A face cleanser or wash is the one thing that just about everyone has in their skincare routine, whether they have a 15-step ritual or use just a couple of products. On a basic level, face washes and cleansers do just what you think they're supposed to do—remove impurities like dirt, oil, and makeup from the skin. Board-certified dermatologist and Docent medical advisor Farhaad Riyaz, MD, says that they pave the way for your other skincare products to work more effectively.
But let's get into the details, shall we? To start, face washes and cleansers are not quite interchangeable. (I know—I thought they were the same too.) "Face washes are more targeted to deeply cleanse pores and are usually better options for oily skin, while face cleansers can have hydrating benefits," explains Kathleen S. Viscusi, MD, FAAD, FACMS, co-founder and partner at Dermatology and Surgery Specialists of North Atlanta (DESSNA). "Face washes are more soap-like, and face cleansers are milkier."
When it comes to choosing a face wash or a cleanser, it's important to keep your skin type in mind. Product formulations have different ingredients, and some are better suited for certain types than others. "My oiler, acne-prone patients reach for foaming facial cleansers because they love the squeaky-clean feeling they get after washing," says Lian Mack, MD. "However, using an aggressively foaming facial wash when you have sensitive or inflamed skin can worsen the skin condition by causing dryness and irritation. Moreover, many facial washes may have other irritating active ingredients, including exfoliants like alpha and beta hydroxy acid, glycolic acid, or salicylic acid. These ingredients may cause irritation in a more sensitive skin type. Sensitive-skinned patients should reach for gentle cleansers that help to reinforce the skin barrier, not break it down."
So how do you know which are better for your specific skin needs? The experts shared some general guidelines below plus some shopping recs.
"Those with 'normal' skin have the luxury of being able to use any type of cleanser they prefer," Riyaz explains. "However, it is still important to refrain from drying sulfates or mineral oil–based formulas for optimal hydration and age prevention. Docent (which is currently only available in California) offers a Gentle Wash, which is mineral oil– and sulfate-free and specially formulated for all skin types."
Viscusi recommends looking for gentle or nourishing ingredients like amino acids, ceramides, and gentle botanical blends.
1. Monat Be Gentle Creamy Cleanser
"I have relatively normal skin, and I love the Monat Be Gentle Creamy Cleanser. It works well to cleanse the skin from impurities without stripping. After washing, it leaves the skin feeling hydrated and smooth," Mack says.
2. PCA Skin Facial Wash
Dermatological nurse and celebrity aesthetician Natalie Aguilar recommends using this facial wash during spring and summer. "The PCA Facial Wash is a gentle cleanser that removes makeup, oil, dirt, and environmental impurities. It hydrates and exfoliates the skin while cleansing and provides skin-soothing properties," she says.
3. Biologique Recherche Lait VIP O2
And for the fall and winter months, Aguilar recommends this product. "The Lait VIP O2 is the ultimate anti-pollution cleanser, purifying the skin of tiny polluting particles that are sometimes even smaller than the pores on the face," she says. "Its deep-down cleansing action will remove the urban pollutants that accumulate on the skin's surface. Pristine again, the skin regains its natural radiance and a fresh glow. It does not leave skin tight or dry after cleansing."
4. ZO Skin Health Gentle Cleanser
"It's a great gentle option for normal (and all) skin types! It contains nourishing amino acids to support the skin barrier function and prevent post-cleansing dryness," Viscusi recommends.
5. Jan Marini Clean Zyme
"For your more intensive cleanse or morning refreshing cleanse, Jan Marini Clean Zyme is my all-time favorite," says SkinSpirit lead aesthetician Karen Fernandez. "The enzyme melts away dead skin, and the citric acid brightens and deep-cleans. This is my go-to for travel, as it will perk up post-flight or hotel skin that gets oxygen-deprived and dry!"
6. SkinSpirit Phytonutrient Foaming Cleanser
"It's a neutral gel-based cleanser that smells like a spa and works like charm! Not too drying and easy on the wallet, so use at night to remove the day," Fernandez says.
Riyaz says that combination skin (usually an oily T-zone and drier cheeks) needs a cleanser that controls oil, balances the T-zone, and hydrates drier areas. "I recommend sticking with a lighter cleanser option such as a gel or creamy cleanser," Viscusi adds. "I find that they effectively target oil production without overly stripping the skin of moisture."
7. SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
"It is my absolute favorite. It contains salicylic acid as well as a blend of fruit extracts, jojoba oil, and citric acid," says Viscusi. "It works as a light exfoliant to improve the skin's overall tone and texture without being overly drying or irritating. I recommend using it a couple of times a week, especially in the summer as skin often is oilier during this time."
8. CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser
"CeraVe's Hydrating Facial Cleanser with ceramides is a great way to hydrate drier areas and pairs well when patients are using prescription skincare," Riyaz says. "Most with combination skin tend to favor sulfate-free gel-based cleansers, like Docent's Gentle Wash, as this formula meets both needs."
Mack also recommends this cleanser for mature skin types.
9. Monat Be Balanced Foamy Cleanser
Mack says that this cream-to-foam works well for normal-to-combination skin types. It hydrates, smoothes, and brightens.
Oily or Acne-Prone Skin
Viscusi recommends a salicylic acid–based cleanser for people with oily and/or acne-prone skin. "Salicylic acid is the gold standard for treating blackheads, whiteheads, and excess oil," she explains. "It's known to prevent breakouts by exfoliating the skin and also help soothe active breakouts due to its anti-inflammatory properties."
10. Babor Cleansing Gel and Tonic
"This is a refreshing, oil-free cleansing gel and face tonic in one for oily and problematic skin. It deeply cleanses the skin quickly and easily," Aguilar says.
11. Monat Be Purified Clarifying Cleanser
Mack says this one is a winner. "It contains niacinamide, which helps to reduce inflammation in the skin. The glycolic and lactic acids help to reduce oil and promote cellular turnover, minimizing clogged pores and reducing pigmentation," she explains.
12. Revision Skincare Purifying Cleansing Gel
Viscusi says this is one of her go-to salicylic acid cleansers. "The super-concentrated formulation deeply cleans pores and removes oil and impurities as lactic and salicylic acids exfoliate and clarify the skin," she explains.
13. Skinbetter Science Oxygen Infusion Wash
Fernandez says oily skin needs ingredients that will target oil production and kill bacteria. She recommends this one because it kills bacteria without overdrying the skin.
14. PCA Skin Blemish Control Bar
"It's an oil-controlling, smoothing, and purifying treatment bar for the face and body and can be used as a deep cleanser and an instant detoxifying mask to heal breakouts and irritation," Aguilar says. "Thanks to its unique jar packaging, this bar makes it easy to take everywhere or can be left in the shower for convenience."
15. Glowbiotics MD Probiotic Acne Treatment Cleanser
Fernandez says this face wash kills bad bacteria while promoting good bacteria.
"Creamy, gentle cleansers are best for dry skin, as they will not strip oils and will keep skin from drying out," Fernandez says. "It can be nice to do gentle exfoliation with dry skin too, as the buildup can prevent oils from getting in and out (which feels dry but not clean)."
16. SkinCeuticals Gentle Cleanser
Fernandez says this creamy cleanser has a fresh citrus fragrance plus extra cleaning power without leaving your skin dry afterward.
17. Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser
"This noncomedogenic face wash works well on almost all skin types," Mack says. "It is a cult favorite for many of my clients."
18. Revision Skincare Gentle Cleansing Lotion
Viscusi says this is a great option for dry skin. "This creamy cleanser removes makeup and dirt without harming the skin's delicate moisture balance, making it ideal for dry or sensitive skin," she says.
19. PCA Skin Daily Cleansing Oil
"It's my favorite cleanser year-round for dry skin. It dissolves dirt and makeup while leaving the skin buttery soft and beautifully hydrated," Aguilar says.
20. Bioelements Moisture Positive Cleanser
"Dry skin typically does best with creamy or oil-based cleansers," Riyaz explains. "Bioelements Moisture Positive Cleanser is a nice creamy option."
21. Bioelements Sensitive Skin Cleansing Oil
Riyaz also recommends this cleanser from Bioelements for people who prefer an oil.
"Mature skin is thinner and needs products to be especially free of harsh chemicals or fragrances," Fernandez says. "But to brighten and revive mature skin, you may need to use a cleanser with some punch—medical grade is best to have maximum power with no irritating by-products." Viscusi also recommends looking for gentle, moisturizing cleansers, as mature skin can sometimes lack hydration.
22. Biologique Recherche Lait E.V. Revitalizing Milk Cleanser
This is Aguilar's favorite soothing cleanser for mature skin. "It gently eliminates impurities and respects the skin's natural moisturizing processes," she explains. "It infuses the skin with a general sense of well-being and leaves it feeling velvety soft. It is recommended for dehydrated, devitalized skin. It's also paraben-free!"
23. Pevonia Botanica Power Repair Hydrating Cleanser
"Mature skin can benefit from exfoliating cleansers to help encourage faster cell renewal to minimize signs of aging as well as hydrating cleansers," Riyaz says. "Pevonia's hydrating cleanser with glycerin helps preserve the skin's vital moisture while preventing and reducing visible signs of aging."
24. Jan Marini Bioglycolic Face Cleanser
"It's a creamy cleanser that packs an anti-aging punch! Apply to dry skin and leave on for a minute or two to let the glycolic work for best results," Fernandez says.
25. Bioderma Sensibio H2O
"For those with makeup-removal needs, the micellar water products do a great job (any brand). I recommend using the micellar water with cotton to remove makeup and then follow up with the appropriate cleanser with a washcloth," Fernandez says.