Despite the many borderline violent, battle-adjacent descriptors we tend to see associated with skin care — acne-fighting! pore obliterating! wrinkle combatting! — most experts will tell you that when it comes to cleansing, gentle is what really matters.
As it turns out, coddling, soothing, supportive face washes that don't strip or irritate (and certainly don't obliterate) are the basis for any smart, effective skin-care routine. To understand the importance of finding a gentle cleanser, a knowledge of the skin barrier and how it functions is key.
"The health of the skin barrier is important because it helps to keep our skin moisturized and to protect us from infections, irritations and other environmental dangers," says Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "Harsh cleansers can damage the skin barrier by stripping the skin of its natural oils, leaving it dried out, affecting the pH or affecting the microbiome."
To delve a little more into complexion science: The skin barrier itself has a slightly acidic pH, which gives it the name the "acid mantle," according to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, also a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "This [slightly acidic] pH is needed for optimal skin functioning. When the pH is disrupted, the skin cannot adequately maintain proper hydration and protection from the outside world," he says. "Traditional soaps have an alkaline pH, which is damaging to the outer skin layer. This is why the newest generation of liquid cleansers and bars use synthetic detergent ingredients that are more balanced to the needs of the skin. They're not actually soaps by their true definition, but rather non-soap cleansers to remove soiling from the skin."
And then there's the skin microbiome, which I like to think of this as the happy little Richard Scarry world of complexion-helpers living and thriving on our skin. (Delightful, isn't it?)
"The microbiome is the collection of microorganisms that live on the surface of the skin. As much as you'd like to think your skin is completely clean, the truth is that it's crawling with organisms like bacteria that are essential for proper skin barrier function," says Dr. Zeichner. "Using harsh, stripping soaps can disrupt the barrier and alter the microbiome. This translates to dryness, redness, flaking, itching and skin inflammation."
In seeking out gentle face wash formulas that won't mess with skin (or its microbiome, pH or acid mantle function), both derms advise keeping a close eye on ingredient lists.
"Look for microbiome-friendly formulations that contain moisturizing ingredients like humectants, emollients and occlusives; avoid harsh detergents like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and alcohol," says Dr. King. "Mild surfactants are gentler. Depending on your skin, you may also benefit from avoiding cleansers that contain salicylic acid, glycolic acid or other exfoliating acids [for a gentle cleanse.]" Because some people may have sensitivities or allergies to fragrances (whether artificially produced or naturally derived), our expert advisers suggest seeking out fragrance-free formulas where possible as well.
If all of that sounds a bit confusing or overwhelming, Dr. Zeichner flags that sometimes, it can be as simple as paying attention to the words used in a product's name to figure out what's gentle and what's not: Formulas referred to as cleansing "lotions," "milks," "balms" or "oils" — which typically tend to be non-foaming and hydrating — are ideal for those with particularly dry or sensitive skin.
The good news? Gentle, effective cleansers are pretty easy to find on beauty shelves. And they're quite accessible — as in, $6-at-your-nearest-drugstore accessible.
Both of the experts we consulted cited the classic Dove Beauty Bar — yep, good old bar soap — among their top recommendations for gentle face washes. As Dr. Zeichner put it: "The Dove Beauty Bar is the best-kept secret at the drugstore. This non-soap cleansing bar is gentle enough for the face, but powerful enough for the body. It contains the same types of hydrating ingredients found in traditional moisturizers, so it cleanses while respecting the skin barrier."
Dr. King (who we interviewed separately for this story, it feels important to note) was quick to sing its praises as well. "I highly recommend Dove Beauty Bar and Dove Body Wash because these formulations gently cleanse, moisturize the skin and support the skin barrier, and they are microbiome-friendly," she says. "They come in a variety of scents and formulations, so there are good options for everyone. And they're non-comedogenic — great for the face as well as the body."
If bar soap isn't your thing or if you have slightly more expensive taste when it comes to your beauty routine, there are plenty of other excellent gentle face washes out there to choose from. Find a handful of our expert dermatologists' top picks, as well as some of our own additions, in the gallery below.
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