The best facial cleanser ingredients for each skin type, according to dermatologists

Chemical and physical exfoliants remove dead cells on the surface of your skin.Cecile Lavabre/Getty Images
  • Some of the best ingredients in facial cleansers include retinol, salicylic acid, ceramides, vitamin C, glycerin, and chemical and physical exfoliants.
  • For acne-prone or oily skin, look for a cleanser with retinol or salicylic acid.
  • For dry or sensitive skin, choose a cleanser with glycerin or ceramides.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with a private practice in New York City.

Facial cleansers these days do a lot more than simply clean your skin. There's a wide variety of ingredients in cleansers that are effective at combating various skin ailments. Whether you're looking for something to fight your acne, make your skin less oily, brighten up your complexion, or moisturize dry patches, there's definitely something out there that's a fit.

We spoke to two dermatologists to break down common skincare ingredients so you can learn what they do and which is best for you. Here's what you need to know.

Retinol

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative, says Carol Cheng, MD, dermatologist and assistant clinical professor at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. It's the most common over the counter retinoid, which are vitamin A derivatives that increase skin turnover, mostly used for anti-aging and anti-acne purposes.

You can get retinol from a drugstore or specialty beauty store in up to 2.0% typically, but higher concentrations are available with a prescription from a doctor.
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The primary purpose: Retinol increases skin turnover, which means it helps get rid of old dead skin cells and encourages generation of new healthy skin cells. Increasing cell turnover can lead to:
  • Improve skin texture
  • Fix uneven pigmentation
  • Unclog pores
  • Help with both whiteheads and blackheads
  • Prevent acne breakouts
  • Increase collagen production
  • Reduce fine line appearance

Best suited for: Acne-prone or oily skin. However, it can be suitable for all skin types. If you have sensitive or dry skin, start with lower concentration of retinol, such as 0.025 - 0.03%, Cheng says.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid, which means that it is great for decreasing oil production and getting rid of dead skin cells. It's oil-soluble, which allows it to penetrate into the pores, says Susan Massick, MD, a dermatologist and associate professor of Dermatology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
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The primary purpose: Salicylic acid is often found in acne-fighting cleansers. It acts as a chemical exfoliant, and Massick says that it can:

  • Remove old skin debris
  • Remove bacteria
  • Diminish excess oil
  • Clean and unclog pores
  • Prevent acne
Best suited for: Acne-prone or oily skin. If you have sensitive or dry skin, you should limit how much salicylic acid you use, since it can lead to dryness and irritation with overuse, Massick says. Additionally, it should be avoided during pregnancy.


Ceramides

Ceramides are lipids, or fats, that exist naturally in our skin. Cheng says these lipids are found in high concentrations in the top layers of our skin, which help serve as a barrier against the outside environment.Advertisement

The primary purpose: By creating a strong barrier, ceramides are able to:

  • Hydrate skin
  • Lock in moisture
  • Soothe sensitive skin
  • Protect from pollution, dry air, and other irritants

Best suited for: Dry or sensitive skin. Cheng says even those with very sensitive eczema-prone skin can benefit from ceramides and won't be irritated by them.


Vitamin C


Vitamin C is an antioxidant, which means it can help decrease the formation of free radicals and therefore, the harmful effects of free radicals on the skin. Free radicals are unstable molecules that come from external factors ranging from pollution to sunlight. They can damage the DNA of healthy cells. Antioxidants can help protect your skin cells from this camage.Advertisement

The primary purpose: By combatting free radical production, vitamin C can:

  • Prevent overproduction of melanin that results in dark spots and hyperpigmentation
  • Prevent premature aging
  • Preserve skin texture
  • Brighten complexion

Best suited for: All skin types. However, if you're new to using vitamin C topically, Massick recommends starting with a lower concentration to avoid potential dryness and irritation.

Chemical exfoliants

This is a broad category that includes different types of acids, all of which work by removing the outermost layer of dead skin cells. Cheng says some popular ones are:Advertisement

  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Azelaic acid
  • Salicylic acid
  • Trichloroacetic acid
The primary purpose: Each of these ingredients is different and may be used for different skin ailments, but overall, Cheng says these chemical exfoliants can:
  • Help with skin cell turnover
  • Brighten skin
  • Improve skin texture
  • Improve discoloration
  • Increase collagen production
  • Help with acne

Best suited for: Any skin type, depending on which specific ingredient you use. If you have dry skin, opt for alpha hydroxy acids like lactic acid or glycolic acids. Additionally, azelaic acid is mild enough for sensitive skin and rosacea-prone skin. Stronger acids like salicylic acid and higher concentrations are more suitable for oily skin, says Cheng.

Physical exfoliants

Physical exfoliants usually refer to scrubs that have particles such as seeds, beads, or granules that can remove dead skin cells, Massick says. Advertisement

With the chemical exfoliants, the acids themselves are removing dead skin cells, whereas with physical exfoliants, you are manually scrubbing and exfoliating with the particles in the cleansers. However, some physical exfoliants will also contain chemical exfoliants.

Because you're manually scrubbing, there is more user-dependent variability with physical exfoliants compared to chemical exfoliants, says Cheng. How harsh the scrub is will be combined with how aggressively you scrub and how long you scrub for. The primary purpose: Specific ingredients will vary, but the main purpose of the scrubs is to:

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  • Remove dead skin cells
  • Increase skin cell turnover
  • Soften and smooth skin

Best suited for: Non-sensitive skin. Massick does not recommend using physical exfoliants daily. They should only be used one or two times a week, regardless of skin type. "Be careful with the facial scrubbing as this can strip the natural oil of the skin and leave skin irritated if performed too aggressively. It's easy to get carried away and cause microtears in the skin," says Massick.

Cheng adds that you should take note of the size and material of the granules in the wash or scrub, since some can be harsher than others. She says She also urges people to use these carefully.

Glycerin

Glycerin is categorized as a humectant, which means it has the ability to attract water. "It draws moisture from the deeper layers of the skin and also keeps water from evaporating from the superficial layers of skin," says Massick.Advertisement

The primary purpose: Due to its humectant properties, glycerin can:

  • Keep skin moisturized and hydrated
  • Prevent dryness
  • Prevent skin irritation
  • Help to maintain the skin barrier

Best suited for: Dry, sensitive skin. Massick says glycerin is helpful for people who have easily irritated skin, and for people with dry skin from eczema.

The Bottom Line

The best cleanser will depend on your individual needs. There are so many out there, and it might take some trial and error to find the one that works best for you. Advertisement

When trying new products, Massick recommends starting slowly. She says you can try using it every other day before daily use, or using a small test area to make sure you aren't sensitive or allergic to any of the ingredients.

If your cleanser isn't providing relief from your acne, oily skin, or dry skin, talk to a dermatologist who can help you find a solution.

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