What the best facial cleansers have
- Gentle detergents in low quantities. Detergents like cocmidopropyl betaine and ammonium laureth sulfate are gentle, while sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate can be potentially irritating, especially when listed near the top of an ingredients list.
- No irritants or drying ingredients. Ingredients like menthol, alcohol and witch hazel may feel refreshing on your skin, but they can actually strip away essential moisture. Fragrances -- whether natural or artificial -- can also cause skin irritation, although most people can handle them in small quantities.
- Basic, proven ingredients. The shorter a cleanser's ingredient list, the easier it is to make sure it doesn't contain irritants or potentially damaging ingredients. Instead of looking for the hottest new cleansing ingredient, look for proven, soothing ingredients that will cleanse your skin without stripping away its natural moisture. We've seen this proven out, year after year, as the same simple (and often inexpensive) facial cleansers make repeated appearances at the top of our report for one reason: they work.
- Lather doesn't matter. Although most users prefer cleansers that lather generously, the amount of lather in a cleanser has no correlation to how well it cleanses skin; case in point, our best-reviewed cleansers have a creamy, lotion-like consistency and lather barely if at all.
- It suits your skin type. Although the best cleansers work well on almost all skin types, particularly sensitive, dry or oily skin may respond best to specially formulated products. Those with dry or sensitive skin types may prefer a creamy cleanser that adds moisture while cleansing; if you have combination or oily skin, you might prefer a liquid or gel-based cleanser. Skincare expert Paula Begoun provides an excellent article that explains how to determine your skin type.
Know before you go
What issues are you trying to treat? Some cleansers contain ingredients to help treat acne, even skin tone and reduce the size of pores. If you have conditions like eczema, psoriasis or allergies, you're better off with a non-irritating cleanser that's formulated for extremely sensitive or damaged skin.
Is acne a problem? If you struggle with these persistent blemishes, it may be tempting to head straight to the strongest face wash that can dry the acne out. However, these strong cleansers sometimes set up a vicious cycle of drying your skin out so much that they cause more acne. Consider alternating your acne cleanser with a gentler, lightly moisturizing cleanser to help mitigate those drying effects.
Do you prefer natural, eco-friendly products? There are no set guidelines to govern what's labeled as "natural" or "eco-friendly," so people really have to do their homework in this category. Look for products that contain recognizable ingredients and are free of mineral oils, parabens and other chemical preservatives, coloring and fragrances. The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetic Database is an in-depth resource that discusses the ingredients used in various cleansers, as well as their environmental impact and whether they're tested on animals.
What's to come
Microbeads -- the tiny plastic pellets sometimes included in exfoliating facial scrubs and other cosmetics -- are terrible for the environment. That's because they're so tiny, they pass through water treatment systems and into our waterways. Once that happens, small creatures mistake them for food and the plastic then makes its way up the food chain.
Because of this, the US legislature passed -- and President Obama signed into law -- the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which bans the manufacture of personal use products containing microbeads as of July 2017, bans the sale of cosmetics containing microbeads as of July 2018, and bans the sale of over-the-counter drugs containing microbeads as of July 2019.