And what about number four? Sodium laureth is the one sulfate most experts agree is totally okay to include in facial cleansers. It’s notorious sibling, sodium lauryl sulfate, can be particularly drying, but sodium laureth sulfate has a different chemical structure and milder effect that still produces that soapy lather associated with feeling clean. (Don’t worry though — we made sure to include top picks both with and without sulfates.)
We nixed any contenders with controversial ingredients.
“Controversial” is a loaded word, fueled by a lot of consumer fear and a dearth of hard facts. For this review, we looked for ingredients that can be skin irritating at best and cancer-causing at worst — plus avoided any whose side effects are still undetermined or misunderstood. These included formaldehyde releasers like diazolidinyl urea and quaternium-15, pore-clogging fillers like mineral oil, and antibacterial agents like triclosan. We didn’t cut any cleansers for having parabens, since the concentration in face wash is well below the FDA’s recommendation. But there are plenty of options available if you’re not keen on them.
We were left with nearly 250 gels, creams, oils, bars and foams — all with ingredients we loved.
To help us pick out the best, we turned to two experts — a dermatologist and a top aesthetician — to weigh in on what ingredients to seek out, and then polled two more dermatologists on their go-to recommendations that we could put to the test.
Dr. Debra Jaliman, and author of Skin Rules, recommends:
- Ceramides: A group of lipids that retains water.
- Bisabolol: A derivative of chamomile that helps soothe skin.
- Decyl glucoside: A cleanser that’s so gentle it’s often used on babies.
- Hyaluronic acid and glycerin: Two humectants that bring on the moisture.
Meanwhile, Kerry Benjamin, aesthetician and founder of Stacked Skincare, offered the following suggestions:
- Aloe: An all-natural antibacterial that pulls double-duty as an anti-inflammatory.
- Allantoin: A hydrating anti-inflammatory.
- Glycerin and panthenol: A double-dose of hydrators.
- Jojoba oil: An inexpensive, accessible surfactant. Benjamin loves using it to remove makeup before cleansing, since most face washes have a hard time removing everything. She recommends it as a standalone makeup remover, but it also boosts the makeup-removing power of face wash when it’s in the mix, and it’s good for all skin types because it doesn’t clog pores.
- Lactic and glycolic acid: Exfoliating and moisturizing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). They’re less irritating than physical exfoliators like sugars and salts for daily use. Benjamin also recommends citric acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid for the same reasons.
- Rose hip (seed) oil: An anti-inflammatory that combats signs of aging.
- Vitamin E and shea butter: Two different ways to soothe and moisturize.
We scoured our list of approved products for these powerhouse ingredients and combined any that had two or more with our experts’ personal product recommendation. We wound up with 17.
To test how well each dissolved makeup, we streaked the backs of our hands with waterproof mascara, eye shadow, long-lasting foundation, and baby oil; wet our skin with lukewarm water; and massaged a dime-size amount of cleanser for 15 seconds directly on the “dirt.” Then, we washed our bare faces the same way. The best face wash was the one that decimated the makeup and oil, but still left our faces feeling fresh and elastic.
Our Picks for the Best Facial Cleanser