How To Find Your Cleanser Soul Mate

Photo: Courtesy of SK-II. Photo: Courtesy of Sephora.
In the hierarchy of skin-care products, the lowly face wash often doesn’t get much thought. Maybe because, within seconds of applying the stuff, we end up washing it down the drain — so, we reason, why not just use body soap or whatever happens to be lying around?
According to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, assistant professor in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, we really should be choosing our face wash carefully. “The wrong cleanser can actually harm your skin, causing irritation and inflammation. In other cases, it may not clean you as effectively as you may need and leave you feeling oily.”
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And, inflammation doesn’t just mean discomfort. Dr. Sandy Johnson, a Fort Smith, Arkansas-based dermatologist, points out that “inflammation will open your pores and leave them big. Then, they will fill with keratin and leave you with blackheads and whiteheads.”
That horrendous sound of a record scratch — the kind that silences rooms — just rang in our heads. Suddenly, we care about cleansers. But, how can we find the right one? To start, Johnson says we should all act as if we have sensitive skin: “Regardless of skin type, everyone should use a gentle cleanser."
Luckily, even smoothly textured formulas can pack regenerative and deep-cleaning properties (without the unpleasant result). In short: No matter how grimy or made-up your face, wash softly and carry a well-formulated cleanser. Ahead, see some non-abrasive selections for every type of skin condition.

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Photo: Courtesy of Ole Henriksen.
Pre-Cleanse
Face touchers, gym rats, models, and night crawlers know that even the most carefully formulated washes can’t do their thing until extra layers of pollution, makeup, and grime are released via pre-cleansing. Johnson recommends cleansing cloths “before you cleanse if you have a lot of cosmetics on your face,” or as a cleansing substitute when on the go.
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Photo: Courtesy of Juara.
Moisturizing Cleanser
Ask any doctor what happens to her hands after she washes them all day: They dry out to the point of flaking. So, how do the already-dry-skinned clean their faces without the shrivel-up-and-dry effect? “Use a milky, creamy cleanser for very dry skin,” advises Johnson. A hydration-sustaining milk — or, in this case, a rice milk — is designed to prevent moisture loss and contains amino acids to help soften skin.
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Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Arden.
Regulating Cleanser
What to give the complexion that has everything (oily skin with some drier patches, uneven tone, and the occasional dullness)? Try a gentle foaming cleanser, like this one (which is spiked with moisturizing hyaluronic acid, phospholipids, and lactic acid that stimulates cell turnover). “Usually, foaming cleansers get rid of more oil than hydrating cleansers and give a deeper clean,” Zeichner says.
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Photo: Courtesy of SK-II.
Oil-Absorbing Cleanser
Fight oil with oil? Zeichner approves. “Even oily-skinned patients can use oils without causing breakouts,” he says, noting that botanical oils can help purify the skin. Still fear the grease? This product (which boasts antioxidant-packed plant oils) morphs into a milky consistency with water.
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Photo: Courtesy of Yes To Carrots.
Gentle Cleanser
Foaming cleansers typically get their bubble on via surfactants, which can be irritating to sensitive skin. But, this fragrance-free cream produces a few light air pockets rather than an onslaught of suds. Plus, it does so without the use of parabens, petroleum, SLS, and other skin agitators.
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Photo: Courtesy of SKN.
Purifying Cleanser
Silly us, thinking zits were for kids. While adulthood blemishes are (ridiculously) a real thing, we shouldn’t necessarily use the same tools we used as teens to combat the problem (like benzoyl peroxide, which can be drying). Zeichner suggests a cleanser with salicylic acid, which exfoliates away dead skin cells that can lead to blackheads and breakouts.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tatcha.
Polishing Cleanser
Control the level of exfoliation with each wash by adding more or less water to this powder. The microfine dust — free of many ingredients on watchdog lists (like phthalates, DEA, and mineral oil) — leaves skin feeling smooth and clean without the abrasion.
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Photo: Courtesy of Eve Lom.
Soothing Cleanser
There’s nothing like the soothing TLC that a waxy lip balm can deliver to our kisser. So, it makes sense that balms can offer the same soothing love for our skin. “The waxes can help calm dry and irritated skin,” Zeichner says. We particularly like this lightweight formula, which is dispensed in a tube and doesn’t require that we dunk our digits in a tub o' goo.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tata Harper.
Radiance Cleanser
This alcohol- and detergent-free cleanser is made with pomegranate oil, which Zeichner says “can minimize the appearance of pores,” and white willow bark extract — a beta hydroxy that evens skin tone for a cleaner and brighter complexion.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ahava.
Toning Cleanser
The more steps we shave off our daily skin-care routine, the more minutes in our sleep cycle. This milky cleanser also tones the skin and removes makeup, and it can be wiped clean from our faces with a cloth (which is a godsend on those lazy nights when sloshing water over our visage and feeling around for a towel just isn’t in the cards).
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Photo: Courtesy of Diptyque.
Smoothing Cleanser
Smoothing rough skin used to mean sanding down our mug with cleansers the consistency of coarse sea salt. But, this delicious-smelling skin softener — would we expect anything less from the fragrance masters? — is made of the finest marble powder, rice, and oat kernel paste, which can also double as a purifying face mask.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sephora.
Cleansing Water
For heavily made-up faces, this makeup melter serves as a perfect pre-cleanse, giving our skin a fresh slate for a deeper clean. We also like its pump dispenser, which helps keep the bathroom tidy.
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Photo: Courtesy of SkinMedica.
Brightening Cleanser
This supersmooth cleanser is laced with microfine jojoba beads and alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids. Before we even knew we were using a so-called “scrub,” we had already achieved bright, resurfaced skin without the irritation.
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Photo: Courtesy of Avène.
Evening Cleanser
This ultra-gentle cleanser doesn’t require bubbles, foam, or a dousing of water to clean and soothe ruddy skin. Instead, a light application, followed by a mist of water or hydrosol, leaves your visage clean. Plus, the light touch it requires actually calms redness and irritation. (You know, versus screaming at our skin in the mirror, "Calm the eff down!”)
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