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The 14 Very Best Face Washes for Acne

From old-school Neutrogena to a Japanese oil.

Photo: Marcus McDonald
Photo: Marcus McDonald

In this article

I never dealt with pimples (or needed a face wash for acne) until the pandemic, when I, along with lots of others, developed maskne, triggered by wearing masks for many hours a day. Mine was a grouping of pimples near my chin, stubborn, irritating, and prone to hyperpigmentation. For the first time, I had to start thinking about acne-fighting skin care, a rabbit hole unto itself. I learned about skin pH (acneic skin tends to be more acidic) and sebum production and inflammation, speaking with dermatologists and lurking in skin-care Reddit threads. There’s a dizzying amount of advice and product recommendations out there, but most fall into three buckets: dry out the pimple, regulate sebum production, or soothe the skin. Many attempt to do all three.

To put together a comprehensive acne-compatible routine, I recommend starting with a good face wash for acne. There are a few options. You can either go for a cleanser with actives, designed to fight acne (many of my recommendations include those) or leave the actives to the serums and moisturizers and go for something soothing that will hydrate and calm the skin. Either way, a good face wash for acne will help you balance the skin’s pH, cleanse the skin of pollutants and bacteria, and won’t make your acne worse. Application matters too. Cleansers are often applied and then quickly washed off, but for best results, I recommend letting it sit on the skin for at least 30 seconds (but no longer than a minute!) so that the ingredients have time to really interact with your skin.

Below are my acne face wash recommendations for every skin type, sourced from my medicine cabinet, the opinions of 16 dermatologists and facialists, and the Strategist archive.

What we’re looking for

Skin type

Before you choose a cleanser, figure out your skin type. Aside from being acne-prone, your skin can also be extra oily, dry, or sensitive, which impacts which cleanser you should use. Those with sensitive skin should opt for a low dose of acne-fighting actives, whereas those with extra-oily skin may want something relatively strong, and people with dry skin need to look for hydrating actives like hyaluronic acid. If you’re not sure which skin type you are, there’s an easy way to figure it out. After washing with a gentle cleanser, wait 30 minutes. If your skin is slick, you likely have oily skin. If it’s tight and flaky, it’s probably dry. If your T-zone (forehead, nose, and tops of the cheeks) is oily and the rest of your skin is normal or dry, you most likely have combination skin. Normal skin feels comfortable — neither oily nor dry. We’ve noted below which cleansers work best for which type of skin.

Active ingredients

Before you choose a cleanser, figure out your skin type. Aside from being acne-prone, your skin can also be extra oily, dry, or sensitive, which impacts which cleanser you should use. Those with sensitive skin should opt for a low dose of acne-fighting actives, whereas those with extra-oily skin may want something relatively strong, and people with dry skin need to look for hydrating actives like hyaluronic acid. If you’re not sure which skin type you are, there’s an easy way to figure it out. After washing with a gentle cleanser, wait 30 minutes. If your skin is slick, you likely have oily skin. If it’s tight and flaky, it’s probably dry. If your T-zone (forehead, nose, and tops of the cheeks) is oily and the rest of your skin is normal or dry, you most likely have combination skin. Normal skin feels comfortable — neither oily nor dry. We’ve noted below which cleansers work best for which type of skin.

Cleanser texture

Personal preference plays a big part in which texture to choose for your cleanser, but your skin type matters too. Foaming cleansers can be very drying, as can some gel cleansers, whereas creamy formulas are more hydrating. Cleansing oils are another option that remove excess oil on the skin but don’t strip it in the process.

Noncomedogenic formula

Noncomedogenic means the product won’t clog pores, which is key for all acne-prone skin regardless of type. Dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe says, “I advise all my patients, but especially those with acne, to avoid sulfates,” because those are a proven pore-clogging ingredient (along with fragrance). “Sulfates are aggressive surfactants that can wash away your healthy fats and lipids and dry out the skin,” Bowe adds.

Skin type: All skin types | Active ingredients: Salicylic acid | Texture: Gel

The Old Faithful 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. The “salicylic acid helps break up the oil-and-dead-skin-cell matrix that plugs pores,” says Zalka, who has been pointing patients toward it for 20-plus years. It contains only 2 percent salicylic acid, making it gentle enough for those with sensitive skin but effective enough for those looking to treat serious breakouts. When I tried it, I noticed its silky gel texture works up to a nice lather when applied, and it leaves the skin feeling squeaky clean. It isn’t drying, though, and won’t have the same effect as a foam.

Best acne face wash overall

Best acne face wash for sensitive skin

Skin type: Sensitive skin | Active ingredients: No actives | Texture: Foam

For the most reactive skin, dermatologist Dr. Sonia Batra, co-host of the talk show The Doctors, recommends this gentle sulfate-, oil-, phthalate-, and paraben-free pH-balanced cleanser from EltaMD (this brand also makes our favorite sunscreen). It contains bromelain — an enzyme found in pineapple — to reduce the inflammation caused by acne, and its apple amino acids hydrate the skin. While dermatologists say the Neutrogena option above will work for sensitive skin, this EltaMD cleanser is probably better for it. It doesn’t contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, which may irritate your skin further when used all over. A gentle cleanser like this one, along with a spot treatment (like these pimple patches recommended by another Strategist writer, Dominique Pariso, or these, recommended by Rio Viera-Newton), will save you that tight, itchy, stripped feeling on your skin, not to mention lots of redness.

Best less-expensive acne face wash for sensitive skin

Skin type: All skin types | Active ingredients: Salicylic acid | Texture: Cream

This face wash from Cetaphil is cheaper than the EltaMD and comes recommended by dermatologist Dr. Karan Lal. It contains a low concentration of salicylic acid (2 percent), which is mild but effective. This is especially good if you would like to chemically exfoliate during cleansing without overdoing it. It has a creamy consistency that won’t dry out your skin, and it works well for all skin types.

Best acne face wash for oily skin

Skin type: Oily skin | Active ingredients: Salicylic acid | Texture: Foam

Tess Adams, a facialist and co-founder of New York’s Take Care spa thinks exfoliating acids like salicylic and alpha-hydroxy are a must for healing cystic or severe acne. This foaming cream, which happens to have both, is particularly well suited for those skin conditions — and for treating extra-oily skin. “It loosens dead cells and increases cellular turnover to reveal new skin,” says dermatologist Dr. Sonia Batra, co-host of the talk show The Doctors. Your instinct may be to completely dry out oily skin, but be mindful about exactly how drying your products are. If you sop up too much oil, it will only cause your skin to produce more since you tricked it into thinking it was deprived of oil. You should follow up any cleanser with a good moisturizer (we have some good options for oily skin here), but this cleanser does include hydrating ingredients like glycerin to prevent skin from feeling stripped.

Best acne face wash for dry skin

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Skin type: Dry skin | Active ingredients: No active ingredients | Texture: Gel

If you have acne-prone dry skin, consider a cleanser with a gel texture rather than a foam. Gels are more hydrating, according to Nicole Hangsterfer, a physician’s assistant at Curology. She likes this one from Derma E, which uses hydrating, soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and chamomile along with vitamins A and E to gently cleanse. It doesn’t contain any actives, which contribute to dryness, so, similarly to the EltaMD cleanser above, spot treatments may work best if you feel you need salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide to clear up any stubborn zits (but again, they’re not 100 percent necessary).

Best cystic-acne face wash

Skin type: Oily skin | Active ingredients: Salicylic acid | Texture: Gel

This cleanser from sensitive-skin-friendly La Roche Posay is lipophilic, which means it can dissolve oil and “concentrates on sebaceous-gland areas,” according to Dr. Hope Mitchell, the founder of Ohio-based Mitchell Dermatology, where oil is secreted through hair follicles, allowing it to quickly and easily wipe out any excess from the skin. This is good for those who suffer with cystic acne because it addresses the root issue rather than drying out the surface stuff. It also contains 2 percent salicylic acid to help further exfoliate the skin and ultrahydrating glycerin, which keeps the skin moisturized.

Best acne face wash for rosacea

Skin type: Normal, combination, and oily | Active ingredients: Salicylic acid, azelaic acid, and niacinamide | Texture: Gel

If you deal with both acne and rosacea, you’ll want to be mindful that your cleanser doesn’t further irritate your already-sensitive skin. This one, which comes recommended by Lal, targets all form of acne (including fungal) and contains a mix of acids, including salicylic, niacinamide, and azelaic. The blend, says Lal, helps with both conditions.

Best acne face wash for acne scars

Skin type: Dry, normal, oily, and combination skin | Active ingredients: Glycolic acid and glycerin | Texture: Gel

In some cases, a breakout will leave behind scarring or hyperpigmentation. While spot treatments or an overall brightening serum can help, a good cleanser can be effective too. We’ve previously written about this cleanser from Skinceuticals, which comes recommended by two dermatologists. Its main ingredient is glycolic acid, which encourages cell turnover and lessens scarring and hyperpigmentation. It’s also formulated with glycerin to minimize water loss, increases skin hydration, and protect from irritation, reducing the chances it’ll dry out your skin.

Best acne face wash with benzoyl peroxide

Skin type: Oily skin | Active ingredients: Benzoyl peroxide | Texture: Foam

Benzoyl peroxide both “kills acne-causing bacteria and helps control oil,” says Wechsler. Batra adds that this powerful ingredient “releases oxygen onto the skin to destroy bacteria that can lead to acne,” adding that “it’s anti-inflammatory and comedolytic, which means it calms skin and decreases clogged pores.” Dermatologists Dr. Mona Gohara and Dr. Shari Marchbein are fans of PanOxyl for its gentle but efficacious formula, which contains 10 percent benzoyl peroxide. It has another fan in our beauty writer Rio Viera-Newton, who uses this to calm her broken-out skin. “I use it once a week as maintenance to keep acne away, and whenever a few unsuspecting pimples sprout up during my time of the month, I increase my usage every night until the swelling goes down,” she says. 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 song before you wash it off, while Anolik suggests doing some beauty multitasking (such as shaving your legs if you’re in the shower) while you wait.

Best mild acne face wash with benzoyl peroxide

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Skin type: Oily skin | Active ingredients: Benzoyl peroxide | Texture: Foam

Maybe you haven’t used benzoyl peroxide before and would like to ease into it instead of going full force with the PanOxyl, or maybe you just prefer something a bit milder in general. Either way, this CeraVe wash with just 4 percent benzoyl peroxide may be more your speed, according to Mitchell. She says it will be less drying and irritating, not only because it has less benzoyl peroxide compared with PanOxyl’s 10 percent but also because “it’s formulated with niacinamide, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid.” As she explains, the ingredients balance one another out: “While benzoyl peroxide works to clear acne and blackheads, the other active ingredients in this cleanser help to calm the skin and retain moisture while protecting the skin’s barrier.”

Best acne face wash with glycolic acid

Skin type: All skin types | Active ingredients: Salicylic acid | Texture: Foam

Facialists Carrie Lindsey and Sofie 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 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.” Brooklyn-based oculofacial plastic surgeon and founder of epi.logic Skincare Dr. Chaneve Jeanniton is also a fan, noting that the willow bark (a form of salicylic acid) is good for breaking up pore-clogging oil and keeping it under control.

Best acne face wash that’s a balm

Skin types: All skin types | Active ingredients: Salicylic acid | Texture: Balm

Former Strategist writer Chloe Anello started using this acne balm (you can read the full review here) to get rid of maskne. Within a week, it disappeared. Because this is a balm instead of a foam, gel, or creamy cleanser, it has a thick, gritty texture that gently exfoliates the skin, ridding pores of dirt, makeup, sweat, and whatever else has sneaked in there. But because it’s formulated with hyaluronic acid, an intensely hydrating ingredient, it doesn’t leave skin feeling tight or stripped; it just feels clean.

Additional reporting by Chloe Anello and Fiorella Valdesolo.

Some more face washes for acne we’ve written about

Our experts

Tess Adams, facialist and co-founder of New York’s Take Care Spa
Dr. Robert Anolik, dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York
Dr. Sonia Batra, founder of Batra Dermatology
Dr. Whitney Bowe, dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin
• Dr. Mona Gohara, Connecticut-based dermatologist
Dr. Karan Lal, dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology
Dr. Corey L. Hartman, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology
• Nicole Hangsterfer, physician’s assistant at Curology
• Dr. Chaneve Jeanniton, Brooklyn-based oculofacial plastic surgeon and founder of epi.logic Skincare
Carrie Lindsey, facialist and founder of Carrie Lindsey Beauty
Dr. Shari Marchbein, NYC-based dermatologist
Dr. Hope Mitchell, founder of Ohio-based Mitchell Dermatology
Sofie Pavitt, esthetician and founder of Sofie Pavitt Skincare Studio
Dr. Amy Wechsler, NYC-based dermatologist
Dr. Patricia Wexler, founder of Wexler Dermatology
Dr. Alicia Zalka, dermatologist at Dermatology Associates of Western Connecticut
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, NYC-based dermatologist

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The 12 Very Best Face Washes for Acne