Dermatologists will say over-and-over again that the best skin-care advice they can give you is to wash your face. This wisdom is especially important when you’re dealing with a breakout or have oily skin. Washing your face is critical for getting rid of the dirt, grime, and bacteria that cause pimples, which means you’ll want to find the best face wash for acne to get the job done.
Before we dive in on the products, you’ll first want to make sure that you’ve got your cleansing practices down pat. Of course, not washing your face often enough keeps your dead skin cells from shedding, which can cause more acne, but doing it too frequently also has its own set of negative side effects. “Someone with acne-prone skin should wash their face at least once a day, two times maximum,” says Annie Gonzalez, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Miami. “The reason why you shouldn’t wash your face more than twice is that over-cleansing strips the skin of its natural protective barrier, which can make the skin more vulnerable to irritation, infection, and bacteria.” Excess washing also strips your skin of beneficial oils, which leaves your complexion dry, and “in an attempt to compensate for the water loss, the body produces more oil; therefore, more acne,” says Dr. Gonzales.
To make the most of your twice-daily cleansing, read on for what dermatologists say to look for in the best face wash for acne, plus five products that make the cut.
What to look for in a face wash for acne
1. The right active ingredients
The best face washes for acne all have one thing in common: beta hydroxy acids or BHAs. “People with acne-prone skin should look for a cleanser with BHAs to remove excess oils and dead skin cells to unclog your pores,” says Dr. Gonzalez. “BHAs contain antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, allow blemishes to disappear quickly, and calm redness better than AHAs, which only work on the top layer of your skin.” She points to salicylic acid as her favorite acne-fighting ingredient, thanks to the fact that it gets deep into your pores and helps clear out the oil.
2. An acne-friendly formulation
When it comes to choosing the best face wash for acne, there’s no “one size fits all” option. Instead, it comes down to your skin type. Though acne is most commonly paired with oily skin, it’s still possible to get breakouts if your complexion is dry or sensitive. “Acne-prone skin tends to lean more towards the sensitive side and can become irritated if the products used are too harsh; it might strip the skin of its protective barrier, leading to more breakouts,” says Dr. Gonzalez.
People with acne-prone skin tend to steer clear of oil-based cleansers, but according to Dr. Gonzalez, that may not be the best move. “The idea behind oil-based cleansers is that oil dissolves oil, even the sebum (oil) in our pores, and can be good for acne-prone skin. They work well at removing dirt, oil, and makeup because they cling to the debris, and won’t oil-based cleansers strip or irritate the skin, which is perfect if one’s skin tends to be dry.”
Foaming cleansers, on the other hand, are often recommended for people with acne-prone skin because they can help control oiliness. But according to Nicole Hangsterfer, a physician’s assistant with Curology, they can be drying in acneic sensitive skin hybrids, so it’s important to pay attention to how your complexion responds to them.
The best way to go, then, is by sticking with something simple. “Whether you have sensitive, combination, or ‘normal’ skin, a gentle cleanser will often do the trick,” says Hangsterfer. “Even if one part of your face is more sensitive than the other, or more oily or dry than the other, it’s hard to go wrong with a simple, gentle face wash that’s suitable for every skin type.”
The best face washes for acne, according to pros
“This is an extremely effective exfoliating cleanser that is also gentle enough for everyday use,” says Dr. Gonzalez. With 2 percent salicylic acid, it has just enough of the active ingredient to quash bacteria without irritating your skin, and provides a gentle chemical exfoliant to slough away dead skin cells.
Shop now: Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, $30
2. CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser, $16
At $16 a pop, this is one of the best face washes for acne you can score at the drugstore. “I highly recommend this cleanser for acne-prone skin that leans more toward the normal-to-oily side,” says Dr. Gonzalez. “Its featured ingredient, niacinamide, is excellent for calming the skin.” It’s particularly great if you’re using additional topical acne treatments, which tend to be drying, because having niacinamide in your cleansing step helps keep your complexion nourished.
Shop now: CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser, $16
Another A-plus drugstore pick, this cleanser is perfect for anyone dealing with the frustrations of acne and sensitive skin at the same time. It’s hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic (meaning it won’t clog your pores), and uses zinc to clear away any traces of dirt, oil, and grime.
Shop now: Cetaphil Dermacontrol Oil Control Foam Wash, $15
Formulated by a dermatologist, this cleanser is made with glycolic acid to give your pores a deep clean. It acts as a gentle chemical exfoliant and is packed with antioxidants, so will leave your skin clear, brightened, and protected from the elements.
Shop now: Epi.Logic Clean Reveal Brightening Glycolic Gel, $48
Lather away pore-clogging oils with this gently foaming cleanser. It’s made with glycerin, a hydrating hero that will prevent it from drying out your skin, and will leave your complexion feeling like a clean canvas that’s prepped and ready for the rest of your routine.
Shop now: Neutrogena Fresh Foaming Cleanser, $9
Now that you’ve got the cleanser step taken care of, press play on the video below for everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the rest of your acne-fighting routine.
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