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You Need A Real, Grown-Up Cleanser

So we may have all learned at sleepaway camp that plain old soap and water is all we really need, but in reality soap is decidedly unhelpful when it comes to improving the health and look of your skin. Conventional mass market bar soap is made with industrial surfactants that strip and dry skin; even the ones labeled “moisturizing” have simply added moisturizer to the surfactant base, rather than removing it. Dry skin is not just unhealthier and less able to defend itself, it also looks older: less even, less plump, less dewy.

Even oily skin is damaged by strong surfactants, which irritate already-irritable skin and can stimulate oil glands to produce even more oil, says New York dermatologist Amy Wechsler, consultant for Chanel skincare. In short, even the most non-makeup, non-beauty oriented person is better off without (aptly named) “plain old” soap.

Surfactants are what make soapy things foam up, so many of the best-for-skin cleansers don’t actually foam. It can take some getting used to, but once you’re into the creaminess and comfort of non-foaming, it’s hard to return to the world of stripping, drying surfactants. Apply May Lindstrom’s Honey Mud ($80, with her luxe skin brush, and the sensation is different than foam but deeply satisfying. Similarly, balms that come off with a cleansing cloth, like the one from Beautycounter ($75, give a different but yes-my skin-is getting-clean sensation. But if you super-love foam, there are new, natural surfactants out there made out of coconuts, sugar beets, and other skin-friendly ingredients, and some versions are actually moisturizing.

For the healthiest skin, think of dewy-clean or protected-clean instead of squeaky-clean; skin has a protective mantle that keeps moisture in, and bacteria (including acne bacteria), dirt and irritants out, and you want to keep that barrier intact.

With that in mind, don’t assume you need to cleanse in the morning. In the evening, there’s stuff to remove–makeup, sunscreen, dirt, pollution, etc.–but when you wake up, your skin’s in pretty good shape. “If your skin’s clean at bedtime, it should still be clean in the morning,” says Wechsler. If you like cleansing in the morning, it certainly won’t hurt, but you can save money, time, and a bit of skin-protective-barrier by skipping.

But every time you do cleanse, you want it to work…and not just for the obvious grime-off-face reasons. The right cleanser preps your skin for treatment products going on after; simply wetting your skin makes even prescription creams like Retin-A more effective, as water speeds and deepens absorption of ingredients dramatically. A slightly exfoliating cleanser like Tata Harper’s Regenerating Cream Cleanser ($75, or Tatcha’s gentle rice enzyme powder ($65, can further clear the way for skincare-ingredient delivery.

*NOTE for all with teenagers: Partly because they hate to wash their faces, and partly because the gently-exfoliating formula’s amazing, the Yes to Tomatoes anti-breakout wipes ($3.79, are utterly life-changing.

The types of cleanser—creams, foams, etc.—don’t exactly match up with what types of skin they’re good for. Not all foams are super-surfactant-intensive; Wechsler says she likes Chanel’s Le Blanc brightening foam ($60, because it doesn’t strip the skin’s natural oils. Cleansing oils like the new one from Burt’s Bees ($14.70, or Juice Beauty’s version ($32, can be counterintuitively amazing for oily skin; gel formulas like Tammy Fender’s spearmint-inflected treatment can actually be moisturizing. So finding your ultimate product definitely involves label-reading, sampling, and considering. If you buy them from goop, you’ll know that they’re non-toxic, clean, and free from harmful chemicals. Below, our all-time top ten:

The 9 Best Clean Cleansers

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