Editor's Note
  • March 30, 2018 - To stay current, we've refreshed our review, testing a new list of 2018's most popular cleansers, taking a closer look at ingredients based on current expert input, and landing on three new top picks.

The Best Face Wash

The best face wash gets rid of makeup and oil without stripping your skin of so much moisture that it becomes irritated. Finding the perfect formula depends partly on avoiding ingredients that are too harsh for your face, like sodium laureth sulfate or simple alcohols — and partly on your skin type. If your face tends to feel oily at the end of the day, you’ll have different needs than someone whose skin tends toward dryness. After talking to dermatologists, cosmetic formulators, and physicians about what to seek out and what to avoid, we found three outstanding cleansers for dry, oily, and combination skin.

If you're always battling flaky skin, or if you live in a dry climate, you need a gentle cleanser that pulls double-duty by moisturizing while it cleans. CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser does just that. Its foamless cream cleans effectively and didn’t leave a trace of makeup behind for our testers. And since dry skin tends to be sensitive to harsh ingredients, we appreciate that CeraVe’s formula doesn’t contain anything known to cause adverse skin reactions. You can find CeraVe at drugstores for just over a dollar per ounce.

On the other end of the spectrum, oily skin (and skin in humid climates) benefits from foaming cleansers that are weighted toward cleaning more than moisturizing. Drunk Elephant Beste No. 9 Jelly Cleanser delivers, ridding skin of excess oil without over drying. Testers loved its gel-like texture, which turns bubbly foam after lathering. Like CeraVe, it’s scentless and doesn’t contain any ingredients known to cause irritation or sensitivity. It is a little pricier, at about seven dollars per ounce.

If you land between oily and dry (or just aren’t sure what skin type you have), feel free to experiment with either of the above. You can also opt for the Goldilocks balance offered by First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser. Testers liked its thick, creamy texture that frothed just enough to feel like it was up to something, and didn’t strip the skin of too much moisture. It’s also middle-of-the-road in terms of price, at about $3.50 per ounce.

Our Picks for the Best Face Wash

Best for
Dry Skin
CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser
Gently cleanses with an unrivaled line-up of moisturizing ingredients.

Over and over again, experts told us that dry skin needs a non-foaming, hydrating cleanser. CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser fits the bill. Its ingredient deck is stacked with moisturizers, and it left testers’ skin clean and totally makeup-free. If you’ve got naturally dry skin or live in a dry climate, we’d start here.

Water and glycerin occupy the first two spots on CeraVe’s ingredient list. Glycerin is the “gold standard,” according to a report by Duke University: a moisturizer that’s been tested again and again and been found almost entirely hypoallergenic. The “Cer” in CeraVe references the blend of ceramides (lipids, or oils) used in the brand’s products — ceramides mimic our skin’s natural system of staying hydrated and are another effective moisturizer (in addition to being a powerful anti-aging ingredient, as Paula Begoun of Paula’s Choice explains).

These gentle ingredients affect CeraVe’s texture: It pumps out as an opaque gel, and quickly melts into a transparent oil with no foam to speak of. (If the thought of anything oily near your face makes you shudder, skip ahead to our “oily skin” pick.)

CeraVe has no noticeable lather.

Not all of our testers were on board with this texture. Because there’s no foam or bubbles to shove around, it’s harder to tell when you’ve washed every nook and cranny of your face, and testers tended to use more product than normal in pursuit of satisfying coverage.

Don’t skip the moisturizer!No matter how gentle your face wash is, it still removes oil. Make sure to use a face moisturizer afterward, especially if you’re prone to dry skin. You can read about our favorites.

But for being so gentle, we were surprised to find that it removed all of our makeup. Most other foamless cleansers, like Tammy Fender Cleansing Milk and Eve Lom Cleanser, fell to CeraVe because they left faint raccoon eyes behind. Even testers who weren’t totally sold on CeraVe’s texture admitted they’d continue using it: It’s a superbly gentle cleanser that still cleans.

You won’t find any extras beyond gentle surfactants and moisturizing ingredients. CeraVe is not an exciting face wash, but that’s great news for anyone with sensitive skin. Most of the experts we spoke with were firm that the fewer ingredients, the better. It’s also the least expensive of our top picks: Just over a dollar per ounce and widely available online and in drugstores.

Best for
Oily Skin
Drunk Elephant Beste No. 9 Jelly Cleanser
Drunk Elephant
Excess oil washes down the drain with this bubbly gel.

Drunk Elephant Beste No. 9 Jelly Cleanser relies on glycerin as a moisturizer, like CeraVe, but it’s got more cleansing power — just what oily skin craves. It bubbles up nicely, washes off cleanly, and doesn’t leave any residue or makeup in its wake. It’s unscented (we’re still baffled about why the tube proclaims “cantaloupe”), but it’s more fun to use than CeraVe thanks to its texture. Drunk Elephant contains many (mild) surfactants, which result in a satisfyingly foamy experience that’s a better fit for getting rid of excess oil. (Although dry-skinned testers found the end result too squeaky-clean.)

At first, applying Drunk Elephant feels a bit like applying aloe vera. It’s got a thick, gel-like texture that we found downright soothing when coupled with room-temperature water. As you lather, the gel produces a satisfying layer of bubbles, reminiscent of a bubble bath — not quite a foam — that’s successful at whisking away makeup.

Drunk Elephant has more surfactants than CeraVe, and produces lather that's more bubbly.

Other bubbly cleansers weren’t as popular with testers. DNA EGF Renewal is similar: It pumps out in a thick gel, though it produces less foam than Drunk Elephant — but we found it slightly more drying, and we were puzzled by its citrus scent, despite no fragrance components on the ingredient list. We found Renée Rouleau Moisture Protecting Cleanser similarly drying.

We love Drunk Elephant’s philosophy, to use “... only clean ingredients that either directly benefit the skin’s health or support the integrity and effectiveness of … formulations,” and think they’re successful in hitting the mark with their cleanser. Drunk Elephant is about seven dollars per ounce on Amazon or Sephora.

Best for
Combination Skin
First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser
First Aid Beauty
Not sure whether your skin is oily or dry? Here’s an effective, frothy middle ground.

Not everyone’s skin falls neatly into “oily” or “dry.” If you’re not sure what cleanser to buy, First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser walks the line between the two camps. It boasts a straightforward list of gentle surfactants and moisturizers — nothing that’s a red flag for sensitive skin. First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser feels a bit more luxurious than using CerAve. Its scent is still nonexistent, but the pearlescent cream produces a dense lather with fewer big bubbles than Drunk Elephant.

This one nearly got edged out by Vanicream, the ultimate in no-nonsense facial cleansing, but First Aid Beauty’s cleanser ultimately won out for its texture and feel. Vanicream’s sterile, hand soap vibes weren’t a favorite with testers, who were won over by First Aid Beauty’s circus-slash-beachside branding and velvety, luxe texture. Testers with oily and dry skin agreed that this left their skin feeling clean and hydrated. You can find a variety of bottle sizes for about $3.50 per ounce.

First Aid Beauty's foam is more dense than Drunk Elephants, with smaller bubbles.

Others Facial Cleansers to Consider

We admit it was really fun to test facial wash for a month. If you also enjoy variety, and you’re looking for a few additional suggestions (perhaps something with a scent, instead of our scentless top picks), our testers also enjoyed the following:

Another to Consider
Dry Skin
Tammy Fender Cleansing Milk
Tammy Fender
An extremely moisturizing, non-foam wash that goes heavy on essential oils, like lavender and grapefruit.

For dry skin: Tammy Fender Cleansing Milk feels so incredibly gentle that we initially wondered whether it was effective at all (it did leave a few mascara smudges behind). Dreamy additions like lavender water, rose water, and chamomile flower water top its ingredients list, with lavender oil and citrus oil also making an appearance. The cleanser has an herbal lavender scent that left us feelingly utterly pampered.

But again, bear in mind that essential oils like lavender and grapefruit can have a mixed effect on your skin. Lisamarie Garguilo, recipe developer and director of education at Luzern, noted that lavender oil, for instance, smells nice and is “wonderful in skin care formulations,” but that all essential oils can cause sensitization “when used in excess.”

If you’ve never had a problem with scented products, and want an exceptionally gentle face wash, Tammy Fender is a good cleanser to consider (especially paired with a dedicated eye makeup remover). But if you’ve experienced sensitivity to products in the past, you may want to skip this one.

Another to Consider
Oily Skin
Ole Henriksen Find Your Balance Oil Control Cleanser
Ole Henriksen
A mild, minty, herbal scent, plus enough lather to leave oily skin feeling clean.

For oily skin: Ole Henriksen Find Your Balance Oil Control Cleanser smells like mint tea and won our hearts by cleansing well and leaving skin still feeling healthily moisturized. The peppermint oil that gives it such a fresh, crisp scent can be great or not-so-great, depending on your skin. Jeffrey Lewis singled out mint when we talked to him about essential oils, telling us it causes “a tingling sensation on the skin” that can cause irritation for some, but also has the benefit of “speeding up blood flow to the area,” which he says can increase cell-turnover (promoting healthy skin).

Another to Consider
Combination Skin
Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser
Another good option for combination skin, with utilitarian packaging and a drugstore price.

For all skin: Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser isn’t flashy, but we were surprised by how it modestly won us over. It belongs in the same camp as top pick First Aid Beauty and yields similarly well-balanced results. It’s not quite so rich and creamy, though, and pumps out like hand soap. If you want to try it, it’s a drugstore brand with a price tag on-par with CeraVe: Just over a dollar per ounce.

Establishing a Skincare Routine

If you have sensitive skin, patch-test to avoid reactions.

“Sensitive skin” isn’t a medical condition, but people generally use the term if they have a history of adverse skin reactions, like if your skin tends to get itchy or red when you use an unfamiliar or scented product. Our experts recommend everyone, regardless of skin sensitivity, either stick with basic products with the fewest ingredients possible (like any of our three top picks), or test new cleansers out on a small patch of skin before going all in.

If you’re someone who likes to experiment and you have sensitive skin, try asking the staff at Sephora and Ulta if you can take home just a little bit of the product to try before buying a full bottle.

Your cleanser should be just one part of a regimen.

Looking for additional recommendations?Check out our reviews of eye makeup remover, face moisturizer and eye cream.

Ultimately, no matter how promising its ingredient list, your face wash can only do so much. Even using our top pick for dry skin (CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser) in all its hydrating glory requires a moisturizer afterward. Kerry Benjamin, aesthetician and founder of Stacked Skincare, says the tools you use and your approach to the cleansing process are equally as important as the product. She recommends starting with a dedicated makeup remover, followed by a face wash, and exfoliating with a weekly peel to slough off dead cells and reveal brighter, clearer skin.

An exfoliant can be chemical (think alpha hydroxyl acids) or physical (like a sugar scrub), but experts prefer chemical exfoliants over physical ones, whose rough edges can do more harm than good. Since exfoliators remove dead skin — a culprit of clogged skin — it’s a good idea to choose a wash with an exfoliating element.

Don’t change your entire routine at once.If you’re shopping for multiple products, it’s best to work them gradually into your routine. Changing everything at once can cause your skin to freak out — and make it impossible to determine which product is guilty.

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. Heather D. Rogers, (co-founder of Modern Dermatology in Seattle) 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.”

To finish off your routine, look for a moisturizer that works for your skin type, preferences, and environment. Every good moisturizer will have hardworking humectants that attract moisture to your skin (our favorites are glycerin and hyaluronic acid) and an occlusive to keep that moisture in.

Our Face Wash Review, Summed Up: