Facial cleansers seem like one of the most basic skincare products, but it can be surprisingly complicated to find the perfect one. You want a cleanser that’s strong enough to remove makeup, sweat, and bacteria, but not so strong that it leaves skin feeling tight, dry, or irritated. You want it to contain only clean, nontoxic ingredients, but you also want it to actually work. And that’s before you get to any pesky skin concerns like acne, rosacea, or an oily T-zone.
Yes, it is possible to find a natural face cleanser that’s just right. It all comes down to what’s inside the bottle. Here, we break down the ingredients you want to look for in a facial cleanser—and the ones you should avoid—based on skin type.
How to Find the Best Gentle Face Cleanser
Pretty much everyone can benefit from a gentle face cleanser that thoroughly removes dirt and bacteria without drying or irritating, but if you have sensitive skin, it’s especially important to find one that uses effective yet calming ingredients so skin feels soft and smooth. Avoid using foaming cleansers that contain sodium lauryl sulfate, which creates that fun, sudsy lather but can also cause skin irritation. You should also steer clear of other common irritants and allergens such as added fragrance, formaldehyde, and propylene glycol.
Instead, seek out skincare ingredients such as glycolic acid, which is derived from sugarcane. The most popular alpha hydroxy acid, it gently exfoliates by “ungluing” dead skin cells (versus physically rubbing or inflaming skin like scrubs and retinoids do) and stimulates collagen, reducing fine lines and wrinkles. Another stellar anti-aging ingredient, willow bark extract has a soothing, anti-inflammatory effect that’s great for picky skin.
How to Find the Best Face Cleanser for Oily Skin
Oily skin is caused by an overproduction of sebum (an oily substance that comes from your sebaceous glands and helps protect your skin), which, in turn, can clog pores and cause breakouts (no bueno). To keep your shine in check, look for a gentle face cleanser that contains niacinamide (a form of vitamin B3), which can regulate sebum while strengthening your skin’s protective barrier and minimizing the size of your pores, leaving skin feeling soft and radiant. Willow bark extract works well for greasy skin too, as it may help balance oil production.
On the flip side, oily types should refrain from using skincare products with drying alcohols (which will cause your skin to create more oil in the long run), mineral oil (clogs pores and triggers acne), and SLS (strips water from the skin, also causing your skin to overcompensate by bumping up oil production).
How to Find the Best Face Cleanser for Dry Skin
If you’ve got the reverse problem—dull, flaky, dry skin—you might think you should put the exact opposite things on your skin, but that’s not necessarily the case. Many of these super-ingredients help restore your skin to its optimal state, no matter what’s out of balance.
By renewing your skin’s barrier, niacinamide helps lock in moisture, leaving skin hydrated and supple. And though you might think AHAs would have a drying effect, glycolic acid actually gives you a boost by exfoliating dead skin cells, increasing moisture, and revealing glowing skin. Similarly, its AHA cousin mandelic acid may help increase oil production while also exfoliating, smoothing, and brightening dry skin.
You’ll also want to avoid facial cleanser ingredients that will further dry out your skin—for example, drying alcohols and added fragrances.
How to Find the Best Face Cleanser for Acne-Prone Skin
Need to zap those zits? First, get rid of any skincare products that have drying alcohols, added fragrances, or silicone; they can all cause unwanted flare-ups. Then, look for a natural face cleanser that contains—yep, you guessed it—glycolic acid. As if we haven’t sung it’s praises enough, the AHA stops acne in its tracks by getting rid of dead skin cells that would otherwise build up and clog pores. Even better: It can help diminish dark spots and scars left behind by acne. Glycolic acid is also a lot gentler than salicylic acid, a ubiquitous ingredient in acne treatments.
The same goes for mandelic acid. Because its molecules are larger, the lesser-known AHA penetrates the skin more slowly than glycolic or salicylic, so it’s less irritating and therefore better for sensitive types. However, it’s still a powerful exfoliator that clears out pores and—bonus—has antibacterial properties to help fight off acne-causing bacteria.
Given their anti-inflammatory effects, niacinamide and willow bark extract may reduce the appearance of breakouts in acne-prone skin. As we mentioned earlier, niacinamide has also been shown to decrease oil production, so it may help with one of the root causes of acne (oil-clogged pores) as well.
How to Find the Best Face Cleanser for Rosacea
Because rosacea is a type of skin inflammation, like acne, you’ll want to look for a lot of the same anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as niacinamide and willow bark extract. While the most important thing you can do for rosacea is wear sunscreen, which helps prevent flare-ups, you probably also want to eliminate products that contain irritating ingredients such as drying alcohols, some essential oils, added fragrances, and propylene glycol.