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The best acne face washes for every skin type, according to derms — from $7

Plus, we asked them: How much face washing is too much?
Kara Birnbaum / TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Is it just us or does acne always seem to pop up at the worst times? Whether you're a teenager or well into adulthood, acne can happen to just about anyone, and adult acne is more common than you would think.

But despite the fact that you may not "age out" of acne, the good news is that you don't have to simply accept pesky pimples and redness as a part of life.

"The best way to treat acne is not only to get rid of pimples that you have, but also to prevent new ones from popping up," says Joshua Zeichner, Mount Sinai Hospital's Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology.

A cleanser is the foundation of your skin care routine. It removes soiling from the skin and provides you with a clean canvas. ... The right cleanser can enhance skin health, while the wrong cleanser can make it more difficult to treat your skin condition.

Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Mount Sinai Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology

Cleansers that target acne are a good place to start. In fact, Zeichner advises to use them as the foundation of a balanced skin care routine. They can help nip blemishes in the bud before they become unmanageable.

"[A cleanser] removes soiling from the skin and provides you with a clean canvas to apply your skin care products to. The right cleanser can enhance skin health, while the wrong cleanser can make it more difficult to treat your skin condition," Zeichner explains.

It's important to keep in mind that the fight against acne is a long-term game, and it's won one battle at a time. With regular use, acne-fighting cleansers can become an invaluable tool in your beauty arsenal. But we know that finding the right one for your skin type isn't always easy.

To help set you up for success, we asked top dermatologists to share their favorite face wash picks that help combat acne and oily skin. While you should consult your own dermatologist prior to starting any new skin care routine, this list should help you along the way.

Keep scrolling to see all 11 of our top picks, or use the links below to jump to a specific category.

What to look for | How we chose | Best for hormonal acne | Best for cystic acne | Best for dry skin | Best for oily skin | Best for sensitive skin | Best exfoliating | Best organic | Best with glycolic acid | Best for blackheads | Best oil-free | Acne face wash FAQs | Meet our experts

What to consider while shopping for a face wash for acne

1. Ingredients

When it comes to acne-fighting cleansers, it's what's on the inside that counts, and there are a few ingredients that separate the all-stars from the duds. Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are two power players that have a proven track record of success, according to the derms we polled.

  • Benzoyl peroxide: "If you have red, angry pimples, look for benzoyl peroxide as an ingredient. It helps lower levels of acne-causing bacteria to reduce inflammation. It also helps open up the pimples themselves," Zeichner explains. "While I recommend low concentrations for leave-on products, when it comes to a cleanser, look for a high concentration of 10 percent benzoyl peroxide."
  • Salicylic acid: Salicylic acid, on the other hand, is ideal if you mostly have blackheads and whiteheads. "This beta hydroxy acid [BHA] helps remove excess oil and dead cells from the skin to keep the pores clear. The higher the concentration of salicylic acid, the better when it comes to a cleanser. Try to use a product that contains 1.5 to 2 percent salicylic acid," Zeichner says.

Of course, there are plenty of other acne-busting ingredients that can help whip your skin into shape. Here are a few to consider:

  • Glycolic acid: "Use glycolic acid for exfoliation of clogged pores and improvement of hyperpigmentation that’s left behind from old acne," Dr. Robert Anolik, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, tells us.
  • Tea tree oil: "Though it may have a slower onset, it can improve acne without irritating skin like some other acne-fighting strategies," Anolik says.
  • Azelaic acid: "It offers both antibiotic and anti-hyperpigmentation effects, and slows a pathway that leads to excessive pigment," Anolik explains.
  • BHAs: "They exfoliate and open clogged pores while also diving deep into the oil glands that trigger acne," Anolik shares.
  • Sulfur: "It offers antibiotic effects to deal with acne-causing bacteria," says Anolik.

2. Your skin type

Your skin type (oily, combination, etc.) plays a major role in determining what sort of cleanser will properly fend off acne without creating any unintended side effects. "If you have dry skin, try a cream-based cleanser. Or, if you have oily skin, go with a gel cleanser," explains Dr. Alan Parks, founder of DermWarehouse.

The consistency certainly matters, but the ingredients in your cleanser can also make a difference depending on your skin type.

"People with oily skin may be able to tolerate cleansers with active ingredients better than people with dry skin, as some active ingredients may cause skin dryness if used too often or in excess. Others are formulated to remove less natural oils from the skin to prevent dry skin," says Dr. Brendan Camp, who works for MDCS Dermatology and is double board-certified in dermatology and dermatopathology.

Those with sensitive skin should also err on the side of caution and lean towards cleansers that are free of sulfates and fragrances.

3. Your existing skin care routine

Banishing acne can feel like an uphill battle, and it's tempting to overload your skin with a plethora of blemish-fighting ingredients. But be careful not to lay on too many harsh ingredients at once because they can irritate your skin even more.

"If you are already using leave-on acne treatment products, look for a gentle cleanser that will maintain a healthy skin barrier," Zeichner suggests.

How we chose the best acne cleansers

As someone who struggled with acne well into her late 20s, I know how much of a pain (both literal and figurative) it can be. Over the past decade, I've picked the brains of countless skin care savants to inform my own beauty routine while working as a journalist.

Through it all, I've learned that everyone's acne story is unique, so I enlisted the help of 10 dermatologists for this story to make sure I covered everything you need (and want) to know about nixing blemishes. Since your time is valuable, this list is intentionally short and sweet to help you pick the cleanser that's right for you based on your skin's individual needs.

Best dermatologist-approved face washes for hormonal acne

CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser

Active ingredient: Benzoyl peroxide | Formulation: Cream to foam | Best for: Acne-prone, sensitive, oily, dry, combination and mature skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

"Hormonal acne occurs in adults when breakouts form — ranging from blackheads and whiteheads to painful cysts. This acne is linked to the overproduction of sebum (an oily substance in skin glands), which clogs pores, leading to pimples," says Dr. Liia Ramachandra, a former pharma executive and founder of beauty brand Epilynx.

The skin care expert swears by this unique cream-to-foam formula that targets existing blemishes, prevents future acne and hydrates skin with ingredients like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide. The hybrid formula also makes it ideal for anyone with combination skin.

Get Clarity Foaming Acne Cleanser

Active ingredients: Sulfur, glycolic acid | Formulation: Cream to foam | Best for: Clogged pores, blemishes, breakouts | Non-comedogenic? Yes

Much like Ramachandra's recommendation from CeraVe, Honest Beauty's acne cleanser also has a cream to foam formulation. The multitasker tackles oil and shine, unclogs pores, and fights back against acne in all its forms. "It contains colloidal sulfur and sulfur acids to address blemishes, including those associated with hormonal acne," Camp says.

Best dermatologist-approved face washes for cystic acne

Tula Keep It Clear Acne Foam Cleanser

Active ingredients: Salicylic acid, azelaic acid and tea tree oil | Formulation: Foam | Best for: Acne-prone skin, hyperpigmentation | Non-comedogenic? Yes

"This cleanser contains salicylic acid, which is one of the primary workhorses for acne control and clear skin. It is also formulated without alcohol and does not leave your skin with that tight feeling that so many other acne-focused cleansers can," says Dr. Angela J. Lamb, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

Sure, it's tough on acne, but the cleanser also soothes skin with probiotic extracts and brightens those pesky marks your breakouts leave behind. We call that a true triple threat!

Neutrogena Clear Pore Facial Cleanser/Mask

Active ingredient: Benzoyl peroxide | Formulation: Gel | Best for: Oily and acne-prone skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

Who needs a face cleanser and a mask when you can get both in one single tube? "Benzoyl peroxide is the active ingredient in this product that can be used as a cleanser and also as a mask for deeper treatments," Camp explains.

The multitasking formula travels way down into pores to mange oil levels, treat existing breakups and fend off future ones. It also keeps shiny skin at bay and fights off blackheads.

Best dermatologist-approved acne face washes for dry skin

Cetaphil Gentle Foaming Facial Cleanser

Active ingredients: Glycerin, vitamin B5, vitamin E | Formulation: Foam | Best for: Combination, normal, oily, dry, sensitive, mature skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

"When you have dry or combination skin and acne, the key is to wash your face morning and evening and use the most gentle yet moisturizing face wash possible," Ramachandra explains.

The derm recommends trying this hydrating cleanser that deep-cleans skin and replenishes its moisture barrier with a mix of vitamins and conditioners.

"It's super gentle, unscented and made with glycerin, which is non-comedogenic yet very hydrating and contains many vitamins," she says.

CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser

Active ingredients: Glycerin | Formulation: Liquid | Best for: Normal, dry skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

"This hydrating cleanser provides ceramide oils to soothe and hydrate skin while simultaneously cleansing," Anolik says.

The gentle formula is easy on skin but tough on acne, and it features MVE technology that hydrates skin all day long. It also has the National Eczema Association's seal of approval.

STAFF REVIEW: I love this cleanser because, as someone with acne-prone combination skin that's also sensitive, as well as susceptible to getting very dry in areas that aren't my T-zone, this is one of the few cleansers that I can use daily and still feel adequately cleansed. — Fran Sales, Associate Editor, Shop TODAY

Vanicream Unscented Gentle Facial Cleanser

Active ingredients: Glycerin | Formulation: Liquid | Best for: Combination, oily, sensitive, dry skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

"This is a mild cleanser that is free of soaps, fragrances, sulfates, dyes, parabens and formaldehyde. It's perfect for dry or sensitive skin," Camp says.

Whether you're rocking a full face of makeup or going au naturel, this strong yet gentle cleanser can handle it all. It removes makeup, dirt and oils while hydrating your complexion with the help of glycerin.

Best dermatologist-approved acne face washes for oily skin

PanOxyl Maximum Strength Antimicrobial Acne Foaming Wash

Active ingredient: Benzoyl peroxide | Formulation: Liquid | Best for: Acne-prone and oily skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

Don't feel like heading to the dermatologist to get a prescription for your acne? This maximum-strength face wash has the highest amount of benzoyl peroxide you can get without a doctor's note, according to the brand. It's also formulated with moisturizers so your skin gets a bit of TLC. It can also be used on your body to treat dreaded backne.

"This face wash helps reduce the collection of oils on surface skin and prevents the sporadic breakout of oily skin’s clogged pores," Anolik says.

Best dermatologist-approved face washes for sensitive skin

Paula’s Choice Clear Pore Normalizing Acne Cleanser

Active ingredient: Salicylic Acid | Formulation: Gel | Best for: Normal, combination and oily skin types; acne, blemishes, clogged pores | Non-comedogenic? Yes

When your skin is inherently sensitive, acne-fighting ingredients can feel a bit harsh. But this gentle cleanser washes away oil and makeup and cleans out pores without creating additional issues. In other words, it's easy to see why over 23,000 Sephora shoppers love it.

"It's a good choice if you have sensitive skin because it only has 0.5 percent salicylic acid. So it helps unclog the pores but it is not at all irritating. It also has glycerin for hydration," says Dr. Debra Jaliman, board-certified NYC dermatologist and author of “Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist."

Best dermatologist-approved exfoliating acne face washes

Neutrogena Stubborn Texture Acne Cleanser

Active ingredients: Salicylic acid, glycolic acid | Formulation: Gel | Best for: Normal, combination, acne-prone skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

Regular exfoliation can help prevent future acne and tackle the annoying marks that blemishes leave behind. Jaliman adores this budget-friendly find that targets uneven texture and acne-prone skin. "The combination of acne-fighting ingredients help clear the skin, unclog pores [and] get rid of dead surface skin," she says.

As an added bonus, the cleanser is oil-free and formulated without parabens, dyes, sulfates and fragrances.

Best dermatologist-approved natural face washes for acne

Ursa Major Fantastic Face Wash

Active ingredients: Sugarcane (natural source of glycolic acid), lemon (natural source of AHAs) | Formulation: Foam | Best for: Normal, combination and oily skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

It's hard to find a face wash that fits all your needs, but they do exist. This one checks off all our boxes since it cleanses, hydrates, exfoliates and brightens. It's also formulated without parabens, petrochemicals, silicones or PEGs (petroleum-based compounds).

"At the core of treating acne is the need to remove dead skin cells and increase skin cell turnover. This product smells fantastic and has that key AHA ingredient to keep acne under control," Lamb says.

Best dermatologist-approved acne face washes with glycolic acid

SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser

Active ingredients: Glycolic acid | Formulation: Gel/foam | Best for: Acne-prone, combination, dry, mature, normal and oily skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

Two powerful ingredients — glycolic acid and glycerin — join forces in this hydrating cleanser. If you like hybrid formulas, the gel/foam combo will delight you, and your complexion will also love the exfoliating effects.

"It will help give your skin that nice, healthy glow," Lamb tells us.

Best dermatologist-approved face washes for blackheads

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser

Active ingredients: Salicylic acid, lipohydroxy Acid (LHA) | Formulation: Gel | Best for: Acne-prone, oily and combination skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ted Lain of Sanova Dermatology is a fan of this popular gel cleanser, and for good reason.

"The use of 2 percent salicylic acid ensures a quick exfoliation within the pores, where acne develops. In addition, the lipohydroxy acid takes a longer-term approach, diving deeper within the pore and causing a more gentle exfoliation that develops over days and does not increase dryness or irritation. This 'turtle and hare' approach makes a lot of sense, since acne is a chronic disease that requires consistent, well-tolerated treatment," he explains.

Best dermatologist-approved oil-free face washes for acne

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash

Active ingredient: Salicylic acid | Formulation: Liquid | Best for: Acne-prone skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

New York City-based, board-certified cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green swears by this bestseller. "This cleanser contains salicylic acid, which has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. It also exfoliates and unclogs the pores, eliminating whiteheads and blackheads," she says.

The popular product is also available in a creamy formulation that Jaliman adores. "It contains 2 percent salicylic acid and glycerin/panthenol, which moisturize skin," she says.

Humane Maximum Strength Acne Wash

Active ingredient: Benzoyl peroxide | Formulation: Liquid | Best for: Oily, combination, acne-prone skin | Non-comedogenic? Yes

According to Ramachandra, oil-free formulas are an absolute must when you're dealing with acne-prone skin and acne scars.

"Oils clog the pores, and when one has acne-prone skin, their glands are already working overtime to produce more sebum/oil than normal or dry skin. Adding more oil to your skin may exacerbate acne and clog your pores even more," Ramachandra explains.

One oil-free example that Jaliman appreciates is this bestseller, particularly for its strong concentration of benzoyl peroxide (10 percent, to be precise) and the fact that it decreases acne-causing bacteria.

"Benzoyl peroxide also helps keep the pores clear, reducing chances of acne. It's great for teens and adults alike," she explains. The product is also free of animal-based ingredients, parabens, fragrances and phthalates.

Questions about acne face washes, answered by experts

Is there a proper way to wash my face if I am prone to acne?

Whether you're in the thick of a breakout, can feel one coming on, or your skin is totally clear at the moment, there are some cleansing best practices that can keep your skin on the right track.

"Even with acne, you should always be gentle. Gentle exfoliation one to two times a week is okay, but we tend to think harsh is better, and it just simply isn’t," says Dr. Mary L. Stevenson, a dermatologic surgeon and associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health.

Cleansing methods are a dime a dozen these days, and we all have so many options at our disposal: brushes, wipes, wash cloths, loofas and more. But as it turns out, the old-fashioned method might be the most effective one of all.

With acne, you should always be gentle. Gentle exfoliation one to two times a week is okay, but we tend to think harsh is better, and it just simply isn’t.

Dr. Mary L. Stevenson, Dermatologic Surgeon, NYU Langone Health

"It's best to wash gently with your hands," Parks says.

If you want to truly reap the benefits of your cleanser, don't rush the process.

"You need to think of an acne wash more like a short contact therapy rather than a true cleanser. It needs to sit on the skin for enough time for the active ingredient to penetrate. I recommend applying it to the skin and letting it sit and lather while you sing 'Happy Birthday' to yourself before rinsing it off," Zeichner explains.

Should I use hot water or cold water when I wash my face if I’m prone to acne?

Whenever it's cold outside, we all have a tendency of blasting the heat in the shower, even though dermatologists always say that extreme heat isn't exactly ideal for your scalp or your skin. If you have a tendency of doing the same when you're washing your face, you might want to reconsider the temperature of your water.

"Hot water strips oils and can be too drying and irritating," Stevenson says.

Instead, somewhere right in the middle is typically best. "No matter what your skin type, I generally recommend lukewarm water. Water that’s too hot can cause flushing and dilate the blood vessels. Water that’s too cold often can feel like a shock to the skin," Zeichner explains.

How many times should I wash my face if I have acne?

When you learn that bacteria can cause acne, washing your face multiple times a day becomes quite tempting. After all, we've been conditioned to believe that squeaky-clean skin is healthy skin. But over-washing your face isn't necessarily a good idea — whether you're dealing with acne or not.

"I usually recommend washing your face twice daily and an additional time if you experience heavy sweating. If you’re going to skip one wash, I tell my patients to skip the morning. It’s important to wash your face at night before bed to remove any dirt, oil, makeup or soiling from the environment that build up during the day," Zeichner says.

If you find your cleanser soulmate, you can use the same product in the morning and at night, but it's also fine to switch things up.

"You can alternate between products if one tends to be more drying or to benefit from the different ingredients in each," Camp says.

If your skin can tolerate a foaming cleanser, Zeichner recommends using one in the evening because it can provide a deeper cleanse. He also advises to opt for a hydrating cleanser in the morning, "since you don't necessarily need as deep of a cleanse after waking up."

Meet our experts

  1. Dr. Robert Anolik, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
  2. Dr. Brendan Camp, MD, works for MDCS Dermatology: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery, and is double board-certified in dermatology and dermatopathology. He is based in New York.
  3. Dr. Michele S. Green, MD, is a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist based in New York. She is also a principal member of the Skin Cancer Foundation and volunteers her time at skin cancer screenings.
  4. Dr. Debra Jaliman, MD, is a board-certified NYC dermatologist and author of “Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist."
  5. Dr. Ted Lain, MD, MBA, is a board-certified dermatologist and Chief Medical Officer of Sanova Dermatology.
  6. Dr. Angela J. Lamb, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. She serves as Director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice and Chief Technology Officer of the Dermatology Department.
  7. Dr. Alan J. Parks, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of DermWarehouse in Gahanna, Ohio. He also founded Eastside Dermatology & Skin Care Center in Columbus, Ohio.
  8. Dr. Liia Ramachandra, PharmD, Ph.D., is a former pharma executive and founder of beauty brand Epilynx.
  9. Dr. Mary L. Stevenson, MD, is a dermatologic surgeon and associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health.
  10. Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist. He is Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology and an Associate Professor of Dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.