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Sense and Sensitivity

The best cleansers and face washes for sensitive skin

February 16th 2017 / Judy Johnson Google+ Judy Johnson / 6 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?

Unlike makeup where there are some great dupes of higher end products, I believe that with skincare you often get what you pay for and that you have to do your research. This is even more true if you're prone to irritation - having tested out endless products that convinced me of their 'gentle' and 'simple' ways, I've found it really does pay to look further than the latest advert and choose formulas, brands and ingredients wisely.

MORE GLOSS: The sensitive skin first aid kit

A few hard and fast rules I live by: as someone with dry and sensitive skin I avoid foaming products at all costs. They'll contain some kind of foaming agent, most likely SLS (read my piece on SLS irritation here) which will not only likely 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 I would always rather use a micellar water or an easy wipe-off cream cleanser.

However, good beauty girl that I am, I now cleanse with creamy or balmy formulas and a warm face cloth - a good 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 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 for an instant refresh.

But 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:




Everyone in the Get the Gloss office is a fan of Cetaphil because it's reasonably priced, incredibly gentle and great for resetting the skin back to its healthy best, which is why Dr Sam Bunting often recommends it. A little goes a long way and my skin always feels better afterwards - it's my go-to if I've had a reaction or my skin just feels a little prickly. Tip: use that micellar lotion first to remove stubborn eye makeup as this formula really is gentle by name and nature. Conversely, it does contain SLS (see why SLS can be very bad for your skin here) but I've personally found it to be more than gentle on my own skin; if you're actively avoiding sulphates then this one is not for you.

Avene Tolerance Extreme Cleansing Lotion



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.

Murad Redness Therapy Soothing Gel Cleanser



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.

Pai Camellia and Rose Gentle Hydrating Cleanser



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.

Eucerin Ultra Sensitive Soothing Cleansing Lotion



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 Take the Day Off Cleansing Balm


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. 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.

Epionce Milky Lotion Cleanser



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

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Join the conversation

  • July 7th 2016

I think that these products are derived from naturally helps to reduce allergy skin more quickly restore damaged skin. Thank you!

  • Jane
  • April 3rd 2016

I don't understand why Cetaphil appears on this list, when just the week before there was an article called "SLS, The Known Irritant in your Skincare" all about avoiding sodium lauryl sulphate in skincare, how it thins the skin and increases permeability, etc. etc. Cetaphil has SLS as one of its main ingredients - seems to be very inconsistent advice to say the least!

  • Kristiane
  • March 20th 2016

Be warned, if this bothers you, Cetaphil is packed full of parabens.

Show all (3)
  • Sophie
  • April 26th 2015

Thanks for the Cetaphil recommendation- it's working really well for my normally very imbalanced skin!!

  • Maria
  • February 24th 2015

Monsia makes the best in my opinion.

  • Coconut
  • June 24th 2013

Another really good gentle cleanser is Dermalogica Essential Cleansing Solution. Fabulous for dry sensitive skin. I keep going back to it.

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