There are probably many reasons why you wanted to leave your teen years behind, and saying goodbye to your acne was surely one of them. But don’t freak out if those pesky pimples stuck around. “Adult acne in women is super common,” says Nazanin Saedi, M.D., director of the Jefferson Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology Center in Philadelphia. The main cause: hormonal imbalance. That’s why dermatologists often recommend medications like birth control, which can help keep hormones like estrogen and testosterone in check.
However, what you put on your face also matters. The first step in your anti- acne regimen? A face wash that you can lather up with morning and night. “Nighttime cleansing washes off dirt and excess oil that’s sitting on skin, while morning cleansing will clear off anything that accumulated overnight,” says Dr. Saedi.
How to choose (and use) the best face wash for acne-prone skin
Look for actives: A few ingredients to look for in your face wash include benzoyl peroxide (to clean out the P. acnes bacteria that contributes to acne), salicylic acid (to exfoliate and remove pore-clogging debris and break up blackheads and whiteheads), sulfur (to lessen inflammation), or glycolic acid (an alpha hydroxy acid that clears away dead skin cells).
But go mild if need be: One downside is that face washes with anti-acne ingredients can be drying. You may also be tempted to overdo it on cleansing— and see skin irritation as a result. Pro tip: If you do get a bit dry or flaky, scale back to every other day and follow with a noncomedogenic moisturizer designed for oily or acne-prone skin.
Or, if you’re using a super-drying medication, stick with a mild “nothing” cleanser to minimize your irritation. These face washes are formulated for sensitive skin and really just prep your base (cleaning out makeup, oil, and dirt) so your acne medication (say, a prescription retinoid) or spot treatment can do the heavy lifting. Listen to your skin: Finding the right cleanser for your acne-fighting routine can be tricky, and you’ll like have to try both cleansers for sensitive skin and those formulated with active ingredients to figure out which you prefer. If your skin gets red, itchy, flaky, or irritated in general, talk to your doctor about switching to a milder formula instead.
When it comes to cleanser, you don’t have to pick an expensive one—drugstore buys will get the job done, says Dr. Saedi. But there are options in every price category: Here, dermatologists share the best face washes for acne-prone skin, from those with ultra-mild properties to top-notch pimple-fighting power.
The best gentle face washes for acne-prone skin
These mild “nothing” cleansers are great if you find traditional acne face washes too drying or irritating. Follow with your acne treatment and a noncomedogenic moisturizer at night, as well as an SPF during the day.
BEST OVERALL CeraVe Hydrating Face Wash
Don’t let “hydrating” scare you—many acne-prone patients are susceptible to dry, flaky skin. This fragrance-free, noncomedogenic option will help combat any irritation, says Tara Rao, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. A mix of ceramides and hyaluronic acid work to draw and lock moisture into the skin, so it never feels stripped.
BEST VALUE Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Hydrating Cleanser
This creamy-dreamy formula leaves skin feeling smooth and soft—never stripped. It’s super mild (since it’s soap-, oil-, and fragrance-free) noncomedogenic, and gentle enough to use on skin that’s prone to acne, eczema, and rosacea.
RAVE REVIEWS Fresh Soy Face Cleanser
Thanks to a cocktail of soothing ingredients—like aloe vera, cucumber, and hydrating glycerin—this cult-favorite face wash is amazing for sensitive, acne-prone skin. Plus, “soy helps brighten the skin,” Debra Jaliman, M.D., a Manhattan-based dermatologist recently told Honayst. “It also has properties that lessen redness.” Bonus: It’s fragrance-free and noncomedogenic.
Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
This basic cleanser is a dermatologist favorite for a reason—it’s designed to wash away impurities without irritating, making it great for acne-prone skin (and all skin types, really). It’s especially soothing for those with a sensitive complexion or eczema, says Dr. Saedi.
First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser
A lightweight but nourishing face wash? Yep, it’s a dream for annoyed, acne-prone skin. The formula deeply cleans out dirt, oil, and makeup while maintaining balance in the skin. Glycerin, aloe, licorice, root, and white tea extracts band together to soothe and hydrate the face sans stinging or burning. The whipped texture also lathers up nicely, but never leaves the skin feeling dry.
Avène Antirougeurs CLEAN Redness-Relief Cleansing Lotion
This ultra-gentle cleanser gets a stamp of approval from Deirdre Hooper, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans. The thermal spring water works to reduce redness while cleansing the skin. No need to worry about irritating side effects, as its free of soaps and fragrances.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Purifying Foaming Cleanser
This oil-, soap-, and fragrance-free cleanser was designed with sensitive skin in mind. Enriched with hydrating ceramides and soothing niacinamide (a form of vitamin B3), it gently buffs away dirt, oil, and makeup while calming an angry complexion.
The best acne face washes with active ingredients
These face washes for acne contain active ingredients designed to fight bacteria, unclog pores, and gently exfoliate the skin. Simply follow with moisturizer if you’re only targeting blackheads or white heads, or your go-to acne-treatment if you have deeper breakouts. Always follow with a noncomedogenic moisturizer (and SPF if using in the morning). Discontinue use or speak with a dermatologist if irritation occurs.
BEST OVERALL Differin Daily Deep Cleanser
This face wash contains 5% benzoyl peroxide, so it can tackle acne-causing bacteria without causing excess dryness, redness, itching, or burning. Many reviewers say they noticeable a difference in their skin within a week of consistent cleansing.
BEST VALUE Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser
This face wash isn’t like your typical foaming formula: It’s actually incredibly gentle instead of stripping, and packed with 0.5% salicylic acid to help unclog pores and exfoliate the skin for a more balanced and even-looking texture.
RAVE REVIEWS CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser
Benzoyl peroxide can be too drying for some, which is why CeraVe created one that contains ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide—all of which help hydrate and soothe irritated skin. This formula packs 4% benzoyl peroxide, so you’re getting enough to buff away bacteria.
TULA The Cult Classic Purifying Face Cleanser
This inflammation-fighting cleanser from TULA offers probiotics (the good kind of bacteria!), lactic acid (to gently exfoliate), vitamin E (to nourish), and vitamin C (to brighten). It gently foams to a silky lather that leaves skin feeling clean and soft instead of paper-y tight.
Neutrogena Clear Pore Cleanser/Mask
This product goes double duty as a daily cleanser (to clear breakouts) or face mask (to deep clean your pores). A 3.5% benzoyl peroxide formula is even suitable for sensitive skin types, says Dr. Saedi. It also helps control that shiny forehead you deal with by 3 p.m., thanks to oil-controlling kaolin and bentonite clay.
Bioré Charcoal Acne Clearing Cleanser for Oily Skin
The addition of charcoal (a great ingredient for oily skin) to this 1% salicylic acid cleanser helps penetrate clogged pores to clear out blackheads, says Dr. Saedi.
Kate Somerville EradiKate Daily Cleanser
Sulfur calms down redness and inflammation, says Dr. Saedi. Catch is, it’s not always pleasant-smelling. However, this raved-about 3% sulfur cleanser, which acts as an antiseptic and antifungal, has a mild fragrance and (most importantly) really fades both mild and cystic acne by unclogging congested pores.
Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that gives the face a gentle exfoliation by clearing away dead skin cells, a precursor to pesky bumps. This face wash packs the active ingredient, in addition to herbal extracts to soothe the complexion. Because it helps buff away the dead layers of skin, it’s also helps reduce annoying scars, too.