If skincare professionals are to be believed (and they should be), our faces are flaring up more than ever, thanks to daily irritants such as stress, pollution , and the face masks that will remain a part of our lives. So it’s extra-important to stop putting skin through unnecessary hardship by cleansing it too harshly. Unfortunately, it’s something many of us do unintentionally, in an effort to really tackle our issues with all the brilliant-sounding ingredients and products that are on offer.
But the truth is – and I know this from experience – whether your skin is flaky and reactive , oily and spot-prone , or anything in between, it should be handled like the finest silk. My own skin is reactive so I admit I am ever so slightly biased. But in 25 years as a beauty director and with a skincare book under my belt, I have learned that mild cleansing and treating skin like it’s delicate is the way forward for EVERY skin type. The important thing is to know what to avoid on a daily basis: alcohol, sulphates (harsh detergents) and high levels of fragrance and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are out, as overdosing on them will irritate and strip any skin. (See our guide to label reading for sensitive skin here) As for what you do want that depends on your skin type, as you’ll see below, but it should leave skin spotless but entirely calm, comfortable and hydrated.
Luckily for all of us, the choice of skin-respecting cleansers has never been greater no matter what your skin type is, or what its specific needs are. I have tried all of the below because they all respect and pamper the skin, even my sensitive one. Most are absolutely fine to remove eyemakeup as well, except the Cerave, DeloRx and Kate Somerville cleansers as they have pore-purging salicylic acid. They are also gentle enough to double-cleanse with if you wish: I do this at night using an oil-based cleanser first and a foaming one after. It’s up to you, and down to preference.
Read this forever face-wash finder to discover the perfect match for you.
Milk, oil and balm cleansers put moisturising oils back into the skin while dislodging impurities, so they’re the best thing to reach for when your skin is parched as well as reactive. What you don’t want is irritants and the stripping ingredients mentioned above: alcohol, sulphates, and so forth. However, gentle exfoliation is essential for keeping skin hydrated (skin congested with dead cells can’t absorb moisture), so this cleanser employs polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) which do the job exceptionally gently while acting as water-binding humectants to boot. This fragrance-free balmy cream (remove it with a moist muslin cloth or flannel) also packs pre and probiotics to reinforce the protective skin barrier and ease inflammation, so it gives as much as it takes. It's also refillable.
Best cleanser for very sensitive and red skin: Curel Makeup Cleansing Oil , £14.50
When skin is on red alert, you could have a temporary reaction or something more chronic, such as rosacea or eczema , the best thing to do is remove every potential irritant from your regime until things settle. This is when ingredients such as mineral oil come in: often demonised for being a petrochemical, the truth is that it’s purified and entirely inert, meaning it has no active compounds that could aggravate upset skin (unlike the majority of plant ingredients). This mineral oil (paraffinum liquidium on the INCI list) melts away dirt and makeup and transforms into a milk on contact with water to rinse clean away. But its party trick is that it’s formulated to protect, promote and replenish skin’s natural stash of ceramides, lipids essential to its self-moisturising ability. In other words, this oil will help the skin get stronger and better able to fend off irritation.
Best cleanser for sensitive and oily skin with acne: Cerave SA Smoothing Cleanser , £9
When skin pumps out too much oil and/or flares up with acne, it’s only natural you want to attack it with fast de-greasing cleansers that give a satisfyingly ‘stripped’ feeling. However, that’s precisely what you mustn’t do. Alcohol and sulphates may have an instant effect, but they also remove the good lipids and moisture that skin can’t live without – so it will produce even more oil to compensate. These agents are also serious irritants, and when you realise that acne is an inflammatory condition, you’ll understand they’re the last thing oily and acne-prone skin needs. The solution? An oil-free, wash-off gel or foam with only the mildest surfactants, but a good dose of salicylic acid (SA). Oil-soluble, this acid travels deep into pores to rid them of greasy congestion and clogging dead cells, but it also has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. This cleanser will leave skin squeaky-clean but not feeling squeaky, it will take down redness, and it will smooth and soothe.
Best cleanser for sensitive and ageing skin with breakouts: Delo Rx Hybrid Cleanser , £85
Got skin that feels drier than ever but also, out of the blue, develops bouts of sore, impacted spots? Welcome to the perimenopause which is one of the main, but by no means not the only, reason for skin acting unreasonably in this way. Dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams created this hybrid cleanser or ‘treatment cleanser’ as she calls it because sensitive skin with breakouts and ageing concerns are one of the most common issues she sees in her clinic. It will help you navigate the contradictory scourges of dryness, inflammation, congestion and signs of ageing. It’s a wash-off creamy gel, it’s packed with salicylic acid, instant calming agents, intensive hydrators, and healing and age-busting antioxidants; oils and irritants have no place here. It’s masterfully balanced and yes, that comes at a price. For a less pricey option, try Kate Somerville Eradikate Clarifying Blemish Gel Cleanser, £38 , created by Somerville for her own sensitive but acne-prone menopausal skin and for her son's eczema-prone teenage breakouts.
For those lucky enough not to get spots with advancing age, increasing dryness is likely a problem, and with lack of moisture come sensitivity and more wrinkles. This hydrating fragrance-free milk from British sensitive skin specialists Katherine Daniels transforms into an oil with plenty of slip to help you massage it in well, dislodging makeup, dirt and pollution without affecting your skin’s essential lipids. It’s removed with a damp cloth, but not before infusing skin with hydrating glycerine and calming collagen-boosting algae extracts, minerals and trace elements.
Best cleanser for sensitive and combination skin: Byoma Creamy Jelly Cleanser , £9.99
If you have combination skin, which tends to be oily around the t-zone and dry everywhere else (it can feel tight with too much oil on top) the tendency is to want to zap the oil and congestion. You may be using a too-harsh cleanser when your guide should be your dry, delicate areas. A cleanser that purifies effectively, protects and repairs the lipid barrier (without a healthy lipid barrier, there is no healthy skin), and leaves skin hydrated overall is essential. This jelly-to-creamy-lather does just that, washing out any gunk while cosseting skin with a tri-ceramide complex and soothing, protective green tea and liquorice root. Balance will be restored.
Best eco-friendly cleanser for sensitive skin: Gallinée Cleansing Bar, £13
Traditional bar soaps have impeccable eco-credentials and they do a great job of cleaning the skin, of course, but please, NOT on your face. Traditional hand soap is highly alkaline and will temporarily leave skin without a protective lipid barrier and acid mantle, making skin bone-dry and vulnerable to inflammation every time, until your clever body patches things up. Does that mean bars are bad, period? No – facial cleansing bars (note the lack of the word ‘soap’) or ‘syndets’ are made from mild surfactants (like gentle face washes) and won’t do the damage soap does, although there are vast differences between different makes of syndets.
The gentlest and most healing is this one by Gallinée: its cleansing agents are so mild and its formula so unique, it was initially impossible (in fact, it ruined a bar-making machine) to turn it into a solid block of cleanser. Not only is it the same pH as skin, meaning it's ultra-mild and non-stripping, it’s also rich in prebiotics to restore barrier function. Ideal for every skin and every part of the body, it comes with a gentle grapefruit scent or entirely fragrance-free so as to be free of any irritants whatsoever.
Cleansing is so important you ought to make it a pleasure, and there’s something about a luscious pot of cleansing balm that makes us want to take a moment and enjoy the massaging-in-and washing-off moment. Most balms, however, are richly fragranced, making them unsuitable for very reactive skins. This is a rare one with only the mildest hint of orange flower water scent (but still smelling lovely). Not only that, it’s made of highly nourishing and healing omega fatty acid-rich plant oils and butters, hydrating glycerin and anti-inflammatory bisabolol: it actually doubles as a moisturising mask. It emulsifies to a milk upon contact with tepid water (never hot, as that will aggravate and strip sensitive skin), then rinses clean off, leaving skin comfy.
Sulphates and other harsh surfactants make lots of bubbles, so you’ll often read that all foam cleansers are bad for dry and sensitive skin. That’s not true for cleansing mousses, which are increasing in popularity. Made of gentle surfactants and hydrating agents, the foam is mechanically created as the liquid cleanser comes through the pump dispenser, delivering a creamy mousse that rids skin off any pollutants and satisfyingly breaks up even waterproof mascara. Your face will be spick-and-span but never dry, especially with this fragrance-free budget hero that packs brightening vitamin C and green tea plus a whole host of anti-inflammatory agents.
Some skins are so sensitive they react to water – no word of a lie. It may be because the skin is slightly acidic and tap water, especially in hard water areas, is on the alkaline side, meaning it can upset skin’s pH balance and feel drying and irritating. Or it may be because the water has traces of chemicals such as chlorine. If you suspect this is you, a micellar water could be your answer. It feels counterintuitive to use something with water in the name, but micellars use purified water. Nevertheless, you need one specially formulated for sensitive skin. Regular micellars are best rinsed off as the surfactants suspended in them can potentially cause irritation when left on the skin. But this one by Bioderma uses the mildest cleansing agents that don’t pose this risk. It’s also free from fragrance and other irritants, and has ingredients that preserve the microbiome and soothe instantly, all while ridding the skin of filth as well as makeup.