Acne is the most common skin care issue in the United States — up to 50 million Americans experience breakouts annually, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association. One relatively low-maintenance treatment is cleansing the face with an acne face wash to remove dirt, oil, grime and bacteria that can lead to breakouts on the skin, experts told us.
SKIP AHEAD Are acne face washes worth it?
Beyond identifying key acne-fighting ingredients, the skin care experts we consulted shared their favorite acne face washes — and we rounded up other options that align with their advice.
How to shop for acne face wash
Before ordering a new acne face wash, skin care experts recommend looking closely at its active ingredients. Two common acne-fighting skin care ingredients worth seeking are salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, experts told us. Generally speaking, higher concentrations of both ingredients tend to be more drying and irritating, and you should always consult your dermatologist if you’re unsure about whether a product will work with your skin.
Salicylic acid can “dissolve dead skin cells,” noted Abby Sipe, a nurse practitioner with Dermatologists of Central States. It can also lightly exfoliate the skin and pores, which can help reduce whiteheads and blackheads, added Dr. Eileen Deignan, a board-certified dermatologist.
Deignan told us that the majority of people can tolerate a 2 percent concentration of salicylic acid in an acne face wash. However, some people with dry or sensitive skin may experience dryness, irritation and sun sensitivity with salicylic acid washes, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose noted in our guide to salicylic acid products.
Benzoyl peroxide helps reduce acne by “decreasing the bacteria C. Acnes on the skin and within hair follicles, while also displaying anti-inflammatory properties,” Sipe said. She added that this ingredient works best with more inflammatory acne like cysts, nodules, papules and pustules.
For benzoyl peroxide products, Sipe said that a 5 percent concentration works for normal skin, a 2.5-4 percent concentration works for dry skin and a concentration up to 10 percent works for oily skin. Deignan said that benzoyl peroxide washes can be more irritating than salicylic acid washes, especially for people with sensitive skin.
Acne face washes in 2022
Given that the primary acne-fighting ingredients are salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, we rounded up highly rated, dermatologist-recommended acne face washes — all of which contain either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide — as well as a few highly rated staff picks.
Deignan told us that her top choice for a salicylic acid acne-fighting product is this 2 percent concentration wash from Neutrogena, which says its wash can remove dirt, oil, grime, impurities and bacteria. The wash is also oil-free, residue-free and non comedogenic, according to Neutrogena.
Neutrogena’s Oil-Free Acne Wash boasts a 4.7-star average rating from more than 7,300 reviews on Amazon, though some shoppers warn that the salicylic acid wash can irritate sensitive skin, which is in line with what dermatologists have told us. If you’re using a salicylic acid cleanser for the first time, experts recommend using it every other day at first and eventually applying it daily depending on how your skin reacts.
This wash from CeraVe is Deignan’s pick for a lower-strength benzoyl peroxide wash. It has a concentration of 4 percent benzoyl peroxide to help clear acne and includes ceramides that, according to the company, can help repair the skin barrier and keep skin moisturized. CeraVe’s cleanser has a 4.6-star average rating from more than 19,700 reviews on Amazon.
This acne face wash from Humane, my previous skin care brand of choice as a zit-faced teenager, is highly rated on Amazon with a 4.5-star average rating from over 100 reviews. It has a 5 percent concentration of benzoyl peroxide and, according to the company, is vegan and cruelty-free.
For those with oily skin who can tolerate a higher concentration of benzoyl peroxide, Deignan recommended this 10 percent benzoyl peroxide wash from PanOxyl. According to the company, the wash kills acne-causing bacteria to help clear acne. The foaming wash has a 4.5-star average rating from more than 800 reviews at Target.
Select’s Shari Uyehara relies on this cleanser for blackheads. This scrub from St. Ives contains 1 percent salicylic acid as well as walnut shell powder and bamboo powder, which the company says are natural exfoliants that unclog the pores and clear away dead skin. St. Ives’ scrub has a 4.6-star average rating from more than 11,000 reviews on Amazon.
Sipe said that La Roche-Posay is one of her favorite skin care brands. This acne face wash from the brand contains a 2 percent concentration of salicylic acid. La Roche-Posay says that the wash is oil-free, fragrance-free and paraben-free. It has a 4.6-star average rating from over 9,700 reviews on Amazon.
This salicylic acid cleanser is Select writer Zoe Malin’s cleanser of choice. “This cleanser was recommended to me by an esthetician years ago and it’s the only one I’ve used ever since,” Malin said, noting that she uses it after workouts and it doesn’t dry out her skin, as long as she moisturizes after cleansing.
Are acne face washes worth it?
Deignan described acne face wash as “a good first-line, over-the-counter therapy for acne” but noted that results can take time and finding the best face wash for your skin “can take some trial and error.”
She added that if your acne does not improve within six weeks of using a wash, it’s a good idea to consult a dermatologist about stronger treatment options like clindamycin, doxycycline and minocycline.
“Treating acne early is important to prevent scarring and staining of the skin that could be very long-lasting,” Deignan cautioned.