Typically, a skin care routine is tailored to your personal preferences — meaning you choose products for their texture, scent, and of course efficacy. You may also like to swap a moisturizer for a face oil, or an eye cream for an eye serum. However, there is one step that’s non-negotiable for healthy skin: washing your face. Compared to the rest of your routine, it might seem pretty basic — boring even — but it’s not as simple as picking up the newest buzzy launch. Cleansers are not a one-size-fits-all situation. In fact, how to choose the right cleanser actually depends on your skin type.
“Think of your cleanser as the foundation to your skincare routine,” Dr. Josh Zeichner, board-certified dermatologist and Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells TZR. He explains that the goal of cleansing is to remove dirt, oil, makeup, and other impurities without compromising the integrity of the skin’s outer layer. “Using the wrong cleanser can interfere with optimal skin functioning,” he says. “Using one that is too light means that you won’t get enough off the skin, leaving you feeling heavy or greasy.” He also notes that opting for a cleanser that’s too strong can overly strip the skin causing dryness and irritation.
If you’ve walked through the aisles of your local drugstore in the past five years or so, you’ve probably noticed the shelves are full of cleansers, and not just the Cetaphil formulas you grew up using. “There are cleansing bars, balms, cream cleansers, gel cleansers, sulfate-free cleansers, foamy sulfate-filled cleansers, and then there's this oil-cleansing train,” Danielle Gronich, a clinical esthetician, San Diego Acne Clinic owner, and co-founder of CLEARSTEM Skincare, tells TZR. It can feel a little overwhelming — but don’t worry. Shopping according to your skin type can actually weed out a lot of products that inevitably won’t work for you.
Ahead, find the best type of cleanser for your skin type once and for all, and don’t forget to shop some of the expert-approved products while you’re at it.
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How To Choose A Cleanser: Oily Skin
“For oilier skin, we want more of a gel cleanser, or perhaps one with a bit of lactic acid to help break down the oil without irritating the eye skin,” Gronich says. The esthetician isn’t a fan of harsh or drying cleansers (like those with alcohol) on oily skin, as she says they can trigger more oil production. “Instead it's best to use a gentle but effective cleanser with no pore-cloggers [like coconut oil or shea butter],” she notes.
Dr. Jeannette Graf, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is in agreement that it's best to steer clear of drying formulas. Alternatively, she recommends a product that will help to remove oil without damaging the skin’s natural barrier, such as CeraVe’s Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser. Ingredient-wise, Gronich says to look out for friendly alpha hydroxy acid in a low strength (like salicylic and lactic, or even glycolic), which can be great for oily skin to clear clogged pores.
As Dr. Graf notes, CeraVe’s Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser works to get rid of oil without penetrating the skin’s natural barrier. Key ingredients in this face wash include 4% benzoyl peroxide to clear acne, hyaluronic acid which helps to retain skin's natural moisture, and niacinamide to calm the skin.
How To Choose A Cleanser: Dry Skin
“Dry skin is oftentimes also sensitive and prone to eczema,” Dr. Christine Choi Kim, a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles, tells TZR. That being said, Dr. Kim recommends creamy formulas without any acids, clays, or exfoliating beads. “If rinsing your face with water dries your skin out, you might opt for micellar water instead of a cleanser,” she adds. Additionally, Dr. Kim says to search for humectants such as hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate, or glycerin, which attract much-needed water to the surface of the skin.
Dr. Howard Sobel, founder of Sobel Skin and Attending Dermatologist and Dermatologic Surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, suggests using a cleanser with glycolic acid on dry skin. “Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid, AHA, that offers incredible exfoliation power, effectively removing the top layer of dead skin cells, and purifies skin without leaving it dry or irritated,” he says.
“Yes To’s Avocado Daily Cream Cleanser is ideal for dry, sensitive skin types because it is packed with nourishing avocado oil and hydrating hyaluronic acid,” Dr. Kim explains. “Avocado oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids as well as Vitamins C and E. This cleanser is also fragrance-free and 98% natural ingredients.”
“My Sobel Skin Rx 27% Glycolic Acid Facial Cleanser is an innovative facial cleanser powered by 27% Glycolic Acid and cleanses and exfoliates without drying and stripping skin,” Dr. Sobel explains. “It helps skin feel smooth and look radiant while also improving the appearance of skin’s texture.” After using the product, he says you’ll notice enlarged pores to be diminished.
How To Choose A Cleanser: Acne-Prone Skin
Dr. Kim recommends salicylic acid-based cleansers to almost all of her acne-prone patients. “Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that is oil-soluble and therefore can more deeply penetrate the epidermis to dissolve the mixture of dead skin cells and sebum that clogs pores,” the dermatologist explains.
Another option for those with acne-prone skin is a cleansing oil. “Oil-based cleansers can also benefit oily skin, surprisingly, as they keep the skin’s acid mantle balanced,” Dr. Graf says. When you’re shopping for a cleansing oil, the dermatologist recommends to keep a lookout for more naturally-derived ingredients like sweet almond oil, hazelnut oil, and rose oil. “I would stay away from cleansers with detergents, alcohols, and salts which can dry and irritate the skin,” she advises.
Dr. Zeichner likes a gel formula for acne-prone skin, such as Bliss’ Clear Genius Clarifying Cleanser. “This is formulated with salicylic acid to help remove dirt and oil from the skin and keep pores clear,” he explains. “It also contains Brazilian sea water which naturally has skin-soothing benefits to calm any inflammation.”
How To Choose A Cleanser: Combination Skin
For those with combination skin, Dr. Zeichner suggests looking for lighter options like a gel or creamy cleanser. “They are effective enough for oily areas without causing irritation to dry areas,” the dermatologist explains. “I like Alpha H Balancing Cleanser as it is a cream that soothes with vitamin E and aloe, [and is] a gentle formula that addresses the needs of skin that’s both oily and dry.”
How To Choose A Cleanser: Mature Skin
“As we get older, our skin starts to lose collagen and elastin, and the rate of cell turnover decreases,” Dr. Helia Eragi, a board-certified dermatologist in Newport Beach, California, explains. Therefore, our skin isn’t shedding its dead layer as much as it used to. “That leads to dullness, sagginess of the skin, and wrinkles in addition to signs of chronic sun damage such as brown spots and pigmentary changes.” That being said, she notes that someone with mature skin needs to look for a more rich cleanser containing AHA, vitamin A, retinoids, vitamin C & E, glycolic acid, and B5. These ingredients all help to increase collagen production and cell turnover, leaving your with more even, glowing skin.
According to Gronich, mature skin benefits from moisture retention. “This skin type will likely benefit from a mild cleanser, even one designated for sensitive skin is a safe choice,” she explains. The esthetician says another great option for mature skin is a cream cleanser or light enzyme cleanser, which won’t strip the skin of needed moisture.