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As we’ve written before, combination skin — a mix of oily and dry spots in different areas of your face — can be difficult to manage. Products that work on the dry patches might not always on the oily spots (and vice versa), which is why Dr. Corey L. Hartman, the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, says “finding a cleanser that can hydrate and smooth dry parts while simultaneously moisturizing and preserving the oily parts is indeed a task.” While dermatologists have told us you can get away with using two different moisturizers to treat combination skin, the seven we spoke to for this story say that’s not the case with cleansers. This is good news for people who like to keep their routines minimal, but it can make finding the exact cleanser for your skin that much trickier.
When it comes to the best cleansers for combination skin, the experts say to look for ones with a gel or light foam base that have gentle exfoliants to counteract oiliness and ingredients like ceramides or hyaluronic acid for hydration. Dallas-based cosmetic dermatologist Dr. DiAnne Davis warns you may go through a lot of “trial and error” — but starting with any of the seven recommended cleansers below might go a long way toward not wasting time on ineffective ones. Whichever you choose, Davis notes that, come wintertime, users with very dry patches might need to switch to a cleanser that’s even more hydrating (our list includes one that ticks this box too.)
According to the experts, a light foam-based cleanser can do wonders for combination skin because, as Davis notes, the consistency of foam effectively cleanses excess oil without stripping the skin. This one, as you rub it in, turns into a foam — but starts out as a cream, which Dr. Hope Mitchell, the founder of Mitchell Dermatology in Perrysburg, Ohio, says is a best-of-both-worlds scenario for combination skin. “It goes on like a cream and lathers into a hydrating foam, effectively cleaning the skin without leaving it feeling tight or dry,” she explains. Mitchell adds that the budget-friendly cleanser “contains ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and amino acids that help maintain the skin’s natural barrier and lock in moisture.”
Dr. Oma Agbai, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UC Davis, told us about this lightweight foam cleanser formulated specifically for sensitive combination skin. Its gentle formula contains no oil or soap (ingredients that can make oily skin oilier and dry skin dryer), and, as she explains, “the foaming action can remove oil and residue without over-drying the skin.”
Those whose combination skin is made up of extremely oily and dry spots should consider this balancing gel-based cleanser from Neutrogena. It’s specifically formulated for combination skin and contains “polyhydroxy acid, or PHA, a gentle exfoliant that helps to unclog pores while evening the skin’s texture and tone,” explains Dr. Caroline Robinson, the founder of Tone Dermatology. While all skin types can benefit from PHA, she says, combination skin responds exceptionally well to it because PHA is “both an exfoliant and a humectant, so it leaves the skin balanced and never stripped.” Robinson adds that the molecules in PHA are larger, so “they do not penetrate as deeply,” making the ingredient much less irritating.
For people with combination skin that tends to break out, Hartman suggests this vegan cleanser formulated with natural ingredients including “cold-pressed kale, spinach, and green tea,” which he says “can clear breakouts and blackheads while restoring skin’s pH level without over-drying.” It has a rich gel texture that will be plenty hydrating for dry spots, Hartman adds.
Picking a cleanser with mild exfoliating properties could be helpful for controlling particularly oily, acne-prone areas on your T-zone, according to Dr. Kathleen S. Viscusi, a co-founder of Dermatology and Surgery Specialists of North Atlanta. She recommends this gel cleanser from SkinMedica, which “contains salicylic acid as well as a blend of fruit extracts, jojoba oil, and citric acid,” a formula that “works as a light exfoliant to improve the skin’s overall tone and texture without being overly drying or irritating.” If you go for it, Viscusi suggests only using it “a couple times a week, especially in summer,” to avoid over exfoliating.
Given Davis’s warning about trial and error when it comes to finding the right cleanser for combination skin, you might prefer starting with affordable options as you determine the best for you. Anyone who likes the idea of an exfoliating cleanser but wants to spend less should consider this product from Ambi, which Mitchell calls “great for combination skin.” While it’s more of a cream than a gel or a foam, the cleanser is light and contains salicylic acid along with jojoba microbeads, ingredients that she says “safely exfoliate, remove oil, and prevent breakouts.” The cleanser hydrates skin with natural ingredients like oat and sea whip, Mitchell adds.
It’s fairly common for many people to switch to a heavier moisturizer to quench dry skin in winter, and Robinson says those with combination skin should consider doing the same with their cleansers. Her favorite option for treating combination skin in colder months is this Avène cleanser, which she calls “rich and calming.” It has a creamier texture, but still effectively removes dirt and oil from pores without drying out the skin, according to her. Its formula also includes some of the brand’s thermal spring water as an extra-soothing ingredient for inflammation or irritation. Robinson adds that those who like to make the most of their products could use it year-round “to help remove makeup as the first step of a double cleanse.”
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