I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, but…
Girl, wash your face.
It’s the first piece of beauty advice your mom ever gave you, the vow you made to yourself in college even after a late night of studying (or partying), the title of an inspirational book you definitely saw posted all over Instagram in 2018.
And it’s our plea to you, the mamas of the world who barely have a spare second to drink water—let alone splash it all over your exhausted faces.
We know you know this, but there are so many benefits to prioritizing that end-of-day cleansing session—even if you’d really rather just crawl straight into bed. Cleaner pillowcases mean fewer breakouts; a nightly ritual can help you relax and wind down from the day; your skin does its best repairing and regenerating overnight. Oh, and then there’s this:
“Throughout the day, the surface of the skin builds up dead skin cells, oil, bacteria, sweat, and other debris,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, a dermatologist based in D.C. “There is also microscopic soot in the air called particulate pollution that settles on the skin during the day that can be damaging.” Gross. But even worse, pollution can generate free radicals on the skin, which are highly unstable molecules that accelerate aging. Yes, they accelerate aging: This is not a drill!
It’s clear that cleansing is crucial, but what type of face wash is right for your skin—whether it’s sensitive, dry or acne-prone?
Keep reading for everything you ever wanted to know about the best drugstore face washes under $20 (with a few splurges!)—including creams, gels, oils, balms, melts, micellar waters and more.
Face wash favorites #1: Cleansing balms, milks and melts
Balms work their magic by binding to grime and pulling it away from the epidermis—so you can easily rinse it all off with a few splashes of warm water to reveal soft, hydrated skin. To use a balm or melt, follow the specific instructions provided on the label (but in general, you’ll typically just scoop a dollop into your hand and mix with a bit of water to create a gentle cleansing milk, then proceed washing and rinsing as usual). They’re great for travel—no spills, and no worrying about pulling them out of your carry-on at airport security. Just keep in mind that some balms are meant to work as a pre-cleanse that removes makeup and oil before your regular cleanser…while others can be used all on their own.
Raise your hand if the only reason you’ve heard of manuka honey is because Kourtney Kardashian never stops talking about it. Apparently Kourt eats it (smoothies), sips it (tea), smothers her hair in it (masks), and—and here’s the important part!—rubs it on her face. Thanks to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, this hard-to-harvest honey (it’s indigenous to New Zealand) can help zap zits and calm the redness that comes with them. Sustainably sourced and cruelty-free beauty brand Kiwi Botanicals makes it a star ingredient of their cleansing honey melts.
At Sephora (where this product earned the coveted Clean grade), one reviewer with sensitive skin said this balm changed her life. “I had no idea how poorly regular cleansers were working for me until I switched to this,” she shares. “[It] leaves my skin squeaky clean, soft, moisturized.”
Using a delicious blend of rose extract, manuka honey, coconut oil, sunflower seed oil and geranium oil (I kind of want to eat it, you?), this balm is a soothing and hydrating way to remove makeup before your second cleanser. “Just a little bit melted off my heavy foundation and eye makeup without problems, then I followed up with my favorite toner to remove any extra oils,” says Amazon reviewer Elyse B.
Face wash favorites #2: Gels, foams and creams
There are lots of face wash options in this category—so when using a gel or foam, make your selection based on what you’ll be doing to your face afterward. Following your cleanser with an exfoliating scrub, luxe face mask and your P.M. retinol serum? Stick to something gentle and simple when you’ve got a lot more active ingredients coming up next. But if it’s a low-key skincare night (read: maybe some moisturizer, maybe nothing else at all…) then pick a product that’ll do double-duty by cleansing and treating your biggest skin concerns, whether it’s acne or aging.
The Vanicream brand has been highly recommended by multiple dermatologists I’ve spoken to—both professionally for beauty research, and personally for treating my baby’s eczema. This gentle cleanser is free of dyes, lanolin, fragrance, masking fragrance (there’s a diff!), parabens, formaldehyde (and yes, that is an actual thing that you will find in a lot of skincare products) and other preservatives. It couldn’t get more free unless it was, well, actually free.
In an Amazon review that genuinely made me LOL, Jennifer K. shares how she almost didn’t find her new favorite cleanser. “Bought this on accident. Thought it was lotion. Was gonna send it back… But was too lazy… Now I’m obsessed with it. It’s lovely!” The gentle formula’s star ingredients—sweet almond oil, beeswax and plum seed oil—have powerful nourishing properties, and the brand has been a leader in using clean, organic products since 1921.
Remember when you were a teen, agonizing over your acne, and every adult in your life was like, “Don’t worry, it’ll go away when you grow up!” LOL—they lied. But even your worst breakouts (you know, the one that pops up the night before you’re taking the photos for your family’s holiday card) are no match for micronized benzoyl peroxide, the acne-fighting ingredient that’s proven to treat anything you’ve got (pimples, cystic acne, blackheads and whiteheads).
Face wash favorites #3: Micellar waters
When I tell people that I do not “wash” my face—ever—I love the look of horror I get. But a few years ago when I switched from sudsing my very sensitive skin with cleansers to just rinsing it thoroughly with micellar water, my skin finally cleared up—and I’ve never looked back. Micellar water looks like a toner, but it can be used as the primary step in your cleansing routine with no need to rinse afterward: The micelles are tiny balls of cleansing oil suspended in water, and they trap and remove all the dirt and oil from your skin.
Bioderma Sensibio H2O Soothing Micellar Cleansing Water and Makeup Removing Solution for Sensitive Skin
French pharmaceutical brand Bioderma makes one of the O.G. micellar waters—and it’s (still!) one of the absolute best. The brand makes a few varieties, so if you have sensitive skin be sure to snag the Sensibio option, which is free from fragrance (a common irritant).
This famed French brand is dedicated to treating sensitive skin with its own source of soothing thermal spring water. Fans rave about the dermo-cleansing fluid and the face mist…but my favorite has to be the micellar lotion, which makes me feel like I’m splashing my face with fresh water from a French spring. (Because, well, I am.) If you have sensitive skin, head’s up that this does contain fragrance: According to an Amazon reviewer, “it smells fresh and clean and leaves a little glow.”
Please name something more annoying than struggling to remove stubborn eye makeup that won’t budge at the end of a long day. I’ll wait. Garnier solves that situation with a micellar water specifically designed to remove waterproof makeup—no harsh rubbing required.
Face wash favorites #4: Cleansing oils
Oils work similarly to balms—but because they’re more of a liquid and typically packaged in a bottle with a pump, they might be more hygienic. (No need to worry that your grubby, just-changed-a-diaper fingers contaminated whatever you’re about to rub all over your face.) Contrary to popular belief, they can work for every skin type: Whether you’re dry, sensitive, acne-prone or yep, even oily, an oil cleanser is the go-to for gently cleansing without stripping your skin of its natural oils (because, BTW, a cleanser that’s too drying will just make your skin produce more oil).
If you’re ISO an ultra lightweight oil, this is it. Infused with bilberry, cucumber, sunflower and sea salts, this blend offers a light cleansing experience that everyone who uses it seems to be obsessed with. (See what I did there?) It’s got over 100 reviews on Amazon with an average rating of 4.7 stars. Impressive.
Now that you’re feeling fresh-faced, check out more of our beauty must-haves that will save your face from winter.