Water-based cleansers (in other words, cleansers in which the first ingredient is water) are a great way to remove h20-based impurities such as dirt and sweat, explains Dr. Alexis Stephens, a board-certified dermatologist who spoke to The Zoe Report for this article. That said, they come in many different forms — such as creams, foams, and gels — so when choosing the best water-based cleanser for you, consider the formula’s supporting ingredients, as well as your skin type and skin concerns.
Dr. Stephens says that people with oily skin may want to reach for a foam or gel cleanser, while people with acne or congested pores should consider a cleanser with niacinamide or salicylic acid. Those with dry or dehydrated skin, on the other hand, should look for a creamy cleanser that’s rich in hydrating and moisturizing ingredients.
Some of Dr. Stephens’ patients like the double-cleansing method — a practice that’s very popular in Korean beauty — which entails using an oil-based cleanser first to break down makeup and oil-based products (like sunscreen), followed by a water-based cleanser to remove any lingering traces of residue. That said, there are certainly plenty of water-based cleansers that adequately remove makeup and sunscreen on their own. You can also choose whether or not to double cleanse depending on the circumstances — for example, double cleansing does tend to be very helpful on heavy-makeup days.
Scroll on to shop seven of the best water-based cleansers, including a pick from Dr. Stephens.
Full disclosure: Dr. Stephens is the Advising Dermatologist for Naturium, a new-ish skin care brand that makes amazing, science-backed skin care products at even more amazing prices. She loves the brand’s Niacinamide Cleansing Gelée, a refreshing gel cleanser that’s “an excellent choice for those looking to help regulate oil production,” she says. In addition to niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3 that also offers effective anti-inflammatory and barrier-enhancing benefits, this cleanser contains moisturizing glycerin, hydrating hyaluronic acid, and brightening vitamin C. It’s free of fragrance, oil, sulfates, and parabens, and is vegan as well.
You can’t go wrong with Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost Cleansing Gel, a consistent crowd-pleaser with over 10,000 five-star Amazon ratings and a devoted following among drugstore beauty enthusiasts. The oil-free, hyaluronic acid-rich cleanser effectively rids skin of dirt, oil, and makeup, and leaves your face feeling hydrated and soft. This is part of the brand’s mega-popular Hydro Boost line (which also includes their best-selling gel cream and more), and is versatile enough to suit a wide range of skin types, but note that it does contain fragrance, in case that’s an ingredient to which you have a known sensitivity.
Another popular drugstore pick, CeraVe’s SA wash is a fantastic gel cleanser for people with acne-prone skin or congested pores and blackheads. Salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid, works by penetrating your pores deeply and clearing them of dead skin and sebum — a buildup of which can cause breakouts and blackheads. To balance out the effects of the SA, this fragrance-free cleanser also contains hyaluronic acid, niacinamide (the ingredient that Dr. Stephens mentioned as helpful for acne-prone skin), and ceramides, the barrier-strengthening lipids that are found in all CeraVe products.
Hot tip: This cleanser is so popular that it often sells out, so if you see it in stock, place your order ASAP!
People with dry skin will love this gentle, soothing cleanser from La Roche-Posay’s Toleriane line. It’s made with the French pharmacy brand’s hero ingredient, La Roche-Posay thermal water, as well as moisturizing glycerin. This milky, fragrance-free face wash also moonlights as a hydrating toner and makeup remover, so you can apply it with a cotton ball or massage it into your skin with clean fingers. Though you technically don’t have to rinse it off, you still should, especially if you wore a lot of makeup or skin care products that day.
When it comes to products that are suitable for people with very sensitive skin, or conditions like dermatitis and eczema, nobody does it better than Vanicream. Their gentle face wash is an amazing choice for any skin type, but it’s especially perfect for people with reactive or allergy-prone skin who find most other cleansers irritating. It’s free of sulfates, parabens, oils, dyes, fragrance, soap, and even gluten, and it’s received the seal of approval from the National Eczema Association. This is a creamy formula that creates the slightest amount of foam, and it won’t leave your skin feeling dry or tight.
The best way to remove makeup is, hands down, with Bioderma’s Sensibio H2O Micellar Water (the brand makes quite a few micellar waters, but the one from the Sensibio line is the cult favorite). This makeup remover and rinsing-optional cleanser is formulated without oil, alcohol, or other harsh ingredients, and it uses micelle particles to lift away makeup, oil, and other residue like a magnet. This makes a great first step for double cleansing, whether you plan on following it up with an oil-based cleanser or another water-based one. It even takes off waterproof mascara and liquid lipstick with ease (though like all products from Bioderma’s Sensibio line, it’s super gentle and safe for sensitive skin).
Cure Natural Aqua Gel isn’t really a cleanser in the traditional sense — it’s more of an exfoliating treatment/skin peel — but you can definitely use it during the cleansing process once or twice a week. It’s the number-one best-selling exfoliator in Japan, and it’s made with activated hydrogen water, glycerin, aloe, and rosemary. As you rub the gel into your skin, it starts to lift away dirt, oil, and dead skin, developing little tiny balls along the way (so the whole process feels extremely satisfying). The result is super-soft, clear-looking skin — and you can use this anywhere else on your body that could use some gentle exfoliating, like on your chest or heels. The brand also makes an amazing water-based moisturizer, for what it’s worth.
Dr. Alexis Stephens, board-certified dermatologist and Naturium Advising Dermatologist
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