The Complete Guide to Face Cleansers for Every Skin Type

How to choose the best face wash for your skin

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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.

If you're trying to find the best cleanser for your skin, we're here to help. We break down what ingredients to avoid, and how to choose the right face wash for your skin.

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 that could throw off your skin’s natural balancing act. 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 can change on you from one week to the next. Your skin may be dry one day, oily or combination the next. What's the reason for this change? 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.

Closeup of a woman applying white cream to her face with her hands

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 face wash 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 all skin types

The cleanser by Curology We designed our own cleanser - and moisturizer - to work well for every skin type. Both are gentle enough for the most sensitive skin, but also effective for oily, dry, and combination skin types.

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 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.

Hand holding Curology cleanser against a neutral background

Our in-house dermatologists designed this cleanser to work for all Curology members, no matter what their skin type. It's formulated with non-comedogenic ingredients and free of parabens, sulfates, fragrances, dyes, or other common skin irritants. It works great for all skin types and complements the acne treatment you use.

If you have another favorite product 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

Many of the anti-acne cleansers do more harm than good. This is because skin that breaks out also tends to be sensitive. Face wash containing acne-fighting ingredients such as salicylic acid can have a drying. This can irritate the skin, making 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

Best face wash for oily acne-prone skin

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.

Closeup of woman's face behind bubble wrap

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. This could backfire on you by irritating your skin, compelling it to produce even more oil to compensate, or causing breakouts.

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

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Cleansers 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 individual pace to help it maintain a healthy balance of its moisture levels.

Best face wash for dry skin

Best oil-based cleansers for dry skin

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:

Cleansers for sensitive skin

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

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.

Closeup of the bottom half of a face with fingers and pink flowers against a neutral background

Best face wash for sensitive skin

Best face wash for sensitive dry skin

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!

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.

Closeup of a woman's face behind wire

Best face wash 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

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!

Cleansing Oil Recommendations

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Cleanser Ingredients

Ingredients to look for in a cleanser

  • 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

  • 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), 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 for pore-clogging or skin-irritating ingredients in a cleanser

CosDNA.com is such a valuable (free!) tool. 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.

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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.

Product Links: Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).

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