Exactly How to Choose an Acne-Friendly Cleanser to Fight Every Type of Breakout, According to Derms


The Internet is chock-full of information about how to find the “best” cleanser for dealing with acne. But there’s one problem: Everywhere you look, there seems to be a different opinion about whether you should use something gentle, something exfoliating, or something packed with bacteria-zapping benzoyl peroxide. And while each of these options comes with its own set of benefits, it can be confusing (and overwhelming) to try to figure out which one you need to fight your particular breed of breakout.

“The cleanser that’s best for your acne will depend on both the severity of your acne, and which other products are part of your skin-care routine,” says board-certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney. MD. “Contrary to popular belief, acne-prone skin is actually dry and sensitive even though it may appear oily to the naked eye. So, for all types of breakouts—whether it’s whiteheads, blackheads, pustules, or cysts—I recommend first starting with a creamy hydrating cleanser.” Then, you can integrate an active cleanser once a week, and work your way up to using it multiple days in a row. And as far as formulations go, “the best cleansers for acne-prone skin are gentle, creamy and bland, which means no irritating fragrance or artificial colors,” says Dr. Rodney. She also suggests steering clear of anything with sulfates (which some cleansers use as a foaming agent), as they tend to strip the skin.

Now, to find out which active cleanser is right for you, we chatted with dermatologists about the best acne-fighting ingredients for each type of pimple. Read on for the 411.

Blackheads and whiteheads: Salicylic acid cleanser

Photo: CeraVe

CeraVe Renewing SA Face Cleanser, $12

When you’re dealing with blackheads and whiteheads, you’ll want to use a cleanser with an active ingredient that helps break down the acne-causing gunk hiding in your pores. “Consider choosing a cleanser that contains salicylic acid to break up the plugs that create blackheads and whiteheads,” says board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. Salicylic acid works by dislodging the dirt and grime underneath your pores and chemically exfoliating the dead cells off of the surface of your skin, leaving your complexion with fewer breakouts.

Cystic and hormonal breakouts: Sulfur-based cleansers

Photo: Kate Sommerville

Kate Sommerville Eradikate Daily Foaming Cleanser, $38

“Sulfur-based cleansers are a good option for hormonal breakouts,” says Dr. Nazarian. The ingredient acts as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, and also has keratolytic properties, which means it addresses the three main components of acne. “This single ingredient can improve redness, combat the Propionibacterium acnes bacterium in the skin, and help the skin shed and reproduce itself more efficiently, which decreases pore clogging,” New York City-based dermatologist Libby Rhee, DO, previously told Well+Good. However, some hormonal breakouts may require prescription topicals or oral medications, so be sure to chat with your derm to figure out the best regimen for your individual situation.

Papular acne: Benzoyl peroxide cleanser

Photo: La Roche-Posay

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Acne Treatment with Benzoyl Peroxide, $30

Papular acne—otherwise known as closed comedones—are characterized by a build-up of dead skin cells underneath your pores. “My personal favorite [acne-fighting ingredient] is benzoyl peroxide five percent, as benzoyl peroxide targets both the acne-causing bacteria within the hair follicles, and also helps to break up the keratin and dead skin that clogs the pores,” says Dr. Rodney.

Pustules: Gentle, anti-inflammatory cleanser

Photo: Shea Moisture

If you’ve got pustular acne—in which pimples are red, inflamed, and filled with pus—you’ll want to opt for a gentle cleanser. “For pustular acne, look for a gentle cleanser containing anti-inflammatory ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, green tea, chamomile, or witch hazel,” says Dr. Nazarian. This will help to calm down those angry pimples, and do away with some of the pus trapped inside of them.

Want to learn more about treating acne? Check out the video below. 

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