I have a little admission: For years I’d wash my face with whatever was at hand (including, at my personal rock bottom, actual hand soap). The reason was simple: I assumed that cleanser is cleanser. Serums, moisturizers, exfoliators ... those were the star skincare items, the products that could really make a difference in keeping skin looking good.
And then one afternoon an impromptu stop-off at Walgreens led me on a serendipitous walk down the skincare aisle where I happenstanced onto an already affordable cleanser on markdown — and I love a bargain! I tossed CeraVe Foaming Face Cleanser into my cart and thought nothing much about it until a few days later when suddenly my skin looked around 30 percent better. It no longer felt tight if didn’t race to slather on face cream within a 15 seconds of patting my just-washed face dry. My skin generally felt softer. It looked brighter and more evenly toned — all the results I’d otherwise hope for from serums and creams. And, turns out, I’d stumbled onto what many dermatologists consider the key to better skin: a hard-working yet gentle facial cleanser.
“Your choice in skin cleanser can either make or break your skin care routine,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “The wrong skin cleanser can lead to significant skin irritation. The right one can both remove dirt and oil and also enhance skin health and hydration.” Finding the right cleanser, however, is a bit of a balancing act — a pH-balancing act, to be exact.
A mini science refresher: pH refers to a 14-point scale that gauges whether something is acid or alkaline. Battery acid, for example, earns a 0 (very acidic) while lye lands at 14 (very alkaline). Skin hovers right around 5.5 — and so you want to find a cleanser that has a similar, slightly acidic pH. Your average hand soap scores a harsh 10. So do many facial cleansers on the market — and this is a real problem. “Harsh cleansers contain an alkaline pH which both disrupts the outer skin layer and interferes with the ability to maintain the proper acidic pH. Ultimately this means skin irritation, inflammation, and poorly functioning enzymes in the outer skin layer,” says Dr. Zeichner.
And this is precisely why my own skin’s dramatic — and super-fast — makeover after swapping in a gentler cleaner was nothing unusual. “Switching over to a pH balanced cleanser can help the skin heal itself and lead to improvements within days,” Dr. Zeichner says.
Ahead, 10 pH-balanced cleansers that promise to make over your own skin in days, including Dr. Zeichner’s two favorite — and very affordable — choices: Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Foaming Cleanser and Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar.
Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Foaming Daily Cleanser
Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar
CeraVe Foaming Face Cleanser for Normal to Oily Skin
NeoStrata Restore Facial Cleanser - 4 PHA
Sunday Riley Ceramic Slip Clay Cleanser
Sebamed Liquid Face and Body Wash pH 5.5 for Sensitive Skin
Frownies pH-Balancing Complexion Wash
Tata Harper Purifying Cleanser
SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser
GlyDerm Gentle Face Cleanser
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