The Best Facial Cleanser
Makeup doesn't stand a chance
The best facial cleanser should make quick work of makeup, dirt, and grease — all while being gentle to your skin. We consulted with skincare experts, scoured ingredient lists, and came away with a list of top-ranked cleansers. Then, we caked on the mascara, foundation, and other products to put our finalists to the test.
An easy winner for its mild ingredients, uncomplicated components, and superior cleansing capabilities. Its modest list of ingredients left our skin feeling fresh.
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.
The 4 Overall Best Facial Cleansers
How We Found the Best Facial Cleanser
To find the best face wash, we chatted with five skincare experts, dug deep into the ingredients lists of over 300 bestselling face washes, and then put the top contenders to the test.
We skipped over any cleanser meant to treat specific skin conditions, like acne or excessively oily skin.
The ingredients that make a cleanser effective for specific skin conditions also make them tough on normal skin — like using a leaf blower to move a blade of grass.
100% Pure Seafoam Facial Cleanser, Aesop Amazing Face Cleanser, Basis Cleaner Clean Face Wash, Bioré Complexion Clearing Warming Anti-Blackhead Cleanser, Boots Botanics Shine Away Cleansing Mousse, Chantecaille Rice and Geranium Foaming Cleanser, DDF Glycolic 5% Exfoliating Wash , Dermadoctor Ain’t Misbehavin’ Medicated AHA/BHA Acne Cleanser, Dermalogica Clearing Skin Wash, Dermalogica Dermal Clay Cleanser, Dr. Brandt Pores No More Cleanser, Elizabeth Arden Visible Difference Oil Free Cleanser, Exuviance Moisturizing Antibacterial Facial Cleanser, Formula 10.0.6 So Totally Clean Deep Pore Cleanser, Formula 10.0.6 Three Times Sublime, john masters organics Bearberry Oily Skin Balancing Face Wash, Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Cleanser, Juice Beauty Cleansing Gel, Lancer The Method: Cleanse Blemish Control, Mario Badescu Acne Facial Cleanser, Mario Badescu Botanical Facial Gel, md formulations Facial Cleansing Gel, Murad Acne Complex Clarifying Cleanser, Murad Anti-Aging Acne Time Release Acne Cleanser, NARSskin Purifying Foam Cleanser, Olay 4-In-1 Daily Facial Cloths, Olay Foaming Face Wash, Perricone MD Citrus Facial Wash, Peter Thomas Roth Anti-Aging Cleansing Gel, Peter Thomas Roth Beta Hydroxy Acid 2% Acne Wash, Phytomer Oligopur Purifying Cleansing Gel, Prescriptives All Clean Sparkling Gel Cleanser For Oilier Skin, Shiseido Pureness Deep Cleansing Foam, Skyn Iceland Glacial Face Wash, The Body Shop Tea Tree Cleansing Wipes, The Body Shop Tea Tree Skin Clearing Facial Wash
We removed anything with harsh, oil-stripping ingredients.
It might sound counter-productive (or downright scary if you’re prone to breakouts), but your face needs oil. And everyone’s got some oil on their face — in fact, there’s a critical film on your skin called the acid mantle that helps produce oil. That oil is your all-over bodyguard: It works as a natural antibacterial and keeps your skin’s pH in check.
This acid mantle is, not surprisingly, slightly acidic (a 5.5 out of 14 on the pH scale), so using cleansers with high pH levels knocks your acid mantle out of whack. When the acid mantle isn’t working well, the skin’s natural antibacterial layer is compromised. The result? Your skin is more likely to break out, or have issues like inflammation and redness. We put any ingredients that threatened the acid mantle, including simple alcohols and three of the Big Four sulfates (sodium lauryl, aluminum lauryl, and aluminum laureth), on the chopping block.
“Products without sulfates are typically better and milder than those that have them — although products that include both sulfates and moisturizing ingredients to counteract their drying properties shouldn’t be discounted.”
And what about number four? Sodium laureth is the one sulfate most experts agree is totally okay to include in facial cleansers. It’s notorious sibling, sodium lauryl sulfate, can be particularly drying, but sodium laureth sulfate has a different chemical structure and milder effect that still produces that soapy lather associated with feeling clean. (Don’t worry though — we made sure to include top picks both with and without sulfates.)
Aesop Fabulous Face Cleanser, AHAVA Time To Clear Refreshing Cleansing Gel, Aveda Outer Peace Foaming Cleanser, Boots Botanics Softening Cleanser, Borghese Esfoliante Delicato Gentle Cleanser and Exfoliant, Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleansing Cloths, DDF Brightening Cleanser. Dr. Jart+ Dermaclear Trans-Foam Clay in Calming White, Dr. Jart+ Dermaclear™ Trans-Foam Clay in Moisturizing Pink, Dr. Jart+ Dermaclear™ Trans-Foam Clay in Refreshing Green, Foreo Awakening Radiance Yogurt Day Cleanser, Fresh Skin Apricot Fresh Skin Apricot, Glytone Daily Facial Cleanser, Jan Marini Skin Research Bioglycolic Face Cleanser, Jurlique Purely Bright Cleanser, Laura Mercier ‘Flawless Skin’ Oil-Free Foaming One-Step Cleanser, NARS Skin Gentle Cream Cleanser, Neutrogena One Step Gentle Cleanser, Olay Total Effects Nourishing Cream Cleanser, SK-II Facial Treatment Cleansing Oil, Somme Institute Nourishing Cleanser, Sothys Paris Desquacrem Deep Pore Cleanser, St. Ives Blemish Control Green Tea Gel Cleanser
We nixed any contenders with controversial ingredients.
“Controversial” is a loaded word, fueled by a lot of consumer fear and a dearth of hard facts. For this review, we looked for ingredients that can be skin irritating at best and cancer-causing at worst — plus avoided any whose side effects are still undetermined or misunderstood. These included formaldehyde releasers like diazolidinyl urea and quaternium-15, pore-clogging fillers like mineral oil, and antibacterial agents like triclosan. We didn’t cut any cleansers for having parabens, since the concentration in face wash is well below the FDA’s recommendation. But there are plenty of options available if you’re not keen on them.
Avene Mattifying Fluid, Bliss Clog Dissolving Cleansing Milk, Elemis Balancing Lime Blossom Cleanser, Erno Laszlo Phelityl Pre-Cleansing Oil, Eve Lom Cleanser, Le Mieux Peptide Foam Cleanser, Mario Badescu Orange Cleansing Soap, Olay Age Defying Wet Cleansing Cloths, Osmotics Cosmeceuticals Calming Cleansing Milk, pHisoderm pH Anti-Blemish Gel Facial Wash, Alpha Hydrox Foaming Face Wash, Paula’s Choice CLEAR Pore Normalizing Cleanser, Trish McEvoy Gentle Cleansing Wash, Wei East China Herbal Age Delay Foaming Cleanser
We were left with nearly 250 gels, creams, oils, bars and foams — all with ingredients we loved.
To help us pick out the best, we turned to two experts — a dermatologist and a top esthetician — to weigh in on what ingredients to seek out, and then polled two more dermatologists on their go-to recommendations that we could put to the test.
Dr. Debra Jaliman, and author of Skin Rules, recommends:
- Ceramides: A group of lipids that retains water.
- Bisabolol: A derivative of chamomile that helps soothe skin.
- Decyl glucoside: A cleanser that’s so gentle it’s often used on babies.
- Hyaluronic acid and glycerin: Two humectants that bring on the moisture.
- Aloe: An all-natural antibacterial that pulls double-duty as an anti-inflammatory.
- Allantoin: A hydrating anti-inflammatory.
- Glycerin and panthenol: A double-dose of hydrators.
- Jojoba oil: An inexpensive, accessible surfactant. Benjamin loves using it to remove makeup before cleansing, since most face washes have a hard time removing everything. She recommends it as a standalone makeup remover, but it also boosts the makeup-removing power of face wash when it’s in the mix, and it’s good for all skin types because it doesn’t clog pores.
- Lactic and glycolic acid: Exfoliating and moisturizing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). They’re less irritating than physical exfoliators like sugars and salts for daily use. Benjamin also recommends citric acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid for the same reasons.
- Rose hip (seed) oil: An anti-inflammatory that combats signs of aging.
- Vitamin E and shea butter: Two different ways to soothe and moisturize.
Meanwhile, Kerry Benjamin, aesthetician and founder of Stacked Skincare, offered the following suggestions:
We scoured our list of approved products for these powerhouse ingredients and combined any that had two or more with our experts’ personal product recommendation. We wound up with 17.
To test how well each dissolved makeup, we streaked the backs of our hands with waterproof mascara, eye shadow, long-lasting foundation, and baby oil; wet our skin with lukewarm water; and massaged a dime-size amount of cleanser for 15 seconds directly on the “dirt.” Then, we washed our bare faces the same way. The best face wash was the one that decimated the makeup and oil, but still left our faces feeling fresh and elastic.
Our Picks for the Best Facial Cleanser
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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|Peter Thomas Roth||24K Gold Pure Luxury Cleansing Butter||$55||See Prices|
|Decleor||3 in 1 Hydra Radiance Smoothing, Cleansing Mousse||$25||See Prices|
|Rudolph||Acai Cleansing Milk||$44||See Prices|
|red flower||active organic milk forest purifier||$36||See Prices|
|Ole Henriksen||African Red Tea Foaming Cleanser||$30||See Prices|
|SkinAgain||AHA Exfoliating Cleanser||$20||See Prices|
|Murad||AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser||$36||See Prices|
|Anthony||Algae Facial Cleanser||$36||See Prices|
|Weleda||Almond Soothing Cleansing Lotion||$20||See Prices|
|Tracie Martyn||Amla Purifying Cleanser||$65||See Prices|
|Bliss The Youth As We Know It||anti aging cleanser||$30||See Prices|
|H2O Plus||Aqualibrium Marine Cleansing Gel||$18||See Prices|
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.
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.