Cleansers for all skin types

The complete guide to cleansers for every skin type

13 minute read

We’re here to tell you what we know, but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider about your specific health concerns.

We know there’s no shortage of face wash options out there, but it’s not every day you find a definitive guide where each face wash is a safe bet. That’s where we come in. Here, you’ll get our shortlist of cleansers for every skin type (including those tricky combination skin types), plus a quick and easy breakdown of the not-so-good-for-you ingredients found in common skincare products that everyone should be avoiding — because some things out there just don’t work, no matter your skin type.

Let’s start with two general guidelines for choosing a face wash. First, keep it simple! You don’t want to use a harsh soap or cleanser that could throw off your skin’s natural balancing act, so we recommend cleansers that are gentle enough and don’t contain potentially harmful or irritating ingredients. Also, don’t worry about it if a certain product is “for women” or “for men.” Skincare is mostly gender-neutral, despite what advertising and branding likes to tell you. Here at Curology, we recommend the best skincare products and techniques for all genders — because your skin is unique, no matter who you are.

How to determine your skin type

The best face wash for you will depend on your skin type, which (newsflash!) can change on you from one week to the next. Your skin may be dry one day, oily or combination the next. What makes it change its mind? It could be hormones, your diet, or the time of the year. Your skin type may even be different on different parts on your face — you might have an oily T-zone, for example, but dry skin on your forehead (aka combination skin). Luckily it’s not hard to figure out what your skin type is on any given day.

STEP 1 Wash your face gently, wait an hour, then check out your skin in the mirror. STEP 2 Pat a blotting paper (gently) on each area of your face: T-zone, forehead, chin, and cheeks. It can be hard to tell whether what you’re seeing on your skin is oil, shine, or just glowiness, so check the sheet each time you blot to see which part of your face was oilier. STEP 3 Wait an hour. If oil has reappeared on your face, your skin type is likely oily skin or combination skin (if you’re only oily in certain places). “Normal” skin isn’t dry nor oily, but smooth and balanced. Normal: Smooth, no signs of dry flakes or shiny oil Oily: Slick and shiny, larger pores Dry: Dry flakes, tight-feeling Combination: Oily T-zone, with normal-to-dry skin everywhere else (fun fact: most people actually have combination skin!)

The good news is that no matter what your skin type is, there’s a cleanser that will work for it: the cleanser by Curology. We designed this to be an all-purpose cleanser that’s friendly to all skin types. It goes to show you don’t need anything fancy or expensive: our cleanser clocks in at under $10 per bottle when you subscribe to the Curology set!

Best face wash for any skin type

The cleanser by Curology We designed our own cleanser and moisturizer to work well for every skin type: they’re gentle enough for the most sensitive skin, but effective enough for oily skin, too. The cleanser helps maintain your skin’s natural moisture barrier, and the moisturizer locks in water while keeping your skin’s hydration levels balanced over time. It also works great for sensitive, acne-prone skin, because it’s formulated with non-comedogenic ingredients and it’s free of parabens, sulfates, fragrances, and dyes. It simply cleans without clogging pores or over-drying the skin—the perfect daily face wash.

If you have another favorite cleanser that your skin likes (especially if it’s labeled gentle or formulated for sensitive skin) feel free to keep on using it. If you’re ready to try something different, we’ve got a face wash for every skin type.

Cleansers for acne-prone skin

We know it’s counterintuitive, but many of the so-called anti-acne cleansers out there just do more harm than good. This is because skin that breaks out tends to be sensitive, too! Face wash containing acne-fighting ingredients such as salicylic acid (for just one example) can have a drying, irritating effect on the skin, which can actually make acne worse. So if you’re prone to breakouts, go with a gentle cleanser and take a good look at the ingredients.

Best face wash for sensitive acne-prone skin

The cleanser by Curology Our in-house dermatologists designed this cleanser to work for all Curology members, no matter what their skin type. That means it’s got to be as safe as possible from pore-clogging and irritating ingredients found in your regular average drugstore cleanser. It’s formulated with non-comedogenic ingredients and free of parabens, sulfates, fragrances, dyes, or other common skin irritants. It works great for acne-prone skin because it’s not too harsh or drying, so it complements whatever acne treatment you use while leaving your skin so fresh and so clean.

We also recommend…

If your skin is oily as well as acne-prone, here are some cleansers designed to work extra hard on that excess oil without harshly stripping your skin or leaving it dried-out.

Best face wash for oily acne-prone skin

Cleansers for oily skin

Think of your oily skin like a well-meaning friend who’s trying a little too hard to be helpful. It’s a good thing that our skin naturally produces oil (aka sebum), but sometimes it can overdo it! That doesn’t mean you want a cleanser that will strip your skin of its natural oils, though — it could backfire on you by irritating your skin, compelling it to produce even more oil to compensate, or causing breakouts. Not fun! The best face wash for oily skin won’t be too drying but will remove the excess oil to keep your pores clean and clear.

Best face wash for oily skin

The cleanser by Curology Curology’s cleanser and moisturizer are designed to work well for all skin types, including oily! The cleanser helps maintain your skin’s natural moisture barrier, and the moisturizer locks in moisture while keeping your skin’s hydration levels balanced over time. They’re also great for sensitive, acne-prone skin, because they’re formulated with non-comedogenic ingredients and free of parabens, sulfates, fragrances, dyes, or other common irritating ingredients.

We also recommend…

Best face wash for dry skin

Dry skin needs a gentle touch—even if it looks flaky, you don’t want to over-exfoliate it. Instead, look for cleansers for sensitive skin, especially those with moisturizing ingredients.

Dry skin is typically lacking in water and/or lipid content, but no worries — you can replenish these with the right ingredients. The skin’s hydration station managers, ceramides and hyaluronic acid, are building blocks that your dry skin might be missing out on.

If you tend to exfoliate often or use anti-acne or anti-aging skincare products that leave your skin feeling tight or dry, you might want to avoid those steps if your skin is suffering from too much dryness. It can be helpful to give your skin a break during seasonal transitions, too. Let it adjust at its own (sk)individual pace to help it maintain a healthy balance of its moisture levels.

We recommend…

The cleanser by Curology Our cleanser and moisturizer are designed to work well for dry skin: the cleanser helps maintain your skin’s natural moisture barrier, and the moisturizer locks in water while keeping your skin’s hydration levels balanced over time. It also works great for both sensitive and acne-prone skin, because it’s formulated with non-comedogenic ingredients and it’s free of parabens, sulfates, fragrances, dyes. It simply cleans, gentle as can be.

Oil cleansers Oil-based cleansers can help replenish and moisturize dry skin at the same time as it lifts dirt and dead skin out of your pores. Here’s our shortlist of non-pore-clogging oil cleansers:

We also recommend…

Best face wash for sensitive skin

Your typical anti-acne cleanser might contain ingredients that can irritate sensitive skin, so try a gentle, lightly hydrating, non-comedogenic cleanser that will leave your skin refreshed, moisturized, and balanced.

The cleanser by Curology Curology’s cleanser is specially designed to work well for sensitive skin. It’s formulated to be non-comedogenic (translation: doesn’t clog pores) and it’s free of parabens, sulfates, fragrances, dyes, and other common irritating ingredients.

We also recommend…

If your skin is both sensitive and dry, look for products with ceramides and hyaluronic acid: two of the skin’s essential components. Ceramides are naturally occurring lipids (fats) in the skin that help it retain moisture and stay strong, while hyaluronic acid is a powerful hydrator that binds and holds water in the skin. If your skin is sensitive, dry, tight, or prone to redness, it might need a dose of these replenishing ingredients!

Best face wash for sensitive dry skin

Cleansers for combination skin

Combination skin often means an oily T-zone, because the sebaceous glands (oil-producers in your skin) tend to be more active around your nose, chin, and forehead than on the other parts of your face. Combination skin isn’t limited to an oily T-zone, though — everyone’s different! For example, your unique combination skin could be a combination of dry and normal, no excess oiliness involved.

Best face wash for combination skin

The cleanser by Curology Curology’s cleanser is designed to work well for any skin type, including combination. The cleanser goes in for a deep clean without stripping your skin’s natural moisture barrier. It also works great for sensitive, acne-prone skin, because it’s formulated with non-comedogenic ingredients and it’s free of parabens, sulfates, fragrances, and dyes. It won’t over-dry your skin, but it won’t leave it too moisturized if your skin is oily — it’s got that delicate Goldilocks-like balance that works for most skin types.

Other cleansers we recommend for combination skin:

Best face wash for dry combination skin

If you’ve got a combination of dry and oily or “normal” skin, or your skin is usually normal but occasionally dry, there are a few possible reasons for that. The skin’s hydration station managers, ceramides and hyaluronic acid, are building blocks that your dry skin might be missing out on. Here are some cleansers below that can help replenish these essential ingredients:

Oil cleansers (yes, really)

Oil cleansers are really helpful for dry and sensitive skin in particular. They’re gentle but effective, leaving the skin nice and hydrated with no need for scrubbing. Oil-based cleansers include not just straight-up oil but cleansing balms and oil-based cleansing creams, all of which can leave the skin looking and feeling more hydrated than traditional cleansers do. We’d recommend cleansing oils and balms for those with drier skin to lock in that extra hydration. Certain oil cleansers even work just fine for oily skin and acne!

Whatever you do, just don’t use coconut oil to cleanse your face. Coconut oil is a notorious pore-clogger!

We recommend…

Ingredients to look for in a cleanser

Dry and sensitive skin

Hyaluronic acid Hyaluronic acid is basically a magnet for moisture — this amazing molecule can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water! It’s naturally produced in the skin, but as we get older (or if we’ve got dry skin), the body might not be producing enough of its own anymore. Replenishing the hyaluronic acid in our skin with gentle cleansers and moisturizers (like the Curology moisturizer!) helps keep the building blocks of your skin, such as collagen, hydrated and happy.

Ceramides Another one of the skin’s building blocks, ceramides help restore moisture and resilience to dry, vulnerable skin. It’s often found in creams, serums, lotions and other products you’d use after cleansing, but there are some ceramide cleansers out there. Skinceuticals Replenishing Cleanser contains ceramides in addition to a bevy of hydrating, gently cleaning ingredients.

Ingredients to avoid in a cleanser

Avoid…

Alcohol. Alcohol is unfortunately used in a lot of skincare products, even though it dries out the skin and can damage its protective barrier! Watch out for alcohol (usually listed as “denatured alcohol” or “alcohol denat.”) on the ingredients list of your products, especially if your skin seems dry, red, tight, itchy, or irritated after using it.

Benzoyl peroxide, AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) and BHA (beta hydroxy acid). Benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid (BHA) and glycolic acid (AHA) are a few ingredients found in skincare products you can buy over-the-counter that might help clear out excess oil in your pores and treat mild acne breakouts. These can be irritating to dry and sensitive skin, however, so we recommend trying a custom formula like Curology to fight breakouts instead!

Isopropyl myristate, sodium laureth sulfate, myristyl myristate, and laureth-4. You’ll want to look at the ingredients list, because these pore-clogging ingredients are pretty common.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). SLS can often dry out the skin, and some people find it may lead to more acne when their skin is in frequent contact with SLS. Many people can tolerate SLS in body washes, though — just don’t use it on your face.

Products not labeled with terms “non-comedogenic”, “non-acnegenic”, “does not clog pores”, or “won’t cause breakouts.” The label “non-comedogenic” (or similar) indicates that the product has been designed with acne-prone people in mind. It’s no guarantee of safety, but it can be a useful guideline! We recommend checking even products labeled non-comedogenic for pore-clogging or irritating ingredients.

How to check if any cleanser has pore-clogging or skin-irritating ingredients

CosDNA.com is such a valuable (free!) tool — it’s a must-have for your Bookmarks. We recommend using CosDNA.com to research your skincare products (including body washes and lotions) in their product database. Pull up and run the ingredient list through the “Analyze Cosmetics” section of their website. Once you click “Analyze”, look in the “acne” column — if there are any 3’s, 4’s, or 5’s, consider stopping using that product. Of course, these ratings are a guide; your (sk)individual reaction may vary.

Check out our guide to using CosDNA.com to screen your products

Micellar water: the cleanser alternative

Micellar water is a secret one-minute shortcut to clean skin. A skincare staple originating from French pharmacies, a few drops on a cotton pad will gently remove oil, dirt, and makeup in a hot minute. We recommend Bioderma Sensibo H2O for sensitive, normal, or oily skin. If your skin tends to be dry, try Bioderma Hydrabio H2O.

When in doubt, custom skincare is what it’s about

If you’re having trouble finding the right solution for your unique skin type, it might be time to add on with a custom formula of prescription ingredients with Curology. If you haven’t given us a try already, sign up for a free trial (you just pay $4.95 for shipping and handling) today to get your very own custom cream. Just apply it at night after cleansing your face, and let it do the work while you get some beauty sleep.

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