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The 11 Very Best Face Washes for Acne

From old-school Neutrogena to a Japanese oil.

Photo: Marcus McDonald
Photo: Marcus McDonald

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all option to address acne — but a good place to start is with the right acne face wash. Cleansers may have shorter contact with your face than your serum or moisturizer, but they’re especially crucial for the acne-prone because they help balance the pH of the skin,” says Tess Adams, a facialist and co-founder of New York’s Take Care spa. While your skin should be slightly acidic in order to keep bacteria out and moisture in, acne-prone skin tends to be too acidic, which causes inflammation, so it’s important to balance it. Cleansers also kill pollutants and bacteria we absorb in everyday life and, of course, remove our makeup — all of which can clog pores and lead to breakouts too.

I spoke to 16 dermatologists and facialists to learn about their preferred acne-specific face washes, which range from creamy to foamy to gel based, and I combed the Strategist’s archive to find more vetted recommendations that will leave your skin feeling clean and fresh, not stripped or overly irritated.

Best overall | Best for sensitive skin | Best less-expensive acne face wash for sensitive skin Best for oily skin | Best for dry skin | Best cystic-acne cleanser | Best with benzoyl peroxide | Best mild wash with benzoyl peroxide | Best with glycolic acid | Best oil-based acne cleanser | Best balm | Best organic cleanser

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: Although it’s not required to have an active acne-fighting ingredient in your face wash for it to count as an acne-specific cleanser — we actually list a few without one — it sure does help. The two most common active ingredients are salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Salicylic acid reduces swelling and redness around the inflamed areas, unclogs the pores, and prompts pimples to shrink. Benzoyl peroxide, an antiseptic, decreases the amount of bacteria on the skin. The severity of your acne will determine which percentage of each active you should use. Those struggling with cystic acne should consider cleansers formulated with at least 2 percent salicylic acid, according to Dr. Corey L. Hartman, the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology. Your dermatologist can provide stronger treatments, such as in-office chemical peels, but the FDA allows only up to 2 percent of this acid to be sold over the counter. Benzoyl peroxide, however, can go up to about 10 percent in over-the-counter treatments. You don’t need both because each treats and prevents future problems; it just depends on what your skin is like. If you’ve got especially sensitive skin, though, a cleanser without any active ingredients — which can dry out your skin — may be your best bet.

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.

Below, you’ll find 11 acne cleansers recommended by our panel of experts and our own staff that should aid all skin types, even the finickiest.

Best overall acne cleanser

Salicylic acid | Gel texture | All skin types | Noncomedogenic

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. It’s a gel, which is particularly good for extra-oily skin but won’t dry out your skin quite as much as foam, so those with drier skin can use this too. And 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 wash, which has added vitamin C.

Best acne face wash for sensitive skin

No actives | Foam texture | Sensitive skin | Noncomedogenic

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

Salicylic acid | Cream texture | All skin types | Noncomedogenic

This face wash from Cetaphil is cheaper than the product above 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

Salicylic acid | Foam texture | Oily skin | Noncomedogenic

Adams 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 Batra. 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 cleanser for dry skin

No active ingredients | Gel texture | Dry skin | Noncomedogenic

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, much as with 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 cleanser

Salicylic acid | Gel texture | Oily skin | Noncomedogenic

Cleansers with 2 percent salicylic acid are a great choice if you’re struggling with cystic acne, and Hartman specifically likes this La Roche-Posay formula. The chemical exfoliant will lightly scrub the skin as it cleanses. Dr. Hope Mitchell, the founder of Ohio-based Mitchell Dermatology, likes the gel texture, which won’t dry out the skin because the formula’s active ingredients are delivered through a hydrating vehicle (glycerin). This cleanser is also lipophilic, which means it can dissolve oil and “concentrates on sebaceous-gland areas,” according to Mitchell, where oil is secreted through hair follicles, allowing it to quickly and easily wipe out any excess from the skin.

Best acne face wash with benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide | Foam texture | Oily skin | Noncomedogenic

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

Benzoyl peroxide | Foam texture | Oily skin | Noncomedogenic

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

Salicylic acid | Foam texture | All skin types | Noncomedogenic

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 oil-based acne cleanser

Salicylic acid | Foam texture | Normal-to-oily skin types | Noncomedogenic

Cleansing acneic skin with an oil isn’t 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, she likes this Shu Uemura oil, which contains salicylic acid. “It gives an extra boost to wash away pore buildup,” Wexler notes. As with any cleanser that has an active ingredient (like the salicylic acid here), it may be best not to use it every day; Zalka likes alternating between active and very mild cleansers. “You’ve heard of interval training — you can do the same for your cleansing routine,” she says. This face wash is definitely one of the higher-end items on our list, but as cliché as it sounds, a little goes a long way.

Best acne balm

Salicylic acid | Balm texture | All skin types | Noncomedogenic

I started using this acne balm (you can read the full review here) to rid myself 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 my skin feeling tight or stripped; it just feels clean.

Best organic acne cleanser

No active ingredients | Cream texture | Normal-to-oily skin types | Noncomedogenic

Old-school natural brand Dr. Alkaitis makes one of Lindsey’s favorite cleansers for breakouts. Its blend of cold-pressed oils, medicinal herbs, and plant extracts, from seaweed, chamomile, and Sambucus nigra flower, make this cleanser “detoxifying yet gentle,” she says. If you wear eye makeup, however, Lindsey suggests swiping it off with micellar water first because this cleanser’s Castile-soap base can sting if it gets in your eyes. 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.”

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 11 Very Best Face Washes for Acne