- Acne is primarily the result of clogged pores due to excess sebum production and the accumulation of debris.
- The best cleansers for acne contain ingredients such as salicylic acid, glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide to penetrate clogged pores, reduce sebum levels and fight acne-causing bacteria.
- Choosing the best cleanser will depend on the type and severity of your acne, as well as the needs of your specific skin type.
Acne is a skin condition that can develop in anyone, although teenagers are more likely to be affected due to hormonal changes. Symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe and include the formation of blackheads, whiteheads, minor pimples and pustules – for extreme cases.
Severity of Acne
Acne occurs when pores become blocked and bacteria becomes trapped. Pores can become blocked for several reasons including the accumulation of dead skin cells, dirt or makeup and excess oil (sebum) production.
Mild acne sufferers will notice some blackheads, whiteheads and minor pimples. Blackheads and whiteheads, also known as comedonal acne, are clogged pores that are either open (blackheads) or closed (whiteheads).
Moderate acne will show significantly more pimples. These pimples are caused by bacteria building up within the pores and are either red or pink-colored. Often they are inflamed and sometimes filled with pus (also called pustules).
Severe acne presents with many pimples, pustules and comedonal acne, covering a large portion of the face. This severity results in redness and inflammation, and can be somewhat painful.
How Do Acne Cleansers Work?
Acne facial cleansers are specifically formulated to reduce the risk of breakouts by removing the bacteria and excess oil that can cause breakouts. However, some cleansers can be too harsh and may irritate sensitive skin.
Choosing the right cleanser can help manage breakouts, reduce inflammation and improve overall skin tone.
An effective cleanser thoroughly removes all unwanted debris and oils that could clog pores. To achieve this, many acne cleansers rely on surfactants. Surfactants bond to both oils and water, enabling water to rinse off the oils and dirt that have been suspended by the surfactants.
Other ingredients, such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), are also included in acne cleansers. These are exfoliants that break through oils and clean pores of dirt and dead skin cells.
These acids also have specific medicinal properties to treat acne symptoms such as inflammation, and are therefore particularly effective at treating pimples and pustules. However, cleansing skin and removing oils on a regular basis can be drying to the skin.
Acne sufferers with dry or sensitive skin also have the option of purchasing an acne cleanser that contains emollients. Emollients hydrate the skin, keeping it soft and moisturized, which helps to balance the drying effects of some acne-fighting ingredients.
Benefits of Using a Cleanser for Acne
The primary benefit of using an acne cleanser is its effectiveness in reducing the risk of a breakout. Effective cleansers are formulated to keep your skin clear of the bacteria that can get trapped in pores and that lead to acne. They do this by removing dirt and excess oil from the skin, which also prepares the skin for better absorption of other skin care products or acne treatments.
The extent to which cleansers will benefit acne depends on the formulation of the cleanser, the extent of the acne and the frequency of use. Acne cleansers do not show immediate benefits; it is important to remain patient and allow time for the effects to become apparent.
Given the proper formulation and regimen, acne cleansers have been shown to provide significant, visible improvements, particularly for mild to moderate acne sufferers. With the regular use of acne cleansers, acne sufferers can expect a reduction in their acne lesions, the raised mounds of skin associated with acne that can be red or inflamed.
Can Cleansers Make Acne Worse?
Yes. Cleansing too frequently or with the wrong product can potentially make your acne worse. Cleansers are designed to remove excess oil from the surface of your skin, but removing too much oil from your skin can damage your skin’s acid mantle, which acts as a natural barrier against acne-causing bacteria.
In addition, some of the surfactants found in many over-the-counter (OTC) cleansers can be overly drying. When your skin has insufficient oil, it tries to restore balance by increasing oil production, which can lead to excess sebum, oilier skin, clogged pores and more breakouts.
To prevent your skin from becoming dry and flaky, it is important to look for gentle cleansers that are formulated with moisturizing ingredients. Emollients such as lanolin and ceramides help keep your skin properly hydrated, while humectants such as glycerin allow your skin to retain more moisture.
Which Cleansers Are Best for Acne?
Choosing the right skin care products is crucial when it comes to treating acne. As such, it is important to take the time to understand how the ingredients used in cleansers can affect your skin.
Cleansers are available in several forms: gels, clays and oils among others. While gel and clay cleansers are typically recommended for those with oily and acne-prone skin, specifically formulated cleansers for acne are available in a variety of forms. The most important consideration when choosing your acne cleanser is the featured active ingredient.
|Acne type||Active ingredients|
|Blackheads and whiteheads||Salicylic acid|
|Cystic acne||Glycolic acid|
|Hormonal acne||Salicylic acid|
Salicylic acid (SA) cleansers
This BHA has gentle exfoliating properties. It works by removing the dead skin cells that can get trapped in pores, which makes it effective for treating blackheads and whiteheads.
Not only does SA remove debris from the surface of the skin, its anti-inflammatory properties also aid in reducing inflammation, which is believed to be a contributor to acne.
Benzoyl peroxide cleansers
Benzoyl peroxide (BP) has antibacterial properties that allow it to target and actively reduce the amount of Propionibacterium acnes, the acne-causing bacteria on the skin. Its ability to clear away bacteria makes it particularly effective in managing inflammatory acne such as pustules and cysts.
BP is also known for its ability to smooth the skin by reducing bumps and other formations. A recent study found that in the form of a cleanser, 10% BP produced a visible improvement of acne and skin appearance in those with mild to moderate acne.
Glycolic acid cleansers
This AHA helps exfoliate dead skin and loosen up built-up sebum that could potentially lead to a breakout. Glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so be sure to apply sunscreen if you plan on spending a lot of time outdoors.
Ingredients to avoid
Many acne cleansers contain ingredients that may not be suitable for certain skin types.
For example, oily ingredients such as coconut oil, mineral oil and petrolatum can clog pores and should be avoided by people with oily and combination skin.
People with sensitive skin should avoid known irritants such as parabens and fragrances, while most skin types should avoid alcohol, which can be overly drying.
While SA is one of the most effective acne-fighting ingredients, it can be too harsh for people with dry or sensitive skin.
|Oily skin||Coconut oil, mineral oil, petrolatum|
|Dry skin||SA, alcohols|
|Combination skin||Coconut oil, mineral oil, petrolatum, SA, alcohol|
|Sensitive skin||Parabens, fragrances, SA, alcohol|
How to Use a Facial Cleanser for Acne
Cleansing should be the first step in your skin care routine followed by toner, moisturizer and any other other skin care or medicated products.
If you have oily or combination skin, you may benefit from using your acne cleanser twice a day. For those with dry or sensitive skin cleansing only once in the evening may be a better option. All skin types should avoid overwashing, as this can irritate your skin and increase the risk of a breakout.
Acne Cleansing Do’s and Don’ts
- Choose a gentle cleanser that is formulated for your skin type.
- Use noncomedogenic makeup and skin care products.
- Cleanse consistently according to the recommended schedule.
- See a dermatologist if your skin does not respond to OTC products.
- Scrub your face or use harsh exfoliants.
- Cleanse more than twice a day.
- Use products that contain known irritants such as alcohol and fragrances, especially if you have sensitive or dry skin.
While cleansing alone will not eliminate acne, it can ease the symptoms of acne and reduce the risk of breakouts. Acne cleansers are specially formulated to reduce the amount of bacteria on the skin and remove the excess oils that clog pores.
Many effective options are available based on skin type and the severity of your acne.
Formulations containing ingredients such as salicylic acid, glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide will penetrate clogged pores, reduce sebum levels and fight bacteria.
For acne-prone skin that is dry, choose a cleanser with emollients such as lanolin or ceramides to combat the dryness; for those with sensitive skin, avoid cleanser with parabens and fragrances.
For optimal results, use your acne cleanser consistently and as instructed. Improvements will not be immediate, but with patience, you should see an improvement in your skin. If you don’t, see your dermatologist to determine your best treatment.
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- Surber C, Humbert P, Abels C, Maibach H. The Acid Mantle: A Myth or an Essential Part of Skin Health? Curr Probl Dermatol. 2018;54:1-10. doi:10.1159/000489512
- Spada, F., Barnes, T. M., & Greive, K. A. (2018). Skin hydration is significantly increased by a cream formulated to mimic the skin’s own natural moisturizing systems. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 11, 491–497. doi:10.2147/CCID.S177697
- Lodén M, Wessman W. The influence of a cream containing 20% glycerin and its vehicle on skin barrier properties. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2001 Apr;23(2):115-9. doi:10.1046/j.1467-2494.2001.00060.x
- Leyden, James J. MD; Wortzman, Mitchell PHD; Baldwin, Edward K. PHD. (2008) Antibiotic-Resistant Propionibacterium acnes Suppressed by a Benzoyl Peroxide Cleanser 6%. mdedge-files-live.s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/files/s3fs-public/Document/September-2017/082060417.pdf
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