Gentle Cleanser: Best One for Your Skin and How to Use It (2023)

  • Gentle cleansers are an ideal choice for all skin types, not just dry and sensitive skin
  • These cleansers support a healthy barrier function by balancing oils and moisture, and maintaining a normal pH level
  • Based on your skin type, you can choose among gel, cream, lotion, foam and clay formulations

Gentle cleansers are an important part of an effective skin care regimen as they are specifically formulated to rid the skin of grime, excess oils and debris while maintaining the health of the skin barrier.

In contrast, facial washes and soaps can contain any number of harmful ingredients that can irritate and dry skin such as parabens, surfactants, phthalates, triclosan and formaldehyde to name just a few.

In addition, facial washes usually contain more astringent ingredients along with foaming agents to provide a deeper cleanse; this may be ideal for oily or acne-prone skin, but is not the case for dry, normal, sensitive or combination skin.

In contrast, gentle cleansers typically forgo harsh chemicals, dyes and irritating fragrances allowing them to be more hydrating and soothing than a cleanser.


Do Gentle Cleansers Work?

Gentle cleansers offer a number of benefits. Not only are they effective in lifting away impurities, and excess oils from facial skin, they help protect the outer layer of the skin, the stratum corneum.

The stratum corneum is composed of lipids such as fatty acids, ceramides and cholesterol, and serves as a barrier to protect moisture evaporating from the skin and prevent harmful environment contaminants from entering the skin.

Cleansing with a regular facial wash is understood to compromise this barrier primarily by the effects of harsh surfactants and by depleting these lipids causing dryness, itching, stinging, sensitivity and redness.

Gentle cleansers work effectively, and can do so with less impact to the skin barrier to maintain hydrated, supple and healthy skin.

Tips for Choosing a Gentle Facial Cleanser

All facial washes, even gentle, contain surfactants. These are ingredients that are widely used in skin care products to lift away grime and oil from the skin, and are required to cleanse the skin effectively.

Surfactants are understood to damage the skin barrier. To mitigate these effects, it is important that your chosen cleanser contain agents that benefit the skin such as occlusives, skin lipids and humectants. These effectively improve hydration and support skin health.

In addition, opt for a product that is labeled pH-balanced (ideally with a pH level of 4.0–5.0) to maintain your skin’s equilibrium; cleansers can lower skin’s pH which also negatively affects the barrier function.

Avoid cleansers that contain harsh surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, as they are known to damage skin.

Instead, opt for a cleanser that contains a mild or natural surfactant. These are typically plant-based that are processed in order to be used in cosmetic and skin care products; these are safer for use.

Read the product label to ensure your cleanser is free of fragrances, parabens, phthalates, sulfates and formaldehyde. Any of these additives can cause irritation and disrupt the natural balance of the stratum corneum; some can cause health issues and are best to be avoided.

Best Gentle Cleansers for Your Skin

The best gentle cleanser for your skin will address the needs of your specific skin type. There is a wide range to choose from with a variety of added agents that are available in different combinations.

Gentle cleansers can be found in gel, cream, foam, lotion and clay formats. You may need to experiment with several types before finding the one that works best for you; be guided by the way your skin looks and feels.

Normal skin

Normal skin is neither too oily nor too dry, and typically shows few signs of sensitivity such as blotchiness or redness. For normal skin types, a gel cleanser would be the ideal choice as they are lightweight, deliver a deep cleanse, but do not strip skin of natural oils.

Clay cleansers are typically marketed toward oily and acne-prone skin, but they are suitable for any skin type as they are known to be gentle on skin.

No matter your skin type, you need to replenish your skin with moisturizing agents to protect from water loss and to avoid developing skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis.

You can obtain this moisture by opting for a gel formulated with a hydrating agent such as hyaluronic acid or vitamin E.

Dry skin

Dry skin has a tendency to feel uncomfortable and tight and may show areas of flakiness.

If you have dry skin, a cream cleanser is ideal as the cream formula replaces traditional suds or foam that can strip natural oils from skin. Cream formulas tend to be thick and rich in texture and deliver more hydration than other cleansers.

Choose a cream cleansers that contains moisture-boosting agents such as:

  • Ceramides, waxy lipids that retain moisture in skin and help support the skin barrier function
  • Glycerin, to soften and hydrate skin, help maintain elasticity and contribute to skin barrier repair
  • Hyaluronic acid can deeply hydrate skin to improve its texture and appearance

Oily skin

Oily skin is indicative of excess sebum production and is likely to be accompanied by enlarged pores as well as blackheads and whiteheads.

To remedy these issues, opt for a lightweight gel or foam product for deep cleansing; foam cleansers also have the added benefit of providing a level of exfoliation to slough off dead skin cells and help clear pores.

Clay cleansers are another effective option as they not only remove impurities and cleanse the skin but also have strong oil-absorbing properties.

These cleansers are lightweight and therefore less likely to clog pores than heavier cream formulations. When making a choice, look for ingredients that control oil and unclog pores, such as:

  • Retinol can clear pores, gently exfoliate and smooth skin
  • Niacinamide has been demonstrated to lower the rate of sebum excretion, and can improve elasticity to tighten pores and improve texture
  • Salicylic acid can penetrate deep within pores to remove debris and excess oils that cause blackheads and whiteheads to form

Combination skin

Combination skin is characterized by areas of dryness on the cheeks and oiliness in the T-zone. A gel-based or cream cleanser are both appropriate for this skin type; and while it may seem challenging, it is possible to address both concerns with one product.

Opt for a balancing cleanser that includes ceramides or hyaluronic acid to boost hydration in dry areas and exfoliants to target the oilier areas. Other ingredients to look for include:

  • Amino acids can regulate oil production, and repair and strengthen the skin barrier
  • Glycolic acid is a natural exfoliant that can shed dry, dead skin cells as well as excess oils

Sensitive skin

Sensitive skin is easily irritated by environmental stimuli. Hypersensitive skin is characterized by periods of uncomfortable sensations of stinging, burning and tingling; as well as redness and rash.

As such, it is especially important to use a gentle cleanser that is free of additives such as fragrances, dyes, parabens and sulfates.

A cream or lotion cleanser containing anti-inflammatory and moisturizing ingredients will work to soothe, protect and moisturize skin. In addition to ceramides and hyaluronic acid to hydrate skin, look for the following:

  • Aloe vera can relieve redness, itchiness and rash; calm inflammation, moisturize and protect skin
  • Chamomile is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, and can repair the skin barrier

How to Use a Gentle Facial Cleanser

Whether you choose to wash your face once or twice a day will depend on your skin type and the way your skin reacts.

For example, dry skin may benefit from a twice-a-day cleansing if this product is rich in lipids and humectants; combination skin may feel more comfortable if cleansed just once, at the end of the day.

For all skin types, gently cleanse your face for a maximum of 20–30 seconds using a minimum amount of product: the longer the cleanser is in contact with your skin, the more damage it can cause.

Rinse well and continue with your usual skin care routine. If you notice any irritation or redness after introducing a new cleanser to your routine, discontinue use and try another product.


Gentle cleansers are a smart alternative to regular cleansers as they are typically formulated with milder ingredients and include agents to restore moisture, balance oils and protect the skin barrier.

These cleansers are available in light-weight gels, deep cleansing foams, rich lotions and creams, and oil-absorbing clay formats to suit any skin type. The best gentle cleanser for your skin will work in harmony with your individual skin type and its requirements.

While all facial cleansers, even gentle ones, contain surfactants in order to be effective, they do have an impact on the skin barrier. With this in mind, ensure you opt for a product that includes occlusives, lipids and humectants. These agents will minimize irritation and help restore and strengthen the skin barrier.


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