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.
Know before you go
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.
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. In fact, some of the top-rated cleansers have a creamy, lotion-like consistency and lather barely if at all.
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.
Are you sensitive to fragrance? Even some natural facial cleansers contain fragrance from natural sources, such as essential oils. If you're sensitive to fragrance due to allergies or other conditions, or if your skin reacts poorly to these ingredients, opt for a fragrance-free face wash.
Do you use a separate makeup remover? If you already use a separate makeup remover, you don't necessarily need a face wash that's up to that task. But if you don't want to use a separate product to remove makeup, consider a face wash that pulls double-duty -- some of our best-reviewed face washes remove all traces of even the most stubborn makeup.
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 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.