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We’ve all been in this emergency: Our face needs a wash, and there’s nowhere to freshen up. Sometimes our faces get oily before a date, grimy before an interview, sweaty after the gym or just icky-feeling after a long day of working or traveling. The best face wipes can cleanse and refresh your mug when you get in that pinch.
Portable face wipes are typically used for makeup removal, but they also remove dirt and pore-clogging oil. In other words, they make a great secret weapon for clean skin — no matter your gender. They allow you to freshen up in seconds, and continue your day feeling (and looking) a whole lot better.
But before we get into the best face wipes for a quick clean-up, we had questions about how face wipes affect skin and the impact of face wipes on the environment. We reached out to Dr. Michele Green, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist in New York City, who explained how face wipes work, what they’re useful for and how many face wipes aren’t as environmentally friendly as they seem.
What Can Cleansing Face Wipes Do? What Are They Good For?
The best face wipes use surfactants to essentially rub away makeup, dirt and oil. Some can also include different ingredients for different ends, such as hyaluronic acid for hydration or salicylic acid for blemishes. Because of their portability, they can be really convenient on the go. But that’s really the best and only time to break out the face wipes because they’re not as effective as actually cleaning your face.
“Cleansing wipes, or face wipes, are a convenient option to remove makeup, dirt and oil when regular cleansing options are unavailable,“ Green said. “However, facial wipes should not be the go-to option when it comes to hydrating the skin or reducing blemishes. Facial wipes do not clean the skin but rather, help remove any dirt, pollutants and makeup that are lying at the surface of your skin.”
Can the Best Face Wipes Substitute for Washing Your Face?
You might have already guessed, but because face wipes can only remove surface gunk, they’re not a replacement for washing your face with, say, the best face wash.
“No, face wipes do not substitute for washing your face and can cause more harm than good,” Green said. “Although they are great for on-the-go situations when you cannot normally cleanse your face, many wipes may contain high levels of alcohol and other harmful chemicals that may potentially cause skin irritation and dryness.”
She noted other pitfalls too: Even the best face wipes can fail to remove all the gunk, leaving pore-clogging residue behind. They can spread that residue and bacteria around your face and can even cause “micro-tears” in your skin you wouldn’t get from cleansing with your hands.
“Facial wipes should be used sparingly and you should still regularly cleanse after using a wipe with a cleanser and water when you can,” Green advised. “It would be best to keep face wipes for situations when you otherwise would not be able to clean your face with a cleanser and water.”
How Do Face Wipes Impact the Environment? Are Face Wipes Biodegradable?
These are loaded questions, but the short answer for most cleansing wipes is that they’re bad.
The best and most immediate examples of their negative consequences affecting cities right now are the so-called fatbergs, enormous masses of accumulated grease, waste and nonbiodegradable products like cleansing wipes. When flushed, face wipes can also leak chemicals and microplastics into water sources, Green said.
Even if you’re not flushing wipes down the toilet, many wipes are only biodegradable or compostable in certain conditions. The upshot? Your face wipe is pretty much going into a landfill. “Some biodegradable face wipes will only biodegrade if it is composted but if someone just throws the face wipes into the trash, that wipe is not going to biodegrade and is just going to end up in a landfill or pollute our environment,” Green said.
If you’re concerned about waste, you just have to be a savvy consumer, avoid the “vast greenwashing” from companies and make sure you’re disposing of your face wipes properly or limiting your usage as needed. “One statistic found that as many as 20 million pounds of face wipes are thrown out daily in the United States, with many taking as long as 100 years to biodegrade. This is a huge toll on our already burdened environment and other alternatives can reduce our waste,” Green said.
Bottom Line: Face Wipes Are Convenient But Aren’t Great for Skin or the Environment
No one’s saying to avoid using face wipes. They’re awesome when your face needs a quick refresh. But they’re not great for your skin on a regular basis, aren’t proper substitutes for typical cleansing routines and definitely contribute their share of environmental waste.
“If you have time and access to a cleanser and water, always choose to use that instead of using a face wipe,” Green said.
But for all the times you don’t have that access, check out the best face wipes below.
1. Cetaphil Gentle Face Cleansing Cloths for Dry, Sensitive Skin
When it comes to any skincare product, you can’t go wrong with Cetaphil and that includes the Cetaphil Gentle Face Cleansing Cloths for Dry, Sensitive Skin. As the name claims, these are the best face wipes for sensitive skin in need of a quick pick-me-up, whether that’s getting rid of makeup, oil, grime or everything in between. Plus, they’re still seriously well-reviewed given that thousands and thousands of people have offered their ratings.
The only downside is they’re not recyclable or compostable, but most face wipes aren’t, so we’re not holding it against Cetaphil for now.
2. La-Roche Posay Effaclar Facial Wipes for Oily Skin
BEST FOR OILY SKIN
La-Roche Posay is known for its top-notch skincare products, and the Effaclar Facial Wipes for Oily Skin is perfect for a quick surface cleanse. It features lipo-hydroxy acid and oil-targeting zinc pidolate to wipe away oil and dead skin, and gently exfoliate and refine your face.
The face wipes also have Green’s vote of confidence: “The La-Roche Posay Effaclar Facial Wipes for Oily Skin are paraben-free, fragrance-free, oil-free, non-comedogenic and dermatologist tested. This product will cleanse away oil and pore-clogging impurities and is great for all skin types, even sensitive skin.”
3. Burt’s Bees Clarifying Facial Towelettes for Acne-Prone Skin
ALSO CONSIDER FOR OILY SKIN
The Burt’s Bees Clarifying Facial Towelettes for Acne-Prone Skin rely on grapefruit extract to tone oily and acne-prone skin while delivering restorative ingredients like aloe vera, vitamin E / tocopherol and citric acid along the way.
4. Neutrogena Makeup Remover Cleansing Face Wipes
MOST ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY
Unless you see specific instructions on how to dispose of your face wipes in a way that’s environmentally friendly, they probably won’t recycle. The Neutrogena Makeup Remover Cleansing Face Wipes are compostable and upfront about how long the process takes. After 35 days in the home compost, this 100% plant-based cloth is as good as gone.
These alcohol-free face wipes promise to lift away any surface dirt, gunk, oil, sunscreen, makeup or anything else you’re trying to get rid of. The micellar water in the cloth is particularly helpful to that end, too.
These face wipes also come with Green’s endorsement.
5. DUDE Face + Body Cleansing Wipes
So many products don’t warrant genderization, but it is nice to know that some traditionally feminine products like the best face wipes are trying to gear themselves toward men, such as the DUDE Face + Body Cleansing Wipes. Not concerned with makeup so much, these face wipes are all about cleansing and refreshing your face and body with aloe vera and sea salt because there’s nothing more manly than cleaning your sweaty, grimy skin.
6. Ursa Major Essential Face Wipes
You definitely don’t need to spend more than $20 on even the best face wipes because they shouldn’t really be a part of your skincare routine. But if you’d prefer effective face wipes with more active ingredients, the Ursa Major Essential Face Wipes offer cleansing green tea, hydrating aloe and exfoliating willow bark for a one-wipe face lift. At least you can rest easy spending a little more knowing that even though these face wipes aren’t recyclable, Ursa Major is a Certified B Corp.