5 Best Soap-Free Cleansers & Face Washes (Non-Drying) 2020
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5 Best Soap-Free Cleansers & Face Washes (Non-Drying)

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In a hurry? Here are our top picks:
BEST FOR ACNE-PRONE SKIN, CLEAN SKINCARE, ORGANIC ZELEN Life Cleanser

 

The key to healthy skin begins with mastering the age-old mantra: ‘cleansing, toning, and moisturizing.’

Just as a strong building needs a solid foundation, the basis of a promising routine is always choosing the right cleanser.

In this article, we are going to talk about the best soap-free cleansers (and facewashes). A cleanser usually stays in contact with your skin for 30-45 seconds. In that duration, it may not revolutionize your skin, but done wrong; these few seconds could damage the skin.

This is important to understand because strong detergents can not differentiate between the skin’s natural lipid barrier and the extra oil and debris it needs to clean. As a result, during the process of cleansing, it damages the skin to some extent by washing off a small bit of lipid barrier that keeps the skin healthy.

To prevent that damage and to prime the skin for the products coming on next, the cleanser should be mild but still capable of cleansing the skin and deliver some extra nourishment in the form of actives.

The products we have chosen to include in this list do all that, and a little more.

In this article, we will talk about our choices of the top 5 soap-free cleansers and face washes for all skin types and budgets. We will also share things you should keep in mind before choosing one for your skin, and some tips and tricks to maximize the benefits you derive from your skin cleansing routine.

Quick summary

bb2-table__imageZELEN LIFE Cleanser
  • Deep-cleansing action without stripping skin oils, non-drying
  • Gentle organic formula, packed with vitamins and antioxidants
  • Completely chemical-free, hydrates and soothes
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bb2-table__imageELEMIS Smart Cleanse Micellar Water
  • Micellar Water does not inflame or irritate the skin
  • Gentle and non-drying composition
  • Great 'double-cleansing' option
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bb2-table__imageStriVectin Hyaluronic Gel Cushion Cleanser
  • Lightweight, gel-based formula rich in humectants
  • Moisturizes, leaves skin feeling soft and smooth
  • Balances pH and repairs skin barrier
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bb2-table__imageboscia Clear Complexion Exfoliating Cleanser
  • Foaming cleansing action without soap
  • Natural formula, antioxidant-rich
  • Clears complexion, helps blemishes
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bb2-table__imageBioderma Sensibio Foaming Gel
  • Soap-free and also fragrance-free
  • Mild formula suitable for sensitive skin types
  • Good non-drying budget option
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Before you buy: 4 Things to consider when purchasing a soap-free cleanser (or face wash)

1. Understand what soap-free really means

Soap-free doesn’t mean free of all kinds of detergent ingredients. It means free of the detergents, which cause skin barrier disruption. The makeup, pollutants, and sebum are all water repellents and cannot be removed by something that makes them water-soluble. And detergents do exactly this job.

As mentioned above, harsh cleansers that make the skin squeaky clean also leech the lipids from the skin’s natural barrier.

The most notorious for this phenomenon and one of the most widely used detergents is Sodium lauryl sulfate or SLS.

Sodium lauryl sulfate can bind to the skin proteins, lipids, and natural moisturizing factors of the skin, thus disturbing the skin’s barrier function and causing a slow but significant increase in the loss of humidity from the skin.(1)

Also, avoid sodium laureate/cocoate and alkyl phosphates.(4)

2. Choose the right pH

Studies show that a pH of more than 7 in a cleanser can increase the dryness and redness of the skin.(2) It also disturbs the good bacteria of the skin, promoting the growth of unwanted ones (like the ones that cause acne).

Our skin possesses a natural system to neutralize any pH changes eventually, but a repeated spurt of disturbances in the pH of the skin can irreversibly damage the skin’s water-retaining capacity causing red and dry skin.

What’s more, it increases the irritation from other skincare products you use afterward.

3. Are you single-cleansing or double-cleansing?

If you work outdoors throughout the day or wear a lot of makeup, a mild cleanser may be too little for you. In that case, instead of going for one deep cleanser, do a two-step mild cleansing.

First step with a makeup remover, micellar water, or oil-based cleanser and then follow it up with another mild SLS cleanser.

This will help you in cleansing every last speck of dirt without affecting the skin’s health.

4. Prepare the skin for the products coming next

If you have a power-packed skincare routine, you might want to keep the facewash really mild, moisturizing, and devoid of any irritating actives.

On the other hand, using a cleanser with active ingredients is a good way to get some benefit of the ingredient if your skincare just consists of a moisturizer.

The 5 best soap-free cleansers and face washes in 2020

1. ZELEN Life Cleanser

ZELEN Life Cleanser

Best features:

  • Suitable for all skin types
  • Mildest cleansing agents
  • Skin-friendly organic formula free of all chemicals

The best soap-free cleanser/wash for:

Men and women of all skin types, especially natural beauty enthusiasts.

Overview:

If you are a little disturbed to see alcohol near the top of the ingredient list, don’t be. Cetyl alcohol is one of the ‘good alcohols’ in skincare. It doesn’t dry out the skin.

In fact, just the opposite. It improves the skin’s hydration while also cleansing the skin since it is a moisturizer and a detergent. In addition, sunflower oil is known to reduce the irritation caused by the cleansing process.(5)

The plant oils in the cleanser attach to the oily impurities in the skin, making the cleansing process even more effective. And don’t worry, plant oils do not clog the pores. Jojoba oil, which has a texture like the skin’s own sebum, gently deep cleanses the pores.

Main Ingredients:

Glycerin, Cetyl Alcohol, Sunflower Seed Oil, Coconut Oil, Sweet Almond Oil, Jojoba Seed Oil, Lemon Peel Oil

The good:

  • Plant oils soothe and hydrate the skin.
  • Combats irritation and dryness during and post-shave.
  • No post-wash dryness
  • Cetyl alcohol hydrates and soothes at the same time
  • Oil-based formula binds to and removes the stubborn dirt and impurities
  • Deep cleanse without stripping out the skin’s natural barrier. The oil content strengthens the lipid layer of the skin

Things to think about:

  • Essential oils may, with time, lead to contact sensitization. Those with extremely sensitive and allergy-prone skin should avoid it.

Bottom line:

The ZELEN Life Cleanser is the ideal choice for most skin types since it is a powerful cleanser, but it does so in a gentle, non-stripping way. It cleanses the pores, removes the unwanted dirt, sebum, impurities, and at the same time, strengthens the lipid layer of the skin.

2. ELEMIS Smart Cleanse Micellar Water

Best features:

  • Extremely gentle on the skin
  • Cleanses makeup without drying

The best soap-free cleanser/wash for:

Irritated sensitive skin and makeup users.

Overview:

If you don’t know what micellar water is- it is a decades-old french beauty secret that is now revered worldwide. Micellar water is cleansing oil suspended in water, which helps draw excess oil and dirt out of the skin.

Even though Micellar water can be left unrinsed, I prefer and advise for it to be rinsed. No one needs a layer of cleansing oil lingering on their skin.

Rosewater is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory,(7) and rosehip oil works really well with acne-prone skin to reduce the redness and scarring.(8)

Chamomile soothes the irritated skin, reduces the itching associated with inflammation, and possesses anti-aging benefits.(9)

Main Ingredients:

PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides, RosewaterPropylene Glycol, Sodium Cocoyl Apple Amino Acids, Cetrimonium Chloride, Glycerin, Rosehip Seed Oil, Chamomile

The good:

  • Ideal for a double cleansing routine- remove makeup with the micellar water and follow it up with a mild water-based cleanser
  • Does not irritate or inflame the skin.
  • Chamomile extract soothes the skin
  • Can be, when no option available, left unrinsed. Ideal for travel.

Things to think about:

  • Even though micellar waters are touted by many to be a non-rinse product, it is always advisable to rinse the face post use.
  • Pricey!

Bottom line:

An expensive but totally worthy choice for irritated and sensitive skin for daily cleansing as a part of a double cleanse. Ideal travel and emergency cleansing fix.

3. StriVectin Hyaluronic Gel Cushion Cleanser

Best features:

  • Barrier improving abilities
  • Supplements the hydration

The best soap-free cleanser/wash for:

Those with dry skin.

Overview:

Strivectin’s cushion cleanser is a lightweight gel-based sulfate-free cleanser, most suitable for dry and combination skin. Although it sounds similar to sodium lauryl, sodium lauroyl sarcosinate is actually a very mild and effective cleansing agent.

It also contains a lesser-known, oil-soluble version of niacinamide to strengthen the skin’s health. This cleanser is also rich in humectants like Sodium hyaluronate and glycerin, which brings moisture to the skin’s surface and prevents the loss of water during the cleansing process.

Aloe Vera leaf juice has anti-inflammatory, soothing, and anti-aging properties.(10)

Main Ingredients:

Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, Acrylates/C10-30, Glycerin, Polysorbate 20, Myristyl Nicotinate, Sodium Hyaluronate, Anastatica Hierochuntica Extract, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice

The good:

  • Effective cleansing without post-wash dryness
  • pH balanced
  • Leaves the skin soft and smooth
  • Can decently remove non-water-resistant makeup

Things to think about:

  • ‘Cooling’ property of the facewash is not very ideal for eczema-prone skin.
  • Contains artificial fragrance. Those with perfume sensitization/allergy should stay away.

Bottom line:

A pretty hydrating soap-free, pH-balanced face wash for dry skin with an ingredient list loaded with hydration boosting ingredients. However, if you suffer from eczema and allergies on the facial skin, this may not be for you.

4. boscia Clear Complexion Exfoliating Cleanser

Best features:

  • Foaming cleanser without harsh soaps
  • Pore-cleansing without being drying

The best soap-free cleanser/wash for:

Those with oily, acne-prone skin.

Overview:

boscia Clear Complexion Cleanser is a foaming cleanser for those who want a clean feel without a lot of harsh detergents. It contains acne-fighting and sebum regulating ingredients like Willow bark extract, geranium, and jojoba oil.

Willow bark extract also promotes antioxidant enzymes reducing the stress on the skin caused by environmental damage.(11)

For mild acne-prone skin, this product could be the lone warrior to keep the occasional pimples at bay. It would also supplement other acne therapies since it doesn’t dry out the skin.

Main Ingredients:

Willow bark extract, Rosemary leaf extract, Geranium, Jojoba oil

The good:

  • Fights mild acne and has sebum regulating property
  • Can be used with prescription acne therapy
  • Natural antioxidant ingredients
  • Pump packaging

Things to think about:

  • Expensive
  • Not suitable for moderate to cystic acne as a standalone therapy
  • Contains natural fragrance

Bottom line:

A natural soap-free foaming face wash for oily and acne-prone skin, which is a perfect addition to your existing anti-acne routine and would even fight a mild breakout by itself. It is expensive, but since it foams well, a little goes a long way.

5. Bioderma Sensibio Foaming Gel

Best features:

  • Hydrating and soothing
  • Fragrance-free

The best soap-free cleanser/wash for:

Sensitive, rosacea skin and people on a budget.

Overview:

A combination of two very mild surfactants, this face wash cleanses the skin thoroughly without causing any irritation. Coco- glucoside and glyceryl oleate soothe and moisturize the skin.

This cleanser doesn’t contain any fragrance or other ingredients which irritate the skin, making it perfect for daily use for sensitive skin.

It removes the (non-waterproof) makeup decently, and since it doesn’t sting in the eyes, it can be used to remove even the eye makeup. Even though it lathers, there is no squeaky tight feeling after rinsing the skin.

The face wash is infused with water-binding and hydrating agents like plant sugars and propanediol to boost the skin’s moisture content.

Main Ingredients:

Sodium Cocoamphoacetate, Propanediol, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Citric Acid, Coco-Glucoside, Tocopherol, Hydrogenated Palm Glycerides Citrate, Lecithin, Ascorbyl Palmitate

The good:

  • Mild, soap-free, but still lathers well.
  • Excellent cleansing properties but no post-wash dryness
  • Non-irritating and thus excellent for sensitive skin.
  • Totally fragrance-free

Things to think about:

  • Not suitable for oily skin
  • Not as ‘soap-free’ as other cleansers on the list

Bottom line:

A great budget buy for sensitive and rosacea skin types. It is almost like a rinse-off micellar water. It may not be a solution to many concerns, but it will not worsen any kind of irritation and sensitivity.


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How we chose these products

We chose the best soap-free cleanser (and face wash) based on several factors.

First, we sorted out our top picks for a good cleanser. That included a promising evidence-backed ingredient list, formulations that are effective, brands that we trust, and, most importantly, free of any harsh cleansing detergents.

We know that all skin types would benefit from a soap-free cleanser. So we picked out top products for all skin types – oily, dry, combination, and sensitive, and if you haven’t yet figured it out, an option suitable for all skin types.

We know that not everything can be put into boxes of rules. We took into account individual tastes and varying needs like foam, non-foam, natural, makeup removing capabilities, and fragrance (or the lack of it).

Price points were analyzed to ensure that there is an option for all budget brackets because the budget should not be a hurdle to the love for great skin. We also brought into consideration products for all age groups and gender.

In the end, we checked for the reviews of every product across the platforms and channels. We made sure that the reviews are unbiased and reliable.

Through this extensive process, we made sure that we found one product for everyone. I hope we were able to.

Frequently asked questions

frequently asked questions

How many times should I wash my face?

Unless you absolutely have to, washing the face once or twice a day should be enough. Usually, people with acne think that they can wash away the acne. This is far from the truth.

There is absolutely no benefit in acne (or any other condition as a matter of fact) if you wash your skin more than twice a day(6). Washing the face more frequently just strips the skin of its protective oils, leaving the skin more prone to inflammation and overactivity of the oil glands.

I like that my skin feels ‘squeaky clean’ after washing, and I don’t see any irritation. Can I continue using my cleanser even though it is not soap-free and pH balanced?

The damage to the skin barrier by cleansing is gradual and subtle, and it may take months to years for you to finally notice it. On prolonged use, a pH unbalanced cleanser can cause dry patches on your skin, make the skin more sensitive and eventually lead to an increase in sebum production, making the skin look uneven and dull.

Can I use soap to wash my face?

Soaps are, more often than not, alkaline. Most handmade soaps have a pH between 9.0-10.0.(3)

Alkaline pH doesn’t let the enzymes, essential to skin’s function, work properly, leading to dry and damaged skin. The only soaps which can be used for the face are Syndet soaps, which have pH near to the skin. It is essential to know or to test the pH of soap before using it on the face.

How would I know if a cleanser is too harsh for me?

After you wash your face, the upper layer of the skin rapidly loses water due to the loss of the fat layer on the skin. This is noticeable as after wash tightness, which shows that your cleanser might be too strong for your skin.

If the skin is washed with a suitable mild cleanser, it should not feel tight or dry. Post cleansing increase in dryness or a burning sensation is also a red flag and shows that you may need a new cleanser stat.

Do I need to leave on my face wash for a couple of minutes for the active ingredients to work?

No, don’t. Not a lot will change in an extra minute that you leave it on in terms of active ingredient deposition. But what’s definitely going to happen is that your skin will get irritated because of prolonged contact with the detergents.

So use your cleanser on the skin generously but do not leave it on for an extra time.

Conclusion

Soap-free cleansers are not meant for just some particular skin type. If you want to sustain your healthy skin function and keep it looking and feeling good, it is essential to switch to a soap-free cleanser.

Regardless of your skin type, we tried giving you some suggestions to make this switch easier for you.

Do you already use soap-free cleansers, or are planning to switch to one? Let me know in the comments.

Do you have a friend who still uses harsh cleansers to get a squeaky clean feel? Share this article with them.

And like always, feel free to ask a question or just say hello in the comment box.

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References

  1. Antoine JL, Contreras JL, Van Neste DJ. pH influence of surfactant-induced skin irritation. A non-invasive, multiparametric study with sodium lauryl sulfate. Derm Beruf Umwelt. 1989 May-Jun;37(3):96-100. PMID: 2743874.
  2. Baranda L, González-Amaro R, Torres-Alvarez B, Alvarez C, Ramírez V. Correlation between pH and irritant effect of cleansers marketed for dry skin. Int J Dermatol. 2002 Aug;41(8):494-9. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-4362.2002.01555.x. PMID: 12207765.
  3. Tarun J, Susan J, Suria J, Susan VJ, Criton S. Evaluation of pH of bathing soaps and shampoos for skin and hair care. Indian J Dermatol. 2014;59:442–444. DOI: 10.4103/0019-5154.139861.
  4. https://www.amazon.com/Cosmetic-Dermatology-Principles-Leslie-Baumann/dp/007121254X
  5. Mukherjee S, Yang L, Vincent C, Lei X, Ottaviani MF, Ananthapadmanabhan KP. A comparison between interactions of triglyceride oil and mineral oil with proteins and their ability to reduce cleanser surfactant-induced irritation. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2015 Aug;37(4):371-8. DOI: 10.1111/ics.12205. Epub 2015 Apr 13. PMID: 25656133.
  6. Choi JM, Lew VK, Kimball AB. A single-blinded, randomized, controlled clinical trial evaluating the effect of face washing on acne vulgaris. Pediatr Dermatol. 2006 Sep-Oct;23(5):421-7. DOI: 10.1111/j.1525-1470.2006.00276.x. PMID: 17014635.
  7. Lee MH, Nam TG, Lee I, et al. Skin anti-inflammatory activity of rose petal extract (Rosa gallica) through reduction of MAPK signaling pathway. Food Sci Nutr. 2018;6(8):2560-2567. Published 2018 Oct 25. doi:10.1002/fsn3.870
  8. Valerón-Almazán, P., Gómez-Duaso, A.J., Santana-Molina, N., García-Bello, M.A. and Carretero, G. (2015) Evolution of Post-Surgical Scars Treated with Pure Rosehip Seed Oil. Journal of Cosmetics, Dermatological Sciences and Applications, 5, 161-167.
  9. Stallings AF, Lupo MP. Practical uses of botanicals in skin care. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2009;2(1):36-40.
  10. Surjushe A, Vasani R, Saple DG. Aloe vera: a short review. Indian J Dermatol. 2008;53(4):163-166. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.44785
  11. Ishikado A, Sono Y, Matsumoto M, et al. Willow bark extract increases antioxidant enzymes and reduces oxidative stress through activation of Nrf2 in vascular endothelial cells and Caenorhabditis elegans. Free Radic Biol Med. 2013;65:1506-1515. doi:10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2012.12.006

About The Author

Dr. Rashmi Singh DDVL
Dr. Rashmi Singh DDVL

Dr. Singh studied dermatology from one of the most prestigious medical colleges of India – Stanley Medical College, Chennai. After finishing her post-graduation she went on to work as a consultant dermatologist in one of the largest cosmetology clinic chains in India – Kaya skin clinic. Working alongside expert aesthetic dermatologists of India, she worked extensively with customized skincare as well as lasers and injectables. Alongside, training under famous hair transplant surgeon – Dr. Venkataram Mysore, she learnt the nitty gritties of hair treatments. After doing two traveling fellowships in dermatology in Germany, she decided to settle there. Currently dividing her time between practicing dermatology and aesthetic medicine, she finds immense joy in educating people about the science behind skincare and haircare.

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