Washing your face is an essential step to any skin care routine. Like the other non-negotiables — serums, moisturizers, eye creams — cleansers come in a variety of formulations targeted for different skin types and needs. At the bottom line, whatever face wash you choose should effectively clear the skin of makeup, dirt and other external factors like pollution, which can clog pores, irritate the skin and lead to breakouts.
To find the best cleanser, you’ll want to consider your skin type, goals and daily habits. These factors affect how often you should wash your face and what type of formula might be ideal. Ahead, we speak to three skin care experts about how to incorporate cleanser into your regimen, as well as the top cleansers for dry, sensitive, acne-prone and oily skin types.
“Cleanser should be used at least once a day,” says Amy Peterson, medical aesthetician and founder of Miami medspa Skincare by Amy Peterson. “I typically recommend washing at night in order to remove the makeup, sunscreen, oil and dirt that your face was exposed to throughout the day.”
Some may also want to cleanse in the morning, which is an added step that Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Dr. Loretta skin care line actually recommends for all skin types. “Some people fear that washing twice a day can dry their skin, but if this happens it is a signal that you are not using the right cleanser for your skin type or the water that you are using for your cleansing (for example, hard water),” Ciraldo says.
“Many other factors can affect how often you should cleanse your face, such as the time of day you work out, what active ingredients you are using at night and whether you live in a hot, humid environment or a cold, dry environment,” Peterson adds.
Using a different cleanser in the morning than you do at night, or rotating a few different face washes in your routine, may also benefit your skin. With numerous types of face washes — gels, creams, balms, oils, cleansing bars and more — you can tailor it to your needs.
Gels are typically suitable for all skin types, while those with dry skin may want to opt for a cream or balm cleanser. “Creams and balms are good for [people] with very dry, flaky skin or if you live in an area with high calcium content in the water, referred to as ‘hard water,’” Ciraldo says. “If you have hard water in your home and your skin is flaky, you should consider a creamy cleanser because it can be [wiped off] without needing water.”
Double-cleansing — washing your face once with an oil-based cleanser, then again with a water-based cleanser — has become commonplace, too. But it’s important to remember that oil-based cleansers shouldn’t be used alone. “Oil cleansers are typically a pre-cleanse used to remove makeup,” explains Jessica Houston, lead esthetician and VP of operations at Beautybeez. “These types of cleansers should not be used as your daily cleanser.”
Ciraldo agrees, also noting that “since oil and water do not mix, oil cleansers can leave a film on your skin even after you wash off.” She suggests those worried about stripping the skin try a creamy cleanser or hydrating gel cleanser instead.
To further help you choose the best cleanser, the three skin experts picked 20 of their favorite face washes for each skin type.
$35 at Dr. Loretta and Dermstore
Ciraldo recommends the same cleansers for oily and acne-prone skin types. This gentle exfoliating cleanser from her line is free from sensitizing and drying ingredients, and helps detoxify from external elements. “I have seen firsthand in thousands of my own patients the acne and oily skin response to our Dr. Loretta Micro Exfoliating Cleanser,” the dermatologist says. “It leaves skin feeling soft and smooth, and with 2% salicylic acid it is registered as an over-the-counter acne drug.”
Peterson recommends this clarifying cleanser that she says, “gently resurfaces the skin and helps control acne without stripping the skin of its essential natural oils.”
From $9.99 at Amazon or $13.69 at Target
An effective and affordable option, Ciraldo recommends this foaming cleanser from CeraVe. “[It] has 4% benzoyl peroxide (compared to 10% in Panoxyl and 2.5% in ProActive), combined with acne- and oil-control glycolic, but in a base that combines multiple skin-healthy ceramides to replenish moisture as it addresses acne and oily skin,” she says.
LHA, or caproloyl salicylic acid, is the main ingredient in this face wash that is formulated for skin types prone to breakouts. Along with glycolic acid, it gently exfoliates and “refines the appearance of congested pores and helps reduce blemishes without drying the skin,” Peterson says.
$16.50 at Amazon and Beautybeez
“This cleanser is great for all skin types, but I really like recommending it to my clients who want to control their oil production,” Houston says. It has a gel-to-foam formula with zinc gluconate, which helps with excess oil and unclogging pores.
This pH-balanced cleanser features a “blend of amino acids and enzymes that loosen oil and impurities on the skin and in the pores,” Peterson shares.
From $14 at Sephora and Amazon
Peterson likes this face wash for its “ingredients that exfoliate, remove oils and refine large pores,” such as lactic acid, glycolic acid and willow bark extract.
$28 at Hyper Skin and Sephora
“This cleanser gives your skin a strong cleanse without stripping away your natural skin barrier,” Houston says. “It has mandelic acid to help regulate oil production as well as natural botanicals to help calm inflammation.”
$35 at Dr. Loretta and Dermstore
I’ve been using Dr. Loretta’s Gentle Hydrating Cleanser for years, and it has always kept my skin feeling clean and balanced. I particularly like it for a morning cleanse because of its gentle non-stripping formula (It’s also great for those with dry skin!). Ciraldo says that it is “infused with a marine extract that absorbs environmental aggressors from skin surface, chamomile and ginger to calm skin, and peptides to firm skin.” The dermatologist uses it on all of her sensitive-skinned, rosacea and post-procedure patients “who invariably make it the number one go-to wash.”
Good for all skin types but especially those with sensitive skin, this cleanser has “a gentle, silky gel formula that leaves skin feeling refreshed,” says Peterson.
This balancing face wash won’t irritate sensitive skin or make it feel tight. Instead, it “comfortably cleanses and softens the skin,” according to Peterson. Reviewers favor the foaming formula for a second cleanse in a double-cleansing routine.
Featuring a humectant-rich formula, Peterson says this face wash has “a rich, creamy formula that cleanses, hydrates and soothes the skin.”
“This is a personal favorite of mine,” Houston shares. “It’s also great for any skin type, including oily.” Made with meadowfoam seed oil, it tones and conditions the skin and is gentle enough to use around the eye area. “It’s an overall great cleanser that will keep the skin balanced and moisturized,” says Houston.
$74 at Augustinus Bader and Nordstrom
For those that need a gentle but thorough cleanse, Augustinus Bader’s cleansing balm is a nourishing option. The balm “dissolves daily build-up while hydrating, soothing and conditioning the skin,” according to Peterson.
“CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser combines three skin-friendly ceramide oils to trap in moisture, with hyaluronic acid to act like a moisture sponge to absorb water at skin’s surface,” Ciraldo says.
Peterson recommends this oil-based cleanser that she says “restores moisture and protects the skin’s barrier.” Olive oil, sunflower oil and clary sage keep skin hydrated while helping to melt away makeup and dirt.
Peterson says this is “an exfoliating cleanser that firms, brightens and promotes a more even skin tone by gently resurfacing the skin, ridding it of pollution and impurities.”
“Make sure to be careful with exfoliating cleansers as they could sensitize the skin,” Houston warns. She likes this Philosophy cleanser because it is “gentle enough to use two to three times daily, ridding the skin of any dead skin cells and giving the skin a more polished look.”
Ciraldo likes this drugstore option that combines two different AHAs, glycolic and mandelic. “Since the AHAs work mostly to exfoliate at the skin surface, this cleanser is a good choice if you want to brighten skin by removing excess pigment stored in surface dead cells,” she says.
Combining chemical and physical exfoliants, Peterson picks this face wash that sloughs away dead skin and debris on the surface with biodegradable jojoba esters, while salicylic acid cleanses deeper into the pores.