Like brushing your teeth or flossing, washing your face is one of those things you should be doing every night. But unfortunately, finding the right cleanser for your skin type isn't as straightforward. If you have acne-prone skin, the wrong face wash can clog your pores and trigger breakouts; Then, there are cleansers that do their job too well by stripping your skin of its natural oils, which can lead to irritation and excess oil production to counteract the drying effects. The best cleansers for acne-prone skin offer a balance between skin that's completely clean, but still nourished.
How often should you wash your face?
NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman suggests that acne-prone skin types wash their face in the morning and evening, as well as immediately after working out. "I recommend a double cleansing ritual to my patients to first lift dirt and grime, and then to wash them away," she says. Celebrity esthetician Jeannel Astarita prefers encourages a double cleansing method as well, noting that it's particularly "imperative to thoroughly cleanse in the evening to remove sweat, sunscreen, makeup, and pollutants before sleep."
What are the best cleansers for acne-prone skin?
When it comes to double cleansing, Dr. Engelman and Jeannel both find washing your face first with an oil-based cleanser, then with a gentle exfoliating cleanser to be most effective. "Essentially, the oil binds to the oils on your face, and the cleanser rinses them away without stripping your skin of its good natural oils," Dr. Engelman explains.
For the second step, Dr. Engelman says to look for a water-based cleanser that contains acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or jojoba esters. "These ingredients work by killing bacteria, drying excess oil, and forcing the skin to shed dead skin cells," she explains. "This will unclog pores that are prone to becoming inflamed, [and] exfoliating will allow other products to properly penetrate the skin."
How often should you exfoliate your skin?
Just don't overdo it by combining too many exfoliating products (such as a salicylic acid cleanser and a salicylic acid acne treatment at night). If you choose a cleanser with exfoliating ingredients and you're already using nightly acne treatments, try limiting its use to twice weekly and sticking to an oil or cream cleanser the rest of the time. "Over-exfoliation will expose skin, weaken skin barrier function, and trigger inflammation," Dr. Engelman says. "If the barrier function is damaged, skin becomes vulnerable to inflection from microorganisms such as bacteria and fungus, and leads to sensitivity, irritation, and acne."
Are there any ingredients acne-prone skin should avoid?
And no matter what, Jeannel warns that you should avoid harsh physical exfoliators like walnut and apricot scrubs. "Everyone, but especially people with acneic skin, should stay away from harsh scrubs because they can cause small tears in the skin and spread acne-causing bacteria," she explains. "Also, avoid products that claim to leave skin feeling tingly or minty fresh, as many of them contain menthol or eucalyptol, which can dry out and irritate skin."
When in doubt (or when experiencing irritation), Dr. Engelman recommends using a gentle cream cleanser. If you're experiencing chronic acne, you'll also want to consult with your dermatologist, as they can help you choose a skin care routine to keep breakouts under control.
To help get you started, here are five of the best cleansers for acne, including one of Dr. Engelman's go-to choices.
1. Derm's Pick: Best Oil Cleanser For Acne-Prone Skin
"At first, the product acts as a nourishing oil to lift impurities," Dr. Engelman says of her cleansing oil pick, Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Replenishing Cleansing Oil. "Then, it lathers to wash impurities away." Strong enough to remove waterproof mascara and eyeliner, this oil cleanser is also gentle on skin. Ingredients like apricot, safflower, and olive oils dissolve debris and sebum, but they're also rich in antioxidants and vitamins that condition skin and restore its natural protective barrier. And even though it's oil-based, the cleanser doesn't leave skin feeling greasy or coated in a residue.
2. Best Drugstore Cleansing Oil For Acne-Prone Skin
For a cleansing oil at a drugstore price, Neutrogena Ultra Light Cleansing Oil works similarly to the Elizabeth Arden option, grabbing on to makeup, dirt, and oil as you wash it off (it just doesn't contain as many good-for-skin ingredients). The formula is lightweight and non-comedogenic, so it won't clog pores, nor will it strip skin of its natural oils.
Many Amazon reviewers note that it works particularly well for their acne-prone skin. "I have acne-prone/oily skin, and this leaves my skin feeling silky smooth," writes one fan, who also says this cleanser thoroughly removes waterproof makeup. Another reviewer shares, "I have dry, acne-prone skin, and I wear a full face of makeup daily. When I say this is a holy grail product for me, I'm not exaggerating. This is one of the only cleansers I've used that doesn't give me painful breakouts or allergies."
3. Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser For Acne-Prone Skin
As the second step of your double cleanse routine, a cleanser like Paula's Choice Clear Pore Normalizing Cleanser ensures that makeup and impurities are completely removed. The gel cleanser contains 0.5 percent salicylic acid to gently exfoliate skin, refine its texture, and clear out pores of any acne-causing oil and dead skin. But, because such a low concentration of the active ingredient salicylic acid is included, it's also less likely to cause irritation in the form of dryness and flaking. The formula also contains moisturizing ingredients like glycerin and castor oil to keep skin feeling smooth and soft.
4. Best Cleanser To Use With Acne Treatments
It's normal to experience some dryness and flaking when you start using a daily acne treatment, but you can help ease those effects with the right cleanser. Avène's Clean-Ac Soothing Cleansing Cream is a rich cream cleanser that nourishes and replenishes skin without clogging pores. The gentle formula is soap-free, and it was specifically developed to soothe skin that's become irritated and dry from acne treatments. Glycoleol helps restore the skin's natural barrier with a complex of essential fatty acids, while dextran sulfate (a good type of sulfate) relieves agitated skin. The brand's signature thermal spring water from France is also included in the formula to further soothe, soften, and calm skin.
"I use this [cleanser], some topical treatments from my doctor, and the Clean-Ac Hydrating Cream as my moisturizer," writes one reviewer who shares the cleansing cream came doctor-recommended. "My acne is practically non-existent nowadays, and [this] cleanses and moisturizes just enough for me to feel clean and fresh."
5. Best Natural Cleanser For Acne-Prone Skin
If you've made the switch to more natural beauty products, finding a cleanser that helps effectively keep breakouts at bay can be tricky S.W. Basics Cleanser is as clean as it gets with its USDA certified-organic label. In fact, the gentle and non-drying includes just three ingredients — organic rosewater, organic vegetable glycerin, and organic tea tree oil. While glycerin keeps skin hydrated, rosewater and tea tree oil naturally contain anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-microbial properties that calm skin and prevent the growth and spread of acne-causing bacteria.
"I've struggled with acne for years," shares one reviewer. "This product is amazing! After over 3 months of use along with the SW Basics Toner, my face is clearer than it has been in years. I am a huge supporter of this product and highly recommend it for anyone that has been struggling with adult acne."
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