Best Ingredients to Look for in Acne Facial Cleansers

Facial Cleanser_MainWhat ingredients should you look for in an acne facial cleanser?

This is a difficult question that so many people face. The key is to look for acne facial cleansers that contain salicylic acid, glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide. For people who also have the yeast type of acne called pityrosporum folliculitis, I recommend they alternate one of the first three ingredients with a pyrithione zinc cleanser.

What do those ingredients do?

The first three ingredients all help unblock pores to clear out blackheads and clogged pores. Benzoyl peroxide is also the best ingredient for treating the acne-causing bacteria called p. acnes – in fact, study after study continues to show that benzoyl peroxide is more effective at treating p. acnes than prescription, topical antibiotics!

Pyrithione zinc helps to treat other pityrosporum yeast-based skin conditions such as dandruff and tinea versicolor and is a great addition to pityrosporum folliculitis acne care as well.

Glycolic acid helps lighten skin hyperpigmentation from old acne lesions. It’s also a great ingredient to brighten the complexion for a more youthful appearance on the skin.

What are the benefits/results you can expect?

Acne cleansers with these ingredients will gradually unclog pores, reduce the size of existing blackheads and slow or stop the formation of new ones. Benzoyl peroxide and pyrithione zinc will also help to lessen red acne pimples and pustules.

Why is it important to wash your face if you have acne-prone skin?

There are 3 really important reasons to wash your face when you have acne prone skin:

  1. It’s a simple and convenient way to deliver treating ingredients in your cleanser to your facial skin.
  2. It allows the ingredients to be placed onto clean skin and penetrate into pores where they are needed.
  3. It’s important to remove products, pore clogging dead cells, oil and bacteria accumulated during the day. These all can worsen acne. Acne treatment starts with the use of an acne cleanser twice a day, morning and night.

    Facial Buf Puf

    Facial Buf Puf

What’s the best way to use acne cleansers to achieve results?

Wet your face with warm water first, then lather your cleanser over all of your facial skin. Depending on your skin type, you can use your fingers (recommended for extremely sensitive skin), an exfoliating sponge such as a Facial Buf Puf, or a sonic skin cleansing brush system such as the Clarisonic. Secondly, rinse well with warm water to remove the lather entirely. Acne cleansers are designed so that the important acne cleanser ingredients will stay behind, but the cleanser’s foaming agents as well as built-up oil, dead cells, old product and bacteria will be rinsed off your skin.

Naturally Hydrating Pore-Minimizing Facial Toner

Naturally Hydrating Pore-Minimizing Facial Toner

Any other skin care advice for people with acne?

Using a skin toner or astringent is an excellent additional step in acne skin cleansing. The toner or astringent will remove more oils and deliver additional treating ingredients. Topical products, medicines, moisturizers and sunscreen can be applied on top too.

What are the best facial acne cleansers with physician strength ingredients?

For my acne patients, I prescribe these cleansers:

Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser with salicylic acid and glycolic acid (in 2 different strengths):

Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser

Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser

Foaming Benzoyl Peroxide Cleanser with the maximum allowed amount of 10% benzoyl peroxide to be tough on acne:

Foaming Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Treatment Cleanser

Foaming Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Treatment Cleanser

Calming Zinc Bar with maximum strength 2% pyrithione zinc for pityrosporum folliculitis type of acne:

Calming Zinc Cleansing Bar

Calming Zinc Cleansing Bar

Glytone Mild Gel Wash Cleanser for mild blackhead acne and anti-aging skin concerns:

Glytone Mild Gel Wash

Glytone Mild Gel Wash

I also recommend using my Acne Treatment Pads as an additional cleansing step for oily skin. These pads remove any residual oil and deliver additional salicylic acid and glycolic acid to help unclog pores.

What are the best acne products to combine with acne treatment cleansers to maximize results?

Ultimate Acne Solutions Skin Care Kit, Extra Strength

Ultimate Acne Solutions Skin Care Kit, Extra Strength

I’ve created kits so that it’s simple to get everything you need for complete acne skin care.

Glycolic Acid Skin Care Kit for Oily Skin

Glycolic Acid Skin Care Kit for Oily Skin

My Ultimate Acne Kit contains the glycolic acid and salicylic acid cleanser, my astringent treatment pads as well as my Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Treatment Lotion. Use the kit twice a day and watch acne improve quickly.

For adult acne where a combination of anti-aging skin concerns or skin hyperpigmentation are also an issue, I created my Glycolic Acid Skin Care Kit to maximize glycolic acid treatment.

What about cleansers for back acne?

I created my Back Acne Kit for back and chest acne problems. The kit combines cleansers with 10% benzoyl peroxide and 2% pyrithione zinc to penetrate tough back and chest skin.

Back Acne Kit

Back Acne Kit

What acne cleansers or treatments have you found to work for you? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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23 Responses to “Best Ingredients to Look for in Acne Facial Cleansers”

  1. Your Seacret Agent March 8, 2016 at 8:58 am #

    Great article. I struggled with Acne for years. I had never heard of pityrosporum folliculitis. I see i was using the wrong things. i was using sodium sulfacetamide that was prescribed for me. I see thats the last thing recommended.

  2. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. March 8, 2016 at 9:19 am #

    Topical sodium sulfacetamide is a good medicine. It is used for a broad range of acne types including acne rosacea, pityrosporum folliculitis and acne vulgaris. Allergy to the medicine can develop and it is prescription but it is a time honored medicine. I was on it as a teen many many years ago.

  3. mike mills March 9, 2016 at 8:04 am #

    I read a lot of derms say using acids it is better with leave on products, cause it takes time for these acids to unglue dead skin cells and the water raises the ph level of the acid making it unable to exfoliate anyway… are leave on serums aha/ bha better at exfoliating versus cleanser?

  4. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. March 9, 2016 at 5:37 pm #

    Yes, I agree. For best results aha and bha treatment should include leave on products. That said, cleansers with keratolytics do help to unclog pores. You can tell when you start using them. Benzoyl peroxide is easy to test because product residual left on the skin from the cleanser will bleach fabric, which is most definitely does. My preference is to always also use a leave on product with an acne cleanser and build a complete skin care routine.

  5. lauren March 11, 2016 at 7:22 pm #

    I have found that tea tree oil, witch hazel and salicylic acid works best for my skin. With Benzoyl peroxide i never saw a change in my skin and if i did i just saw more blemishes show up. Right now i am using Benzac skin solutions with a witch hazel/tea tree oil toner. I haven’t seen my skin look this good in a long time. The benzac solution products are drying so I use an extra hydrating moisturizer. My skin use to be oily but now it’s normal to dry.

  6. jack March 28, 2016 at 9:40 am #

    Dr. Bailey,

    what happens when you cup your hand and splash water water on your face and few times. does any sebum come off on your hand or rinsed off with water, dead skin cells, bacteria.

    I know not effective like a cleanser, just curious, if any effect. thank you!

  7. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. March 28, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

    Hello Jack,
    Oil is not water soluble so not much will come off with just water splashed on the skin. Soap and soapless cleansers attach to the oil and have another portion of the molecule that attaches to water and that is how they remove oil. Any dirt held in oil will not come off either.

  8. jack March 29, 2016 at 8:10 am #

    thank you! I guess I should wash twice day before i put my evening topicals on, I .e your vit c serum and green tea, so oil doesn’t block them absorbing

  9. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. March 29, 2016 at 8:20 am #

    Yes, I definitely like washing at night to remove product, oil and dirt so skin can maximally absorb products filled with actives. Good question Jack!

  10. luis April 22, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

    does that mean l ascorbic acid cant penetrate sebum? what about your green tea?

  11. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. April 24, 2016 at 11:51 am #

    these products are designed to penetrate normal skin, sebum and all. The cleaner the skin the better the penetration for all products.

  12. mark hinds April 25, 2016 at 8:23 am #

    I use mandelic acid 5% ph level 3 every 3 days. I notice the next day when the shedding dead skin is coming off it is white and the new skin is light pink. is that normal?

    I think the above guy was asking would excess sebum on surface block vit c and green tea that has accumulated throughout the day

  13. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. April 26, 2016 at 7:49 pm #

    When a physician does an acid peel on skin the skin can turn white when the protein is denatured by the acid. The underlying skin will be pink due to irritation and exfoliation that reveals deeper than normal epidermal cells. I can’t say that is what is happening in your case but it is possible. Regarding excess sebum, yes, it would be like oil or product in that it is more stuff to diffuse through and some things go through oil better than others. That is where a toner after washing can be helpful. My Naturally Hydrating Toner is a good ‘degreaser’ without being drying.

  14. mark hinds April 28, 2016 at 10:25 am #

    great im gonna get toner! one quick question, the deeper than normal pink epidermal cells that are exposed after maybe excess exfoliation. is that because they are not dead skin cells yet and are on surface too soon?

  15. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. April 28, 2016 at 4:27 pm #

    if cells below the usual dead cells are exposed the skin may feel very soft, pink and even a little moist. The dead cells above provide barrier strength. They have a dull appearance.

  16. jack April 29, 2016 at 9:40 am #

    is pink skin over exfoliation? or it would have to be more red?etc

  17. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. April 29, 2016 at 11:41 am #

    hard to know but pink sounds like it might be. Best to see a derm near you.

  18. jackie pape May 2, 2016 at 8:05 am #

    Hi Dr. Bailey, just placed an order and cant wait! couple questions as I saw this.

    when you use aha at home, I noticed in my oily areas the dead skin has a harder come to come off, so when I use aha twice a week, the dead cells are visible and don’t come off automatically in those areas next morning when I wash. they are however loose and come off easy when I got a tissue and gently buff it off, so the aha does help that regard. is that normal?

    second, when using aha home serums at nite ,is the exfoliation suppose to be invisible shed by the next morning when wake up?

  19. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. May 2, 2016 at 10:35 am #

    With ahas the visibility of exfoliation is a function of the concentration and the sensitivity of one’s skin. AHAs both exfoliate by dissolving and irritate a bit. That irritation will cause ‘molting’ of the cells that you can see. AHAs also remodel the dead cells making them more compact and that may be what you are seeing on the oily areas. I am just hypothesizing but it is fascinating. Everyone finds a different way to optimize their aha treatment which is why it is nice to have a range of product options and physical exfoliation methods as you will see in my product range.

  20. Vincent May 3, 2016 at 7:32 pm #

    I have noticed with home care products that aha exfoliates surface a lot better than 1-2 percent salicylic acid , even though sa clears pores better being oil soluble It kind just dries out my surface. Is that typical aha home care percent is better than salicylic acid exfoliating surface dead skin cells ? Love the green tea serum !

  21. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. May 5, 2016 at 7:50 am #

    Yes Vincent, you have noticed the relative capabilities between the two. My Foaming Acne Cleanser and Glycolic and Salicylic Acne Treatment Pads combines the strengths of both. They have the maximal 2% sa and 2 options for the ga. The ga also remodels the stratum corneum dead cells to compact them so it does quite a lot of good work with the outer skin layer. The end result is a youthful brightening to the complexion. Thank you for your kind words on the Green Tea, I too love that product.

  22. lisa basler May 5, 2016 at 10:51 am #

    hi Dr. Bailey,

    im using salicylic acid 1.5% and It doesn’t exfoliate very good. just barely loosens surface dead skin. are the alpha hydroxyl acids better for that? 5% pads( im kinda sensitive so 5% better than 10 for me)?

    I read that SA just dissolves the top layer and AHA remodels the SC . so they work different and sounds like AHA would make skin look better if that info is correct?

    also for acne prone skin who need hydration and no worries about breaking out with suspect moisturizers or leaving skin dehydrated in low humidity like some products do that are just humectants alone or hydration evaporates quickly.

    PCA hydrating serum is great one. ive been through tons and finally found one safe for acne prone and effective keeping skin hydrated being in ac all day

  23. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. May 7, 2016 at 10:33 am #

    Hello Lisa,
    Take a look at my Acne Advice pages. you will find a lot of information there about moisturizers. My Instantly Luminous Serum is totally non-comedogenic and locks moisture into the skin by many methods including PCA. You are right that Sal Acid is not as helpful as AHA to exfoliate and change the SC. I start people on the 2/2 combination cleanser or pads and treat any pustules with the 2.5% benzoyl peroxide. That is what is in my Ultimate Acne Kit. Add the Daily Face Cream where dry and top with the Sheer Strength Sunscreen and it’s a powerful acne fighting treatment that keeps skin looking healthy and attractive. The products blend pharmeceuticaly pure ingredients into stable formulas that protect the active ingredients so that they are there to benefit your skin. I also have created this complete skin care routine to layer elegantly on your skin so that you feel good about how your skin looks and feels. I hope that helps.