You Should Keep Your Acne Cleanser On Long Enough To Sing The ABCs

·8 min read
Photo credit: Christine Giordano
Photo credit: Christine Giordano

Anyone who deals with regular breakouts knows that it often doesn’t take much to trigger a pimple. That’s why there’s a good chance you take your skincare routine seriously, from finding the right gentle moisturizer to a spot treatment that seriously zaps zits. But there’s one category you may have missed: The best face washes for acne. Finding the right cleanser for acne-prone skin can make a major difference.

"If you have mild acne using the appropriate cleanser for your acne type and a gentle moisturizer can go a long way to repairing your skin," says Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD, a dermatologist and founder of Vibrant Dermatology and Skin Bar MD. And by appropriate she means to make sure you're choosing a cleanser with the right ingredients to fight your type of acne. "If you have whiteheads and blackheads only, a cleanser containing salicylic acid will be helpful whereas benzoyl peroxide will be more beneficial for those painful cysts," says Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip.

Though sometimes, the best cleanser for your pimple-prone skin could be one with no acne-fighting ingredients at all. "If your dermatologist has prescribed you prescription-strength medication, then you don't want acne medicine in your cleanser," warns Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. "The combination will be too irritating to the skin and may worsen your breakout."

As for when you should cleanse, she still recommends morning and evening and advises to always do so with clean hands and lukewarm water (too hot or too cold can also irritate your skin). And if your cleanser does include active ingredients (i.e. an acid), let it sit on the skin "while singing the alphabet," recommends Joshua Zeichner, MD, and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "This ensures enough contact time to allow any active ingredients to do their jobs."

Here are the best acne face washes for every type of pimple problem.

1. Best For Sensitive Skin: EltaMD Foaming Facial Cleanser

As gentle as it gets, this cleanser goes easy on sensitive, acne-prone skin. Thousands of five-star reviews sing the praises of this pH-balanced cleanser that’s free of oil, phthalates, and parabens. The formula is spiked with bromelain to reduce inflammation that’s triggered by acne, while amino acids help hydrate.

2. Best For Post-Acne Marks: Alpyn Beauty PlantGenius Creamy Bubbling Cleanser

Sometimes the marks that breakouts leave behind are worse than the breakouts themselves. For those cases, this all-natural creamy cleanser will help. Loaded with gentle AHAs from fruit enzymes to exfoliate—specifically pomegranate and papaya extracts—they’ll wash away dead skin cells and tighten the appearance of pores. Since it’s also loaded with vitamin C, it’ll help to brighten your overall complexion, tackling post-breakout hyperpigmentation.

3. Best Micellar Water: Simple Micellar Cleansing Water

If you’re all about the double cleanse, this is the micellar water you’ll want to start with. Makeup wearers know that double duty cleansing will help you get rid of every last trace of the stuff, along with oil buildup and pollution particles, helping to prevent future breakouts. This micellar water won’t sting or leave any residue behind.

4. Best Gentle Cleanser: Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser

This was Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip's number one pick for a gentle cleanser. The unscented, creamy formula still cleans away makeup, dirt, and oil, but it won't leave your skin tight and stripped—ideal if you're already using drying acne treatments.

5. Best Foam: InnBeauty Project Foam Around Clarifying Daily Cleanser

A mix of glycolic, lactic and gluconolactone acids give you a light exfoliation every time you cleanse. On top of that, a blend of plant botanicals (turmeric, pine bark and the boerhavia diffusa plant) work to help even out your skin's tone.

6. Best Oil: Epara Natural Cleansing Oil

If you have extra dry skin or a lot of makeup to break down, a cleansing oil might be your best bet. This one uses a group of non-comedogenic ones (moringa, marula, argan, and apricot kernel) as well as licorice root extract to brighten, plankton extract to even out skin's tone, and ylang ylang to soothe. And if it wasn't clear: This will not clog your pores.

7. Best For Clogged Pores: Pholk Daily Detox Face Wash

Though it may sound counterintuitive, it's actually an oil in this cleanser—watermelon seed oil—that helps clear away sebum (your skin's natural oil) that can clog pores and lead to acne. It also uses frankincense to help keep skin balanced and calm.

8. Best Overall Acne-Fighter: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser

The pink grapefruit cleanser is a cult-favorite for a reason. Its salicylic acid-based to treat everything from blackheads to breakouts, plus adds vitamin C to balance out T-zone oil. The light citrusy scent also provides a mood boost in the AM.

9. Best For Large Pores: Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser[product content

"A mix of hydroxy acids (AHA and BHA) keeps pores clear and minimize their appearance," says Dr. Zeichner. Your pores can't actually change in size but when they're filled with gunk, it can make them look larger than they are so keeping them clean makes them look less visible. This one, in particular, uses a blend of salicylic, lactic, and glycolic acids to get the job done.

10. Best For Inflammation: St. Ives Acne Control Daily Face Cleanser

This cleanser has salicylic acid, which is great for targeting dead skin cells. It also has additional anti-inflammatory benefits thanks to tea tree extract, which is a more natural acne-fighting hero.

11. Best For Blackheads: Bioré Charcoal Acne Cleanser

Salicylic acid combined with purifying charcoal wiggles its way into pores to clean out all that oil and skin cell gunk. It creates a cool tingle that leaves your face feeling extra clean. If you have any dryness afterwards, follow up with a non-comedogenic moisturizer.

12. Best For Cystic Acne: CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser

A 4 percent benzoyl peroxide formula, this cleanser attacks pimple-causing bacteria for your most stubborn blemishes. Because BP can be drying, start by using this wash once a week and build up as tolerated.

13. Best For All-Over Breakouts: PanOxyl Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Creamy Wash

Here's another BP cleanser with a moderate 4 percent strength. It’s wrapped up in a creamy formulation, which provides additional moisture so you’re left with soft skin—not that super-tight feeling. You can even use this on your bod to treat bacne.

14. Best For Dry Skin: Differin Daily Deep Cleanser

This cleanser has 5 percent BP, which is as effective at fighting acne as stronger percentages without causing the same dryness or irritation—a major plus for those of you with sensitive skin. It also contains moisturizing glycerin to hydrate your skin while removing oil, gunk, and bacteria.

15. Best For Oily Skin: Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser

If your skin is oily, salicylic acid is a good option because it helps remove excess oil from the skin when traditional cleansers may not be enough. Dr. Zeichner recommends this cleanser because it contains a low level of salicylic acid that won’t irritate.

16. Best For Redness: Peter Thomas Roth Acne Clearing Wash

The 2 percent salicylic acid cleanser is tough enough to tackle breakouts and remove a day’s worth of makeup (although we still suggest doing this before washing). It's still gentle on your skin thanks to allantoin, an ingredient that eases potential sensitivity, and pro vitamin B5, which helps skin stay supple and redness-free.

17. Best Exfoliating Scrub: Garnier SkinActive Deep Pore Exfoliating Scrub

If a clean face means getting gritty and scrubby with it...you need this one from Garnier. The salicylic acid clears out excess oil, says Dr. Zeichner, while manual exfoliators remove pore-clogging dead skin cells.

18. Best Natural Alternative: Tata Harper Clarifying Cleanser

If you're into green beauty (and you're willing to spend a bit more on an acne face wash) try this option from Tata Harper. It uses exfoliating lactic and citric acids to slough away pore-clogging skin cells, while balancing oil and redness with botanical extracts.

19. Best Deep Clean: REN ClearCalm 3 Clarifying Clay Cleanser

Cleansing in itself is purifying for the skin but this cleanser takes it one step further thanks to kaolin clay that works like a sponge to absorb impurities and excess oil then remove them. On top of that, zinc helps calm redness while flavonoids (a plant-based antioxidant) work to tone and repair skin.

20. Best Soothing: Biossance Squalane + Tea Tree Cleansing Gel

Yes, this cleanser has tea tree oil to help clear up your acne, but it's also packed with lots of calming ingredients like aloe, lavender oil, and glycerin—key for inflamed skin or pimples. The plant-based squalane (a moisturizer similar to a substance your skin naturally produces) keeps skin hydrated, which can be difficult when you're using drying acne ingredients.

21. Best Scent: Indie Lee Purifying Face Wash

This foaming face wash is loaded with essential oils like orange peel, lemon peel, and jasmine that not only make for a nice sensorial experience when you're cleansing, but also help to soothe skin and keep your oil production in check.

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