Fight oil with … oil? That’s right. Cleansing oils may actually work for acne-prone skin. Ready for a flashback to chemistry class? The oil-cleansing method is based on a simple principle: Oil dissolves oil. As counterintuitive as it may seem, cleansing oils may actually work for acne-prone skin.This means an oil-based cleanser may dissolve sebum, oil-based makeup, sunscreen, and accumulated grime.
We’ll discuss why oil-based cleansers are generally safe for acne-prone skin and describe the oil-cleansing and double-cleansing methods. We’ll also share a few of our favorite cleansing oil products and tips for selecting a cleanser from your local drugstore.
Certain oil cleansers can be super-effective at cleansing your skin of both makeup and excess oil without stripping, drying, or irritating, especially for dry skin. Oil-based cleansers include cleansing balms and creams, which may leave the skin looking and feeling more hydrated than traditional cleansers.
Cleansing oils and balms are usually recommended for those with drier skin to lock in extra hydration. However, they may also work for oily skin types, depending on the ingredients. Seed oils, olive oil, avocado oil, and jojoba oil are non-comedogenic and work with acne-prone skin.
A quick note: Facial oils and oil cleansers are different. Facial oils are skin-moisturizing products used after cleansing. Oil cleansers are the first step in the skincare routine—they do the cleaning.
The oil-cleansing method (OCM) is based on the principle of “like dissolves like.” Oil cleansers attract and dissolve sebum, cosmetics, and other skincare products. Oil cleansing includes a few basic steps:
Apply a dime-to-quarter-sized dollop of natural oil to your face and gently massage into the corners and creases.
Apply a wet, warm washcloth over your face and leave it until it cools.
Use a clean, dry washcloth or microfiber cloth to wipe away impurities collected in the cleansing oil.
Depending on skin type, the OCM is often part of the popular double-cleansing method. Double cleansing uses two different cleansers, one oil-based and another water-based, to thoroughly clean facial skin. The combo removes makeup, sunscreen, sweat, and other daily buildup.
The steps are similar to those listed here but may start with a makeup remover, such as micellar water, or end with a foaming cleanser. The products and order of the double-cleansing method vary depending on your skin type.
Choosing a high-quality cleanser—as a stand-alone or part of double cleansing—can be confusing enough without the added stress of potentially triggering a breakout. If you wish to include the OCM in your skincare routine, finding a cleanser that won’t lead to breakouts is essential.
Here are five of our preferred oil cleansers for acne-prone skin:
Pai Skincare Light Work Rosehip Cleansing Oil. Great for all skin types. Pai rosehip cleanser makes light work of stubborn makeup without rubbing!
Avene XeraCalm A.D Lipid-Replenishing Cleansing Oil. This cleansing oil cleans and restores the skin’s barrier. It’s great for sensitive skin that’s prone to dryness and itching.
DHC Deep Cleansing Oil. This skin-nourishing and hydrating cleansing oil has a water-soluble formula to remove excess oil and other pore-clogging impurities.
Josie Maran Argan Cleansing Oil. This 100% pure argan oil cleanser is a powerhouse of skin-cleansing essential fatty acids and antioxidants.
Caudalíe Makeup Removing Cleansing Oil. The gentle cleansing and nourishing properties of almond oil soothe the skin, while peptides protect it from signs of aging.
Products often claim to work for acne-prone skin, dry skin, mature skin, or other skin types, but that isn’t always the case. Unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t pre-approve skincare ingredients, meaning that a manufacturer may use any ingredient in their products as long as it’s considered safe, unadulterated, and properly labeled.¹
In other words, consumers rely on manufacturers to be truthful. The good news is that most are. Nonetheless, here’s a quick look at ingredients that work for acne-prone skin and some that do not.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Glycolic acid (an AHA) and salicylic acid (a BHA) are common skincare ingredients available at your local store. AHAs help “unglue” dead skin cells that are stuck together, and BHAs are oil-soluble to penetrate deeper into pores and unclog sebum and dead skin cells. Both slough dry, flaky skin and help treat and prevent pimples.² However, exfoliating can cause irritation in people with sensitive skin, so it’s best to start with one ingredient at a time and use it two or three times per week until your skin adjusts.
Zinc. Zinc pyrithione is a mineral-based antimicrobial that restores balance and blocks bacteria and fungi from multiplying. Zinc soap may also be helpful for those who experience “fungal acne” or body acne. Some zinc soaps are gentle enough to use on the face. Unfortunately, some contain pore-clogging ingredients, such as coconut oil. However, we can recommend this zinc soap for facial use:
Niacinamide. Niacinamide is an antioxidant (a form of vitamin B3) that fights acne while keeping inflammation and dark spots at bay. A 2% concentration of niacinamide can lower oil production after just a few weeks.³ A cleanser with niacinamide, such as CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser, can work well for normal to oily skin.
Alcohol. Alcohol is used in many skincare products, but it can dry out the skin and damage its protective barrier. It’s often listed as “denatured alcohol” or “alcohol denat.” Alcohol may make your skin feel dry, red, tight, itchy, and irritated.
Bar soaps, hand soap, or body washes. Stick to cleansers designed for your face; body soaps and bar soaps are typically too harsh for the skin on your face.
Isopropyl myristate, myristyl myristate, and laureth-4. These are pore-clogging ingredients. We recommend checking your products to be sure they do not contain these ingredients.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). SLS can dry the skin and may lead to more breakouts. It is also known to be a pore-clogging ingredient, so we recommend avoiding products with it, especially for acne-prone skin.
Choosing the best non-comedogenic cleansing oils can be confusing, so here are a few tips when you’re comparing products:
Check the label. The skincare industry has a habit of using buzzwords, but check the label for claims like “non-comedogenic.”
Cross-reference ingredients. Here’s a list we’ve put together of common comedogenic ingredients to avoid.
Use common sense. If you’re unsure, compare a product to other non-comedogenic products on the shelf. Do they list the same ingredients?
There are a lot of great cleansers for oily skin, but if a cleanser alone doesn’t seem to be enough, consider a personalized prescription formula with proven active ingredients to treat your skincare concerns. That’s where Curology can help.
We’re here to take the guesswork out of skincare. Our in-house licensed dermatology providers work with you to help you reach your skin goals. We pay attention to your unique needs, so you get the products—and ingredients—you need to address your specific concerns.
We recommend using an oil-based cleanser first for acne-prone skin. The second cleansing product can be a foaming cleanser or micellar water.
Depending on the ingredients, mixing topical actives may cause redness and irritation—things to avoid with acne-prone or sensitive skin. We recommend consulting your dermatology provider to determine what combination of products may be best for your concerns!
Yes! Some oil-based cleansers use hydrating ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, but moisturizers are formulated to improve skin hydration and seal in moisture.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA authority over cosmetics: How cosmetics are not FDA-approved, but are FDA-regulated. (2022 March 2).
Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (May 2016).
Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily skin: A review of treatment options. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (August 2017).
This article was originally published on September 2019, and updated on March 2023.
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