Sensitivity can be present in any skin type -- including oily and acne-prone skin -- but it tends to be most common among those with dry skin. Some skin care products and medications can also increase the sensitivity of your skin, causing you to need a cleanser formulated for sensitive skin even if you didn't before.
If your skin is sensitive, you should be especially careful when selecting a facial cleanser. Even those labeled for dry or sensitive skin can still have potentially irritating ingredients -- so make sure you base your decisions off the actual ingredient list, not just the labeling.
In general, experts say those with sensitive skin should look for creamy cleansers that are soap- and fragrance-free and devoid of common irritants like alcohol or menthol. Cleansers with mild plant oils like sweet almond and jojoba oils, or ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, are usually good choices. These sensitive-skin products may not lather very well because they lack the harsh surfactants you'll find in most cleansers, but that's all right; they still clean just fine.
Far and away, the top product in this section is CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser (Est. $6 for 12 oz.), which retails for a mere 75 cents per ounce. Not only is it devoid of common irritants, it's also chock-full of good-for-your-skin ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid and ceramides. The end result is a soothing, gentle cleanser that leaves your skin feeling soft and smooth. It's so gentle that even people with severe skin problems can usually use it.
CeraVe's hydrating cleanser rakes in plenty of expert accolades. In particular, skincare expert Paula Begoun recommends it as an exceptionally gentle, soothing cleanser with several ingredients that can help mimic the function of healthy skin. The editors of InStyle.com also selected this as their favorite cleanser for dry skin in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
Users agree, with many writing that they chose CeraVe because their dermatologist recommended it. They say this cleanser performs beautifully for a wide range of conditions that can leave your skin feeling delicate, including acne, dry skin, allergies, rosacea and seborrheic dermatitis. The biggest complaint we saw was from people who were upset that this cleanser didn't foam. However, they may have intended to purchase CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser (Est. $9 for 12 oz.) and picked up the wrong product. CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser cleans your face just fine, although you'll need another cleaner -- or the aid of a good washcloth or facial sponge -- to remove stubborn makeup or major grime.
We'd be remiss if we didn't also mention Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser (Est. $20/pack of 2). In fact, this gentle cleanser tops most of our criteria, earns a couple of expert nods, and dermatologists recommend it in hordes. It also has a near cult-like following among users who say it's the only thing that won't irritate their face or provoke an allergic reaction. It's also a great bargain, at about $.63 per ounce.
However, that all comes with a huge caveat that kept us from awarding this product our top spot: Despite its stellar reviews, several of the Cetaphil gentle skin cleanser's eight ingredients are now known to be irritants or endocrine disruptors, including sodium lauryl sulfate and a couple types of parabens.
Both of the aforementioned cleansers are fragrance-free, and they look and feel more like lotion than a typical face wash. They're also so gentle they won't always remove all your makeup on their own -- but, like CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, you can help them along with a washcloth or a sponge. Remember: When you have sensitive skin, the ingredients list trumps all.
We weren't able to find a truly 100 percent natural facial cleanser that performs as well as more traditional products, but Yes to Cucumbers Gentle Milk Cleanser (Est. $9 for 6 oz.) comes very close at 98 percent natural. It has a small amount of artificial fragrance, which users generally say is pleasant, but is free of parabens, phthalates and the common irritant sodium laureth sulfate. At about $1.50 per ounce, it's also a good value when compared to other natural products.
Paula Begoun of Paula's Choice praises this product as an outstanding option for those with normal to dry skin, because it's gentle, soothing and rinses clean. That little bit of artificial fragrance keeps her from making this a top recommendation for those with sensitive skin, but many users with sensitive skin say they love this product. They report that it reduces redness, soothes irritation, gently moisturizes and may even help reduce breakouts. A few are surprised that it doesn't foam up, but they adapt to the creamy, lotion-like consistency quickly, and the mild cucumber-y scent get lots of positive comments. Like the other gentle face washes in this section, you may need a separate cleanser or a good sponge to remove tough makeup.