Retinol Keeps Popping Up In Cleansers — But Does Your Skin Actually Benefit From It?

The verdict is in.

by Zoe Schaeffer
Close up of Asian woman washing face
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The beauty world is a competitive place; one that makes us believe that each product in our skin care routine must be more hardworking than the next. From face mists that plump to peel pads that smooth wrinkles, double-tasking is the new norm. And now cleansers (formerly known as “a bar of soap”), claim to do way more than simply wash away makeup and grime.

Packed with active ingredients that promise to do everything from brighten to fight acne, it’s hard not to wonder: Do they actually work? “Since the majority of the product is rinsed off the skin, there’s a limit to what the actives in a rinse-off cleanser can do,” says Charlene Valledor, cosmetic chemist and president of SOS Beauty. “Still, certain ingredients are able to have an impact on the skin in a short period of time, and some cleansers even leave a film on the skin after removal, so there can be a residual effect.”

TZR spoke with industry experts to find out whether or not these active-packed cleansers are a worthwhile purchase.

What Are The Skin Benefits Of Using Cleansers With Active Ingredients?

Valledor believes that actives in facial cleansers can be beneficial for multiple purposes (think: softening, moisturizing, controlling breakouts, exfoliating and brightening). Board-Certified Dermatologist Dr. Marguerite Germain agrees. “Inactive ingredients, which come in the form of emollients and stabilizers may support things like hydration, however, you are not using a product that specifically addresses your skin issue,” she says. “While inactive ingredients can improve the feel and smell of a product, it’s the actives that make all the difference in your skin.”

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Do The Active Ingredients In Cleansers Simply Wash Off?

Experts have different opinions on how much the active ingredients are getting into your skin while washing your face. Valledor believes that your skin will absorb some level of actives and, like the other products you layer into your routine, what’s really important is understanding what your skin can handle. “If you’re someone with sensitive skin, you should stay away from anything that is too aggressive, like cleansers that contain AHAs or high levels of vitamin C,” she says. “And if you’re oily and struggle with skin congestion, you’re going to want to steer clear of anything that is too heavy or that doesn’t rinse clean.”

However, Celebrity Dermatologist Dr. Karyn Grossman is more skeptical when it comes to this new category of face wash. “The unfortunate truth about actives in skin cleansers is that they are not nearly as effective since a cleanser is a wash-on and wash-off product,” she says. “It doesn’t stay on your skin long enough for most active ingredients to penetrate and take effect.” She explains that because of this phenomenon, you will often find lower concentrations of active ingredients in cleansers.

What Are The Best Active Ingredients To Look For In A Cleanser?

Dr. Grossman believes that there are some “extras” in cleansers that can be very beneficial to skin. She cites non-physical exfoliants and enzymatics (papain is her favorite) as wonderful ways to help remove the superficial dead layers of skin. Ultimately this will tee-up your barrier for better penetration of active ingredients that you subsequently layer on with serums or creams. She does advise caution when combining with other actives, however, as they can cause possible irritation. “I usually recommend that exfoliating cleansers be used once a patient has an established retinoid routine,” she says.

She also thinks that cleansers with acne ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, AHAs, and BHAs are helpful because they all have strong clinical science behind the results. “While these are wash-on and wash-off, over the years clinical efficacy has been shown on multiple occasions for these types of active ingredients to help with acne, pores, and oily skin,” she explains.

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The last group of actives Dr. Grossman suggests looking for are those that hydrate, restore, and protect the skin barrier since most of us tend to overdo it; stripping away our protective layer and creating underlying inflammation. She says that all skin types can benefit from these cleansers, and recommends scanning ingredient decks for ceramides, coconut and olive oils, and oat beta glucan when shopping for cleansers. “Often my acne patients think they should use stripping cleansers,” she says. “But stripping the skin then makes it difficult for them to use more efficacious leave-on products to help fight acne.”

Dr. Germain adds that she likes mushroom ingredients like reishi, silver ear, and shiitake which have been used in skin care as far back as the Tang Dynasty. “In addition to pulling in moisture and helping with hyperpigmentation, products with mushrooms offer the powers of vitamin A (retinol), C, and D — the powerhouses of skin cell turnover, brighter complexions, and fewer fine lines,” she says.

How Often Should You Use A Cleanser With Active Ingredients?

“With the skin cycling trend taking off, people are massively overthinking their skin routine,” says Celebrity Aesthetician Candace Marino, also known at The LA Facialist. She maintains that active ingredients have many benefits, especially when it comes to cleansers because they are a great way to introduce such ingredients to your skin without overdoing it. “Of course, if you're using additional actives like acid serums or retinol creams, you may feel sensitized with an active cleanser, and therefore, may want to opt for something gentler.”

And when it comes to when you should use these cleansers, Marino supports the idea of using a smarter facial wash in the morning. “Personally, I opt for a quick and gentle cleansing option in the morning when I spend less time on my routine,” she says. “I like to cleanse with micellar water with actives to wake up the skin and remove oil buildup from the night.”

How Do These Cleansers Work With The Other Active Ingredients In Your Routine?

Valledor says that since the effect from a rinse-off formula is going to be incremental and gradual, it shouldn’t have any negative impact on the rest of your routine. Marino agrees, and says that you can even apply a vitamin C serum on top of your active-packed face wash. Cleansers and serums are formulated to work in different ways, so it's great if your cleanser has vitamin C in it — but remember you're rinsing it off, which is why you should apply a serum too,” she explains.

In the end, Dr. Grossman says that while there might not be a significant benefit to actives in cleansers, many of them are all-around great products. “Anti-aging cleansers are formulated to gently cleanse and restore the barrier,” she says. “So, while the active ingredient itself may not be doing that much — the rest of the formulation may be excellent.”

Below, TZR rounded up eight effective cleansers with active ingredients that are worth adding to your skin care routine.

Shop Cleansers With Active Ingredients