are still used in face wash, particularly petroleum derivatives like petroleum jelly, paraffin, and mineral oil (which we cut for being a pore clogger). A byproduct of oil, these guys can have some questionable political, economic, and environmental implications. There’s no shortage of facial cleansers out there — you can definitely find one that fits your needs and your ethics.