5 Sneaky Face-Wash Ingredients That Dry Out Your Skin—and What to Buy Instead

Washing your face twice a day is the foundation of any good skincare routine. But your efforts may be in vain if your face wash isn't formulated with the right ingredients. In fact, your go-to face wash may even be drying out your skin instead of nourishing it.

As the Environmental Working Group reports, that probability is high. Cosmetic and personal-care companies are "allowed to use almost any ingredient they wish" when formulating products, and "the U.S. government doesn't review the safety of products before they're sold," writes the EWG.

This problem is amplified by a lack of education on the consumer end. A staggering 65% of surveyed American adults have "no idea what ingredients to look for when purchasing a facial cleanser," according to CeraVe's Skincare Survey. Sixty-three percent don't understand the purpose of those ingredients.

To help bridge this educational gap and navigate the confusing world of skincare, we tapped licensed esthetician Matthew Miller of Matthew Miller Skin. Below, read up on the drying face-wash ingredients to avoid, plus the best face washes for dry skin.


(Image credit: @eggcanvas)

Avoid: Sulfates

According to Miller, sulfates can strip the skin of its natural oils, causing dryness and irritation: "Sodium laureth sulfate can be more mild, but I still tend to advise clients to avoid these ingredients to stay on the safe side."

Gentler alternatives: Sodium hydroxypropylsulfonate, sodium coco-glucoside tartrate, cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, sodium cocoamphoacetate

Avoid: Fragrances

Artificial fragrances can irritate the skin, especially in the cold winter months. "Companies can put the word 'fragrance' on the packaging without having to specify exactly what's in it," explains Miller. "It's best to just avoid fragrance and not risk irritating dry skin."

Gentler alternatives: Miller prefers essential oils for a source of natural fragrance. Plus, if formulated properly, they offer a host of health benefits, he notes: "Properly formulated products containing essential oils will not harm or irritate the skin."


(Image credit: @lucywilliams02)

Avoid: Artificial Dyes 

"Artificial dyes can interfere with oil production," notes Miller. "This can lead to clogged pores and breakouts." What's more, artificial dyes do not benefit your skin in any way, shape, or form, so he recommends avoiding them.

Gentler alternatives: Some brands now are turning to botanical ingredients for coloring, while others are leaving their formulations in their natural colors. Both are safer options.

Avoid: Benzoyl Peroxide 

"Benzoyl peroxide can be great for acne spot treatments in the short term," he explains. However, long-term use of benzoyl peroxide will exacerbate any issues with the skin and cause dryness and redness.

Gentler alternatives: Try salicylic acid instead. "This ingredient is oil-soluble, so it will help dissolve away impurities and oil buildup," explains Miller. "It's great for oily or acne prone skin. As always, moderation is key."


(Image credit: Stocksy)

Avoid: Alcohol 

"This ingredient is tricky; I'm actually not anti-alcohol," he divulges. "There are many forms of alcohol that can be hydrating to the skin. At the end of the day, it's all about formulation!" He does caution against using anything with "denatured alcohol" or just "alcohol" on the label, especially if there are no hydrating ingredients listed to balance out the formulation. "It's best to play it safe and avoid these products," he notes.

Gentler alternatives: "Fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol shouldn't worry you," he explains. These ingredients are typically used as emollients and thickeners in skincare products, and they can actually benefit dry skin.

Freelance Contributor

Kelsey Clark is a freelance writer and content strategist based in Detroit. She got her start in editorial in New York City as MyDomaine's lifestyle editor and has since gone full-time freelance. She now contributes to Who What Wear, THE/THIRTY, Domino, Glamour, The Zoe Report, Apartment Therapy, and more, in addition to working with brands such as Bloomscape and EyeSwoon on content strategy and copywriting. She's written about fashion, interior design, health and wellness, pop culture, food, travel, politics, and professional development, but she'd consider the first three verticals her main "beats." She's also incredibly passionate about mental health awareness and hopes to help eradicate the social stigma through storytelling and education. When she's not writing, you can find her scouring thrift stores for Levi's 501s, picking up a new vintage piece for her apartment, or exploring new restaurants and bars across Detroit.