My Fave 5: Gentle But Effective Face Cleansers

My #1 skin care commandment of daily cleansing: Thou shalt not put bubbles on thine face.

The synthetic detergents and surfactants in foaming cleansers give your face that “squeaky clean” feeling, but leave you feeling tight and itchy. They strip your skin of its natural moisture, which can lead to dehydration, sensitivity, peeling and flaking, breakouts, and fine lines. So if a cleanser suds, foams or lathers, I’m out.

I’m in this weird phase of I’m-too-old-for-this breakouts: if I’m not diligent with cleansing, I wake up with patches of tiny bumps across my forehead and cheeks, or occasional isolated angry cystic acne spots. I thought I left those behind in the early 2000s with low rise jeans and over-waxed eyebrows. What gives?! 

Since I wear SPF religiously, I double-cleanse at night to make sure every trace of sunscreen and makeup is removed from my skin. In the morning, I alternate between a good cleansing oil or a gentle cleanser with antioxidants or exfoliating acids to keep things nice and glowy.

Here are my current top five gentle-but-effective cleansers that get the job done but leave my sensitive skin balanced and happy:

My Best 5 Face Cleansers For Early 30s Sensitive Skin

#1.  Clinique Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm (PM) :: This fragrance-free balm has a consistency like lard — weird, but stay with me — that melts into an oil with the heat of your skin and dissolves every trace of makeup and sunscreen. It’s my “first cleanse” every night: I rub it all over my dry face, starting with my eyes to breakup mascara and eye makeup, and remove it with a clean washcloth soaked in hot water. I rinse the washcloth completely in hot water afterward, because I use it again in my second cleanse.

#2. Coconut Oil (PM) :: Coconut oil is a great first cleanse, too: it makes quick work of makeup removal, doesn’t contain any irritating ingredients or chemicals, and is full of calming and restorative linoleic acid. I use this exactly the same way as the cleansing balm above and remove it with a hot washcloth.

A note: it’s important to make sure you remove it completely because coconut oil can clog pores and lead to breakouts in acne-prone or sensitive skin. Some people will tell you to use it as a face moisturizer; don’t listen to them. Sweet almond oil, argan oil, and jojoba oil are much better suited for your skin as leave-on moisturizers. Look for pure organic, cold-pressed varieties in your local health food store.

#3. Aster & Bay – Organic / Vegan Facial Cleansing Oil (AM/PM) :: Cleansing oils work on the premise that oil dissolves oil: they search-and-destroy the sebum and toxins that get trapped in your pores and replace them with nutrient-rich plant oils for healthy glowing skin. I love this as my “second cleanse” and it’s become one of my favorite wind-down rituals at the end of the day. Immediately after removing the Clinique balm — while my hands and face are still warm from the hot washcloth — I massage this cleansing oil into my face and neck for at least 60 seconds. Then I wet my washcloth again with hot water, wring it out, and place it over my face for 15-30 seconds; the heat “steams” the skin to deep clean the pores and loosen up the oil for easy removal. Finally, I use the hot washcloth to wipe all the oil away.

The Aster & Bay cleansing oil is full of good fatty acids from softening plant, nut and seed oils, with a lovely blend of purifying — and relaxing! — essential oils. It feels like a spa treatment at your bathroom sink. (I also really love Kari Gran Cleansing Oil.)

#4. Murad Essential-C Cleanser (AM) :: My girlfriend introduced me to this gel cleanser, which is perfect for a quick refresh in the morning. It’s an “antioxidant-rich cleanser that rehydrates environmentally damaged skin thanks to a vitamin-packed formula that awakens the senses with a burst of citrus.”  The citrus scent is just enough for a pick-me-up without being overwhelming, and it cleans my skin without any dryness or irritation. It’s a pricey cleanser, but a little goes a long way: I put a nickle-sized dollop on my dry skin in the morning, add a tiny bit of water if needed to get it moving, and remove it with a warm wet washcloth.

#5. Pixi Glow Mud Cleanser (AM) :: I’m kind of obsessed with everything from Pixi right now — another post on the brand coming soon — and I love this clay cleanser with 5% glycolic acid for gentle chemical exfoliation. The mud texture is cooling on the skin, which feels really nice first thing in the morning. I use it 2-3 times a week as a cleanser/mask: I rub a quarter-sized dollop all over my damp face and neck, let it dry for 5 minutes or so, and remove it with a warm washcloth.

Sidebar: You may have noticed that washcloths are a big part of my cleansing routine. I find that they remove cleansers more effectively than just splashing your face with water; you can see the makeup coming off your face so you know it’s clean, and a hot washcloth just feels so nice. I have a little stockpile of inexpensive 100% cotton white washcloths that I buy in 8 packs at Target. I grab a clean one in the morning, use it again in my nighttime routine, then toss it in the laundry.

To be continued… Another post coming soon with my complete AM and PM routine, including what I’ve learned about early-30s skin care and where I turn for beauty advice on the Internet.

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  1. 6.22.17
    Raechelle said:

    Super Helpful Posts! After turning 26 a couple of weeks ago, I have begun rethinking my makeup products. Your post on your skin mistakes in your 20s resonates deep with me. I have always been big on skincare, but that does not mean I was doing the “right” things for my skin. Do you have any recommendations for a good serum or toner that you enjoy using? I know that Pixi’s Glow Tonic is very popular. But I have also read that stuff like that can hurt your skin over time.

  2. 12.2.16

    cleansing formula for a neat skin

  3. 11.9.16
    hoiyinli said:

    I can’t wait to re-purchase that Clinique balm! I finished it a while ago, then went to using the Body Shop Chamomile Cleansing Butter (which is also nice, but not nicer). Would also love to try Pixi products in general…Murad is a funny one for me, I want to try it but I will have to feel very much like spending $$$ when I do! lol

  4. 10.16.16
    lcason07 said:

    Have you ever used products from Dermalogica? They have an amazing exfoliant

  5. 10.15.16

    I need a new face cleansers! Thank you!!

  6. 10.13.16
    Alysse said:

    Love this list, definitely want to try a few!


  7. 10.13.16

    Coconut oil for removing make up! that is amazing!

    I only cook with it but I should give it a try as beauty product! :)

  8. 10.12.16

    Thanks for the tips! Definitely going to try coconut oil next 😊

  9. 10.10.16
    Amy said:

    I love murad products. I’m going to have to check this cleanser out. Have a great week.

  10. 10.10.16

    Great post! I need a lot of products!!!!!

    I hope you have a good week :)