“Just wash your face.” If only getting rid of acne was that simple! There are plenty of anti-acne face washes out there, but not all of them are effective — and finding the cleanser that works best for your skin will depend on your skin type. To make it easier on you, in this guide we break down the best cleansers for acne-prone skin, whether your skin is dry, oily, sensitive, combination, or “normal.”
The best face wash for acne depends on your skin type, which (newsflash!) changes on you from one week to the next. Your skin may be dry one day, oily or combination the next. What makes it change its mind? It could be hormones, your diet, or the time of the year. Your skin type may even be different on different parts on your face — you might have an oily T-zone, for example, but dry skin on your forehead. Luckily it’s not hard to figure out what your skin type is on any given day.
STEP 1 Wash your face gently, wait an hour, then check out your skin in the mirror.
STEP 2 Pat a blotting paper (gently) on each area of your face: T-zone, forehead, chin, and cheeks. It can be hard to tell whether what you’re seeing on your skin is oil, shine, or just glowiness, so check the sheet each time you blot to see which part of your face was oilier.
STEP 3 Wait an hour. If oil has reappeared on your face, your skin type is likely oily skin or combination skin (if you’re only oily in certain places). “Normal” skin isn’t dry nor oily, but smooth and balanced.
Normal: Smooth, no signs of dry flakes or shiny oil
Oily: Slick and shiny, larger pores
Dry: Dry flakes, tight-feeling
Combination: Oily T-zone, with normal-to-dry skin everywhere else (fun fact: most people actually have combination skin!)
Whatever your skin type, our advice is: keep it simple, smartypants. Whether you’ve got sensitive, combination, or “normal” skin, a gentle cleanser will do the trick. Even if one part of your face is more sensitive than the other, or more oily or dry than the other, you can’t really go wrong with a simple, gentle face wash that’s suitable for every skin type.
The cleanser by Curology We love this cleanser because we developed it with Curology members in mind. It’s great for sensitive, acne-prone skin because it’s formulated with non-comedogenic ingredients and it’s free of parabens, allergens, sulfates, fragrances, dyes, or anything else that could irritate your skin. You also don’t need an expensive face wash to keep your skin refreshed and cleansed. In fact, our cleanser clocks in at under $10 per bottle when you subscribe to the Curology set!
We also recommend…
If you have another favorite cleanser that your skin likes — especially if it’s labeled gentle or formulated for sensitive skin — feel free to keep on using it! But if you’re breaking out, you’ll want to check the ingredients (more on this, below) to make sure your favorite cleanser isn’t the culprit.
If a gentle cleanser just isn’t cutting it for your oily skin, there are cleansers designed for acne-prone, oily skin available with stronger ingredients. Look for cleansers with benzoyl peroxide, alpha hydroxy acids (AHA, such as glycolic acid or lactic acid), or beta hydroxy acid (BHA, i.e., salicylic acid). These ingredients are helpful for controlling both oil and acne, but they can sometimes cause irritation for those with sensitive skin. If your skin is oily but not too sensitive, feel free to try some of these!
Don’t feel left out, those of you with not-so-fun combination skin. There’s a common misconception that oily skin is what causes pimples, but acne can crop up in dry skin just as well. Dry skin may be more easily irritated, or more vulnerable to invading bacteria; if you’ve got flaky skin, those dead skin cells might be clogging up the works deep down inside your pores, too. The right hydrating cleanser can help clear things up for you and reduce dryness, too.
Your typical anti-acne cleanser might contain ingredients that can actually make dry skin worse, so try a hydrating, non-comedogenic cleanser that will leave your skin refreshed, moisturized, and balanced.
Yep, you heard right: certain oil cleansers are okay for acne-prone skin! Counterintuitive as it sounds, certain oils are super-effective at cleansing your skin of both makeup and excess oil without stripping, drying, or irritating. Especially if your skin tends to be dry.
Oil-based cleansers include not just straight-up oil but cleansing balms and oil-based cleansing creams, all of which can leave the skin looking and feeling more hydrated than traditional cleansers do. We’d recommend cleansing oils and balms for those with drier skin to lock in that extra hydration, but it can work for even oily skin types (depending on the ingredients).
Whatever you do, just don’t use coconut oil to cleanse your face. Coconut oil is a notorious pore-clogger!
Oil cleansers we recommend:
AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) and BHA (beta hydroxy acid), like glycolic acid and salicylic acid, are found in skincare products you can buy over-the-counter that might help with mild breakouts. These can be irritating to sensitive skin, however, so start with one ingredient at a time, and use it 2-3 times per week at first. This way, you can see if your skin tolerates the first ingredient without dryness or irritation.
Zinc pyrithione is a mineral-based antimicrobial that restores balance and blocks messy bacteria and fungi from multiplying. Zinc soap may also be helpful for those who suffer from fungal acne—especially if you sweat a lot or live in a hot, humid climate. We especially recommend trying zinc soap to get rid of body acne, but it may help with your face, too! (Some zinc soaps contain pore-clogging ingredients like coconut oil, so be sure to check the label.)
Niacinamide is an antioxidant derived from vitamin B3 that fights acne while keeping inflammation and dark spots at bay. A cleanser with niacinamide in it, such as CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser, can work well for normal to oily skin.
Alcohol. Alcohol is unfortunately used in a lot of skincare products, even though it dries out the skin and can damage its protective barrier! Watch out for alcohol (usually listed as “denatured alcohol” or “alcohol denat.”) on the ingredients list of your products, especially if your skin seems dry, red, tight, itchy, or irritated after using it. However, some products have alcohol at the end of the ingredients list, likely meaning there’s not too much of it—in that case, it may not irritate the skin as much. But it’s best to avoid it whenever possible.
Bar soaps, hand soap, or body washes. Stick to cleansers that are designed for your face—body soaps and those basic bar soaps are too harsh for the skin on your face.
Isopropyl myristate, sodium laureth sulfate, myristyl myristate, and laureth-4. You’ll want to look at the ingredients list, because these pore-clogging ingredients are actually used in some so-called acne products!
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). SLS can often dry out the skin, and some people find it may lead to more acne when their skin is in frequent contact with SLS. Many people can tolerate SLS in body washes, though — just avoid using it on your face if you tend to break out.
Products not labeled with terms “non-comedogenic”, “non-acnegenic”, “does not clog pores”, or “won’t cause breakouts.” The label “non-comedogenic” (or similar) indicates that the product has been designed with acne-prone people in mind. It’s no guarantee of safety, but it can be a useful guideline! We still recommend checking products labeled non-comedogenic for pore-clogging or irritating ingredients.
We highly recommend you review the comedogenicity (potential for blocking pores) of the ingredients in your current skincare products. First, google the product and find its ingredient list. Ulta and Sephora's websites tend to have ingredient lists as well. Then, check your products’ ingredient lists to make sure they don’t contain any of the following known comedogenic ingredients.
Micellar water is a secret one-minute shortcut to clean skin. A skincare staple originating from French pharmacies, a few drops on a cotton pad will gently remove oil, dirt, and makeup in a hot minute. It’s great for when you’re on-the-go, because it even comes in gentle face wipes you can stick in your bag.
Bioderma Sensibo H2O – for normal to sensitive and acne-prone skin
Bioderma Sébium H2O – for oily skin
Bioderma Hydrabio H2O – for dry skin
If a cleanser alone doesn’t seem to be enough for your acne-prone skin, it might be time to add on with a custom formula of prescription ingredients with Curology.
If you haven’t given us a try already, sign up for a free trial (you just pay $4.95 for shipping and handling)* today to get your very own custom acne-fighting cream, plus a non-comedogenic cleanser and moisturizer paired with it if you wish! Just apply it at night, after cleansing your face, and let it do the work while you get some beauty sleep.
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.
Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Trial is 30 days + $4.95 shipping and handling.