Is washing your face making your acne worse? Ask an expert

Have questions about acne face wash? We’ve got answers from the pros.

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Curology Team
Aug 19, 2019 · 6 min read

Hand under water with the word "acne"
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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Welcome to Ask Curology, a series on the Curology blog where one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers answers your questions about all things skincare. Today we’re talking about face wash for acne and ingredients to avoid in skincare. Why do some facial cleansers that are supposedly meant to help with acne only seem to make matters worse? Turns out it’s all about the fine print: the ingredients list. There are many different factors that contribute to acne, but below, our dermatology providers narrow it down. If you think your acne face wash might be behind your worsening breakouts, read on to see if it might be the culprit.

Got a burning skincare question of your own? Come hang out with us on Instagram and keep your eyes peeled for our provider takeover series in our stories, where we answer your questions in real-time!

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Dear Curology,

I’ve been using this acne-fighting face wash to help clear up acne breakouts and get my oily skin under control, but I don’t think it’s working. Actually, I’ve been breaking out more ever since I started using it! The label says it’s supposed to clear acne and control oil, so what gives?! Sincerely, Dismayed and Confused

Dear Dismayed,

Not to defend your potentially pore-clogging cleanser, but your skin might be going through a normal and pretty common process called purging. Some people experience acne purging in the first few weeks or even months of treating acne with certain active ingredients like prescription tretinoin. These ingredients may also include common over-the-counter anti-acne ingredients like salicylic acid. Frustrating as it is to go through this, it actually means your acne treatment is working! Basically, the underlying acne in your skin is working its way out as your skin adjusts to the new situation. Learn more about acne purging here.

We know it isn’t easy to endure, to say the least. But if you’re patient, treat your skin gently, and keep up with your treatment, these breakouts should clear up soon! If they still don’t clear up after a couple months, that’s a good time to try a different approach—likesigning up for Curology, where you’ll get a customized acne-fighting cream and a one-on-one treatment plan from one of us dermatology providers. But purging might not be the only explanation for what’s going on. Depending on the ingredients in your face wash, your skin could be breaking out in reaction to the product itself. Here are a few other reasons why a face wash designated for acne-prone and/or oily skin could potentially make acne worse: 1. It has pore-clogging ingredients. Unfortunately, there’s no FDA regulation of terms like “non-comedogenic” on skincare or cosmetic products, so some products marketed toward people who are susceptible to acne can sneak potentially pore-clogging ingredients into the mix.¹ Be sure to read up on how to review your skincare products for pore-clogging ingredients here. 2. It contains alcohol. Certain types of alcohol, like alcohol denat, can dry out the skin and strip it of its natural protective barrier. This can cause irritation and inflammation of the skin, which can make it vulnerable to acne breakouts.

3. It has an active ingredient that is too strong for your skin (or you might be using it too frequently). Many acne faces washes you can buy at the drugstore contain salicylic acid, a BHA (beta hydroxy acid) that can help unclog pores,² or benzoyl peroxide, which helps fight bacteria that contribute to breakouts.³ Some people experience dryness or irritation from using these, and irritated skin can be more prone to acne breakouts. If your skin is on the sensitive side, you may want to look for a lower strength or switch to a gentle cleanser (like the cleanser by Curology, which comes with the full set when you subscribe!) and use a topical cream or other acne treatment recommended by your dermatology provider.

Reasons why your skin is breaking out

Before you throw out your new facial cleanser, there are a few other reasons you could be breaking out, even when the right ingredients are doing their best work. If you have acne-prone skin, there are a lot of different things that can trigger a breakout, and understanding what can cause them might help you prevent future blemishes.

1. Hormonal fluctuations

Whether they happen around puberty or around your menstrual cycle, hormone fluctuations can lead to breakouts.

2. Tight or sweaty workout clothes 

Known as acne mechanica, this type of breakout can occur when materials (like exercise gear or a face mask) constantly rub against the skin, causing friction.⁴ It’s particularly common among athletes who regularly wear fitted uniforms or other equipment.⁵

3. Comedogenic ingredients 

We hate to break the news, but your makeup could be another potential cause of your breakouts, specifically acne cosmetica. Be it your foundation, concealer, or blush, if your makeup contains comedogenic ingredients, it can lead to clogged pores and acne.⁶ You can help prevent acne cosmetica by removing makeup and washing your face with a gentle cleanser every night before bed (and that still applies even if you only use non-comedogenic products).

4. Changing seasons 

Along with balmy temps and afternoons at the pool, the summer months can bring an increase in breakouts due to increased oil production and sweating, both of which can increase the chance of clogged pores.⁷ You can help prevent summertime breakouts by washing your face regularly, but whatever you do, don’t forget to apply and reapply sunscreen regularly.

5. Using harsh products 

Harsher skincare products could lead to irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin. Irritated skin can be more prone to break out.⁸ It’s important to remember that everyone’s skin is unique, and different skins will react differently with different products.

Why you shouldn’t wash your face too much

We know, we know. You’ve probably heard how important it is to regularly wash your face, and it is. That said, you can overdo it, too. If you wash your face too often, you can risk drying out your skin. Dry skin can become irritated and potentially lead to more breakouts. And the same goes for exfoliating. So how many times should you wash your face? Typically, experts recommend twice daily, once in the morning and at night.⁹ There isn't an exact length of time to wash your face, but 30-60 seconds should be plenty!

Washing your face is not always enough

While using a gentle cleanser consistently is a good start, sometimes pimples can be stubborn and require more than just face wash. Thankfully, a variety of acne treatments are available, some over-the-counter that contain benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, and other stronger treatments like birth control that a medical provider can prescribe.

When in doubt, custom skincare is what it’s about

We’re all about healthy skin, but we also know it doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. And that’s okay! Skincare is a journey. If you’re struggling with acne and a so-called “acne-fighting” face wash that just doesn’t cut it, it might be time to try something different, like a customized treatment for your unique skin, designed by dermatologists.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Subject to consultation. 30-day trial. Just cover $4.95 in S&H.
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Sign up for a free trial of Curology* to get acne-fighting cream that’s customized to your unique skin, plus our moisturizer and gentle cleanser when you sign up for the full set. If you have any questions, you can always speak to your Curology provider to learn more. As always, we’ve got your back!


Why you shouldn’t wash your face too much?

If you wash your face too often, you can risk drying out your skin. Dry skin can become irritated and potentially lead to more breakouts. And the same goes for exfoliating.

How many times should you wash your face?

Typically, experts recommend twice daily, once in the morning and at night. There isn't an exact length of time to wash your face, but 30-60 seconds should be plenty.

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P.S. We did the research so you don’t have to:

1. Emily Boozalis & Shivani Patel. Clinical utility of marketing terms used for over-the-counter dermatologic products.Journal of Dermatological Treatment, (2018, May 8).

2. Jacqueline Woodruff, et al.  A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of a 2% salicylic acid cleanser for improvement of acne vulgaris.(2013, April 1).

3. Zaenglein, A. L., et al.Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, February 17).

4. Mills, O H Jr, and A Kligman. Acne mechanica.Archives of dermatology (1975, n.d.).

5. American Academy of Dermatology. Is sports equipment causing your acne? (n.d.).

6. American Academy of Dermatology. I have acne! Is it okay to wear makeup? (n.d.)

7. Cleveland Clinic. How the summer months bring on more acne. (2021, July 30).

8. American Academy of Dermatology. 10 skin care habits that can worsen acne. (n.d.).

9. American Academy of Dermatology. I have acne! Is it okay to wear makeup? Ibid

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. + $4.95 shipping and handling.

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Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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