Each skin type presents its own unique challenges, whether it’s managing breakouts on acne-prone complexions or adding enough moisture on dry ones. Sensitive skin, however, can be particularly difficult to manage, as selecting something as simple as a cleanser can feel like a game of Russian roulette with irritation. “Sensitive skin has an impaired barrier that leads to increased water loss and increased sensitivity to allergens and irritants,” explains Kathleen Behr, MD, a Fresno-based board-certified dermatologic surgeon.
If you’re dealing with sensitive skin, Dr. Behr notes that you should opt for gentle cleansers, which are typically creamy, have moisturizing ingredients, and are free of (potentially irritating) fragrance. But don’t just grab any cleanser labeled as “sensitive” or “gentle” — you need to understand the ingredients in the bottle, too.
According to Heather D. Rogers, MD, dermatological surgeon, founder of Doctor Rogers RESTORE Skincare®, and owner of Modern Dermatology℠ in Seattle, some gentle formulas contain propylene glycol, which can cause an allergic reaction. Propylene glycol allergies are rare, she explains. However, if you have sensitive skin, you may want to look out for it on product labels.
Other ingredients to steer clear of, according to Rachel Cayce, MD, board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles and founder of DTLA Derm℠, include sulfates, formaldehyde, cocamidopropyl betain, and lanolin, as they’re all potentially irritating. Caroline Robinson, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Chicago, stresses the importance of choosing cleansers with nourishing ingredients like glycerin, squalene, essential oils, and vitamin E.
If you have sensitive skin, be sure to talk to your doctor to see what’s right for you.
Now that you’re armed with all this knowledge, you can start browsing skincare shelves with impunity — or, you can simplify your quest even further. We tapped five dermatologists to weigh in on their go-to face wash recommendations for sensitive skin types so you can cleanse with confidence.
The product: Doctor Rogers RESTORE® Face Wash ($42)
The benefits: RESTORE Face Wash is a glycerin-based cleanser containing only hypoallergenic, plant-based ingredients. It gently suds to remove makeup and oil without irritating, and is safe to use on all types of skin, including extremely sensitive types.
What the doctor says: “With only eight plant-based, hypoallergenic, and biodegradable ingredients, it still has the power to take off the day’s grime — including makeup — without irritation. This is what many dermatologists recommend for sensitive and healing skin, even after laser procedures, because it is so safe and effective.” — Heather Rogers, MD
The product: Alastin Skincare® Gentle Cleanser ($45)
The benefits: This sulfate-free, foaming cleanser uses a unique blend of moisturizers and vitamins designed to clean, soothe, and soften the skin, without upsetting skin's delicate moisture balance. It thoroughly removes environmental pollutants and makeup, and is an excellent pick for post-procedure skin.
What the doctor says: “Patients with sensitive skin should wash with gentle cleansers. Alastin’s gentle cleanser contains anti-inflammatory agents and moisturizing ingredients, including oat beta glucan, oat kernel extract, panthenol, and bisabolol. These ingredients also reduce fine lines and wrinkles, increase skin elasticity, and aid in repair of sun damage.” — Kathleen Behr, MD
The product: Free and Clear® Liquid Cleanser for Sensitive Skin ($8)
The benefits: This is an effective yet gentle drugstore formula that’s non-comedogenic and can be used on the face, hands, and body. It’s also soap-free, oil-free, and was developed to avoid common chemical irritants found in ordinary liquid cleansers.
What the doctor says: “Free and Clear specializes in sensitive and allergy prone skin. It is free of the most common irritants and allergens. They have a liquid cleanser for oily skin and a bar cleanser for drier skin types.” — Rachel Cayce, MD
The product: CeraVe® Hydrating Facial Cleanser ($14)
The Benefits: This delicate cleanser is non-comedogenic and easily removes dirt and makeup, without stripping the skin of its natural moisture.
What the Doctor Says: “Sensitive skin has an impaired barrier that leads to increased water loss and sensitivity to allergens and irritants. CeraVe gentle cleanser contains ceramides to improve the skin barrier and hyaluronic acid to pull water into the skin.” — Kathleen Behr, MD
The product: Avene® Tolérance Extrême® Cleanser ($32).
The benefits: This no-rinse cleanser has a light, milky texture, and leaves skin soothed with six hours of hydration. Not only is this product formulated without any preservatives, parabens, or fragrances, the cleanser can also be used for the whole face and eye area. Plus, it’s formulated without any preservatives, parabens, or fragrances.
What the doctor says: “I like Avene Tolérance Cleanser for dry and sensitive skin types. This is a cream cleanser that can be used for the whole face and eyes.” — Rachel Cayce, MD
The product: SkinCeuticals® Gentle Cleanser ($35)
The benefits: This creamy cleanser removes impurities and excess oil while also soothing dry, sensitive skin. Combining allantoin, glycerin, and orange oil, this cleanser helps soften and restore skin’s surface.
What the doctor says: “One on my favorite cleansers for sensitive skin is the SkinCeuticals Gentle Cleanser, a mild cleansing cream which also soothes and hydrates the skin.” — Lynne Haven, MD
The product: Philosophy® Purity Made Simple® Facial Cleanser ($24)
The benefits: This multi-tasking, award-winning cleanser is formulated with meadow foam seed oil to hydrate while you cleanse.
What the doctor says: “Sensitive skin is prone to feeling dry, dehydrated, and irritated. Philosophy Purity Made Simple Cleanser is gently formulated to cleanse without stripping the skin of natural oils. This cleanser also contains hydrating ingredients such as glycerin, meadow foam seed oil, and essential oils that will help prevent feelings of skin dryness/tightness post-wash.” — Caroline Robinson, MD
The product: PaiTM Camellia and Rose Gentle Hydrating Cleanser ($50)
The benefits: This bestselling formula has a beautiful floral fragrance and comes with its own flannel and muslin cloth to help gently exfoliate and thoroughly cleanse skin. It’s so gentle, it’s even suitable for eczema-prone complexions.
What the doctor says: “This is a lovely product to experience with only carefully selected, biodegradable ingredients.” — Heather Rogers, MD
The product: La Roche-Posay® Micellar Cleansing Water ($16)
The benefits: Micellar water is a great no-rinse option for sensitive skin types, and it easily dissolves makeup, impurities, and pollutants. This formula is soap-free, oil-free, alcohol-free, and paraben-free.
What the doctor says: “La Roche-Posay Micellar Cleansing Water for Sensitive Skin is very gentle, yet effective at cleansing the skin.” — Dr. Haven