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Acne is the most common skin care issue in the United States — up to 50 million Americans experience breakouts, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association. One relatively low-maintenance way to help keep pimples in check is cleansing the face twice a day with an acne face wash to remove dirt, oil and grime on skin that can lead to breakouts.
We consulted board-certified dermatologists to help you best understand what makes for an effective acne face wash. Beyond identifying key acne-fighting ingredients, these skin care experts also shared some favorite acne face washes worth considering.
How to shop for an acne face wash
Before ordering a new acne face wash, medical experts recommend perusing its active ingredients. Two common anti-acne skin care ingredients are salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Salicylic acid helps minimize sebum (oil) production that causes acne while benzoyl peroxide fights acne-causing bacteria, noted board-certified dermatologist Shari Sperling, MD. Salicylic acid is especially effective on blackheads because it helps exfoliate dead skin cells and regulates oil, added board-certified dermatologist Arisa Ortiz, MD.
Salicylic acid skin care products, whether for the face or body, typically contain a 2-percent concentration while the percentage of benzoyl peroxide varies if an item is for the face (5 percent) or body (10 percent), she noted. “If you try to use 10 percent on the face, I wouldn't say that it's necessarily more effective, it's just more irritating and can cause some dryness, redness or irritation,” said Ortiz, who is also the director of laser and cosmetic dermatology and an associate professor at UC San Diego. Overall, higher percentages of both ingredients can “usually just cause irritation and aren't always more effective,” noted Ortiz.
You can also identify acne face washes given labels like oil-free or non-comedogenic, which mean these face washes will not congest the pores and will not lead to acne.
Best acne face washes
Given guidance from the skin care experts above, we rounded up their and others’ dermatologist-recommended selections. The majority of these products are available at your local drugstore, including CVS and Walgreens, but you can also find them at Walmart, Target and Amazon. Other acne face washes on this list are available at Nordstrom, Sephora, Ulta and Dermstore.
Neutrogena’s acne face wash is favored among the skin care experts we consulted, including Lindsey Bordone, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University, who called it a “mild and not too irritating” cleanser. Sperling and board-certified dermatologist Erum Ilyas, MD, are also fans of this relatively affordable acne face wash. Ilyas called Neutrogena’s Oil-Free Acne Wash a “great starter acne product” because it’s a popular choice for middle schoolers who are just developing a skin care routine. “I find that having them start by using this product in the shower introduces them to cleansing their face, shoulders and back,” said Ilyas, who noted the end goal for teens is to help prevent or treat existing acne. Neutrogena’s acne face wash is oil-free and made with 2 percent salicylic acid to help treat pimples.
Board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, said she “loves” this CeraVe acne foaming face wash because it is made with 4 percent benzoyl peroxide. It is also formulated with hyaluronic acid which helps to draw in moisture while ceramides support the natural skin barrier, according to Garshick. There is also niacinamide in it to help soothe the skin, plus the ingredient can prevent irritation and dryness. “It is gentle enough to be used on the face and body, making it a great option for those who also deal with breakouts on their chest or back,” she added. Garshick advised those with sensitive skin to cleanse with this acne face wash once a day.
The top acne face wash for board-certified dermatologist Rina Allawh, MD, is from LaRoche Posay because the cleanser utilizes a blend of “safe, effective and gentle” ingredients. Beyond hydrating thermal water, it is made with zinc pidolate, an ingredient that “effectively cleanses debris on the face while maintaining the skin’s natural pH,” according to Allawh. She noted that this fragrance-free and non-comedogenic face wash “successfully removes excess oils that create that shiny appearance of the skin.”
Both Sperling and Garshick are fans of this foaming acne face wash. Garshick said this “gentle” cleanser utilizes zinc to remove excess oil and shine without leaving the skin dry. She highlighted that it is safe enough to use up to twice daily and added it is a “great option” for anyone looking for an acne face wash to use in tandem with prescription-strength anti-acne products. It is also formulated with glycerin, a popular moisturizing ingredient that can also be found in a slew of other products like hand washes and body soap.
Board-certified dermatologist Michele Green, MD, said this a “great option for acne-prone skin” because it is made with “gentle-yet-powerful” anti-acne ingredients, including salicylic acid. Green noted the Mario Badescu cleanser boasts aloe vera which provides anti-inflammatory properties and chamomile extract to help calm the skin. She also said utilizing this cleanser up to twice a day can “help transform clogged, congested skin” into “healthy and clear” skin.
Board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, called this one of her “favorite” acne face washes because it contains 10 percent benzoyl peroxide that can help to remove dirt, oil and build-up. Ilyas also recommended this cleanser when acne is “a bit more aggressive or widespread” on the face and body. Ilyas noted that her active patients — athletes and fitness enthusiasts — like to cleanse their shoulder and back acne with this face wash.
This Clean at Sephora acne face wash earned a recommendation from board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, who noted it “is effective enough for people with oily and acne-prone skin, but mild enough to use on a daily basis.” Zeichner, who is also an associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical School, noted that this acne face wash boasts a blend of alpha-hydroxy, beta-hydroxy, and poly-hydroxy acids “to cleanse the skin without compromising the integrity of the outer skin layer.” It is also made with antioxidant-rich coffee bean extract which the brand claims will deliver a glow to the face.
Zeichner’s second recommendation is this “soothing” gel acne face wash from Alpha-H, a skin care brand that also makes some of the best retinols and vitamin C serums. It boasts a combination of soothing cucumber and aloe vera, which offers both hydration and an anti-inflammatory effect. “It’s a great option for everyone, but especially adult women with acne who are not looking for a cleanser that will dry out their skin,” he said. The Clean at Sephora pick also employs thyme extract for its antioxidant properties.
Are acne face washes worth it?
If you’re dealing with pimples, then yes, an acne-prone face wash is worth investing in because non-acne face washes might contain pore-clogging or acne-causing ingredients like oils, according to Garshick. She added that your favorite hand soap isn’t a worthwhile alternative to an acne face wash because hand soap is typically formulated to remove pesky bacteria which might cause dryness or irritation if used on your face.
Overall, medical experts say that an acne face wash is an effective at-home skin care product, but visible results won’t happen overnight. Ortiz said regardless of what anti-acne treatments you use, it’ll take about four to six weeks to see a noticeable difference in your skin. Beyond being patient, you might experience skin purging, which is when the pimples come to the surface “and clear house.”
While purging is normal, Ortiz noted some patients will get discouraged by the acne flare ups, which is actually a sign the acne products are working. “Most patients will start a product for acne, and then notice that they're getting worse, and then they stop right when they are about to get better,” she said. And because those patients stop their routine due to purging, they have to restart the skin care regime again, Ortiz noted. So if you’re incorporating an acne face wash into your skin care routine, be diligent and patient before giving up on your skin care journey.