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The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Best Soap-Free Cleansers and Face Washes

CEO Tinh Phung
In a hurry? Here are our top picks: 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...

In a hurry? Here are our top picks:

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 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.

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 face wash 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

ZELEN Life Cleanser

Unique features:

  • Handmade with a blend of organic botanicals
  • Versatile unisex cleanser suitable for all skin types
  • Premium matte silver airless pump bottle

The best soap-free cleanser/wash for: Men and women of all skin types, especially natural skincare enthusiasts.

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

Overview: This is a pH-balanced soap-free cleanser loaded with organic botanical ingredients. The formula is powerful enough to clear the most stubborn dirt while being gentle so that it does not irritate the skin.

About the formula: 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. The oil content gives a deep cleanse without stripping out the skin’s natural barrier. Plus, it strengthens the lipid layer.

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. Being so similar to sebum, it also helps balance the skin’s oil production. Less oil means less risk of clogged pores and acne breakouts.

This skin-friendly organic formula is not only soap-free but is chemical-free too. No parabens, sulfates, silicones, petrochemicals, and fragrances (to name a few!) are found in this product. In line with the company ethos, this product is also cruelty-free and vegan-friendly.

I think this cleanser represents good value for money. Even though this is an “in-house” product, hear me out for a moment. It does have a higher price point, which is to be expected with premium organic ingredients at the heart of its blend. But putting its formula aside, it smells fabulous. I also like the level of detail of the packaging and how easy the product is on the eye. The matte-silver airless pump looks dashing while also being useful for preventing contamination. When you compare it to ELEMIS Micellar Water on our list, ELEMIS is a higher price point and in my opinion, the bottle does not have the same premium quality.

We do, however, all have different preferences when it comes to how our skincare looks and smells. If you are looking for a soap-free cleanser, boscia’s Clear Complexion Cleanser has comparable natural ingredients with a slightly stronger scent (of geranium). However, note that it is a gel-based, foaming product and not a cream.

The good:

  • Handmade with organic botanicals
  • Suitable for all skin types
  • Premium packaging

Things to think about:

  • Higher price point than some other options
  • Scent may not be preferred by everyone

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 unwanted dirt, sebum, and impurities, while strengthening the lipid layer of the skin.

ELEMIS Smart Cleanse Micellar Water

Unique features:

  • Micellar water
  • Ideal for travel
  • Double-cleansing option

The best soap-free cleanser/wash for: Makeup users. It is suitable for irritated, sensitive skin types.

Notable ingredients: PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides, Rosewater, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Cocoyl Apple Amino Acids, Cetrimonium Chloride, Glycerin, Rosehip Seed Oil, Chamomile

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 a cleansing oil suspended in water, which helps draw excess oil and dirt out of the skin. The Smart Cleanse Micellar Water by Elemis does exactly that.

Here are the key ingredients: Rosewater is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory,(7) and rosehip oil works really well with acne-prone skin to reduce redness and scarring.(8) Chamomile soothes irritated skin, reduces itching associated with inflammation, and possesses anti-aging benefits.(9)

This is the only fully-fledged micellar water that made our list. If you are looking for a double-cleansing product that removes both oil-based and water-based grime from your skin, then this one is for you. It is very quick and easy to use. So if you have a busy lifestyle with limited time for your skincare regime, this is a convenient cleanser for those constantly on the move or who are traveling.

As a water-based cleanser, it is a clear liquid which means you would not need to rinse it off (if you wish). It leaves the skin feeling refreshed without any greasy residue. It has a scent of roses which is certainly kind on the nose. Although, men should be put off from using this product as the aroma is very light.

On the flip side, this is the most expensive cleanser on our list. I would understand why one would be hesitant to buy a micellar water at this price. However, it should be taken into account that the size is 6.7 fl oz / 200ml, which is bigger than the average cleanser. If you are looking for more of a budget option that performs a similar action to this product, then consider Bioderma’s Sensibio on our list. But note that it is foamier and does not have the same pleasant aroma.

The good:

  • Micellar water technology
  • Suitable for irritated, sensitive skin
  • Convenient for travel

Things to think about:

  • High price point
  • Light scent may not appeal to all

Bottom line:

ELEMIS Smart Cleanse Micellar Water is an expensive but totally worthy choice for irritated and sensitive skin for daily cleansing as part of a double cleanse. Ideal for travel and an emergency cleansing fix.

StriVectin Hyaluronic Gel Cushion Cleanser

Unique features:

  • Lightweight gel
  • Leaves a ‘cooling’ sensation
  • Strong scent

The best soap-free cleanser/wash for: Those with dry skin.

Notable 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

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 bring moisture to the skin’s surface and prevent the loss of water during the cleansing process. Aloe Vera leaf juice has anti-inflammatory, soothing, and anti-aging properties.(10)

If you are looking for a no-nonsense cleanser that is ultra-hydrating for dry skin, then look no further than this one. It is the only product on our list containing the water-locking powerhouse that is hyaluronic acid. This cleanser also comes with a unique cooling effect on the skin.

It should be noted that this cleanser has a strong scent. It is personally not to my taste, but users’ reviews are mixed with some liking it, and some comparing it to cologne. I wouldn’t go that far, but if you are looking for a comparable product that has a lighter scent, then consider the ZELEN Life Cleanser on our list.

If you are a fan of natural ingredients in your skincare, then you should know that this product is not blessed with botanicals. However, there is the boscia Cleanser and ZELEN Life’s Cleanser, which get top marks in this area. boscia’s Cleanser is the same size at 5 fl oz / 150 ml and is in the same price bracket. The ZELEN Life Cleanser is a smaller size at 3.4 fl / 100 ml but is more of a direct replacement when it comes to helping dry skin.

The good:

  • Lightweight gel formula
  • Hydrating for dry skin
  • Cooling effect

Things to think about:

  • Strong scent
  • Lacks botanical ingredients

Bottom line:

StriVectin’s Hyaluronic Gel Cushion Cleanser is a 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.

boscia Clear Complexion Cleanser

Unique features:

  • Foaming action
  • Targets acne
  • Pump bottle

The best soap-free cleanser/wash for: Those with oily, acne-prone skin.

Notable ingredients: Willow Bark Extract, Rosemary Leaf Extract, Geranium, Jojoba Oil

Overview: boscia Clear Complexion Cleanser is a soap-free 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.

Comparisons: This cleanser contains natural antioxidant ingredients that are comparable to the ZELEN Life Cleanser on our list. Both cleansers contain jojoba oil, meaning they are both useful in balancing sebum production and assisting with acne breakouts. Although I would say, if you suffer from more than the occasional breakout, boscia’s Clear Complexion is more suitable.

boscia also stands out from the crowd by being a foaming cleanser that leaves no residue. Foam is not to everyone’s liking, but if you prefer it over a thicker, cream-based cleanser, then this one is for you. If, on the other hand, you don’t like the potential dryness and tight feeling of foam, the opposite would be micellar water, such as ELEMIS’. If you are torn between the two, then you should consider Bioderma’s Sensibio Foaming Gel from our list, which is a balance between micellar water and a lightweight foam.

Whatever your preference, if you have dry and sensitive skin, this foaming, acne-fighting cleanser is probably not going to be most suitable for you.

The good:

  • Foaming action for a clean feel
  • Fights acne and balances sebum
  • Leaves no residue

Things to think about:

  • Not suitable for dry, sensitive skin
  • Strong scent

Bottom line:

The boscia Clear Complexion Exfoliating Cleanser is 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.

Bioderma Sensibio Foaming Gel

Unique features:

  • Fragrance-free
  • Large size - low price tag
  • Lightweight foam

The best soap-free cleanser/wash for: People on a budget. It is suitable for sensitive skin and those prone to rosacea.

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

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

It removes (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.

Let’s take a closer look at its ingredients: 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 that irritate the skin, making it perfect for daily use for sensitive skin.

For pink lovers, it has a unique pink-inspired bottle. The cleanser is dispensed with a pump, and I must say, lathers up really well despite being soap-free. It is a lot more moisturizing than boscia’s foaming cleanser. So if you are a fan of foam and have a drier skin type, then this one will suit you better. The foam is so lightweight that it is as close as it gets to being micellar water without being the real thing. If, however, you do want the real thing, ELEMIS Micellar Water is better for you, but it is more expensive.

Finally, let’s not forget this is a great pick for those on a budget.

The good:

  • Budget-friendly option
  • Suitable for sensitive skin
  • Lightweight foam

Things to think about:

  • Not as luxurious as higher-end options
  • May not provide the same deep clean
  • Does not have a distinct scent

Bottom line:

Bioderma’s Sensibio Foaming Gel is 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 irritation and sensitivity.

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 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 extra time.


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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  4. Cosmetic Dermatology, (Leslie Baumann)
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  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 skincare. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2009;2(1):36-40.
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