Washing your face seems like a simple task. Just grab a cleanser and go, right? Well, not exactly. According to celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, the cleansing portion of your skincare routine is perhaps the most important. So it's not in our best interest to use any old cleanser. Instead, it's better to find one that works best for your particular skin type, with ingredients that are good for your skin rather than harsh and drying. Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, explains, "The wrong cleanser can rub your skin barrier, leading to inflammation (or it may not do an effective enough job).
Remember, the right cleanser for you may be very different from what your best friend is using." TL;DR: Our skin is not one-size-fits-all. Far from it, in fact.
Rouleau adds: "Many foaming and gel cleansers made today are formulated with an ingredient called sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, or ammonium laureth sulfate. This ingredient is a surfactant, a cleansing agent that cuts oil from the skin. If you wash with a foaming cleanser or soap that is too drying, it pulls all the water out of the skin and creates dead, dry skin cell buildup. Choose either cleansing lotions or gel cleansers that avoid the harsh ingredient, as it will effectively deep-clean the pores but will not rob the skin of much-needed water.
The rule: more lather, more drying. Less lather, less drying." Below, top dermatologists and estheticians reveal their favorite cleansers to use on themselves and their patients. Keep reading to find the one that best suits you.
"This is a nice and gentle cleansing lotion that works well for dissolving away makeup without leaving a greasy residue—so it's great to use at night. It uses shea butter and squalane to condition and nourish your skin along with trehalose, a hydrating antioxidant. It leaves the skin feeling refreshed, cleaned, and primed for the products that follow. With any cleansing lotion, it’s best to wipe over the skin with a baby washcloth to ensure any makeup residue is lifted off well." — Rouleau
"This one doesn't have any formaldehyde, fragrance, parabens, or dyes. It's one of the gentlest, safest ways to cleanse your skin. I've never had a problem with it (even with my most sensitive-skin patients)." — Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City
"This silky, sulfate-free cleanser is a unique gel-to-milk formula that provides the gentlest cleansing experience. It uses plant-based hydrators and soothers like allantoin, aloe, and glycerin to provide soothing comfort for dry, sensitive skin types. This cleanser is ideal for any retinol or retinoid users who need to cleanse with something that won’t disrupt their skin’s delicate moisture barrier." — Rouleau
"No fragrance, highly moisturizing, never strips natural skin oils—it's been around a long time for good reason. They make bars that come in many different scents, but the best is the unscented sensitive skin bar. It's a wonderfully safe way to clean skin. You'll feel more moisturized after using it, which is rare for a cleanser." — Nazarian
"This is a sulfate-free foaming face wash that uses a blend of vitamin C–infused citrus extracts along with açai juice to give the look of brighter skin. It creates a gentle, soft foaming lather that won’t strip the skin of essential moisture. This is a great morning cleanser for the shower to give your skin a refreshing pick-me-up to wake up tired-looking skin. And the scent is lovely!"— Rouleau
"Originally used to wipe off makeup, Cetaphil's Gentle Skin Cleanser doesn't even require water to rinse off. I do, though, still recommend you remove any residual potential irritants. It's great about removing dirt and makeup without drying out delicate facial skin." — Nazarian
"A cult favorite, this formula is made with DNA-repairing enzymes that help reverse damaged skin cells. It's also made with a very gentle glycolic and lactic acid exfoliator leaving the skin looking and feeling vibrant." — Lisa Chipps, MD, MS, FAAD, of Moy Fincher Chipps Facial Plastics/Dermatology
"If you have aging or dull-looking skin, look for gentle exfoliating ingredients to remove dead cells that accumulate on the outer layer of the skin. Eco-friendly microbeads manually lift dead cells, while glycolic and salicylic acid help dissolve the connections between the cells holding them onto the skin. This particular cleanser is fortified with olive leaf extract, which contains potent antioxidant giving protection against free radicals." — Zeichner
"This cleanser is particularly helpful in patients with oily and acne-prone skin. Red clay helps absorb oil from the skin while licorice root, feverfew, and white tea help calm skin inflammation." — Joshua Zeichner
Dermatologist Sonia Batra, MD, MSc, MPH, recommends this Avène pick. It's formulated with glutamic acid, which gently clears away extra sebum if you have an oily skin type. One of our writers even says it feels like a cloud against your skin and smells just as fresh.
"This cleanser comes from a small town in Toleriane, France, where the thermal spring water comes out of a local natural spring," explains aesthetician Graceanne Svendsen. "A clinic was made in Toleriane, and the natural thermal spring waters are used to treat patients in the clinic who have rosacea, dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis. This cleanser is a gentle, noncomedogenic cleanser that also helps heal skin and is nonirritating for all skin types. It's made with glycerin. What I love about glycerin is its ability to bind and attract water molecules in the air.
It's one of the most effective humectants for non-oily hydration."
Dermatologist Melissa Levin, MD, always recommends a makeup wipe as the first step in your cleansing routine. “If you have oily or acne-prone skin, this gives the additive physical exfoliation, which can help remove oil, makeup, and dirt from the skin,” says Levin. “I recommend following that up with a proper gentle cleanser to ensure all the makeup is removed. One of my favorites is Differin Balancing Cleanser as a gentle hypoallergenic option.”
Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, says, "Exfoliation is key and necessary in order to continue turnover of dead skin cells. I recommend incorporating a gentle exfoliating cleanser as a great entry point. This one is blended with moisturizing silk extract so it's really nourishing and won't ever leave your face feeling tight."
Soap-free, oil-free, and pH-balanced to prevent dryness and irritation, this gentle cleanser is made up of witch hazel, salicylic acid, and glycolic acid—a triple threat of components that form a great acne-fighting brigade. Nava Greenfield, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group recommends salicylic acid for those small, fine bumps, also known as comedones.
Glytone is a skincare brand that specializes in glycolic acid products, an ingredient recommended by every dermatologist I've ever spoke with. This mild cleanser is suitable for sensitive skin types and does everything a glycolic acid cleanser should do. It cleans the skin while exfoliating, brightening, and fighting signs of aging too.