woman washing her face

You Need a Real, Grown-Up Face Wash

The sleepaway-camp adage that plain old soap and water is all skin really needs sounds so simple—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 often made with industrial surfactants that strip and dry skin, and even the ones labeled “moisturizing” often just contain added moisturizer on top of the same industrial-surfactant base. 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 can be disturbed by strong surfactants, which can aggravate already-aggravated skin and can stimulate oil glands to produce even more oil, says New York dermatologist Amy Wechsler, MD, an advisor for Chanel skin care. In short, even the most anti-makeup, least beauty-oriented person is better off without (aptly called) “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 nonfoaming, it’s hard to return to the world of stripping, drying surfactants. Smooth on, say, the creamy cleanser from Alpyn Beauty, and the sensation is different from foam but deeply satisfying. Similarly, balms that come off with a cleansing cloth give a different but yes-my-skin-is-getting-clean sensation. But if you really love foam, there are new, natural surfactants out there made from coconuts, sugar beets, and other skin-friendly ingredients, and some versions, like Ursa Major’s Fantastic Face Wash, are genuinely moisturizing.

    Alpyn Beauty

    goop, $36
  2. Skin Design London face bath
    Skin Design London
    face bath
    goop, $100
  3. Ursa Major Fantastic Face Wash
    Ursa Major
    Fantastic Face Wash
    goop, $28

For the healthiest skin, think of dewy-clean or hydrated-clean instead of squeaky-clean: Skin has a protective barrier 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—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.

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 the treatment products that go on afterward—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, sloughs away potentially pore-clogging substances, like dead cells and grime, and is designed to help clear the way for skin-care-ingredient delivery.

  1. Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser
    Tata Harper
    Regenerating Cleanser
    goop, $84

The types of cleanser—creams, foams, etc.—don’t always match up with what types of skin they’re good for. Not all foams are surfactant-intensive. Cleansing oils can be counterintuitively amazing for oily skin, and gel formulas, like our G.Tox Malachite + Fruit Acid Pore Purifying Cleanser, can actually be moisturizing. So finding your ultimate product definitely involves reading labels, sampling, and considering. If you buy cleansers from goop, you’ll know that they’re clean and free from harmful chemicals. Below, we rounded up our all-time top ten.

  1. G.Tox Malachite + Fruit Acid Pore Purifying Cleanser
    goop Beauty
    G.Tox Malachite + Fruit Acid Pore Purifying Cleanser
    goop, $48

The 10 Best Clean Face Washes

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