The Best Face Wash
- 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.
How We Found the Best Face Wash
We compiled a list of popular facial cleansers for all skin types.
We rounded up the top sellers from six popular retailers of personal care products — Walgreens, Amazon, Target, Sephora, Ulta, and Birchbox — sticking with products marketed as “facial cleanser” or “face wash. We skipped products specifically for treating acne or taking off makeup, plus micellar waters, exfoliants, and oils. We also checked out buzzed-about products on “best of” lists from beauty powerhouses Birchbox and ELLE — adding 16 cleansers that garnered high praise from beauty editors.
We ended up with a list of 37 cleansers, ranging from Dove's simple soap bars, available in bulk for less than a dollar per ounce, to Eve Lom's luxurious $80 jars of cleansing paste.
Then we cut harsh surfactants, simple alcohols, and fragrance — ingredients that dry and irritate skin.
We consulted 12 dermatologists, a cosmetic chemist, a product developer, and the director of education at skincare brand Luzern to find out what should (and shouldn’t) show up in the ingredient list of your face wash.
“The wrong cleanser can damage the natural skin protective barrier, over drying the skin.”
The consensus was clear: Your face has different needs than the rest of your body. Jeffrey Lewis, a formulations chemist who develops personal care products, explained that “the skin around the face is much more thin than the body,” and that the best facial cleanser won’t be as harsh as body wash or hand soap. Using harsh ingredients can cause anything from temporary irritation to overproduction of oil (prompting breakouts) or dry, itchy skin.
Red-flag ingredients fell into three categories: surfactants, simple alcohols, and fragrance.
The workhorse behind any cleanser is its surfactant. Surfactants are made up of molecules that bind to water on one end and oil on the other. When you apply face wash, the surfactants bind to the oil on your skin; then, when you rinse your face, the molecules also bind to the water, carrying the oil with it down the drain. (Surfactants are also the ingredient that make cleansers foam — but that’s not an indicator of how effective a surfactant is, just a fun side effect.)
There are lots of surfactants!It’s essentially impossible to put together a comprehensive list: There’s an entire field of chemistry devoted to surfactants, and most cleansers rely on more than one type. We cut commonly used compounds flagged by our experts, but we also tested our finalists ourselves to make sure they weren’t too drying.
Experts warned us that some surfactants do their job too well, stripping the skin of so much oil that it dries out or gets irritated. Dr. Greg Maguire, a scientist, educator, and formulator, warned us away from sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). “Even though these ingredients are considered safe at low exposure levels,” Dr. Maguire told us, “the effects of using these ingredients over time can be accumulative, and thus damaging to the skin.”
We also avoided 8 additional surfactants, all of them harsh enough that our experts suggested avoiding them when we reviewed shampoo: Sodium Myreth Sulfate; Ammonium Lauryl and Laureth Sulfate; Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate; TEA Lauryl Sulfate; Sodium Alkylbenzene Sulfonate; TEA-dodecylbenzenesulfonate; and Ammonium or Sodium Xylenesulfonate.
Gentler alternatives (that are still effective!) like Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, a coconut-oil-based surfactant, show up in our top picks instead.
Biore Deep Pore Facial Cleanser, Biore Soda Pore Cleanser, Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser, Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, Clinique Liquid Facial Soap: Mild, Clinique Liquid Facial Soap: Oily Skin Formula, Dermalogica Special Cleansing Gel, Dove Men+Care Aqua Impact Body and Face Wash, Kiehl’s Calendula Deep Cleansing Foaming Face Wash, Neutrogena Facial Cleansing Bar for Acne-Prone Skin, Neutrogena Fresh Foaming Cleanser, Olay Gentle Clean Foaming Face Cleanser for Sensitive Skin
Two types of alcohols show up in skincare products, and they couldn’t be more different. Fatty alcohols (like cetyl and stearyl) help smooth and condition your skin; they’re the good guys. But simple alcohols have the potential to dry out skin and cause sensitization. Those over-drying culprits, like ethanol and methanol, are often added to skin care products as antimicrobials, or carriers for solid ingredients — but their cons far outweigh their pros.
“Look for products that are alcohol-free, as the product could dry out your skin otherwise.”
We cut any products with ethanol, denatured alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, and benzyl alcohol.
Philosophy Purity Made Simple, Shamanuti Activated Charcoal Cleanser, Tatcha The Deep Cleanse
Fragrance and “Essential Oil” Blends
The words “fragrance” and “parfum” can encapsulate any number of ingredients that manufacturers gets to keep as trade secrets under FDA regulations. Those ingredients can be harmless, but there’s no way to know for sure. Lewis warned us, “fragrances may contain hundreds of chemicals. Often, manufacturers or brands do not know what even goes into each fragrance.”
That’s concerning, because the oft-unknown ingredients that make up “fragrance” are frequently the cause of allergic reactions. In fact, one five-year study funded by the FDA found that fragrance is the leading cause of allergic reactions to cosmetics. And our experts consistently referred to fragrance ingredients as known allergens, irritants, and sensitizers — most of the people we interviewed recommended avoiding them altogether.
A similarly vague umbrella term, “essential oils,” is allowed for companies who use plant-based oils in their formulas. Sometimes oils are listed individually — ”lavender essential oil,” for example — which lets you avoid ingredients that you have known allergies to. But “essential oil” as a standalone ingredient isn’t defined by the FDA at all.
We cut any products that include “fragrance,” “parfum,” or non-specified “essential oils” in their formulas. In our sweep, we found that some of the most gentle-sounding products (a wash from the classic Cetaphil brand, for example) contain unspecified fragrance.
Cetaphil PRO Oil Removing Foam Wash, Dove White Beauty Bar, EltaMD Foaming Facial Cleanser, Neutrogena Deep Clean Cream Cleanser, Red Earth Baking Soda Pore Cleanser
People’s skin varies widely as to what it will tolerate and what will cause it overreact. We didn’t cut any products for containing ingredients (like mint oil and grapefruit oil) that might cause sensitization, itchiness, or redness, but we did note it. None of our top picks contain these ingredients, but some of our runners-up do.
Then we lathered up, looking for face wash that was pleasant, effective and convenient.
CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser, DNA EGF Renewal Foaming Gel Cleanser, Drunk Elephant Beste No. 9 Jelly Cleanser, Eve Lom Cleanser, First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser, First Aid Beauty Skin Rescue Deep Cleanser with Red Clay, Fresh Soy Face Cleanser, Liz Earle Cleanse & Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser, New York Dermatology Group Colloidal Oatmeal Cleanser, Ole Henriksen Find Your Balance Oil Control Cleanser, Origins Checks and Balances Frothy Face Wash, philosophy the microdelivery exfoliating facial wash, Renée Rouleau Moisture Protecting Cleanser, Sunday Riley Ceramic Slip Clay Cleanser, Tammy Fender Cleansing Milk, Vanicream Cleansing Bar, Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser
We tested our remaining 17 contenders on both naturally dry and naturally oily skin, with testers looking for the following:
A clean, fresh face.
Testers used each cleanser as directed without applying additional products, noting if their makeup was fully removed and how their skin felt afterward (any dryness, redness, or itching?). We preferred cleansers that left us feeling clean but hydrated, without a trace of makeup. Despite their soothing names, Renee Rouleau Moisture Protecting Cleanser and New York Dermatology Group Colloidal Oatmeal Cleanser left our faces uncomfortably tight and itchy, while Eve Lom deposited a faintly oily sheen that made one tester want to wash her face again. Our Fresh Soy Face Cleanser was pleasant, but left us picking off stray pieces of mascara.
A pleasant texture.
Most people love a foamy face wash. But the source of a classic cleanser’s foam is generally its surfactant — the stronger the surfactant, the more intense the foam. Because we’d cut extremely harsh surfactants, we knew none of our finalists would hit dish-soap levels of bubbles, but we wanted to be sure that the texture was pleasant.
Most facial cleansers delivered at least a little foam (which our testers appreciated). Only a few were off-putting. Sunday Riley’s Ceramic Slip Clay Cleanser had a “sludgy” texture we weren’t crazy about. Philosophy’s The Microdelivery Daily Exfoliating Face Wash was gritty enough that it left our tester red-faced after just one use. And we would have guessed Origins Checks and Balances Frothy Face Wash was men’s shaving cream in a blind test: It smothered us in a dense, aftershave scented foam.
Packaging that didn’t aggravate.
Eve Lom’s semi-solid cleanser comes in a tub and requires you to scoop it out with your fingers and let it melt — fine as an occasional extra step, but not a ritual we wanted to perform daily. Philosophy’s exfoliating face wash came in a squeeze bottle made of a plastic too thick to squeeze easily. And the Vanicream bar, one tester noted, felt “unsanitary to leave out in the bathroom between uses.” The squeeze tubes and pumps of our other finalists didn’t require us to think twice about how to store or extract our face wash, a simplicity we preferred.
Our top picks passed every test with flying colors: They're effective enough to remove makeup, but not so harsh that they leave skin flaky or ultra-dry, they felt pleasant on our skin, and there was nothing about their packaging that felt unsanitary or annoying.
Our Picks for the Best Face Wash
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 Abdul 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.