Finding the Best Cleanser for Acne on Any Budget, for Any Skin Type

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

For acne treatment products to really work, you need the best acne cleanser to rid your skin of the oil and dead skin cells that can get in the way. But just like face washes and acne creams, the best cleanser for acne differs person by person. Generally, there are a few ingredients to look for—and a few to avoid—but we’ve broken things down even further to find the best cleanser for every budget and every skin type. If you have some disposable income, you might be able to afford some pricier options, but if money is tight, never fear. There are countless affordable cleansers out there too. It’s important to consider your skin type as well when choosing a cleanser for acne. If you have dark skin, it’s important to weed out the cleansers that contain ingredients that might harm your skin. If you have sensitive skin, you know that not all cleansers are good for you, but if you have oily skin you might not realize that your cleanser could be doing more.

Woman putting cleanser on cotton pads
The best cleanser for acne is one that can clear your skin of any excess oil and dead skin cells, but won’t strip your skin of oil completely.

Why Do I Need a Cleanser for Acne?

This is an incredibly common acne question from those of us trying to scale down our skin care routine. It’s important to keep your routine as streamlined as possible because the more steps there are, the more likely you are to skip applications, which can cause unfortunate breakouts. So is it really all that important to find the best cleanser for acne?

Absolutely. Cleansing is the number one way to prevent and reduce blackheads and whiteheads, and it can also make treatments designed for inflamed acne (AKA, pimples and cysts) more effective. That’s because cleansers remove excess oil and dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. Blackheads and whiteheads form when extra oil and/or dead skin cells get trapped in the pores, so cleansing your skin of any excess is the perfect way to prevent them from ever forming, but the right cleanser can also gently remove them.

As for pimples, cleansers clear a more direct path for pimple-fighting acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide. If there’s too much oil or dead skin buildup in the pores, acne treatments can’t get through to fight the minor infection causing the pimple. The tricky thing about this aspect of cleansing, especially for dry or sensitive skin, is finding a cleanser that removes excess oil, but doesn’t strip the skin of oil completely. Our skin needs a very thin layer of oil to protect itself from minor, everyday irritants, like airborne allergens or our own hands, rubbing or picking our skin. If a cleanser strips away this thin layer, then our skin is exposed to all kinds of irritants, making it red, blotchy, and inflamed. This causes the pores to constrict, trapping any remaining oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria inside, almost definitely leading to more acne. Although we want to treat acne harshly, it’s important to also treat our skin gently.

Starting Simple: Some of the Best and Worst Ingredients in a Cleanser

Although we have specific products we recommend or warn against, it’s often more helpful to know what ingredients to look for or avoid when shopping for the best cleanser for acne.

First, look for the right kind of acids. Acid might sound harsh, but the truth is that our skin is slightly acidic, so acids, especially mild ones, can be good for acne. The reason acids make such great ingredients for cleansers is because they are exfoliating agents, meaning they remove any extra materials on the surface of a substance. So for our skin, acids remove excess oil and dead skin cells, which is exactly what we want.

Second, avoid sulfates. You may have heard this advice when it comes to picking out shampoo, but it applies to your skin as well. Sulfates, specifically sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate, are surfactants, meaning they foam up and cling to extra particles, then immediately start breaking down those particles. This might sound like a good thing, but until surfactants are washed away, they continue breaking down particles, meaning they can cause a lot of irritation to the skin, since the cleansing stage comes after the face washing stage.

Third and finally, look out for pore-clogging ingredients. When something is likely to clog pores, it’s called comedogenic, and most skin care ingredients can be found on a comedogenicity rating chart. The ratings range from 0 to 5, with 0 being the least likely to clog pores and 5 being the most. Sodium lauryl sulfate, for instance, has a rating of 5. But it’s not just the laboratory chemicals that can be a problem. Some of the “best” natural ingredients are actually the most likely to clog your pores, like cocoa butter, coconut oil, and wheat germ oil.

Coconut and bottles containing cocnut oil
Coconut oil is the newest health craze, and it tastes great in cooking, but it definitely won’t make the ingredient list for the best cleanser for acne.

What About the Best Toner for Acne?

If you’re looking for the best cleanser for acne, you may have found a few sites discussing the best toner for acne, begging the question, what is toner? Toner is basically a specific type of cleanser that aims to shrink the pores by sucking the moisture out of them, effectively removing the oil clogging them.

The best skin care system has three steps: a face wash, a cleanser, and a treatment cream or gel. If a toner sounds more your speed, feel free to switch the cleanser for a toner, but we definitely don’t recommend adding a toner to this regimen. Even if it is the best toner for acne, it will definitely dry out the skin and cause irritation if used with a cleanser. One or the other is more than enough for even the oiliest of skin.

Best Cleanser for Sensitive Skin: Mud Mask for Acne

Mud masks aren’t your typical acne cleanser, but that’s actually a good thing for sensitive skin. Most cleansers use harsh chemicals to strip away oil, which only serves to make sensitive skin irritated and inflamed. A mud mask for acne, on the other hand, uses gentler means to draw out excess oil.

We recommend trying Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay. The name isn’t great, but the product is, and for those on a budget, it’s a great deal at a little under eight bucks. It’s a powered form of bentonite clay, and all you have to do to make the perfect mud mask for acne is mix it with water. Some instructions say to mix the powder with apple cider vinegar, but we want to strongly advise against this. Apple cider vinegar is acidic, but it’s far too strong to be used directly on the skin.

Once the clay is mixed, all you have to do is apply a thin layer to your skin and allow it to set for 10-30 minutes. Multiple studies have shown that bentonite clay can effectively absorb oil directly from the skin, although there’s not yet any research confirming that bentonite clay can help reduce acne specifically. Up to this point, bentonite clay has typically been used in acne studies to determine how much oil people with and without acne produce. The clay is applied to the skin and then studied to determine how much oil it absorbed. Because it absorbs oil reliably enough to serve as a measuring tool, we feel confident in recommending it as a unique cleanser for sensitive skin. However, this bentonite clay mask should only be used two or three times a week to avoid drying out the skin.

clay mask used by a woman
A bentonite clay mask is the best cleanser for acne if you have sensitive skin because it can absorb oil gently.

Using Castor Oil for Acne on Oily Skin

It might sound completely crazy to recommend an oil as the best cleanser for acne on oily skin, but castor oil for acne could actually help. Studies show that it can kill some bacteria, and it can bind to your skin’s own oil and dead skin cells and carry it away when you wash your face.

That might sound a lot like surfactants, like sodium lauryl sulfate, but castor oil works differently. Surfactants are strong chemicals that cling to particles and immediately start breaking them down, making them easier to wash away, but often breaking down skin cells and causing irritation in the process. Castor oil simply works like an oil: it clings to other oils and dead skin cells, and when it’s washed away, it carries those oils and dead skin cells with it. Unlike many oils, castor oil only has a comedogenicity rating of 1, meaning it is very unlikely to clog pores, and it rarely costs more than $5, making castor oil for acne a safe and affordable, if not unusual, cleanser.

Like the mud mask for acne, castor oil is not a traditional cleanser because it should not be applied in the morning and be allowed to set on your skin all day. This will give your skin a very shiny look, and any acne treatment gels or creams applied on top of the castor oil are unlikely to work, as it would be very difficult to fight through the castor oil to get to the skin. Instead, it’s best to wash your face in the evening, apply a thin layer of castor oil, and allow it to set overnight. In the morning, you can remove it using your typical face wash, and then you can apply your acne treatment gel or cream.

Oil Cleansing Method Acne Solution for Dry Skin

The idea behind the oil cleansing method acne solution for dry skin is the same as the one behind using castor oil for oily skin, just with gentler oils. Castor oil is highly antibacterial, which can make it too harsh for dry skin that doesn’t have much of an oil barrier to protect itself. Other oils can accomplish the same cleansing as castor oil, but in a way that also encourages dry skin to retain extra moisture from the oils.

The biggest difference between using oil on oily skin and using it on dry skin is what kind of oil you use. Before anything else, it’s important to choose an oil that won’t clog pores. Sunflower oil and emu oil have a super low comedogenicity rating of 0, lanolin oil has a rating of 1, and avocado oil, jojoba oil, almond oil, and olive oil all have a relatively low rating of 2. Next, you want to look for an oil that is gentle; if you find research saying it’s highly antibacterial or can be used as a household cleaner, it’s too harsh for your dry skin.

If you have some disposable income to put toward your skin care, you can have fun with various oil cleansing method recipes, combining various oils to achieve the perfect effect for your skin, but you can still try the oil cleansing method on a budget. For instance, sunflower oil costs approximately $3, and it can double as a cooking oil. If it works for you, the oil cleansing method is the best cleanser for acne on dry skin because it can help treat acne while giving your skin the moisture it needs at the same time.

Exploring Other Cleansing Options

These are some of our favorite cleansers for each skin type and budget, but they aren’t the only cleansers we want to recommend. Some cleansers, like the Exposed Skin Care Clearing Tonic, are great for all skin types, while others, like rubbing alcohol, aren’t safe for anyone.

Exposed Skin Care Clearing Tonic for All Skin Types

Not to toot our own horn, but the best thing about Exposed products is their versatility. Because we carefully combine natural and scientific ingredients, our products are powerful but not harsh, making them perfect for all skin types. Our Clearing Tonic is certainly no exception.

exposed skincare clearing tonic product
The best cleanser for acne overall is our Clearing Tonic from Exposed Skin Care, because of its natural and scientific ingredients that really take care of your skin.

The Exposed Clearing Tonic contains salicylic acid, the beta-hydroxy acid we mentioned earlier that is great at exfoliating the skin deeply but gently. It also contains glycolic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid, and azelaic acid, a completely different type of acid that helps kill bacteria, prevent inflammation, and prevent the release of extra melanin where acne occurs, meaning it can help prevent the dark spots that often appear after acne goes away. As for the natural ingredients, our Clearing Tonic is packed. It contains aloe vera, green tea extract, passion flower extract, and sage extract, all of which help reduce redness, inflammation, and irritation. The combination of all these ingredients makes our Clearing Tonic one of the best cleansers for acne you can find.

The Pros and Cons of Using Hydrogen Peroxide for Acne

Hydrogen peroxide for acne is a popular at-home remedy, but unfortunately, popular remedies are rarely as effective as the skin care myths would have us believe.

One the one hand, hydrogen peroxide can be very effective in killing acne-causing bacteria, called p. acnes, because p. acnes are anaerobic, meaning they can’t survive in oxygen. Because hydrogen peroxide is made up of half oxygen, it can significantly reduce the number of p. acnes on the skin. One study found that hydrogen peroxide for acne was just as effective as benzoyl peroxide, one of the most popular acne treatment creams available right now. However, it’s important to note that the hydrogen peroxide in that experiment wasn’t raw, it was the active ingredient in a stabilizing cream.

On the other hand, hydrogen peroxide is very harsh, specifically because of the high levels of oxygen it contains. The influx of oxygen can put the skin under what’s called oxidative stress, which is when your body has to work extra hard to protect itself from the excess oxygen, causing some cellular breakdown. If we apply hydrogen peroxide on acne, the skin cells can break down and create a minor wound. Extra blood will flow to that particular site, causing inflammation, which is likely to cause even more acne.

It’s clear that hydrogen peroxide is not the best cleanser for acne, but this is especially true if you have dark skin. Hydrogen peroxide puts the skin under oxidative stress, causing a minor wound, which causes enough problems in and of itself, but this is an especially big problem for dark skin. The skin produces excess melanin when it’s wounded, creating a minor dark spot, but because dark skin is already rich in melanin, these dark spots often take a long time to fade.

Rubbing Alcohol Acne Disaster

Rubbing alcohol acne solutions are not so much solutions as they are disasters. Hydrogen peroxide for acne is probably not a good idea, but we can see its merits. Rubbing alcohol, on the other hand, is seemingly devoid of any possible benefits for the skin.

Some sources claim that rubbing alcohol is the best cleanser for acne because alcohol is the number one ingredient in cleansers. Instead of paying for the fancy skin care cleansers, they reason, you can just use rubbing alcohol, a cheap option that delivers the main ingredient directly. However, this should not be the case. It’s true that many cleansers contain some form of alcohol as their main ingredient, but these are not the cleansers you want to use. Alcohol is incredibly drying, and not in a good way. It strips away the layer of oil our skin needs to protect itself, causing our skin to produce too much oil in an effort to make up for the missing layer. In the end, your skin ends up oilier than before, and more damaged. Alcohol is so strong that it easily damages skin cells, causing a minor wound and increased inflammation.

All of this can happen when even a relatively small amount of alcohol is used in a product, let alone when you’re using pure rubbing alcohol. Although rubbing alcohol can kill bacteria, it’s not worth the damage it can do, and it is far from the best cleanser for acne for any skin type.

Detox for Acne: A Different Kind of Cleanse

More research is being published every day discovering the multiple and varied ways that our gut has a profound effect on every other system in the body, even the brain. This has led many skin care enthusiasts to wonder, is the best cleanser for acne a juice cleanse?

In short, probably not, but maybe. After all, there was a time when no one could have imagined that our gut bacteria could have anything to do with arthritis or depression, even though those are blossoming theories today. There’s a chance that a “detox for acne” could really work. However, based on what we know so far, there’s considerable evidence against this take on an acne “cleanser.”

Even though gut bacteria is considerably more important to our overall health than we once believed, there’s no evidence that a 12-day juice cleanse (or any number of days, really) can help balance our gut in any way. In fact, because of all the sugars in fruit, juice cleanses typically cause more harm than good. In addition to being very hungry, you’ll also experience huge insulin swings which can put stress on your body and may even lead to increased acne, though the link between diet and acne is tenuous, if that.

strawberry juice
Even though we all love an excuse to break out the juicer, a juice cleanse is not the best cleanser for acne, by far.