Best Acne Cleansers

Updated May 2021
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How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

30 Models Considered
16 Hours Researched
3 Experts Interviewed
202 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for Best acne cleansers

Anyone who’s struggled with acne knows how frustrating it can be. Every time you clear up a breakout in one area of the face, another seems to pop up in a different spot. The trick to keeping acne under control is making sure your pores are clean of dirt, oil, and bacteria. That’s why having a good acne cleanser is so important.

Acne cleaners are like any face cleanser in that they help remove dirt, oil, and makeup from the skin. But what sets an acne formula apart from other cleansers is that it also contains ingredients that can treat acne and clogged pores. Acne cleansers can help exfoliate the surface of the skin and even inside the pores to prevent clogs. If you prefer natural products, you can find all-natural acne cleansers that use ingredients like tea tree oil to fight bacteria. 

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Foaming acne cleanser may contain sulfates, which help the formula lather up. They can strip the skin of natural oils and make acne worse, so it’s best to opt for a sulfate-free formula.

Key considerations

Active ingredients

To treat acne, a cleanser must have the right active ingredients to help fight acne-causing bacteria, reduce pore-clogging oil, and/or exfoliate the skin to remove debris from the pores. Some common active ingredients in acne cleansers include the following:

Benzoyl peroxide: This medication can help kill acne-causing bacteria on the skin. It can be very drying, though, so only folks with oily skin should use it. Benzoyl peroxide can bleach fabrics, which means you should be careful with your towels and washcloths when using an acne cleanser that contains it. 

Salicylic acid: This is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that helps reduce acne by exfoliating dead skin cells that can clog pores. It can exfoliate within the pores, so it’s able to help remove debris that may be clogging them. Salicylic acid also has anti-inflammatory properties, which allows it to soothe acne breakouts. It isn’t quite as drying as benzoyl peroxide, but it takes longer to work. 

Sulfur: This is a natural ingredient that helps absorb excess oil on the surface of the skin so it doesn’t clog your pores and cause breakouts. It can aid in sloughing off dead skin cells that can lead to clogged pores, too. Sulfur isn’t as harsh on the skin as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.

Tea tree oil: This is a plant-derived natural ingredient with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Tea tree oil can kill acne-causing bacteria, as well as help reduce the redness and inflammation associated with acne. 

Glycolic acid: This is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that helps exfoliate the skin to remove pore-clogging debris. 

Clay: This is another natural ingredient that helps soak up excess oil that can clog pores and cause acne. Clay can also help exfoliate dead skin cells.

Formula

Acne cleansers come in a variety of different formulas, so there’s a fit for every type of skin. 

Gel: These cleansers, as the name implies, have a gel-like consistency. They’re extremely effective at deep cleaning the pores to remove clogs, which is why gel is such an effective formula for acne cleansers. This type of cleanser works well for oily and combination skin. 

Foam: These cleansers have a lightweight texture that usually starts as a gel but foams up when mixed with water. These formulas work well for oily and combination skin. 

Cream: These cleansers have a thicker, richer texture and typically contain hydrating ingredients to prevent the skin from becoming too dry. They’re the best choice for dry and sensitive skin. 

Bar: These cleansers resemble traditional soap bars and may contain some similar ingredients. As a result, some of them can be drying, so they’re best for oily skin. 

If you’re using a prescription treatment for your acne, it’s a good idea to check with your dermatologist before starting to use a new acne cleanser.

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Features

Oil-free

The majority of people who struggle with acne have oily skin. That’s because excess oil on the surface of the skin can clog the pores and trap bacteria, which can lead to breakouts. If you have oily skin, go with an oil-free cleanser so you’re not adding more oil to your skin that can clog your pores.

Noncomedogenic

Oil isn’t the only ingredient that can clog pores and cause acne breakouts, so you should look for an acne cleanser labeled as noncomedogenic. That label means the cleanser is formulated so it isn’t likely to clog pores and doesn’t feature any ingredients known to cause pore blockages that lead to acne.

Fragrance

Like other types of cleansers, acne cleansers often contain fragrance to give the formula a pleasant scent. If you have sensitive skin, the chemical fragrances used to scent some cleansers can trigger irritation and other skin issues. That’s why most acne-prone individuals prefer cleansers that are unscented or don’t contain any artificial fragrance. 

Packaging

The packaging for acne cleansers usually varies based on the formula. Most gel and foaming cleansers come in a bottle with a pump dispenser, which is very convenient. Cream cleansers have a thicker texture, so they’re usually housed in a squeeze tube to make getting the product out of the container a little easier. Bar cleansers have minimal packaging, so they’re an eco-friendly option. 

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DID YOU KNOW?
Acne isn’t a problem that only affects teenagers. Roughly 25% of adult men and 50% of adult women experience some type of acne.
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Accessories

Face brush: Clarisonic Mia Smart Facial Cleansing Brush
You’ll often see better results with an acne cleanser if you use it with a face brush, which helps deep clean the pores and exfoliate your skin. We like this option from Clarisonic because it offers two speeds and allows for 100 minutes of use on a single charge. 

Acne mask: Peter Thomas Roth Therapeutic Sulfur Mask
To see effective results in the prevention of acne, it helps to pair an acne cleanser with a more intensive treatment like an acne mask. This one from Peter Thomas Roth contains 10% sulfur to treat acne and bentonite clay to absorb excess oil. 

Acne scar serum: CLEARstem CELLrenew Collagen Infusion Serum
If you have dark marks from past acne breakouts, try pairing your acne cleanser with an acne scar serum to fade those spots. We love this one from CLEARstem because it can help fade scars in as little as a week, and it doesn’t contain any artificial colors or fragrances. 

Acne cleanser prices

Acne cleansers vary in price based on the quality of the ingredients and the size of the container. Most cleansers cost between $5 and $84.

Inexpensive: The most affordable acne cleansers are usually drugstore formulas that are fairly drying and only contain a single active ingredient. These typically cost between $5 and $20

Mid-range: These acne cleansers aren’t as likely to dry out the skin and typically contain two or more active ingredients. They generally cost between $20 and $40.

Expensive: The priciest acne cleansers are usually from luxury beauty brands and contain two or more active ingredients. They also aren’t as drying to the skin. These typically cost between $40 and $84.

Avoid acne cleansers with exfoliating beads or grains in them. They can irritate the skin and make breakouts worse.

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Tips

  • Don’t use hot water with your acne cleanser. It can dry out your skin and cause it to produce more oil to compensate, leading to additional breakouts. Instead, use lukewarm or warm water when washing your face.
  • Don’t scrub the cleanser over your face with a washcloth. It can remove the skin’s natural protective barrier and cause irritation. Instead, use clean fingers to massage the cleanser in gently, or opt for a cleaning brush for a deeper clean. 
  • Use makeup remover or micellar water before using an acne cleanser. It allows the acne-fighting ingredients in the cleanser to penetrate your skin more effectively and target the oil and bacteria. 
  • Pat skin dry. When you’re finished washing your face, gently pat it dry with a microfiber towel to avoid irritating your skin. 
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Make sure that any acne cleanser you use on your face is intended for that area. Acne body washes are too heavy to use on the delicate skin of the face and neck.

FAQ

Q. How often do I need to use an acne cleanser?

A. Washing your face too often can dry it out, and that’s especially true when you’re using an acne cleanser with ingredients meant to dry up acne and/or soak up excess oil. Wash your face twice daily — in the morning and again at night. That should effectively remove all the dirt, oil, and bacteria from your skin, but it won’t strip the skin of too much moisture. 

Q. How long should I leave an acne cleanser on my skin? 

A. You shouldn’t just let the cleanser sit on your skin. Instead, take 30 to 60 seconds to gently massage it into your skin with your fingers or a cleaning brush. That helps the active acne-fighting ingredients in the cleanser penetrate the pores and go to work. 

Q. Can I use an acne cleanser if I have dry skin?

A. While most people with acne have oily skin, you can still get breakouts if you have dry skin. The trick to using an acne cleanser on dry skin is finding the right formula. Opt for a cream cleanser that contains some hydrating ingredients to avoid stripping your skin of too much moisture. Be sure to follow up with a quality moisturizer, too.

 

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