Anyone who has ever suffered with acne understands that it can be a many-headed monster. You successfully address one area of breakouts only to have another, far more intense one, creep up; you go many months, and sometimes even years, without a hint of a blemish, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s zit city all over again. And all of this — even in these acne-positive times — can do a number on your psyche. We wish there was a one-size-fits-all panacea for the problem. There’s not. But a good place to start is with the right acne wash.
While cleansers may have shorter contact with your face than, say, your serum or moisturizer, they’re especially crucial for the acne prone because “they help balance the pH of the skin,” notes Tess Adams, facialist and co-founder of New York’s Take Care spa; they also kill pollutants and bacteria we absorb in everyday life, and, of course, remove our makeup. Put another way by Rescue Spa founder Danuta Mieloch: “Face wash is the most underrated product!” And so, we spoke to Mieloch, Adams, and a slew of other top dermatologists and facialists about their acne-specific favorites, which range from the creamy to the foamy to manuka honey. Just one thing to keep in mind as you read on: Even the most widely beloved of the following cleansers might require some trial and error to determine what your very individual complexion responds to. “No acne is the same,” says Adams. “And it’s caused by many internal and external factors — so it can be a dance to find the balance.”
Best overall acne cleanser
The old reliable of acne cleansers, this salicylic-acid-based drugstore favorite remains the most frequently recommended by dermatologists: Dr. Robert Anolik, Dr. Alicia Zalka, and Dr. Amy Wechsler all gave it high marks for performance on acne. The “salicylic acid helps break up the oil and dead-skin-cell matrix that plugs pores,” says Zalka, who’s been pointing patients to it for 20-plus years. If you want your acne-fighting with a touch of brightening, Zalka and dermatologist Dr. Patricia Wexler are also fans of Neutrogena’s pink-grapefruit variation, which has the addition of vitamin C.
Best acne cleanser for hypersensitive skin
For the most reactive skin, dermatologist and co-host of The Doctors Dr. Sonia Batra recommends this “gentle oil-, phthalate-, and paraben-free pH-balanced cleanser.” (It’s also very highly rated in user reviews.) “It contains bromelain to reduce inflammation caused by acne, and apple amino acids to hydrate the skin,” Batra adds. And it’s free of sulfates, which, as dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe explains, “are aggressive surfactants that can wash away your healthy fats and lipids and dry out the skin.” Even though acne sufferers might think they actually want a drying-out effect, overdrying in fact causes the skin to produce more oil, setting off a vicious cycle. And so, says Bowe: “I advise all my patients, but especially those with acne, to avoid sulfates.”
Best acne cleanser for hyperoily skin
Adams thinks exfoliating acids like salicylic and alpha hydroxy acids “can be imperative for healing cystic or severe acne.” And this foaming cream, which happens to have both, is thus particularly well suited for those conditions, and for treating a more general state of extra oily skin. “It loosens dead cells and increases cellular turnover to reveal new skin,” says Batra, adding that, meanwhile, “the acids work to rid skin of common acne concerns such as oiliness, pimples, and blackheads.” Because it does have an acid-heavy formula, though, be mindful of the other products in your routine to avoid irritating or overdrying. Facialist Sofie Pavitt’s M.O.: “Stick to only one or two products with active ingredients.”
Best benzoyl-peroxide-based acne cleanser
Benzoyl peroxide is not just for teenage acne; in fact, it remains a tried-and-true dermatologist favorite no matter your generation. “It kills acne-causing bacteria and helps control oil,” says Wechsler. And Batra adds that the powerful ingredient “releases oxygen onto the skin to destroy bacteria that can lead to acne,” and that “it’s also anti-inflammatory and comedolytic, which means it calms skin and decreases clogged pores.” Both dermatologists Dr. Mona Gohara and Dr. Shari Marchbein are fans of PanOxyl, in particular, for its gentle but efficacious formula. Just remember, as with all cleansers with an active ingredient: Keep it on the skin long enough to give it time to work — dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner says to sing the alphabet before you wash it off, and Anolik suggests doing some beauty multitasking (shaving legs if you’re in the shower, etc.) while you wait.
Best no-frills acne cleanser
With acne, “gentleness is key,” says Gohara. And if you’re using any kind of acne-treatment product (like a retinoid, prescription or otherwise), your best cleansing bet may be a super-simple one like this fragrance-free, ceramide-packed drugstore buy. A gentle cleanser like this “will help support the potentially irritating and drying prescription topical medications,” adds Marchbein. (And, as previously mentioned, overdrying can be a major vicious-cycle inducer for acne sufferers, whose barrier function — or, the ability to keep the skin hydrated — is already compromised.) Marchbein recommends looking for products that are hypoallergenic, fragrance free, and that have the addition of ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid (this CeraVe has both). And, generally speaking, be mindful about how your skin feels post-wash: “Squeaky clean means you’ve actually overcleansed, and this can disrupt the skin barrier,” Marchbein adds.
Best creamy acne cleanser
For those who prefer a creamier cleansing experience, Mieloch loves this milky version from cult-favorite brand Biologique Recherche, which, she says, benefits from the addition of oils (like jojoba, squalane, and vitamin E) in the formula. “You always get a much more effective cleansing with a cleanser that contains some good oils to remove the bad oils,” says Mieloch. (She also recommends mixing in MBR’s Enzyme Cleansing Booster — if you’re really willing to splurge — a few times a week to “get a nice enzymatic exfoliation that removes layers of buildup.”) In terms of the application, while Mieloch recommends everyone be diligent about really working that cleanser onto the face — “Always spend time massaging it in” — she and many of the other experts are wary of mechanical facial brushes for anyone acne prone, because they tend to be an easy harbor for bacteria. If you’re a devotee, Batra says to at least limit usage to a few times a week and try one like the Foreo Luna, which is made of silicone and is thus 35 times more hygienic than nylon bristles. Or, says Pavitt, try a compressed sponge for a similar effect: “You can buy a pack of 50 on Amazon for about 20 bucks, and if they’re cellulose, you can compost them.”
Best natural acne cleanser
Old-school natural brand Dr. Alkaitis has what is one of facialist Carrie Lindsey’s favorite cleansers for breakouts. The blend of cold-pressed oils, medicinal herbs, and plant extracts like seaweed, chamomile, and sambucus-nigra flower make this cleanser “both detoxifying yet gentle,” she says. If you are a wearer of eye makeup, though, Lindsey suggests swiping it off with micellar water first, because the cleanser’s castile base can sting if it gets in your eyes (much more on micellar water below). And, since Lindsey and others are in agreement that water temperature can also impact inflamed skin, don’t make it too hot. “Most acneic skin has heat to it,” Lindsey says. “I always recommend using tepid water — it can be warm, but not hot — for cleansing and then doing a cold rinse to constrict the pores and calm inflammation.”
Best micellar acne cleanser
Back to the micellar subject: Those who are regular wearers of a significant amount of makeup are often also fans of a double-cleansing ritual — starting with a micellar water. But products in the micellar category are not, despite appearances, interchangeable, which is why for any skin that is more sensitized or inflamed, Marchbein likes Simple’s version. It’s the only one “that doesn’t sting my face or leave a film on my skin,” she says. And Marchbein always underscores the importance of immediate hydration after any cleansing ritual. “I recommend moisturizing within 60 seconds of washing, while the skin is still damp,” she says. Her favorite hydrators? “In the morning, a moisturizer with broad-spectrum SPF 30-plus, like Pond’s Clarant B3 with niacinamide, to help with redness; and in the evening, a heavier moisturizer, like CeraVe cream (with ceramides and hyaluronic acid), Simple Water Boost Hydrating Gel Cream (with glycerin), or Neutrogena Hydro Boost (with hyaluronic acid).
Best grocery acne cleanser
Facialist Kristina Holey is a longtime fan of using manuka honey as a cleanser, and so are both Bowe and Lindsey, who calls it an “all-around face healer.” Key to its appeal: “It’s gentle and it helps bind water moisture to the skin, all while being antibacterial.” When cleansing with honey, add a bit of warm water to give it some slip, and rinse thoroughly. General note: How you dry skin after cleansing is also important. “Bacteria can build up on damp towels and be transferred to your face, clogging pores,” says Batra. Mieloch agrees, saying everyone should invest in a stack of washcloths that they use just for their face so they can swap them daily, and, adds Pavitt, always use them to blot the skin dry, never rub.
Best (bargain) gel acne cleanser
Refreshing gel has long been a favorite format for anyone with acne, and this cleanser by beloved Korean brand Cosrx is also one of Amazon’s best sellers in the category. Says Pavitt, “It has BHA, an active ingredient that really cleans inside the pores” but is still easy on the skin. That said, any new cleanser will of course involve a trial period, which sometimes means seeing more breakouts at first. “There will be a clean-out process during which time previously stubborn plugging, or ‘underground’ blemishes, will find their way out — and there’s only one direction — to the surface,” Zalka explains. So be patient. She recommends giving any new regimen at least seven to ten days unless there is marked irritation.
Best (splurgy) gel acne cleanser
Both Lindsey and Pavitt are fans of this high-performing gel cleanser, a blend of glycolic acid derived from sugarcane, willow-bark extract, and chamomile-flower extract, from under-the-radar brand iS Clinical. “The acids gently exfoliate the skin to help keep pores from becoming blocked, while the chamomile is calming and soothing to the most sensitive skin,” says Lindsey. Pavitt adds that “it’s nondrying and cleans thoroughly without leaving any residue.” But do keep in mind “nondrying” can be a relative term, especially considering the season: “If you live in a location that’s cold and has low humidity in the winter,” says Zalka, any new acne cleanser can be a bit drying, since “skin is drier at the baseline.” If this is a particular concern for you, you may want to wait until spring before making a switch.
Best oil acne cleanser
Cleansing acneic skin with an oil is not a far-fetched idea. “The science behind it is simple: Oil clings to oil, so cleansing with it is the best way to cut through excess sebum, makeup, and buildup on your face without stripping the skin,” says Wexler. For a bonus hit of acne-fighting power, Wexler likes this Shu Uemura oil, which has salicylic acid in the formula. “It gives an extra boost to wash away pore buildup,” she notes. As with any cleanser that has an active ingredient (like the salicylic acid here), it might be best not to use it every day: Zalka likes rotating between active and very mild cleansers. “You’ve heard of interval training — and you can do the same for your cleansing routine,” she says.
Best exfoliating acne cleanser
While acid-based (a.k.a. chemical) exfoliants are often the go-to for acne sufferers, for those who want to occasionally (only a few times a week, at most) use a more physical exfoliant, Wexler recommends this dual-action exfoliating cream — it’s a combo of salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acids plus tiny pumice beads. “It helps brighten the skin, clear blemishes, and unclog pores,” she says, adding that physical exfoliation is best suited for those with comedonal (not cystic) acne.
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