Shopping for facial cleansers can be intimidating. Whether you're at the drugstore or Sephora, shelves are lined with gel, foam, cream, bar, and micellar water formulas. And, in an effort to narrow your options, labels make claims of treating dry, sensitive, oily, or combination skin. But if you haven't quite gotten a handle on your skin type, this can likely further your frustration, making you inclined to reach for those few one-size-fits-all formulas that claim to work well for all skin types.
Here's the deal: Every skin type has specific needs. Sure, a gentle cleanser might not send sensitive skin into a blotchy tizzy, but there's a good chance it also won't treat an acne breakout and hydrate dry patches. "Unless someone has a truly normal skin type, then a specialty cleanser for oily, sensitive, or acne-prone skin is a better option than a mild cleanser without any active ingredients," says Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care. "Active ingredients are targeted ingredients, like salicylic acid to unclog pores or shea butter for a calming effect.
So what does "normal" even mean? Dr. Tanzi, who also serves as assistant clinical professor in the Department of Dermatology at the George Washington University Medical Center, breaks it down. "So-called normal skin is a catch-all phrase for those that don't get too oily or dry, or suffer from a stinging sensation when using certain products," she says.
If your skin is a bit fussier than said "normal" types, opt for a cleanser that addresses your specific needs. Dr. Tanzi makes it easy for you: "If you have dry skin, choose a creamy cleanser. Oily or acne-prone skin types should go for a gel cleanser with either salicylic or glycolic acids. Meanwhile, those with sensitive skin need to stay away from ingredients like salicylic and glycolic acids, fragrance, and sodium laurel sulfate [to avoid irritation]. Anyone with combination skin should try a gentle foaming cleanser."
Now, if you've racked up a few generic face washes in the past, Dr. Tanzi doesn't necessarily recommend tossing them all. "Just don’t wash your face more than twice daily," she says. "That would be too drying even with a gentle cleanser." And as an esthetician once suggested when asked how to salvage cleansers that aren't quite working for your face—consider using them as a body wash!