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The Case for Using a Feminine Cleanser on Your Face

It’s time for cleanser anarchy.

Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

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The first time I saw someone suggest using a feminine cleanser — yes, that kind of feminine cleanser — as a body wash, I had a metaphorical driving-off-the-road moment. I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, but something about Summer’s Eve ending up somewhere other than my ladybits brought out the judgey granny in my head. I’m not sure where the block comes from, but I’m not alone. Now that I've preached the unexpected wisdom of using products with brand names like SweetSpot and Intimore on my face, I find that most people conflate feminine cleansers with the area they clean, as if they’re made with an extract of the collective sploosh that happens when Pat McGrath announces a new addition to her makeup line. They’re taboo by association.

You’re probably wondering, quite reasonably, why not just use a regular cleanser made for faces? You can do that, and Cerave is a good drugstore option that seems to work for most skin. But it’s not very exciting.

We have masks that make you look like a crypt keeper, masks made with iron particles that come off only with the aid of a magnet, and metallic peel-off masks. Meanwhile, facial cleansers tend to be either as exciting as dish soap, terrible for skin, or very costly. I had a moment of reckoning when I tried K-beauty brand Whamisa’s Organic Flowers & Fruits Feminine Cleanser on my face after liking the scent; it turned out to be the best facial cleanser I’ve ever used (and I’ve tried more than 50 water-soluble cleansers in the course of running a skincare blog). But it’s $32 per tube and somewhat tricky to buy, so it’s not within reach for everyone.

Feminine cleansers are a great, untapped resource: They tend to have low pH levels since virtually nobody is operating under the illusion that high-pH products belong Down There (high-pH feminine cleansers can cause yeast infections). You still need to pay attention to ingredients and performance, but pH can play a big role in how skin reacts.

I first learned about the impact of pH levels on skin after reading Kerry Thompson’s post about the Importance of Fatty Acids, pH & the Moisture Barrier on her blog Skin & Tonics (she’s also the author of Korean Beauty Secrets: A Practical Guide to Cutting-Edge Skincare & Makeup from 2015, for which I served as an unpaid contributor). That post brought the importance of pH in facial cleansers to a mainstream audience and created such demand for low-pH cleansers that some brands — especially Korean beauty brands — now have whole product lines with their pH levels printed right on the packaging and worked into product names.

What’s the payoff for caring about the pH level of your cleanser? When she switched to a low-pH cleanser, Thompson’s old acne cleared up and new eruptions didn’t emerge because “acidity is what prevents the growth of bacteria and fungi,” she says. Her usually sensitive skin became resilient due to skipping “alkaline products [that] were actively weakening the keratin proteins and causing them to lose their structure and as a result, their protective abilities.” The lessons of Thompson’s experiment were clear: If you don’t damage the skin’s moisture barrier (also known as the acid mantle) with harsh high-pH cleansers, some skin woes may not even happen.

Feminine Cleansers as Facial Cleansers, Ranked from Best to Worst

I asked Stephen Ko, cosmetic chemist and blogger at KindofStephen, for his thoughts on widely available feminine cleansers. Feminine cleansers aren’t actually made of different stuff than other skincare and hair care products. “If I had not known these were feminine cleansers, there wouldn't have been much to indicate to me that they were,” says Ko. But one big difference between feminine cleansers and most low-pH facial cleansers is the price per ounce. With the exception of a few drugstore facial cleansers and some K-beauty options, we’re stuck paying Sephora and Ulta prices to get a cleanser with a pH level of 5.5 or less. You know what that means: Nothing is true; everything is permitted, so feel free to use the good cleansers from this list (they all have pH levels of about 5.5 or less except for the last one) wherever you need to get clean.

DivaWash 100% Plant-Based Cleanser, $11.29 for 6 ounces. This gentle, effective cleanser bubbles up nicely and has an unobtrusive scent. DivaWash is even marketed for face, body, and DivaCup cleansing, so you don’t need to feel weird about doing something that’s off-label.

Summer's Eve Foaming Wash Coconut Water, $4.99 for 5 ounces. Summer’s Eve has upgraded with this self-foaming creamy cleanser that has a silky, no-residue finish and fairly true-to-life coconut smell (think less delicious than Glossier’s Coconut Balm Dotcom, but better than most other coconut beauty products). Ko says that this product “is very similar to some marketed-as-natural hand washes and baby washes,” and it certainly feels gentle.

SweetSpot Neroli Mandarin Gentle Wash, $5.99 for 8 ounces. Apply this to dry skin and massage it in before adding a bit of water to form some minimalist bubbles. The scent is a bit fragrance-y for a facial cleanser, but the formula feels luxuriously creamy and the cost per ounce is awesome.

Summer's Eve Cleansing Wash for Sensitive Skin Simply Sensitive, $4.29 for 15 ounces. This is a solid, very cost-effective option with a low-key scent and an ingredient list that Ko compares to “a shampoo for dyed hair.”

Intimore Therapy Intimate Feminine Wash, $8.99 for 7.44 ounces. While the formula and performance are great, the scent of this cleanser reminds me of a toilet cleaner found in a dusty church bathroom.

Honey Pot Feminine Wash Sensitive, $9.99 for 6 ounces. This cleanser has a faint lavender scent and a rather squeaky finish, and it is in no way low-pH. Ko picked this one out of the lineup, writing that the Honey Pot wash “seems to be a liquid soap... I would guess this had a high, alkaline pH.” Yup, tests showed that this cleanser is solidly alkaline. Why the Honey Pot’s sensitive cleanser is alkaline, I don’t know, but it’s certainly not going anywhere other than the bin.