Fast fact: The best acne face wash is almost always NOT an acne face wash. Whaaa? Yup. Think of the last cleanser you used for your acne-prone skin—I’m willing to bet it was vaguely citrusy, tingly, sudsy, maybe left your skin tight and a little sting-y? Yeah, those are all very bad things. All of those ~feelings~ are not signs that your face wash is “working”—they’re red flags that your acne-fighting cleanser is potentially f*cking up your skin and making your breakouts way, way worse.
Because your face wash should feel like nothing. Actual boring nothingness. Yet for some reason, since the dawn of puberty, we’ve all been led to believe that the key to getting rid of acne is by dousing it in “cooling” or “energizing” or “refreshing” (read: incredibly harsh) formulas—when in reality, those are the exact things that can trigger more acne.
Wait, face wash causes pimples?
No, not if you’re using the right formula, which is one that’s gentle, creamy, and super-freakin’ bland (see above, oooor below, oooor super below. You've got options! So many options!). "Most acne face washes are filled with rough detergents called sulfates, which are the same thing you’d find in your dish soap,” says dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine. Sulfates are what give your face wash its sudsy, foamy, satisfying lather—but they can also be insanely hard on your face.
“Harsh, sulfate-filled cleansers destroy your skin barrier by stripping away all its moisture and leaving it dry and compromised,” says Dr. Gohara. “And when your barrier is messed up and dry, it can overproduce oil, leading to clogged pores, breakouts, blackheads, and oily skin.” So even though it may feel like that foaming cleanser that kinda burns your face is helping to annihilate your zits, it’s just making your whole situation a hundred times worse.
How can I tell if my face wash is bad?
Before you set fire to your medicine cabinet, check the back of your cleanser to see if one of the first ingredients is a sulfate. The big bad three: sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate (read carefully—certain ingredients may look the same, but are actually okay, like those ending in sulfoacetate, sulfosuccinate, and sarcosinate).
If it’s all clear, and it also doesn’t tingle, burn, sting, itch, or feel like anything (even a tiny bit!), and it doesn’t leave your face feeling dry or tight, then you’re probably fine to continue using it. But if any of these warning signs made you think, “shit,” or even made you feel a little defensive (“Ugh, whatever, my face wash is fine”), then it’s officially time to switch your cleanser.
So do medicated face washes work at all?
I know the most obvious acne-fighting cleanser would be one with acne-fighting ingredients in them, but—more shock and surprise—that tiny dose of salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide in your medicated face wash probably isn't even making a dent in treating your breakouts.
“No acne cleanser that touches your face for 10 seconds is going to have a major effect on your pimples,” says Dr. Gohara. “At best, it’ll wash away some surface-level oils, but at worst, it’ll mess up your barrier and slowly, with prolonged use, trigger rashes, irritation, redness, oiliness, and extra breakouts.” And, just to make it all harder, “most people don’t realize their cleanser is to blame until their skin is officially freaking out,” she says.
K, my face wash is "bad" but my face feels fine?
Listen, for every rule, there’s always an exception. And if you’ve been using a foaming, scrubby, sulfate-filled cleanser for years, and your face looks pretty damn good, then congrats! You’re the outlier. But based on logic and science and the wise words of Dr. Gohara, “there's just no way your skin wouldn’t look even better over time if you switched to a gentle cleanser,” she said. Which brings us to…
What is the best cleanser for acne?
Again, everyone's skin is different, so if you’re currently following a skincare routine designed by your dermatologist, stick with it. But in general, when it comes to face washes for acne-prone skin, Dr. Gohara says the gentler, the better. “Acne-prone skin is inherently dry, irritated, and inflamed, which means you need to treat it gently and load it up with moisture to help decrease breakouts,” she says. “It might go against everything your brain tells you, but the best face wash for acne is a creamy, hydrating cleanser with no active ingredients."
If the idea of spending an hour in the skincare aisle scrutinizing labels sends you into shut-down mode, don’t worry—I went ahead and chose the very best, top-rated, mild-as-hell cleansers to stock up on today. If you breezed past the higher-end recommendations above, aaaand the drugstore options at the very top, check out these equally excellent options, below. Then please, for the love of good skin, throw that old face wash out.
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