The Best Face Wash for Acne for All Skin Types

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

Acne is a nearly universal problem, and the answer always starts with a good face wash—but how do you find the best face wash for acne? Face wash clears away anything that might be clogging your pores, but it also prepares your skin for the other acne products you apply to it. If your face wash is harsh and irritating, it can make it more difficult for the other acne products to work, but if it doesn’t effectively clean your skin, you’ll run into the same problem. The trouble is, finding the right balance between too strong and not strong enough really depends on your skin type. Over 80% of people will have acne at some point between ages 11 and 30, and most of us have one of four skin types: oily skin, dry skin, combination skin, or sensitive skin. Although you might think you know what kind of skin you have, we encourage you to read our brief guide; in a strange paradox, many people who think they have oily skin actually have dry or sensitive skin.

Woman washing her face.
Finding the best face wash for acne is largely dependent on finding out what type of skin you have.

How to Determine Your Skin Type

Many people with acne assume they have an oily skin type because their skin is oily. This may seem obviously correct, but it turns out it’s not actually that simple. When the skin is irritated, it often tries to protect itself by producing excess oil. Oily skin is not as easily irritated because it already produces so much oil, but dry and sensitive skin are very easily irritated, and if your skin is being irritated every day, it could be producing excess oil every day, making it seem like you have oily skin.

The problem with treating all acne-prone skin as if it’s naturally oily is that products focusing on reducing oil can be very irritating to dry or sensitive skin. So if your skin is only oily because it’s naturally dry or sensitive, products that try to strip your skin of extra oil will only make things worse.

So how can you really tell what skin type you have? We made the following checklist. Not everyone with each skin type will have all of these characteristics, but this you should have at least half.

Oily Skin:

  • Rarely red or splotchy (except around acne)
  • Skin is oily immediately after waking up in the morning, before washing the face or applying any product
  • Acne primarily occurs on the forehead, nose, and chin (the T-zone) and not the cheeks or jawline (the U-zone)
  • Relatively large pores

Dry Skin:

  • Often red or splotchy, even if no acne is present
  • Skin feels tight or itchy
  • Skin isn’t oily immediately after showering or applying acne products, but it’s oily a few hours later
  • May have acne everywhere, but acne will be most stubborn in the U-zone

Combination Skin:

  • Often red or splotchy, even if no acne is present
  • Different parts of the face may meet criteria for oily or dry skin, but your face as a whole doesn’t fit into either category
  • May wake up with skin feeling both itchy and oily
  • Acne appears anywhere

Sensitive Skin:

  • Skin tone is relatively even after first waking up, but often becomes red or splotchy throughout the day, even if no acne is present
  • Skin often feels itchy
  • Skin isn’t oily immediately after showering or applying acne products, but it’s oily a few hours later
  • Casually or gently scratching at the skin leaves a red mark for more than a minute

Finding the Best Face Wash for Acne: Oily Skin

The best face wash for acne in oily skin will focus on clearing away the excess oil. Extra oil clogs pores and creates blackheads and whiteheads, and it feeds acne-causing bacteria which can lead to increased pimples as well. Below are three options that could be the best soap for acne for oily skin types.

Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Wash

For many people, this is the best face wash for acne because it contains salicylic acid, a very popular acne treatment ingredient that is especially useful for oily skin. Salicylic acid is an exfoliating agent that can help remove the outer layer of skin cells, but it can also remove excess oil. If you primarily have blackheads and whiteheads, this can be especially useful because they are formed through excess oil and dead skin cells getting caught in the pores. It can also help reduce the bacteria involved in pimples by reducing the amount of oil available for their consumption, but salicylic acid is usually most effective for pimples when used in conjunction with other acne treatments designed to kill bacteria.

Used in high concentrations (5% or higher), the exfoliating can be too strong even for the oiliest of skin, and it will likely cause irritation, redness, and more acne. The Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Wash, however, contains a safe concentration of only 2%, and it has many other desirable ingredients. It contains aloe vera extract and chamomile flower extract, both of which can soothe the skin to prevent any possible irritation from the salicylic acid, and it includes grapefruit extract for a pleasant scent without including any lab-made fragrances that can irritate the skin.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash product in a bottle
Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Wash is our top recommendation for oily skin types.

Should You Try the PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash?

Although PanOxyl is a popular option, it is not the best face wash for acne unless you have very oily skin, and very non-sensitive skin. This is because PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash contains 10% benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is a classic acne-fighting ingredient that is especially useful against pimples because it can very effectively kill acne-causing bacteria. These bacteria are anaerobic, meaning they can’t survive for long in the presence of oxygen, and benzoyl peroxide works by allowing oxygen to make its way below the surface of the skin. This kills a large amount of the bacteria, but it’s also known for irritating the skin when used in high concentrations. By all accounts, 10% is a very high concentration.

Studies show that after 5%, there is no increase in the effectiveness of benzoyl peroxide, only an increase in side effects, like irritation, inflammation, redness, and peeling, all of which can actually cause more acne. Because of this, 10% PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash is not recommended for anyone without extremely oily skin, and even then, we recommend only using it once a day. PanOxyl recently came out with a 4% PanOxyl Acne Creamy Wash that hasn’t gained the same popularity as the original formula, but we speculate would be more effective for most people.

Overall Rating: 5/10

PanOxyl product in a bottle
PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash might be good for very oily skin, but it is too harsh for most.

Asepxia Soap for Acne: Good for Both Oily and Sensitive Skin

It’s not every day you come across an acne treatment that can help both oily and sensitive skin. The two skin types are generally very different. However, certain forms of Asepxia contain small amounts of sulfur, which is the ideal ingredient for reducing oil without irritating the skin.

Sulfur is best known for its rotten eggs smell, but despite the smell, it can play a useful role in acne treatment because of its drying properties. Sulfur gently dries and peels the top layer of skin, and some research suggests it could also kill acne-causing bacteria. Studies show it has significantly fewer side effects than other drying agents like salicylic acid, while working just as well.

The reason we listed Asepxia under the oily skin type rather than the sensitive skin type, given that it can be used for either, is the fact that they make more than one product, and they use fragrances. Many of Asepxia’s other products contain other acne-fighting ingredients instead of sulfur, like salicylic acid and glycolic acid, which might be a little too harsh for sensitive skin, but should work well for oily skin. Additionally, most of their products contain foaming agents, which cause irritation, and fragrances, which are good for covering up the sulfur smell but bad for sensitive skin, since they can also cause irritation. This may not be a problem for oily skin, but it is something to look out for if your skin is more sensitive.

Overall Rating for Oily Skin: 8/10

Overall Rating for Sensitive Skin: 7/10

Asepxia product
Asepxia products containing sulfur can be good for both oily and sensitive skin.

Finding the Best Face Wash for Acne: Dry Skin

Unlike oily skin, dry acne-prone skin needs anything but drying agents like salicylic acid or sulfur. Although you may have blackheads and whiteheads, if you have dry skin you have to be very careful with how you exfoliate, and more than any other skin type, make sure you use a good moisturizer. So what is the best soap for acne to clear our your pores without irritating your skin?

Cetaphil Acne Products for Dry Skin

Although Cetaphil acne products are marketed for “all skin types” and they produce a wide variety of those products, many people with dry skin have found this brand particularly helpful. Most Cetaphil acne products are water-based, rather than alcohol-based, and they only include a few other ingredients, mostly to soften skin, like propylene glycol or cetyl alcohol. Although most Cetaphil acne products do contain fragrances and foaming agents known to be irritating to the skin, it seems that their hydrating ingredients outweigh the cost of the foaming agents, at least for those with dry skin. If your skin is also sensitive to chemicals, we recommend caution when using Cetaphil.

Specifically for dry skin, we recommend any Cetaphil products with “gentle” in the name. Used in conjunction with other products that contain acne-fighting active ingredients, it is the best face wash for acne if you have dry skin. The gentle Cetaphil products can provide your skin the moisture it needs in order to withstand other, harsher acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, but they’re unlikely to take care of acne on their own.

Overall Rating: 7/10

Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
The Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser can provide dry skin with the moisture it needs for other acne treatments to work effectively.

Exposed Skin Care Facial Cleanser

Our facial cleanser works well for any skin type, but we like to recommend it especially for people with dry skin, because its combination of ingredients can fight acne without irritating your skin. How, you ask? Lowered concentration. Like Neutrogena, the Exposed Facial Cleanser contains salicylic acid, but instead of using a 2% concentration, we use only 0.5%. At this low level, salicylic acid can help clear pores without drying out skin or irritating already dry skin. But just in case, we’ve also added sage extract, vitamins, and other natural ingredients that soothe the skin and reduce redness.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Exposed Skincare product
Our Facial Cleanser both moisturizes skin and fights acne, all without irritating dry skin.

Finding the Best Face Wash for Acne: Combination Skin

Because combination skin is, by definition, a combination of both oily and dry skin, there’s no one acne soap that can take care of everything. Instead, we recommend using Cetaphil or Exposed as the best face wash for acne that doesn’t dry out your skin, and adding an acne treatment cream specifically to the oily areas of your skin. Once the drier areas of your skin have been moisturized, you can start applying the acne treatment cream to those areas as well to help reduce acne. The most helpful thing you can do for combination skin is to even out your skin as much as possible, because until the skin is even, you’ll have to treat the dry parts and oily parts differently. This often means buying more products and using more of your time, making it more likely that you won’t complete your full skin care routine, and acne won’t improve.

Finding the Best Face Wash for Acne: Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin is similar to dry skin because it’s easily irritated, but it isn’t always dry. Sometimes sensitive skin produces enough oil that it should be protected from mild, everyday irritants, but it still reacts with inflammation and extra oil production that can cause acne. The best solution? Acne soaps and face washes that use as few lab-made chemicals as possible and instead use natural ingredients that combine soothing and acne-fighting properties. This might sound like a tall order, but we found a few possibilities.

African Black Soap Acne Cure

Generally, we recommend being wary of anything touting itself as a “cure” for acne. Acne is not a disease to be cured, like the flu or a bacterial infection, it’s a skin condition that typically requires consistent care to improve and maintain. That being said, African black soap does contain many ingredients that really could help improve acne, and is probably the best face wash for acne if you have sensitive skin.

African black soap is made from ashes of locally harvested plants, typically in West Africa. The plants are collected, burned, and the ashes are combined with other natural ingredients to help it all stick together and create African black soap. There’s no one recipe; some variations include plantains and cocoa pods, others use aloe vera plants and grains, but the vast majority use shea tree bark as a main ingredient. These combinations turn out to be highly antibacterial, meaning African black soap can help fight pimples caused by bacteria, but it’s still safe for sensitive skin because extracts from many of these plants, especially the shea tree bark and aloe vera plant, can have moisturizing effects. The only downside to African black soap is that there hasn’t been a ton of research done on its effectiveness. However, we definitely think it’s worth a try for sensitive skin.

African black soap can be especially good for sensitive skin because of its all-natural and moisturizing ingredients, but it has to be used correctly. Because ashes are used to make the soap, there are sometimes solid pieces of unburned plant matter in the bar. Simply taking the bar and rubbing it on your skin can make matters worse, especially for sensitive skin. Instead, break off a small piece and roll it around in your hands with warm water until you form a lather, then apply the foam to your skin, not the piece of soap directly

Overall Rating: 9/10

African black soap
There are many African black soap brands, but the best ones are those actually made in Africa.

Castile Soap for Acne in Sensitive Skin

Castile soap for acne is another popular trend online, but unlike African black soap, castile soap has a couple of drawbacks. Castile soap is an oil-based soap that originated in Castile, Spain and used to be made almost exclusively with olive oil. Now, castile soap contains a variety of oils, from essential oils like lavender and tea tree, to oils you may not have known existed, like walnut or avocado. These oils make castile soap incredibly gentle, so it might seem like the best face wash for acne and sensitive skin, but we have a few concerns.

First, many of the oils in castile soap for acne are comedogenic, meaning they can clog pores. If you have sensitive skin, it’s important to avoid products that might cause your skin to have a reaction, but you also don’t want to use products that will clog your pores and make acne worse. Additionally, castile soap has a relatively alkaline pH level that is generally inconsistent with our skin, and this could be an even bigger issue for sensitive skin.

All substances fall somewhere on the pH scale, from 0, the most acidic (think battery acid), to 14, the most alkaline (think lye). Water is considered neutral at a pH of 7. Our skin is usually somewhere between 4 and 5, making it moderately acidic, while castile soap is usually somewhere around 8 or 9, making it mildly alkaline. Applying an alkaline substance to your naturally acidic skin can sometimes cause irritation and acne, which is why we have some worries about castile soap. It’s good that it’s so gentle, but if it makes acne worse, it’s not the best option.

Overall Rating: 4/10

Castile soap with leaves as background.
Castile soap is a popular option for treating acne with sensitive skin, but it may not actually help very much.

Finding the Best Face Wash for Acne: Specialty Cases

Sometimes, just understanding your skin type isn’t enough to find the best face wash for acne. Each case of acne is slightly different, but some acne can require completely different treatment. In particular, we want to address fungal acne and body acne, since they tend to differ from typical acne.

Nizoral for Acne: Is Dandruff Shampoo the Best Soap for Acne?

Most of the time, we definitely don’t recommend Nizoral for acne. Nizoral is an anti-dandruff shampoo, so for the vast majority of acne cases, it won’t do you much good. However, there is a particular kind of acne that can benefit from Nizoral: fungal acne.

Technically, fungal acne isn’t even acne, it’s a form of folliculitis, a condition where the hair follicles become inflamed. The particular fungus responsible for fungal acne is called malassezia, and when it infects the hair follicles in your face, it creates small red or skin colored bumps that may look a lot like whiteheads. The trouble is, treatment you would typically use for whiteheads won’t work with these bumps because they’re caused by a fungus instead of just oil and dead skin cells. Instead, what you need is an antifungal agent, like Nizoral.

It turns out malassezia is the same fungus responsible for dandruff, so some people with fungal acne have started applying Nizoral to their skin as well. This method produces mixed results. Some people report significant improvement, but studies show that the most effective way to treat fungal acne is with a systemic antifungal treatment. These work like oral antibiotics, but instead of targeting the bacteria in your body, they target the fungus. Like bacteria, it’s incredibly normal to have various fungi working throughout your body’s systems; we are a biome of different organisms. But fungal acne occurs when the malassezia fungus gets slightly out of hand. Nizoral for acne may help reduce your acne if it is caused by malassezia, but it will likely only make things worse if your acne is caused by more traditional factors. Additionally, Nizoral is unlikely to solve fungal acne entirely, and you should see a dermatologist to determine the next steps in treatment.

Overall Rating: 6/10

Nizoral product
Nizoral may work for fungal acne, but it could make things worse for more typical acne.

Finding the Best Soap for Body Acne: Exposed Skin Care’s Body Wash

Generally, acne on the body is the same as acne on the face. It forms exactly the same way, but there are two big differences: very different factors influence facial and body acne, and the thickness of the skin cell layers differ greatly between the face and the body. That’s why it’s so important to find the best soap for body acne specifically.

The skin on your face is very thin, whereas the skin on the parts of the body most likely to get body acne, like the chest, back, and shoulders, is relatively thick. Because of this, your face wash that’s super effective in treating your facial acne may not work very well for your body acne. It may not be strong enough to get through all the skin layers, so the acne may persist. Body acne also has different contributing factors than facial acne does. Your face is often more exposed to irritants than your body, and the skin there is thinner, so it’s more greatly affected by those irritants, but your body experiences completely different irritants that can also cause acne. Certain fabrics or laundry detergents, tight sports uniforms or bras, and typical body wash can all irritate your skin and contribute to acne.

Because of these differences, you really need a separate soap for body acne, rather than using your face wash on your body as well. We recommend our Body Wash, which contains 0.5% salicylic acid, which wouldn’t be strong enough on its own, so it also includes witch hazel (learn more about witch hazel here), peppermint oil, and tea tree oil, in small concentrations. Combined, these ingredients are powerful enough to treat acne on tougher skin, but gentle enough not to cause further irritation.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Exposed Body Wash in a bottle
Your face wash may not do the trick for body acne, but the Body Wash from Exposed is strong enough to take care of body acne.

Finding the Best Homemade Face Scrub for Acne

There are a variety of acne soaps at any drugstore or dermatologist’s office, but if you want to go the DIY route, there are countless options for making the best homemade face scrub for acne. Instead of picking just one as the best, we’ve made our own guide to making the best face scrub for your specific acne. Below, we’ve described five ingredients, but only one of them is necessary: honey. Use honey as your base, then add any number of the other four, depending on your skin type and the kind of acne you mostly deal with.

Honey

We recommend honey for all kinds of acne because there are nearly no downsides to honey, and it has multiple proven health benefits. Honey, especially a particular kind of honey called Manuka honey, can kill acne-causing bacteria, effectively reducing pimples and cysts, and it also has strong anti-inflammatory and wound healing properties. Reducing inflammation is a key way to prevent all acne, and speeding up the acne healing process can prevent acne scarring. Generally, it’s one of the best home remedies that has stood the test of time. Many hospitals even use honey-soaked wound dressings because they encourage healing faster than lab-made treatments.

One important note about using honey for acne: make sure you use raw honey. Raw honey isn’t necessarily fancy, expensive, or “organic,” it just means that honey is the only ingredient. All you have to do to check is look at the list of ingredients. If any other ingredients are listed, including water or fructose, it’s not raw honey and you are unlikely to see the same benefits you would see with pure honey.

Tea Tree Oil

This is another popular and effective home remedy for acne, but we don’t include it in part of our base ingredients for a face scrub for a few reasons. First, tea tree oil is not a great idea for sensitive skin, because it can definitely be a bit harsh. It’s very effective in killing acne-causing bacteria, and some studies show it can decrease inflammation, but if it’s too strong and irritates the skin, then inflammation will actually increase. The second reason we list it only as an optional ingredient is because it can cause enlarged breast tissue in men and boys. Studies suggest that tea tree oil mimics estrogen in many ways, so for some people, it can lead to somewhat feminine features. This may not be a problem for some people, but for others, it’s a side effect worth mentioning.

When working according to plan, however, tea tree oil is a great ingredient for any homemade face scrub for acne, especially if you have pimples or cysts. Even at a very low concentration of only 0.5%, tea tree oil can kill 99% of acne-causing bacteria, making it a safe option for most skin types. If you find that 0.5% is a little too strong, studies show that it can prevent acne-causing bacteria from multiplying at only 0.3%, so it’s worth giving that a try as well. (We have a good recipe for a home made mask with tea tree oil in our article on “How to Get Rid of Acne Fast: Tips and Tricks“.)

Cooked Oatmeal

If you’re looking for more of a real “scrub,” then we recommend adding cooked oatmeal. Why cooked, you ask? Because uncooked oatmeal is far too harsh and is almost guaranteed to cause irritation and inflammation. Cooked oatmeal may do this too, especially with sensitive or dry skin, but it’s definitely the better option. We recommend adding cooked oatmeal if you typically have blackheads and whiteheads because it can help exfoliate the skin, clearing away excess oil and dead skin cells. This can prevent clogged pores and allow the other ingredients in the face scrub to get into the pores more effectively.

Lemon Juice

This ingredient is reserved for oily skin only. Even though it’s one of the most popular DIY acne remedies on the internet, it’s actually a pretty bad idea for most skin types. Lemon juice is very good at removing oil, but for most of us, it’s a little too good at it.

Unlike castile soap, which is too alkaline, lemon juice is too acidic. Our skin has a pH between 4 and 5, and lemon juice has a pH around 2, which is significantly more acidic. This can strip away not only the excess oil that can clog pores, but also the oil we need to protect our skin. It’s true, our skin is a very fragile system that requires a careful balance. We need some oil to prevent every tiny irritant from inflaming our skin, but we can’t have too much oil or we break out. There are a variety of products and home remedies that can help us find that balance, but lemon juice is only one of them if you definitely have oily skin.

A note on combining ingredients: if you have oily skin and decide to use lemon juice in your homemade face scrub for acne, we don’t recommend including cooked oatmeal as well. Both ingredients exfoliate the skin, and together they will almost definitely cause irritation and inflammation.

Aloe Vera

It may be messy, but if you want to try using your face scrub to help with body acne, we recommend adding aloe vera. On its own, aloe vera doesn’t have a lot of proven benefits for acne. But studies have found that aloe vera helps other substances absorb into the skin better. This is ideal for body acne, since the thicker layers of skin often make it difficult for traditional DIY remedies to work. If you’ve found a face scrub for acne that works, try adding aloe vera to the mix and applying the scrub to your body acne (preferably in the shower, so you can rinse it off quickly without making a mess).

Honey and aloe vera
There are many ingredients that can combine to create a good homemade face mask for acne.

The possibilities for these ingredients are endless (well, not literally, but there’s quite a few combinations you could make!) but regardless of which homemade face scrub you make, we have one key recommendation: do not actually scrub at your skin. Scrubbing is one of the worst things you can do for acne, really, because it irritates the skin and just causes more acne to pop up. So you scrub harder, causing more acne, and the cycle of frustration continues. Instead, gently apply your mixture to your skin, rub it in very gently for a few minutes, then rinse it off in cool water. This will be much more beneficial for your skin, and more relaxing for you.