Last updated on Nov 20, 2019

The Best Facial Cleanser

Gentle, yet effective ​
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How We Found the Best Facial Cleansers

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15 experts interviewed

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37 products tested

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3 top picks

The Best Face Wash

The best face wash gets rid of makeup and oil without irritating your skin by stripping away moisture. 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. After talking to dermatologists, cosmetic formulators, and physicians, we found three outstanding cleansers for dry, oily, and combination skin.

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The Best Face Wash: Summed Up

CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser
Drunk Elephant Beste No. 9 Jelly Cleanser
First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser
Best for Dry Skin
Best for Oily Skin
Best for Combination Skin
MSRP
$13.91
$32
$21
Cost per oz.
$0.87
$6.40
$4.20
Fragrance-free?

How We Chose the Best Facial Cleanser

Top sellers

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.

No harsh ingredients

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.”


Yoram Harth, MD Board Certified Dermatologist, Chief medical officer at MDacne

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 dry, itchy skin and temporary irritation to overproduction of oil (prompting breakouts).

Red-flag ingredients fell into three categories: surfactants, simple alcohols, and fragrance.

Left 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.

Pleasant texture

The source of a classic cleanser’s foam is generally its surfactant — the stronger the surfactant, the more intense the foam. Because we 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.

Milder surfactants mean fewer bubbles. 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.

Common sense packaging

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.

The 3 Best Facial Cleansers

    Our Picks for the Best Face Wash

    Best for Dry Skin
    CeraVe

    CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser

    Pros

    Non-foaming moisturizers
    Hydrating ingredients
    Effective

    Cons

    Texture
    No extras

    Why we chose it

    Non-foaming moisturizers

    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.

    CeraVe has no noticeable lather.

    Hydrating ingredients

    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).

    Effective

    Despite being so gentle, we were surprised to find that CeraVe 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.

    Points to consider

    Texture

    Those 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.

    No extras

    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

    Drunk Elephant Beste No. 9 Jelly Cleanser

    Pros

    Additional cleansing power
    Satisfying bubbles
    Strong but gentle

    Cons

    Pricey

    Why we chose it

    Additional cleansing power

    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, 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.)

    Satisfying bubbles

    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.

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

    Strong but gentle

    With multiple surfactants, Drunk Elephant does a great job of ridding your skin of oils. But again and again users told us about what it didn’t do. “This is the first cleanser I’ve ever used that doesn’t leave my face feeling dry and tight after cleansing,” wrote one. Glycerin helps replenish hydration levels while cleansing and cantaloupe fruit extract is rich in antioxidants to soothe and hydrate skin, so your face will feel freshly clean, but not stripped dry, after use.

    Points to consider

    Pricey

    At $32 for a five-ounce tube, Drunk Elephant was our priciest choice (though it came in second if you included our runner-up Tammy Fender Cleansing Milk, which retails for $55 for five ounces). If you’re on a budget, you may want to skip it in favor of our oily skin runner up, Ole Henriksen Find Your Balance Oil Control Cleanser, which cost six dollars less for the same size.

    Best for Combination Skin
    First Aid Beauty

    First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser

    Pros

    Balance
    Texture
    Cost per use

    Cons

    Scent

    Why we chose it

    Balance

    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.

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

    Texture

    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.

    Cost per use

    First Aid Beauty wasn’t our most inexpensive option — that would be CeraVe, by a long shot. In fact, it came in right in the middle of our six finalists. But again and again users told us that you need only a tiny amount of the product to build up a good lather. It may take you a little while to find that sweet spot between too much and too little, but when you do, we think you’ll find that a tube lasts a good long time, and allows you to get a good bang for your buck.

    Points to consider

    Scent

    Although this product contains no fragrance ingredients, users report a slight, medicinal scent that for some, is unpleasant. “Fragrance free doesn’t necessarily mean scent-free,” said one user, who went on to comment on a chemical-like smell. We didn’t find it particularly obvious or obnoxious, but if you are very sensitive to smells, this product may not be to your taste.

    Other 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:

    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 feeling 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.

    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 can lead to “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).

    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.

    How to Find the Right Facial Cleanser for You

    Patch-test your skin

    “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.

    Make gradual changes

    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.

    Add moisturizer

    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. You can read about our favorites.

    Facial Cleanser FAQ

    More Skin Care Reviews

    Your skin is the largest organ in your body, and we want to help you treat it well. We’ve talked to the experts, studied the research, and done the testing to find the best skin care products for you.

    About the Authors

    The Reviews.com staff is dedicated to providing you with all the deep-dive details. Our writers, researchers, and editors came together from Charlotte, Seattle, San Juan, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, San Diego, and Chicago to put this review together.