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Facial Cleansers for Sensitive Skin

By: Lisa Maloney on May 01, 2017

Facial cleansers for dry or sensitive skin are creamier, have few additives

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. $11 for 12 oz.), which often retails for a dollar or less 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. There's no single "best" cleanser for every single type of sensitive skin, but this one comes really close.

CeraVe's hydrating cleanser rakes in plenty of expert accolades too. 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, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and it's a top pick from the editors of Elle.com, too. A dermatologist recommends it to the editors at Health.com, explaining that the hyaluronic acid cleanses skin gently without over-drying it.

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. $8 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 for 32 oz.). 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 well under a dollar per ounce.

However, that all comes with a 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, again, you can help them along with a washcloth or a sponge. Remember: When you have sensitive skin, the ingredients list trumps all.

Speaking of ingredients, if you prefer using face wash that has only natural ingredients, we have good news and bad news. The bad news is that we weren't able to find a truly 100 percent natural facial cleanser that performs as well as more traditional products -- but two of them come close.

The gentlest of the two is Yes to Cucumbers Gentle Milk Cleanser (Est. $6 for 6 oz.), which is 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 close to $1 per ounce, it's also a good value when compared to other natural products.

Paula Begoun of BeautyPedia.com 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 anyway. 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 most of the other gentle face washes in this section, you may need a separate cleanser or a good sponge to remove tough makeup.

If you don't want to use a separate makeup remover, you might prefer our other natural choice, Neutrogena Naturals Fresh Cleansing and Makeup Remover (Est. $14 for 6 oz.). This product line averages 94 natural ingredients and is free of chemical sulfates, parabens, petrolatum, dyes and phthalates. It, too, draws a top rating from Begoun and praise for its performance on every skin type except sensitive skin, which may be irritated by the addition of a mild artificial fragrance.

Users say the Neutrogena Naturals Fresh Cleansing and Makeup Remover smells like apples and has a creamy, somewhat soapy consistency. They also say you can see makeup coming right off your face, even waterproof mascara. That said, if this cleanser gets in your eyes it'll burn, and some users felt it dried out their skin too much, although the tradeoff is that some say it helped clear up their acne.

Ultimately, the Neutrogena Naturals Fresh Cleansing and Makeup Remover takes second place in the natural category because it's not quite as soothing as the Yes to Cucumbers Gentle Milk Cleanser. But if you have acne and want to use a natural face wash, this might be a good choice for you, especially if paired with a mild, non-comedogenic facial moisturizer, which we cover in its own report. Neutrogena Naturals Fresh Cleansing and Makeup Remover costs a little less than a dollar per ounce.

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