The best cleansers will eliminate all lingering traces of makeup or dirt (including around the eyes) without the necessity of scrubbing your face. And, of course, they shouldn't dry, burn or irritate your skin either. Skin care experts say the best products are usually water-soluble -- that 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 and triclosan have been all the rage, but experts say they're actually not all that useful because those ingredients 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 with Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash (Est. $6 for 6 oz.). It's one of the simplest general-purpose formulas in this report, but also the most effective and recipient of the most consistent praise from both users and experts. It's a top pick for editors with Allure and Elle magazines, and thousands of happy users say it cleans well and removes makeup completely without stripping your skin's natural oils.
Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash lives up to the "gentle" part of its name, leaving even very sensitive faces feeling clean and soft. The one thing you should watch out for is a small amount of fragrance that most users say is pleasant, but may still irritate the truly sensitive.
Another water-soluble cleanser, Philosophy Purity Made Simple (Est. $28 for 8 oz.), also draws lots of user praise for being gentle and effective for all skin types, removing even the most stubborn eye makeup. This product is free of artificial fragrances, but it does contain some natural fragrance oils that skin care expert Paula Begoun of PaulasChoice.com warns may cause irritation beneath the skin.
A small percentage of users also say they felt their skin start to dry out after long-term, consistent use of this cleanser. That's the only thing that keeps Philosophy Purity Made Simple from claiming the top spot in this category, but it remains a top favorite for its effective cleansing and toning, and its light, pleasant herbal fragrance. Although it's more expensive than our top-picked cleanser, users say a little bit goes a long way -- so it's still a good value overall.
Another option for those with dry skin: Pond's Cold Cream Cleanser, which uses mineral oil to let you just wipe makeup and dirt away. Instead of using water to rinse the cold cream off, which some experts think may further dry your skin out over time, you massage Pond's Cold Cream in and then wipe it off with a tissue or warm washcloth.
Yes, that's the same product you may have seen your mother or grandmother use, and it continues to draw rave reviews from women of all ages who say it leaves their skin feeling super-soft and, of course, clean.
Bar soaps usually aren't a great choice for cleaning your face; they can leave you feeling like you have a film over your skin. But there are a few bars that do a good job of pulling dirt and makeup off your skin without drying it out or leaving a film behind. They're an especially good choice if you're trying to cut down on your use of plastic bottles or don't want to worry about liquid spilling while you travel.
If all you need is a gentle, effective bar cleanser for your face, check out Dove's Beauty Bar. It actually is a soap, but it's so mild that dermatologists often recommend it for those with skin problems. It also contains a moisturizing lotion, so it won't dry your skin.
The Beauty Bar is available in several formulations, including an unscented version for sensitive skin. Many users wonder why anybody would want to pay more for a face or body cleanser when this one works so well. "My pores are looking beautiful and my skin is just so soft!" writes one young lady at Beautylish.com.
If even the Dove Beauty Bar's relatively gentle ingredients are too rough on your skin, you may be better off with the soap-free Vanicream Cleansing Bar. This gentle, non-soap bar is often recommended by allergists and dermatologists, and is beloved of consumers who struggle with eczema, rosacea and allergies to detergents and soaps. They say it lathers well and rinses clean (no film), and it won't dry out your skin -- even if used multiple times in a day.
The Vanicream bar is free of added fragrances -- but users say the bar itself does have a slight odor, although it won't linger on your skin. This non-comedogenic soap is also free of parabens, formaldehyde, dyes and lanolin.