Shopping·10 min read

Face Washes and Makeup Removers 101: What to Know and Which Ones to Buy

Face Washing 101
Photo: Neutrogena | Design: theSkimm
December 6, 2022

This post was originally published in October 2021 and has been updated.

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Raise your hand if you feel overwhelmed anytime you walk down the drugstore skincare aisle. Gel cleansers or foaming face wash? Makeup remover pads or liquid remover? And WTF is glycolic acid? And then there’s the topic of skin type: What should you opt for if you’ve got hyperpigmentation or sensitive skin? The choices are vast and the labels can be confusing.

To uncover the answers to all your face-cleansing and makeup-removing questions, we talked to Dr. Nazanin Saedi, a Philadelphia-based dermatologist. And compiled everything you need to know as we head into the chillier season. Because reminder: Dry, stripped skin isn’t the goal. Clean, makeup-free skin is. Let’s do it. 

Psst: If you’ve already got your skincare routine down to a science and just want some new product recs, keep scrolling. We’ve got the best face washes to shop down below.

Face-washing basics, please?

  • When we talk about face wash, usually that means cleanser. (There are lots of types. Think: gel, foaming, exfoliating, hydrating, balms, creams, clays...the list goes on.) But also the OG: soap. 

  • You don’t need to spend a ton of money for a quality face wash. “This is a great place to go really basic,” Dr. Saedi says. “So you can then splurge on other products that have peptides or eye creams or things you can’t necessarily get over the counter.” 

  • Change your pillowcases at least once a week. Dr. Saedi recs using a silk pillowcase to keep your skin as fresh and clean as possible because “silk traps less bacteria than cotton” and “it doesn’t smush your face as much,” she says. “There isn’t hard data for this, but it’s thought it’s better for wrinkles, too.” 

How and when should I actually be washing my face? 

  • Wash your face every day, but keep it to no more than twice a day. Because yes, there is such a thing as overwashing your face. According to Dr. Saedi, it’s more of a concern for those who wear a lot of makeup (who tend to overwash when removing it) and those with acne (they often think the more they wash their face, the better). “But in reality, the more you wash your face, you’re stripping the natural oils from your skin,” Dr. Saedi says. “So if you have oily skin, your skin’s going to overcompensate and make more oil. So it’s totally counterproductive.” 

  • Consider using different cleansers in the AM and PM. Well, maybe. Not everyone needs to. ​​According to Dr. Saedi, if you have acne-prone skin and you’re using a face wash that has benzoyl peroxide in it, don’t use it at night if you also use retinoid (it'll make the retinoid less effective). Instead, she recs going with a bland cleanser or something with salicylic acid at nighttime. (See some options below.)

  • If this all sounds like too much…Dr. Saedi recommends at least washing your face before bed. In the morning: Just splash water on your face. And then cleanse your face at night to remove all the gunk that’s built up throughout the day.

Do I need to change my skincare products come winter?

  • Probably. The goal during the chilly months: Don’t overstrip your face of natural oil. 

  • Everyone can benefit from using an exfoliator, no matter what type of skin you have. According to Dr. Saedi, it can work well for acne patients because it increases cell turnover so pores don’t get clogged as easily. And for everyone else: It works to rid all the excess product and grime that’s on the skin’s surface. It’s as simple as that.   

  • Keep the exfoliation to two times a week. (Reminder: There are lots of types of cleansers and exfoliating cleansers are just one type.) “Because those are going to be even more drying and potentially more irritating as the weather gets colder and our skin gets drier,” Dr. Saedi says. 

  • If you wash your face and it feels stripped, dry, and tight...use a moisturizer (we rec this one for AM use). And try a hydrating cleanser too (especially in the colder months). We’ve got more recs below. 

And what about makeup remover? 

  • You don’t need it. ​​So if you’re looking to simplify, you can use your face wash to do the heavy lifting. 

  • But, if you do like using makeup remover and want to keep that regime going...try out micellar water instead of wipes (which Dr. Saedi says can be irritating in winter) right before you cleanse.

  • Micellar water is a buzzy skincare product for a reason. It helps take off makeup of any kind, even waterproof eye products. “It’s a non-irritating formulation that just removes whatever you have on without overstripping your skin and without causing irritation,” Dr. Saedi says. And it’s great for those with sensitive skin, eczema or acne. Just put some on a cotton pad, tap, tap, tap to remove your makeup, and be on your merry way.

Other terms to know, before figuring out what to buy 

  • Hyaluronic acid. Something your skin naturally produces. And as you get older you make less of it. It helps your skin retain water — aka keeps it hydrated and looking dewy and supple. So look out for this on product labels when shopping for cleansers. 

  • Glycolic acid. It’s an alpha-hydroxy acid (which you might see referred to as an AHA) that helps exfoliate by getting rid of dead cells on your skin’s surface. (Not to be confused with a medical-grade glycolic peel, which is usually more concentrated and performed by a professional.) It’s great for targeting acne, unclogging pores, and cell turnover. Many face washes contain a small amount of glycolic acid, and according to Dr. Saedi, it’s a way to get some microexfoliation in. 

So, what face washes and makeup removers should I buy for my skin type?

Neutrogena Hydro Boost

For anyone with dry skin…

Neutrogena Hydro Boost. This lightweight, noncomedogenic cleanser does exactly what it sounds like — boosts your skin with tons of hydration. It has hyaluronic acid, which’ll provide that soft, supple feeling you’ll want come wintertime. Plus its gel-based formula is hypoallergenic, oil-free, and paraben-free. ($9.19, Amazon)

Buy it

For when you want something non-irritating to use AM and PM...

Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser. This OG is a fan fave for a reason: It works on sensitive or combination skin and helps remove dirt, oil, and makeup without making you feel tight and dry. Plus it’s hypoallergenic, noncomedogenic and gentle enough for everyday use. ($13.99, Amazon)

Buy it
Cerave face wash

For sensitive skin…

CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser. It’s a gentle, moisturizing face wash with hyaluronic acid. It’ll help prevent that dreaded ‘my skin’s really tight right now’ feeling that can come with washing your face in the colder months. It’s noncomedogenic, non-drying, and non-irritating — plus it’s fragrance- and paraben-free. Oh, and BTW, it’s a lotion formula, not a foamy one, so it’ll go on like silk. ($13.33, Amazon)

Buy it
Neutrogena Pink Grapefruit

For those with oily skin or acne…

Neutrogena Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser. This oil-free formula has the magic ingredient to combat breakouts: salicylic acid. Aka the stuff that helps stop oil production and keeps your pores from getting clogged. Plus, we love the grapefruit scent and pretty millennial pink color. ($8.68, Amazon)

Buy it
Revision face wash

For anyone with sun-damaged skin…

Revision Brightening Facial Wash. You’ll only need about a nickel-sized amount of this liquid gold which has both vitamin C and glycolic acid in it — which, reminder, is the stuff that’ll help get rid of dead skin. So you can expect to get a little bit of a glow after using it, according to Dr. Saedi. ($40, Amazon)

Buy it
Glytone cleanser

For someone with hyperpigmentation…

Glytone Mild Gel Cleanser. This gel-based formula also has glycolic acid in it so it’ll help with skin cell turnover, says Dr. Saedi. It can remove your makeup and unclog your pores in addition to helping even your skin tone, minimize fine lines, and maintain your skin’s water balance. It’s fragrance-free, noncomedogenic, and oil-free too. ($36, Amazon)

Buy it
Micellar water

For when you need a micellar water recco…

Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water. It’s gentle enough for everyday use and will remove makeup, dirt, and all the other gunk that finds its way onto your skin by the end of the day. Just drip some onto a cotton pad, gently tap your face, and voilà. No rubbing or rinsing required (aka no Titanic-level sink floods, either). You’ll feel refreshed and, most importantly, clean in minutes. ($15.94/2 pack, Amazon)

Buy it

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