There's a good facial cleanser for every skin type and budget
If you've been using the same soap on your face as on the rest of your body, you might want to reconsider. After all, your face is the first image you present to the world, and many soaps are too harsh to really be kind to that relatively delicate skin. The best facial cleansers, on the other hand, are strong enough to remove dirt, oil and makeup, but gentle enough not to strip away your skin's natural moisture. Just about any skin type will benefit from using a gentle, water-soluble cleanser that rinses cleanly away.
However, if you know your skin type, you can choose a cleanser that specifically targets the issues your skin is prone to. If your skin is dry, you may do best with a creamy, lotion-like cleanser, even if it doesn't lather as much. (Don't worry -- although the lather feels and looks good, it doesn't have anything to do with how well a cleanser actually works.) If you have very sensitive skin, take extra care to avoid irritants like artificial fragrances, dyes and harsh detergents. Instead, opt for gentle, soothing ingredients like glycerin or hyaluronic acid.
You don't need to pay a high price for a great cleanser
With many of the product lines we evaluate, it's true that you get what you pay for. But in the case of high-end department store cleansers and doctor-endorsed face washes, you're paying for fancy labeling and big names on what usually turn out to be the same ingredients you'll find in drugstore brands. And believe it or not, those drugstore brands -- with an average price of about $1 per ounce -- beat out their pricier competitors in just about every category of this report.
It may still be tempting to pay extra for a cleanser line that's created (or endorsed for profit) by a doctor or dermatologist. But the American Medical Association has issued guidelines advising physicians not to sell health-related products for profit because it creates a conflict of interest.
Also, in her highly acclaimed book, "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me," skincare expert Paula Begoun points out that the phrases "dermatologist-tested" and "dermatologist-approved" are meaningless because there's no standard for what they mean. Often, they only indicate that one or two dermatologists tried a skincare product at the manufacturer's request and liked how it felt. How well a face wash actually cleans, how it feels on your face, and how it leaves your skin feeling afterward remain the ultimate arbiters of which product really is best.
We evaluated dozens of expert reviews, tests and roundups, plus thousands of user reviews, to find the best face wash for all skin types and the best face wash for men. We also identify the best cleansing oil and moisturizing cleanser, the best natural face cleanser, the best face wash for those with acne, and the best facial cleansing brush if you want to add another boost to your skincare routine.
We also provide full reports on other products you may want to complement your new face wash: Click through to read about the best facial moisturizers, wrinkle cream, eye cream and body lotion.
The best facial cleansers
The best facial cleansers will eliminate all lingering traces of makeup or dirt, even around the eyes, without any scrubbing. And, of course, they shouldn't dry, burn or irritate your skin either. Skincare experts say the best products are usually water-soluble, which means they'll rinse off easily without leaving your skin greasy or clogging your pores.
Recently, cleansers with alpha or beta hydroxy acids and topical disinfectants like benzoyl peroxide have been all the rage. But experts say these ingredients are actually not all that useful, because they get rinsed down the drain before they really have a chance to work on your skin. (Facial cleansers usually have a pH that renders those ingredients ineffective, anyway.) So believe it or not, simple -- and inexpensive -- sometimes really is the best.
That's the case for our best-reviewed cleanser, Philosophy Purity Made Simple (Est. $32 for 16 oz.), which draws lots of user praise for being gentle and effective for all skin types, removing even the most stubborn eye makeup. This cleanser has a near cult-like following, and for good reason: user reviews say it leaves your skin feeling soft and completely clean.
Once consumers discover this cleanser, they tend to stick with it faithfully for a decade or more, and some even say it's helped with their acne breakouts. At about $2 per ounce, a bottle of Philosophy Purity Made Simple costs a little more than your typical drug store cleanser; but users say a little bit goes a long way. If you use it twice daily, the cost works out to about $5 per month, since a little goes a long way.
Most characterize the Philosophy Purity Made Simple face wash as milky or creamy like a nice, rich lotion, and say it has a "woodsy" or "plant-like" smell that is either pleasant or at least inoffensive, depending on your personal taste. That scent comes from natural fragrance oils, which may explain the one caveat that comes with this cleanser: While it's generally great for oily, normal or combination skin, if your skin is already prone to severe dryness or sensitivity, it may leave you feeling drier. You can either add a moisturizer or use a more moisturizing cleanser; we cover facial cleansers for sensitive skin elsewhere in this report.
Philosophy Purity Made Simple's makeup-removing acumen doesn't have to rule it out for men; we see comments from a few male users who say it leaves their face feeling fresh and clean, too. But if you prefer something that's designed specifically for the male complexion and skin tone, our best-reviewed pick is the Jack Black Pure Clean (Est. $19 for 6 oz.) daily facial cleanser, which is free of parabens, sulfates and phthalates, and even has a few organic ingredients.
Reviewers at AskMen.com say ingredients like witch hazel, chamomile and aloe help the Jack Black cleanser double as a pre- or post-shave toner, readying your skin for shaving and soothing irritation afterward. Editors at GQ choose this as the best face cleanser for men with dry or flaky skin; they say it cleanses effectively and moisturizes without stripping the natural oils out of your skin.
Again, whichever gender a product is labeled for doesn't have to limit its use: Some of the user reviews for this product are from women who say they've snagged some of this from the man in their life and liked it so much that they started using it themselves. Others say they've noticed that their guy's skin seems more smooth and youthful looking. Both genders report that Jack Black Pure Clean is useful for all skin types, and few even say it helps control acne breakouts.
Jack Black cleanser foams nicely and has a mild and pleasant herbal scent. The biggest user criticism we found was that if your skin is prone to severe dryness, you might need a more moisturizing cleanser -- interesting, in light of the "best cleanser for dry skin" pick from GQ. Jack Black Pure Clean costs an average of $3.17 per ounce.
If you'd like an alternative to these two tried-and-true facial cleansers, cleansing oils are currently one of the hottest trends for all-around skin cleansers. DHC Deep Cleansing Oil (Est. $26 for 6.7 oz.), a strong runner-up in this category, is a stellar example that costs about $4.18 per ounce. Allure.com chose this product as one of their best facial cleansers for dry winter skin; their consulting dermatologist, Jeanette Graf, says its olive oil base is appropriate for all skin types.
DHC Deep Cleansing Oil also receives a "best of" award and is ranked as the #6 best facial cleanser in all categories at TotalBeauty.com, where user reviewers rave about its ability to clean pores and remove even the most stubborn eye makeup. Users love the way it both cleanses and removes makeup in a single step, leaving your skin feeling hydrated and radiant after a quick water rinse. If you're new to using oil-based cleansers, it may take a little while to get used to the habit of applying the oil cleanser to your dry skin and massaging it for a few seconds before rinsing. However, users say it's more than worth that minimal effort; the oil is thin enough to glide on easily and rinse cleanly away and, unless your skin is extraordinarily dry, oily or sensitive, you probably won't need any extra toner or moisturizer afterward.
Elsewhere in this report:
Facial Cleansers for Sensitive Skin | Face Wash for Acne | Buying Guide | Our Sources