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The 10 Best Face Washes and Cleansers for Acne

texture shot of face cleansers

It’s a given that any good skincare routine includes a skin-appropriate cleanser. But when you add acne to the mix, selecting that perfect cleanser can become so much more complicated—choose one that’s too dry, and now flaky, tight skin is an issue. On the other hand, a facial wash that’s too rich can instigate further breakouts. Skipping washing isn’t an option, so what’s a girl or guy to do?

Why Use a Face Wash for Acne?

“Facial cleansers are important to prevent and limit acne breakouts,” says Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “They help to eliminate excess oil, dirt, buildup, and makeup which can contribute to clogged pores and breakouts if not removed.” Plus, cleansers create a clean surface for the next steps in a routine, which Dr. Garshick explains can make subsequent products, especially those containing acne-fighting ingredients, more effective and more likely to penetrate.

How to Choose a Face Wash for Acne

For starters, ingredients play a significant role. Dr. Garshick says that, in general, those with acne-prone skin benefit from gentle cleansers that replenish moisture and don’t strip the skin of its natural oils, especially when using acne-fighting ingredients. “It is important not to dry out the skin too much,” she adds. Popular anti-acne ingredients include salicylic acid, glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide are the biggies. “Benzoyl peroxide cleansers are great for those with acne-prone skin as they help to reduce acne-causing bacteria and can easily be applied to the face, chest, and back,” Dr. Garshick explains. However, one thing to avoid at all costs is harsh soaps, abrasive scrubs, and exfoliators. “These can injure the skin and potentially lead to worsening irritation and breakouts.”

Salicylic acid, which is derived from willow tree bark, wintergreen oil or sweet birch, works well for most skin types. Aside from being an exfoliant that sloughs away dead skin cells and dissolves pore-clogging impurities, it helps to address inflammation, which is thought to be the primary cause of acne.

Glycolic acid, another chemical exfoliant, helps keep pores clear by dissolving the structural lipids that hold dead skin cells, binding them to the surface. Studies have also shown that glycolic acid effectively encourages and stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, restoring damaged skin faster and reducing signs of environmental damage with continuous use.

Non-comedogenic cleansers, which won’t clog the pores, are essential for acne-prone skin. “All cleansers used on acne-prone skin should fit under this description,” says Dr. Melanie Palm, a board-certified dermatologist in San Diego, CA. “A gentle, foaming, non-comedogenic cleanser is always a great choice for acne-prone skin.” Occlusive agents and super-rich formulations can be a breeding ground for blemish formation, so it’s best to steer clear of those ingredients.

However, one thing Dr Garshick says to avoid at all costs is harsh soaps, abrasive scrubs, and exfoliators. “These can injure the skin and potentially lead to worsening irritation and breakouts.”

How Often Should I Wash My Face to Prevent Acne?

So how often should you wash your skin if it’s acne-prone? Washing once in the morning and then again at night should suffice. Any more than that can strip the skin of its natural oils and cause an overproduction of oil as a means of the skin overcompensating, which may make the breakouts even worse. “I always tell my patients that they shouldn’t punish their skin for having acne,” says Dr. Hayley Goldbach, a double board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon at Brown University. And overwashing the skin won’t make breakouts disappear any faster. “Overwashing can be an issue, especially with dry skin,” she advises. “Sometimes it’s OK to skip the morning cleanse, even if you have acne. But dry skin can make inflammation worse, so talk with your dermatologist if your acne regimen is making your skin too dry.”

“Acne involves inflammation, so it’s important to be gentle when washing and use the fingertips, avoid scrubbing the face or rubbing it dry—gentle pats are all you need,” Dr. Goldbach advises. Instead, it’s best to wash with room temperature water, apply cleanser to the center of the palm and work it into a light lather. Then, gently rub it around the face for about 30 seconds before washing it off and patting the skin dry with a clean, soft towel.

The Best Face Cleansers for Acne Prone Skin

If you’re looking for the best face washes to clear and prevent acne, we’ve got you covered with these top product recommendations from our skin experts – plus, everything that you need to look for when selecting your next new favorite face wash.

  1. The Salicylic Acid Cleanser
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    The Salicylic Acid Cleanser

    Perfect for when skin suffers from noticeable inflammation—think redness on the surface—a low dose salicylic acid face wash will help dislodge pimple-producing dirt, oil, and bacteria from the pores. “For those who are particularly oily, it can help to use a salicylic acid cleanser, which can help to reduce excess oil as well as unclog pores,” Dr. Garshick says.

    Product Pick: Murad Clarifying Cleanser counts salicylic acid as a key ingredient in breaking up blemish-causing oil in the pores and exfoliating dead skin cells. We give this daily wash two thumbs up for its age-protecting abilities, making this one perfect for acne-prone skin that’s also concerned with common signs of aging.

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  2. The Benzol Peroxide-based Face Wash
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    The Benzol Peroxide-based Face Wash

    One of the most popular and long-standing anti-acne face wash ingredients is benzoyl peroxide, which works wonders for helping to decrease the inflammation associated with a pimple. “Benzoyl peroxide helps with inflammatory lesions and to a certain extent non-inflammatory acne (blackheads),” says Dr. Palm. “However, the ingredient can be somewhat irritating to a minority of users, especially on wet skin when absorption can greatly increase,” she adds. If you use a fair amount of benzoyl peroxide, beware that it can bleach clothing, pillowcases, fabrics, and such. For a little bit more of an acne-busting effect, try leaving the cleanser on the skin for about five minutes before thoroughly rinsing it off so that the benzoyl peroxide can ‘sink’ into the skin.

    Product Pick: PCA Skin BPO 5% Cleanser harnesses the power of acne-eliminating benzoyl peroxide to heal existing breakouts and prevent future ones. But unlike other cleansers with benzoyl peroxide, this one also contains skin-calming ingredients like aloe, cucumber, and chamomile extract to calm inflammation and leave the skin feeling fresh and renewed.

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  3. The Does-It-All Cleansing Oil
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    The Does-It-All Cleansing Oil

    While it may seem counterintuitive to use an oil on pimple-laden skin, it’s beneficial as long as the formula is a good fit and you thoroughly remove it from the skin. Oil attracts oil, and if oily skin is the root cause of your breakouts, then an oil cleanser will help lift that excess sebum off the skin. Plus, oil cleansers are step one in the double cleansing method (using two different cleansers to clean the skin thoroughly).

    Product Pick: BABOR Cleansing HY-OL works wonders to detoxify the skin while minimizing the potential for breakouts. This bi-phase cleanser uses cleansing water and oil to lift away impurities and oil from the skin’s surface while leaving it hydrated and soothed.

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  4. The Blemish-Busting Gel Cleanser
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    The Blemish-Busting Gel Cleanser

    Dr. Garshick often recommends gel cleansers for acneic and oily-prone skin because the skin won’t have a greasy feeling. “Plus, gel-based cleansers effectively eliminate excess oil,” she says, and an abundance of sebum is part of the formula for constant breakouts.

    Product Pick: SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel is the perfect match for stubborn skin that’s often conflicted by acne. This daily face wash unclogs congested pores with three different acids—glycolic, salicylic, and lipo-hydroxy acid—to create a clean canvas and prep the skin for professional treatments.

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  5. The pH-Neutralizing Wash
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    The pH-Neutralizing Wash

    One of the unsung heroes in the fight against acne is a neutral pH, which will help keep the skin in check and inflammation levels controlled. However, when the pH levels are too high, and the skin is too acidic, inflammatory conditions, like acne, can easily set in.

    Product Pick: Obagi CLENZiderm M.D. Daily Care Foaming Cleanser helps maintain a healthy skin pH by balancing sebum production. As a result, less oil on the skin means less oil in the pores and fewer breakouts in the future.

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  6. The Gentle Exfoliator
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    The Gentle Exfoliator

    When dead skin cells sit on the skin’s surface, they’re likely to end up trapped within the pores, which can create a breeding ground for pimples. And that’s where a good yet kind-to-the-skin exfoliator comes in. Dr. Palm says to stay away from harsh particulate exfoliants (unevenly shaped shell or seed particles that can damage or tear the skin). Instead, opt for chemical exfoliant washes with ingredients supporting acne clearance, such as salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or benzoyl peroxide. “Also, before applying any acne medications, dry the face completely as moist skin can cause increased absorption of topical medications and may increase the chance of redness, irritation, or dryness,” she adds.

    Product Pick: Exfoliators don’t need to be harsh on the skin, and they shouldn’t be. SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser relies on sloughing acids plus soft jojoba spheres to safely lift away dead skin while also providing a brightening effect to the skin. In addition, many dermatologists like glycolic acid for its ability to brighten the skin, which is helpful for those who pigment post-pimples.

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  7. The Non-Drying Anti-Acne Wash
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    The Non-Drying Anti-Acne Wash

    When acne cleansers are packed with skin-drying ingredients and not enough natural moisturizers that don’t clog the pores, they can dry the skin and leave it red and irritated. The problem is that this can lead to even more breakouts. So rather than washing with cleansers that contain stripping agents, try one with probiotics to help lock in natural moisture and reduce inflammation in the skin.

    Product Pick: TULA Skincare Keep it Clear Acne Foam Cleanser works to clear up breakouts on the surface and prevent new ones from forming. Rather than relying on drying ingredients, it keeps the skin soft well-hydrated thanks to probiotic extracts.

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  8. The Sulfur-Based Cleanser
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    The Sulfur-Based Cleanser

    The use of sulfur for its skin-clearing capabilities dates back to the 1950s. It’s an old-school ingredient that works well, although Dr. Palm says it’s often underused as an effective anti-inflammatory medication in acne. “It helps calm redness and is often successful in oily or sensitive skin types, but it does have the downside of an unpleasant odor,” she adds.

    Product Pick: Kate Somerville Eradikate Daily Foaming Cleanser busts up all the elements that contribute to breakouts, including oil and clogged pores. This frothy medicated daily wash is loaded with three percent sulfur alongside botanicals, oat extract, and honey, putting skin on the path to clear so it stays that way.

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  9. The Gentle Foaming Wash
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    The Gentle Foaming Wash

    While gel-based cleansers may feel like they do a better job of cleansing the skin than other options, a good foaming wash can be just as effective. The key is to look for something that isn’t full of drying ingredients, like surfactants, and offers up a mild foam at most. “Some individuals with acne-prone skin can also be dry, so these individuals should use a gentle cleanser to avoid drying out the skin too much,” suggests Dr. Garshick.

    Product Pick: Elta MD Foaming Facial Cleanser works double duty to remove pimple-causing and pore-clogging impurities and pollutants without disrupting the skin. The ultra-fine foaming technology infuses oxygen into the skin to keep it balanced, and optimally smooth and soft and enzymatic pineapple adds to light exfoliation.

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  10. The Waterless Option
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    The Waterless Option

    There are times, like post-workout, when acne-prone and oily skin types need a quick skin refresh, but a full face wash isn’t in the cards. That’s where a cleansing wipe comes in. In contrast, wipes are not a replacement for regular daily washing. However, they are a good option for on-the-go situations.

    Product Pick:  Obagi Medical Acne Cleansing Wipes are a fast and effective way to clean and refresh the skin quickly. These salicylic acid-rich towelettes kill active breakouts and infuse the skin with broccoli extract to defend against free radical damage and aloe for a dose of added hydration.

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Elise Minton Tabin

Elise Minton Tabin is an award-winning beauty journalist, editor, and beauty expert with more than 16 years of experience. She previously held the title of Executive Beauty Editor at NewBeauty magazine, where she reported on beauty, plastic surgery, anti-aging, health and wellness. She was also instrumental in the launch of the beauty supplement brand Hush & Hush. A self-professed beauty junkie and retinol and sunscreen pusher, Elise knows what’s new, what works and who’s the best to go for every procedure under the sun. Follow Elise on Facebook, Instagram, and on her beauty blog,