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Best Face Forward: How To Choose an Acne Face Wash

Look for a formula with either benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid

hands holding up different face washes

Right along with brushing your teeth, you probably also wash your face every day. Removing the dirt, grime and makeup that sits on your skin’s outer layer helps keep your face clean and clear.

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And if you have acne, you may be wondering if the cleanser you’re using is right for you. Is it really killing any pollutants or bacteria? Should you be using an exfoliating face wash? Or one that’s medicated?

From whiteheads to blackheads, the pimples and bumps we deal with on our faces can be hard to tame.

So, when it comes to choosing the best acne face wash, dermatologist Vickie Baker, MD, explains what ingredients to look for and why it pays to know what type of acne you have, along with your skin type.

Why it’s important to know what type of acne you have

There are different kinds of acne, and knowing which type you have can help dictate what kind of treatment — including the best face wash — will work best for you.

The types of acne include:

  • Fungal acne. This happens when yeast builds up in your hair follicles — and fungal acne is typically itchy and inflamed.
  • Cystic acne. When you have cystic acne, you’ll have deep, pus-filled pimples and nodules, which can cause scars.
  • Hormonal acne. Hormonal acne happens when there’s an overproduction of sebum that clogs your pores.
  • Nodular acne. Nodular acne is a severe form of acne that causes pimples on the surface of your skin as well as tender, nodular lumps under your skin.

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“Once you know which type of acne you have, you can get advice on how to treat it,” says Dr. Baker. “For example, cystic acne usually needs medical treatment to reduce lesions.”

And knowing the type of skin you have — whether that’s dry, oily, sensitive, combination or acne-prone — can also play a factor in what type of cleansing product you use.

“If you have sensitive skin, you want to use a creamy face wash,” Dr. Baker says. “You want to watch out for gel-type face washes, as they tend to dry out sensitive skin since they’re alcohol based.”

Overall, foaming cleansers or gel-based options can dry out skin. Creamy formulas tend to provide more hydration.

Best acne-fighting ingredients

When it comes to fighting acne, there are a few key ingredients that Dr. Baker says you should look for in your skin care.

“These ingredients are important when you’re talking about acne because you need to reduce the oils and the bacteria that sit on your skin,” she adds.

  • Benzoyl peroxide. This ingredient, which is commonly found in acne-fighting face washes, comes in different strengths. “Benzoyl peroxide is the No. 1 ingredient when it comes to fighting acne. It can fight bacteria, fights the clogging of the pores and has an anti-inflammatory effect, which means it reduces redness, swelling and pain,” Dr. Baker explains. “The highest strength available is 10%, but you can also find products with a strength as low as 2.5%.”
  • Salicylic acid. You can typically find 2% salicylic acid in face washes for acne. “Salicylic acid is for more sensitive skin types who get dried out easily,” Dr. Baker notes. The ingredient helps with inflammation and dries out pimples.

Most products usually have one ingredient — either benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid — not both. And you may see other ingredients like green tea or tea tree oil in face washes, with the goal of adding extra benefits like soothing skin or calming redness.

“Some other ingredients may have some properties like fighting inflammation,” says Dr. Baker. “But you have to be careful to make sure any added ingredients don’t irritate your skin.”

A pro tip? Dr. Baker says that if you’re using a washcloth with a benzoyl peroxide, you should use a white one. “It will bleach any colored washcloth you use.”

Ingredients to avoid when choosing a face wash

You want to avoid using any cleansers that contain harsh exfoliating ingredients.

“If you over-exfoliate, you’re going to get dried out, irritated skin which can make your acne worse,” warns Dr. Baker.

She also cautions against using any products with anti-aging ingredients if you struggle with acne.

“Most anti-aging products can irritate the skin,” she continues. “Ingredients like retinol can overly irritate the skin.”

And steer clear of acne face washes that use sulfates, which are known to dry out your skin by washing away any healthy fats or lipids. Choose noncomedogenic products that won’t clog your pores.

How to wash your face if you have acne

If you have acne, you should wash your face twice a day — in the morning and at night.

“There’s no need for cleansing more than twice daily,” states Dr. Baker. “If you do it too often, you’re just going to keep stripping your skin of oils.”

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And cleansing your face with an acne-fighting face wash is easy and should be the cornerstone of your skin care routine. Just apply the face wash to wet skin using your fingers. Massage gently, avoiding scrubbing your skin too hard. Then, rinse off with warm water and pat your face dry with a soft, clean towel.

“You don’t have to leave your face wash on for too long because there’s some residue that stays on the skin that contributes to treating your acne,” she says.

What to use in addition to face wash to help acne

Using a face wash that contains acne-fighting ingredients is a great first line of defense against pimples and breakouts.

But if you need some additional support, Dr. Baker says that there are plenty of other over-the-counter ingredients that are geared toward battling acne.

“These products also typically contain benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid,” she says. “They come in a gel [which are different from gel face washes] or lotion that you can put on and leave on all day or all night.”

You may also want to try adapalene, another acne-fighting ingredient that helps open up your pores.

And if over-the-counter products aren’t working for you, a healthcare provider or dermatologist can help come up with a plan that works for you, your skin type and type of acne.

“Once we know the type of acne and your skin type, then we can formulate a medical treatment plan,” encourages Dr. Baker. “Each treatment plan is different for every person.”

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