April 9th 2021
Sense and Sensitivity
The best cleansers and face washes for sensitive skin
December 7th 2018 / 3 comments
Sensitive types need a gentle but effective cleanser to keep skin irritation to a minimum. Judy Johnson shares her favourite face washes for reactive, hypersensitive skin
I've always struggled with cleanser for sensitive skin and yet it's the one product that fellow reactive types ask me about time and time again. Having realised that skincare was forever going to be difficult when I started reacting to products, I knew a good, gentle face wash for sensitive skin was the one thing I couldn't do without; trouble is, it is the hardest to find.
As a result, I often ended up relying on face wipes which, to my surprise, don't necessarily make me react - but they don't look after my skin either. Face wipes are the convenience item of the skincare market and because they are sealed and need to remain moist for months on end, they're packed full of ingredients that can be very harsh on your skin, including various alcohols and preservatives. Bad news for those of us who react easily. Plus, they simply take away what's on your face; they don't fully cleanse or put anything back in. Where's the fun in that?
Before I began really researching the best products for sensitive skin I did what anyone would do and relied on advertising and labelling to point me in the right direction, but all the so-called 'gentle' formulas on the shop shelves were often still packed with perfume and other ingredients that my skin would react to. Thankfully the choice now is better than ever, with brands wising up to the fact that we consumers now know what we're looking for and delivering simpler, safer products.
One rule I try to stick to as someone with dry and sensitive skin: I avoid foaming cleansers at all costs. They'll contain some kind of foaming agent, most likely SLS (read my piece on SLS irritation here) which could not only cause a reaction but will just dry out the skin even more (the same reason I wear those lovely Marigolds without fail when washing up). If I'm on the go, camping (God forbid) or insert-excuse-here, at a push I'll go back to my trusty Johnsons Fragrance Free face wipes for basic makeup removal; personally, I never react to them and they don't leave my skin feeling tight and dry, but they really are a last resort.
I now wash with creamy or balmy formulas and a warm face cloth, because a good and thorough cleanse really is the best thing you can do for your skin. For a middle ground that wipes away your day of makeup (though has little benefit in terms of deep cleansing), micellar lotions are taking over the beauty shelves and are a far better alternative to face wipes - they're also handy for using pre-cleanse to remove all traces of eye makeup if you prefer to do this separately, as I do. I love Bioderma's Sensibio H2O, £5.10 for 100ml, or Garnier's Micellar Cleansing Water, £4.99 for 400ml to wipe away the bulk before going in with the real thing.
For skin that behaves better and is less sensitised in the long term, a great, gentle cleanser is the most important part of your regime. Here are my favourite sensitive-skin-friendly cleansers for rash-free, improved skin:
I am a recent convert to CeraVe after it was suggested as a superior alternative to Cetaphil - a cleanser that's regularly recommended by dermatologists as a good basic formula, yet causes controversy because despite its gentle nature it still contains SLS which most experts would tell us to avoid. Though I've used Cetaphil many times (especially when in the throes of a reaction), I do find CeraVe's Hydrating Cleanser more soothing; it has a fragrance-free, soap-free, SLS-free formula yet also contains three ceramides and hyaluronic acid. It's certainly less drying and is surprisingly effective at removing a full face of makeup too, all at a very fair price point.
Though an irritatingly small tube, this cleanser from one of my favourite brands doesn't irritate at all thanks to its calming formula that includes their signature soothing thermal spring water. Fragrance-free, preservative-free, colourant-free, surfactant-free, alcohol-free, and emulsifier-free, it's stripped back and perfectly safe for reactive skins; one I always return to if my skin's acting up. My only peeve is that you're not supposed to rinse - I still do, but you might prefer the way it leaves your skin feeling when it's on.
Dr Sam Bunting is one of our go-to experts for unparalleled deramtological advice, and so it stands to reason that when she created her first ever product line in 2018 the entire beauty industry sat up and took notice. Of course the formula is a delight for sensitive skins; a soothing, jelly-like gel, it's fragrance-free and non-comedogenic with a functional, gentle formula that works for all skin types from dry and sensitive to acne-prone. It removes every trace of makeup and leaves skin feeling soft rather than stripped.
The fact that this, on first look, reminds me of a natural aloe vera gel is a good indicator of how beautifully soothing it feels on the skin. With an almost minty, cucumber-like scent and a luxuriously thick gel texture, my skin feels so soft afterwards I want to use it again right away; it makes double cleansing much more enjoyable. It does contain fragrance (which usually I'd avoid no questions asked but I've loved this product from the get-go) so if you're allergic then steer clear. Follow with a good moisturiser to really calm the skin down before bed and you'll wake up soft and glowing.
Everyone knows I’m a bit of a Pai fan, but my favourite product from the range regularly changes as frankly they all deserve a spot in a sensitive person’s beauty routine. This cleanser is a permanent fixture in mine; it’s one of the few cleansers I’ve tried that really seems to have an effect afterwards - no mean feat given you’re essentially washing it away but it somehow imparts an incredible softness that even my moisturiser cannot match. It’s free from alcohol and detergents as well as common triggers such as peppermint and menthol, making it suitable for even the rosacea-prone. Simply apply to dry skin, massage in and wash away with a cloth for a notably brighter, healthier complexion.
A science-led brand with a sensitive side, this super smooth and creamy cleansing lotion has a beautifully short and simple ingredients list that’s gentle on easily irritated skin. The only alcohol in it is cetyl alcohol, a fatty alcohol that’s not an irritant, and it’s free from preservatives, parabens, paraffin, fragrance, colourants and emulsifiers. The ingredients that are left, however, make for a suitably soothing and quick-to-use cleanser that gently removes makeup effectively without leaving the skin feeling dry.
Clinique’s cleansers never scare me thanks to the brand’s fragrance-free promise, but I’ll admit to being nervous about a balm when I first tested this hero product in the range. Though I have dry skin, I assumed it’d leave me feeling slicked in oil as if I’d bathed in Vaseline and yet I couldn’t have been more wrong. A favourite of skincare expert Caroline Hirons, it’s free from mineral oils for a start, and although it looks like a thick, heavy wax in the jar, it’s actually very lightweight, non-greasy and rids your eyes and face of every speck of makeup no matter what your skin type.
It’s not just me that loves this Simple cleansing oil; many of the GTG team are advocates and for good reason. The budget brand is known for its fragrance-free formulas but this is by far one of its most effective products; very little is needed to remove all traces of makeup, and though I wasn’t sure about using an oil at first it leaves skin feeling surprisingly fresh yet comfortably soft.
You know a brand is worth reaching for when it’s recommended by dermatologists and surgeons for those recovering from cosmetic surgery - i.e., when even people with normal skin types are at their most sensitive. That’s why I trust in Epionce and this cleanser doesn’t disappoint on that gentle, effective promise for looking after your skin when it’s at its worst. A creamy cleanser in a pump bottle, it’s fragrance-free, SLS-free and quick at giving my skin a refresh morning or night. I’d use a micellar first to remove makeup as my stubborn mascara won the battle on this one, but don’t let that put you off - it’s a great, fuss-free product for fragile skins.
If you liked this, you'll love my pick of the best moisturisers for sensitive skin