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Facial Cleansers for Sensitive Skin

By: Angela Stringfellow on May 01, 2018

Sensitive skin needs a gentle face wash

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.

There's no single "best" cleanser for every single type of sensitive skin, but CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser (Est. $12 for 16 oz.) comes really close. Even better: it often retails for a dollar or less per ounce. Skincare experts at Beautypedia say it's an exceptionally gentle, soothing cleanser with several ingredients -- like glycerin, hyaluronic acid and ceramides -- that can help mimic the function of healthy skin and, in the case of hyaluronic acid, cleanse the skin gently without over-drying it. A dermatologist recommends it to Today, noting that it's both hydrating and non-comedogenic, making it a suitable choice for all skin types. Devoid of common irritants, it's so gentle that even people with severe skin problems can usually use it.

CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser is a top pick from the editors of Elle and TotalBeauty, too, and it earns rave reviews from thousands of users who echo these experts' opinions. Many reviewers write that they chose CeraVe because their dermatologist recommended it. They add that 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.

Like all face washes, CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser doesn't escape criticism. There are a few reports from users who say their skin broke out after using this product, while others experienced rashes. The biggest complaint we saw was from people who were upset that this cleanser didn't foam, which leaves some people feeling as though their face isn't truly clean. However, they may have intended to purchase CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser (Est. $14 for 16 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.

If the foamy suds are the only thing that leaves your skin feeling clean, CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser is a solid alternative which also earns accolades from experts and garners equally positive feedback in thousands of user reviews. As with CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, we read a few reports from users who experienced rashes or breakouts after using CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser, and some say it's too drying on their skin (experts say it's best for normal to oily skin). Both CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser and CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser earn top scores from Beautypedia's skincare experts. It's worth pointing out that while it's not mentioned by Beautypedia's experts, a few users complain about certain ingredients contained by CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser -- notably, propylene glycol and parabens -- which have come under fire in recent years for potentially harmful effects such as irritation or endocrine disruption.

We'd be remiss if we didn't also mention Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser (Est. $15 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, like CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser, several of the Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser's eight ingredients are now known to be potential irritants or endocrine disruptors, including sodium lauryl sulfate and a couple types of parabens.

All three of the aforementioned cleansers are fragrance-free. Both CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser and Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser 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.

Ultra-sensitive skin may respond well to natural face wash

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 three of them come close.

The gentlest of the three is Yes to Cucumbers Gentle Milk Cleanser (Est. $21 for 18 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.

Editors of Beautypedia praise this face wash 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 them 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 gets lots of compliments from users. As with many natural face washes, 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 Neutrogena Naturals Fresh Cleansing and Makeup Remover (Est. $11 for 12 oz.). This product line averages 94 percent natural ingredients and is free of chemical sulfates, parabens, petrolatum, dyes and phthalates. It, too, draws a top rating from Beautypedia 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.

Another affordable natural face wash that earns top scores from skincare experts at Beautypedia, Simple Moisturizing Facial Wash (Est. $9 for 10 oz.) helps to maintain the skin's natural barrier and contains several beneficial ingredients, such as bisabolol, which comes from chamomile and has a skin-calming and soothing effect, and vitamins B5 and E. Editors say the latest formula is fragrance-free (a previous formulation contained fragrant rose geranium oil, which could irritate skin) and uses only gentle cleansing agents. With a gel-like texture, it removes oil, dirt and makeup, rinsing cleanly without making skin feel tight or over-drying.

Most users agree, with many saying it leaves their skin feeling soft and hydrated, but not oily. Many users say it works well on their sensitive skin, but a few report irritation and reactions to this face wash. It doesn't lather, which most users don't seem to mind. However, if you prefer a sudsy facial cleansing experience, Simple Foaming Cleanser (Est. $7 for 5 oz.) is an alternative that will do the trick. It also contains skin-soothing ingredients and gentle cleansing agents, plus glycerin for hydration. Like Simple Moisturizing Face Wash, it earns top scores from Beautypedia's experts and mostly positive feedback from hundreds of users. On the downside, although it's fragrance-free, some reviewers say they don't care for the scent of this face wash, and there are a few reports of reactions and breakouts. 

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