Acne isn’t just a problem for teens. Zits and pimples can pop up at any age, affecting more than half of women in their 20s and over a third of women in their 30s and 40s, according to one study. While adult acne is a common concern, you don’t have to suffer helplessly. With a few tweaks to the way you cleanse your face, the first step in your skin care routine can be your first step toward clearer skin, too. We asked Dr. Cynthia Bailey, a board-certified dermatologist in Sebastopol, CA, to share her best tips on how to choose the right acne cleanser for you, as well as how to use it to get your best results.
Look for Acne-Fighting Ingredients
According to Dr. Bailey, the best facial cleansers for acne should have at least one of these key ingredients: salicylic acid, glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide. “Acne cleansers with these ingredients will gradually unclog pores, reduce the size of existing blackheads and slow or stop the formation of new ones,” she says.
Each of these ingredients has its own unique acne-fighting superpower. “Benzoyl peroxide is the best ingredient for treating the acne-causing bacteria called p. acnes,” Dr. Bailey explains. “In fact, study after study continues to show that benzoyl peroxide is more effective than prescription topical antibiotics at treating p. acnes.”
Meanwhile, salicylic acid, which is derived from willow tree bark, wintergreen oil or sweet birch, works well for most skin types. Aside from being an exfoliant that sloughs away dead skin cells and dissolves pore-clogging impurities, it helps to address inflammation, which is thought to be the primary cause of acne. Glycolic acid, another chemical exfoliant, helps keep pores clear by dissolving the structural lipids that hold dead skin cells and binding them to the surface. Studies have also shown that glycolic acid effectively encourages and stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, restoring damaged skin faster and reducing signs of environmental damage with continuous use.
How to Wash Acne-Prone Skin
According to Dr. Bailey, it’s not enough to have a facial cleanser designed for acne-prone skin. Half the battle is properly washing your face. Here’s what she recommends: “First, wet your face with warm water, then lather your cleanser over all of your facial skin. Depending on your skin type, you can use your fingers, an exfoliating cloth or a sonic skin-cleansing brush system. Rinse well with warm water to remove the lather entirely. Some of the important acne cleanser ingredients will stay behind, but the cleanser’s foaming agents, as well as built-up oil, dead cells, products and bacteria, will be rinsed off of your skin.”
For best results, Dr. Bailey recommends washing your face morning and evening to thoroughly cleanse and deliver acne-fighting ingredients to your skin.
Best Face Cleansers for Acne-Prone Skin
Ready to choose your cleanser? Here are our top picks for the best face cleansers for acne-prone skin.
1. SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel
Featuring a potent combination of lipohydroxy (also known as ascapryloyl salicylic acid), salicylic and glycolic acids, this acne-fighting cleanser is an exfoliating powerhouse. It cleanses deep into your pores and removes dead and damaged skin cells, leaving you with smoother, brighter and blemish-free skin.
Shoppers say: “I love this cleanser. I use it daily and it helps curb my breakouts. I’m in my late 20s and started getting painful acne around the neck/ chin area along with pigmentation during PMS. I tried other acne cleansers to no avail. I switched to this cleanser and it has significantly reduced the number of breakouts as well as helps my skin heal quickly.”
2. Obagi CLENZIderm M.D. Daily Care Foaming Cleanser
This lightweight cleanser features 2% salicylic acid to wash away dirt, oil and dead skin cells that may have accumulated in the pores, while menthol provides cooling and soothing relief. The best part? It cleanses without leaving your skin tight and dry.
Shoppers say: “This [is] one of my staple cleansers. As a skincare junkie, I’ve tried almost everything out there at an attempt to banish my blackheads and occasional acne. Not much has helped, including recommendations from my dermatologist. This is the one cleanser that keeps my blackheads at bay and keeps my acne away. And now I can’t live without it.”
3. iS Clinical Cleansing Complex
Infused with salicylic acid from white willow bark, antioxidant-rich chamomile and skin-healing centella asiatica, this clarifying face wash is formulated for men and women of all skin types. It exfoliates and unclogs pores to boost cell turnover, soothes inflamed skin and counters free radical damage. Also works as a makeup remover and a deep-cleansing shaving cream!
Shoppers say: “This is by far the best cleanser I have tried! I have very sensitive dry skin and it did not dry my skin out. I love using this both in AM/ PM. It is also great at washing off makeup but I like to first cleanse my skin with an oil cleaner and then use this and so far that combo has improved my skin. I have repurchased this 5 times already. I would highly recommend it!”
4. Eminence Organic Skin Care Acne Advanced Cleansing Foam
Especially formulated for acne-prone and oily skin, this foaming face wash marries the pimple-fighting power of salicylic acid with a calming blend of natural herbs, vitamin E and aloe vera so skin feels clean and refreshed, not tight or overly dry, post-cleanse.
Shoppers say: “This product has helped my skin so much. As a mom in her early 40s I never expected to suffer from hormonal acne. I tried so many creams and face washes but nothing helped as well as this face wash. I love the way it smells and feels. It doesn’t irritate or dry out my skin either. It has been a wonder product and I love it!”
5. EltaMD Foaming Facial Cleanser
This oil-free, pH-balanced formula gently cleanses without irritating or drying your skin. Enriched with bromelain (an enzyme found in pineapple juice) and apple amino acids, this foaming cleanser easily removes makeup, excess oil and impurities, leaving your skin looking and feeling smoother and softer, with your skin’s natural moisture retained.
Shoppers say: “After my dermatologist recommended that I use EltaMD moisturizer for face, I decided to give their facial cleanser a try—and I am so happy that I did! This cleanser foams up nicely and leaves my skin feeling refreshed and clean. I have also noticed a decrease in my acne as well. If you have tried other EltaMD products, I would highly recommend giving this one a try!”
6. PCA Skin BPO 5% Cleanser
Gentle on skin but tough on acne-causing bacteria, this cleanser is formulated with a five percent concentration of benzoyl peroxide to effectively heal and prevent breakouts. It’s also infused with soothing botanicals like aloe, cucumber, nettle and chamomile extracts to calm inflammation while keeping skin clear and rejuvenated.
Shoppers say: “I bought this after having massive breakouts from wearing a mask. (I call it my mask-ne.) After using 2-3x per week, my chin area is much less congested and my breakouts smaller in size. I have not experienced any dryness or flaking from using this product.”
Try it as part of our Problem Solution: Clarifying Regimen kit for acne-prone skin.
7. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta® Pore Perfecting Cleansing Gel
Formulated with both alpha hydroxy (glycolic, mandelic) and beta hydroxy (salicylic) acids, this dermatologist-developed cleanser delivers an exfoliating one-two punch—without stripping skin’s moisture. Farnesol, a natural alternative to benzoyl peroxide, helps keep acne-causing bacteria under control.
Shoppers say: “I’ve suffered from adult cystic hormonal acne for over 20 years. Wearing a face mask only made it worse despite taking prescriptions and using products from my dermatologist. I went in search of something new and found all positive reviews on this product. Well, it took about 3 weeks but I’m now 2 weeks without any zits! And I love the mild scent. Very happy.”
8. Dermalogica Active Clearing Skin Wash
This fragrance- and colorant-free foaming cleanser is infused with salicylic acid and soothing botanical extracts (balm mint, eucalyptus, tea tree, burdock and camphor), soothing aggravated skin while keeping acne-causing bacteria at bay. Shoppers say: “I’ve tried many many cleansers and this is by far the best! You can really see it working, the salicylic and lactic acid do great job gently exfoliating and when I went back with a cleansing tone to check there was NO DIRT or any residue left over.”
9. IMAGE Skincare CLEAR CELL Salicylic Gel Cleanser
From the professional skin care brand known for its clean, cruelty-free and clinically proven ingredients comes this foaming gel cleanser with 2% pore- clearing salicylic acid. Skin-nourishing naturals like neem-leaf extract (to calm redness and inflammation) and honey extract (to moisturize and soothe) round out the impressive ingredient list.
Shoppers say: “This cleanser is a holy grail product for me and my recent battle with acne. Facials along with multiple IMAGE products have finally helped my skin bounce back, but better—ESPECIALLY this product. It literally wipes the day away.”
10. Murad Clarifying Cleanser
It may only take you a minute or so to wash your face, but this cleanser’s unique encapsulated salicylic acid keeps working hours after you’ve rinsed it away. Rounding out the ingredient lineup are antioxidant-packed green tea, which protects against environmental damage, and silver citrate, which provides antibacterial protection.
Shoppers say: “The best face wash to get clean skin without over drying. Somehow this formula is able to rinse clean yet continue working after you wash and dry your face. Your skin feels refreshed and tingly but not tight. I like that there are soothing ingredients like green tea and menthol. You can really feel the menthol working to keep your skin clean and refreshed for a while after washing your face.”