As anyone who has ever dealt with acne knows, treating and preventing breakouts can be a frustrating (and expensive) task. But we’re here to offer up a glimmer of good news: Finding an effective acne-treating face wash actually doesn’t have to be a miserable or pricey chore.
While there are plenty of luxurious treatment systems out there that promise clear, pimple-free skin, oftentimes, the only result many of them can truly deliver on is helping you rack up credit-card points. It was refreshing, though, that both board-certified New York City dermatologists we consulted for this story — Dr. Elyse Love and Dr. Joshua Zeichner— were quick to cite a drugstore staple among their top acne-treating face wash picks: Neutrogena’s Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser, to be exact, which costs about $9 at your nearest drugstore or big-box retailer.
Dr. Love considers the citrusy wash a “tried and true classic that gently exfoliates the top layer of skin to decrease oiliness and decongest clogged pores,” which is pretty much exactly what you want an acne-treating face wash to do. Its star ingredient is salicylic acid, “a beta hydroxy acid that helps remove excess oil and dead cells from the surface of the skin to keep the pores clear,” explains Dr. Zeichner. “It is a great ingredient, particularly for blackheads and whiteheads or if you have oily skin.” Plus, an editor’s note: It smells legitimately lovely, like a real juicy grapefruit, not medicinal or artificial. Treating acne doesn’t have to feel like a burden or a chore — it can be just as pleasant as any other skin-care routine.
For regular daily use, Dr. Zeichner also recommends Bliss Clear Genius Cleanser, another salicylic acid-spiked face wash, to his oily, blackhead-and-whitehead-prone patients. “It’s effective at removing excess oil from the surface of skin without causing irritation, and is gentle enough for daily use without stripping your skin barrier,” he says.
But not all types of breakouts require the same types of treatments. For those with “red, angry pimples,” Dr. Zeichner prefers a formula that contains benzoyl peroxide, like PanOxyl Foaming Wash 10% Benzoyl Peroxide, rather than one with salicylic acid. The ingredient, he notes, is one of the most effective tools for dealing with this type of acne flare-up, since “it works by lowering levels of acne-causing bacteria on the skin to reduce inflammation.” (For her part, Dr. Love puts her stamp of approval on Cerave Acne Foaming Benzoyl Peroxide Wash for “red, inflammatory breakouts.”)
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For those using intensive prescription-grade acne products, Dr. Love suggests looking for a formula that doesn’t contain actives and exfoliators. She recommends La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Cleanser to patients who fall into this category, since their leave-on treatments may already be causing dryness or irritation. “It effectively cleanses without stripping the skin barrier. This allows better tolerability of prescription products,” she notes.
It’s also important to note that face-washing technique can impact how effective a cleanser is when it comes to treating and preventing acne. “Rather than thinking of cleansers as washes for the skin, think of them more as short-contact acne therapies,” advises Dr. Zeichner. “In order for them to do their job, they need to have enough contact time on the skin for the active ingredient to penetrate. I recommend applying to the skin, and letting it sit while you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to yourself before rinsing out to allow enough contact time.” How adorable.
And although a treatment-enhanced cleanser can be a useful tool, it’s not always a magic fix, cautions Dr. Love. Like your favorite vitamin-enhanced sugary breakfast cereal, it can be one part of building a balanced routine. “Face washing is an essential step in treating acne, but it can only achieve so much. Leave-on treatments should be part of a well-rounded acne treatment routine,” says Dr. Love, adding that getting too aggressive with face wash can actually have a negative impact, since “over-cleansing can actually worsen acne by causing irritation.”
“Acne is a complex medical condition. Face washes can help to control the disorder, but over-washing can make things worse. Acne is not a condition of ‘dirty’ skin,” says Dr. Love.
In the gallery below, we’ve rounded up nine acne-busting face washes our experts love, including both active and gentle formulas. Click through to see (and shop) them all.
Please note: This product was gifted. Occasionally, we use affiliate links on our site. In no way do either affect our editorial decision-making.