Are you looking for a gentle facial cleanser but not sure where to start? You are in the right place.
In this article, we will discuss all you need to know on how to choose a gentle facial cleanser, starting from:
- What make (or do not) a gentle facial cleanser;
- How to read cleansers' ingredients list; and
- Our top 5 favorite mild facial cleansers.
What makes a gentle facial cleanser?
Key factors that determine the gentleness of a cleanser are the type of surfactants used and the formulation of the cleanser.
(If you don't know what a surfactant is and how it impacts your skin, you can check out our other article here, where we discuss it in detail).
The different types of surfactants
There are many types of surfactants and they are not all created equal. Some are milder than others, and some may have been added to the formulation for other purposes, other than as a cleansing agent.
In technical terms, surfactants can largely be divided into 4-5 classes depending on their electrical charge: Anionic, Amphoteric, Zwitterionic, Cationic, and Non-Ionic.
As a rule of thumb, the degree of mildness of these different surfactants classes is Anionic (least mild) > Amphoteric / Zwitterionic > Non-Ionic (mildest)1.
However, these classifications may not be very useful to you as a consumer. It is not always easy to find out what type of electrical charge a surfactant has and interestingly some of the mildest surfactants available today are anionic surfactants. Instead, paying attention to the family that the surfactants belong to - you can spot this from the last name of the ingredient - is probably a better way for you, (though some exceptions also exist).
Here are some of the commonly used mild surfactants today:
- Betaines (e.g., cocamidopropyl / coco betaine): Medium strength cleansing agent but relatively mild to the skin. Often combined with other surfactants to enhance its mildness.
- Isethionates (e.g., sodium cocoyl isethionate): A particularly mild surfactant backed by numerous research studies.
- Glucosides (e.g., coco / decyl / caprylyl glucosides): Mild cleansing agent with high foaming abilities. Plant-derived and biodegradable.
- Sarcosinates (e.g., sodium cocoyl / lauroyl sarcosinate): A particularly mild and biodegradable, amino acid-based surfactant. It has a good foaming ability and can improve the overall mildness of a formula.
- Glutamates (e.g., sodium cocoyl / lauroyl glutamate): Mild amino acid-based surfactants suitable for sensitive or baby skin.
This list is not exhaustive. There are other mild surfactants that are not mentioned here.
If you are unsure of any particular ingredients, you can always visit a reputable ingredient database website such as www.incidecoder.com to find out more about the ingredient.
Ingredient lists are useful but not everything, formulation does make a difference.
Similar to cooking, an ingredient list is just a list of ingredients in a recipe, whilst formulation is the cooking methodology. Both are equally important in determining the final product.
For example, Sodium Laureth Sulfate a.ka. SLES, a commonly used surfactant (do not confuse it with SLS), is a medium-strength, moderately mild surfactant on its own, but when It is formulated with a co-surfactant (usually coco betaine), it will retain its cleaning property but becomes substantially milder2.
There are many other techniques, other than mixing different types of surfactants, to formulate a gentle cleanser.
How to read the ingredient list of a cleanser
Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay
While you need to understand the product formulation to get the full picture of a product, it is very unlikely that you will get this information as a consumer. Hence, the next best thing for you is to understand how to read the ingredient list.
Reading a cleanser ingredient list is not as hard as you think. Because it is a wash-off product, you can largely focus on the top 5-7 ingredients in the list.
(Note that reading the ingredient list is more complicated for leave-on products like moisturizers or serums).
Here is an example of the ingredient list of our Gentler Cleanser and how to read it.
In most countries, ingredient lists are sorted by ingredients with the highest concentration to the lowest. Once you reach a point where the concentration of the ingredients is below 1%, the remaining ingredients can appear in any order.
The 1st ingredient in a cleanser is always a solvent. In this case, it is water, but it can be something else like aloe vera juice. Sometimes both water and other solvents are used, in that case, the 1st and 2nd ingredients will be solvents.
The 2nd and 5th ingredients here are glycerin and red algae extract respectively. Both are humectants whose function is to replenish some of the moisture back to your skin so that your skin does not feel dry afterward. Humectants can appear in any order depending on the concentration used.
The 3rd and 7th ingredients here are sodium lauroyl sarcosinate and sodium cocoyl glutamate respectively. Both are amino acid-based surfactants that are particularly mild, with good cleansing properties. Surfactants can also appear in any order within the first fifth to seventh ingredients.
The 4th ingredient here is propanediol which is a solvent and emollient. Other cleansers may use other solvents or emollients.
The 6th ingredient is chamomile flower extract. We include it here because of its rich soothing property. Other cleansers may use other types of botanicals for a different purpose.
What about other ingredients at the bottom of the list? These are usually functional ingredients such as preservatives, pH adjuster, and chelating agents.
It is an important part of the formulation but do not worry too much about it if you are buying from a reputable brand.
As we have mentioned above, the key thing to look for when choosing a mild facial cleanser is the type of surfactants used.
Note that this guideline only applies to water-based foaming cleansers. Other types of cleansers such as micellar water or balm cleansers will have an ingredient list that looks very different.
Other things to consider in choosing a gentle facial cleanser
Consider the pH of the cleanser.
Our skin is slightly acidic with natural pH range of 4.5 -- 5.5. Some studies have found that cleansers with a high pH (8 or above) could disrupt the skin barrier's balance3.
Not every brand discloses the pH of their cleansers, but the majority of cleansers from reputable brands are formulated to be close to the skin's natural pH range. You can also do your own simple test at home with a pH strip from drugstores.
One exception to take note is soap-based cleansers, which have inherently high pH because of the way it is made (by reacting fatty acids with sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH).
To identify whether a cleanser is soap-based, look for the following points in the ingredient list:
- Typically include plant-based oils such as olive or coconut in its 2nd or 3rd ingredient but It is not always the case.
- May or may not include sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide in the top range of the ingredient list.
- Look for sodium / potassium laurate, tallowate, or cocoate in the ingredient list.
Fragrances and essential oils.
Fragrances and essential oils are known potential irritants for some people4.
Note that not everyone will have a problem with fragrances and essential oils, especially in a wash-off product like cleansers.
If you enjoy a nice scent in your cleansers and have no issue with it then no need to avoid it. But If you have sensitive skin, you might want to opt for fragrance and essential oils free cleansers.
Top 5 gentle facial cleansers that we love
Now, you might be wondering after the long explanation on how to choose a gentle facial cleanser, what are the example of some products out there that we like?
We will have to include our own product in the recommendations of course, but if it does not work for you for some reason (it's okay) or you simply just want an alternative, here are the top 5 cleansers that we have personally tried and liked:
(Disclaimer: The Gentler Cleanser is our own product. We are not sponsored by any of the other brands. Opinion here is our own.)
5 To 5's Gentler Cleanser
Our very own Gentler Cleanser is formulated to clean the daily grimes well while keeping your skin hydrated to protect the skin's barrier.
It has a gel-like texture with brownish color and sweet herbaceous smell that comes naturally from the ingredients.
It is formulated with sodium lauroyl sarcosinate and sodium cocoyl glutamate, amino acid-based surfactants that are particularly gentle.
It is also formulated with a high concentration of moisturizing ingredients such as red algae and glycerin to replenish moisture back to your skin so that it remains hydrated.
The chamomile flower extract is also rich in soothing properties to calm any angry skins.
It has a pH of 5-6. Our cleanser is also fragrance, essential oils, colorants free, and cruelty free.
COSRX's Low pH Good Morning Cleanser
COSRX describes this gel cleanser as mild, yet effective, as it cleanses the skin without stripping feeling and does not irritate the skin.
We personally find this cleanser to clean really well and mild, but leaves a tad drying feeling for us. That said, plenty of people really like this product and finds it to be non-drying for them, so you will just have to find out for yourself!
It has a clear gel texture that spreads easily and lather nicely. It has a faint but nice botanical smell, which we like.
For its cleansing power, it is formulated with cocamidopropyl betaine and sodium lauroyl methyl isethionate, both of which are pretty mild surfactants.
It also contains naturally derived ingredients such as saccharomyces ferment, tea tree leaf oil, styrax japonicus extract, and allantoin among few others.
COSRX says it has a slightly acidic pH level but didn't say the exact level. Our own test found it to be within the 5-6 pH range. It is fragrance free.
Krave Beauty's Matcha Hemp Hydrating Cleanser
Krave describes their cleanser as an antioxidant-rich jelly cleanser that's effective in cleaning the skin and does not cause dry and tight after-feel.
Our own experience in using it finds it to be gentle, non-drying, and does not cause any tight or itchy sensation, though your experience may vary.
It has quite a thick jelly-like texture that spread easily and foam nicely. It has a green-brownish color with a very faint ingredients smell.
It is formulated with a cocktail of mild surfactants such as coco betaine, coco glucoside, decyl glucoside, and sodium cocoyl isethionate, which we found to be gentle.
It also includes a lot of moisturizing ingredients such as glycerin, vitamin B5, sodium PCA, methyl gluceth-10, ethoxydiglcol, and dipropylene glycol, among others, which should keep your skin hydrated.
It contains a whopping 40% of matcha according to them, which is a potent antioxidant.
It has a pH of 5-6. It is fragrance free, cruelty free, and vegan friendly.
Drunk Elephant's Beste No.9 Jelly Cleanser
Drunk Elephant describes this cleanser as an innovative jelly cleanser that removes all traces of makeup, excess oil, pollution, and any other grime from the day.
We found this cleanser to live up to its cleaning prowess claim. What we also like is that we found it to be non-drying and there is no tight and itchy after-feel. Your experience may vary.
It has a clear jelly texture that is pretty thick and spread easily, just a little bit of this cleanser goes a long way! It also lathers up nicely and easily.
This cleanser is formulated with a blend of mild surfactants such as cocamidopropyl betaine, coco-glucoside, sodium lauroyl methyl isethionate, cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, and sodium methyl oleoyl taurate.
It has a high concentration of glycerin (2nd on the list), a humectant, which is one of the reasons why this cleanser is gentle and non-drying.
This cleanser contains cucumis melo cantalupensis (cantaloupe) fruit extract, which is rich in antioxidants and is supposed to soothe and hydrate the skin, as well as virgin marula oil, which Drunk Elephant claim to contain a high amount of critical antioxidants and omega 6 and 9.
It has a pH of 5.5. It is fragrance, essential oils, and silicone free. It is also cruelty-free and vegan-friendly.
Herbivore's Pink Cloud Creamy Jelly Cleanser
Herbivore describes this as gentle but effective cleanser, low foaming, and non-stripping.
Our own experience in using this cleanser confirms Herbivore's claims. The cleanser is non-drying and the overall experience is noteworthy. It has a lightweight, creamy gel-like texture and it smells really good (thanks to rosewater!). The colour of the cleanser is pink which helps to boost the overall look of this cleanser.
Decyl glucoside is the key surfactant in this cleanser, which is a mild, plant-derived, and biodegradable cleanser.
The concoction of moisturizing ingredients such as tremella mushroom extract, aloe vera juice, glycerin, sodium hyaluronate, squalene, and many others makes this cleanser gentle and non-stripping.
It has a pH of 5.5. It is fragrance, essential oils, and colorants free. It is also cruelty-free and vegan-friendly.
- Ananthapadmanabhan, K. P., Moore, D. J., Subramanyan, K., Misra, M., & Meyer, F. R. A. N. K. (2004). Cleansing without compromise: the impact of cleansers on the skin barrier and the technology of mild cleansing. Dermatologic therapy, 17, 16-25. ↩
- Ananthapadmanabhan, K. P., Yang, L., Vincent, C., Tsaur, L., Vetro, K., Foy, V., ... & Subramanian, V. (2009). A novel technology in mild and moisturizing cleansing liquids. Quadrant, 22(6), 307-316. ↩
- A.W. Johnson, K.P. Ananthapadmanabhan, S. Hawkins, G. Nole (2016). Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures, Second Edition, page 85-86. ↩
- D.E. Cohen, A.Price, and S. Ramachandran (2016). Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures, Second Edition, page 55. ↩