Truth time: When I say “acne face wash,” what pops into your head? Is it the image of a creamy, rich, fragrance-free cleanser? Or, did you immediately think of some foaming, tingly, citrus-smelling formula in a vague, orange-ish…pink-ish…yellow-ish…bottle? I’m willing to bet all of my nonexistent money that it was the latter.
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Because since the dawn of time (AKA your puberty days), you’ve been led to believe that the first step to treating your breakouts and blackheads is to get your face really, really, intensely clean, usually by means of a “cooling,” “refreshing,” or “energizing” (translation: incredibly harsh) face wash. And, hey, if your skin stings and tingles a bit in the process, all the better! But here’s the thing: There’s a good chance your beloved acne-fighting face wash is actually just making your zits way worse. Yup.
OK, But How Can My Acne Wash Make My Breakouts Worse?
“Most acne face washes are filled with these harsh detergents called sulfates, which are the same thing you’d find in your dish soap,” says dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor at Yale. And though sulfates are what give cleansers their satisfying foamy lather, they’re also one of the worst things you could use on your skin—especially if it’s broken out.
“Harsh, sulfate-filled washes destroy your skin barrier by stripping away all of its moisture and leaving it dry and compromised,” says Dr. Gohara. “And when your barrier is irritated and dry, it goes into overdrive and overproduces oil, leading to clogged pores, breakouts, blackheads, and oily skin.” So even though it may feel like that foaming cleanser that kinda burns your face is helping to annihilate your zits, in reality, it’s just making your whole situation a hundred times worse.
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What If My Cleanser Is, Like, Really Good Though?
Hey! you cry. My cleanser has acne treatments in it! It was expensive! It’s filled with good stuff! Welp, sorry to give you even more bad news, but that tiny dose of salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide in your fancy cleanser isn’t even making a dent.
“No acne cleanser that touches your face for 10 seconds is going to have an effect on your pimples,” says Dr. Gohara. “At best, it’ll wash away some surface-level oils, but at worst, it’ll mess up your barrier and slowly, with prolonged use, trigger rashes, irritation, redness, oiliness, and extra breakouts.” And, what’s worse, “most people don’t realize their cleanser is to blame until their skin is officially freaking out,” she says.
Of course, for every rule, there’s always an exception, and if you’ve been using a foaming, scrubby, sulfate-filled cleanser for years, and your face looks pretty damn good, then congrats! You’re the outlier. But, based on logic and science, “there’s no way your skin wouldn’t look even better if you switched to a gentle cleanser,” says Dr. Gohara. Which brings us to…
Well, WTF Do I Do Now?
Before you set fire to your medicine cabinet, check the back of your cleanser to see if one of the first ingredients is a sulfate (look for sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate). If it’s all clear, and it also doesn’t have any exfoliating beads in it, doesn’t tingle, burn, sting, or itch (even a tiny bit!), AND it doesn’t leave your face feeling dry or tight, then you’re probably fine to continue using it.
But if any of those warning signs above made you think, “shit,” or even made you feel a little defensive (“Ugh, whatever, my face wash is fine”), then it’s officially time to switch your cleanser. “It might go against everything your brain tells you, but the best face wash for acne is a creamy, gentle, hydrating cleanser, with no active ingredients,” says Dr. Gohara.
“Acne-prone skin is inherently dry, irritated, and inflamed, which means you need to treat it gently and load it up with moisture to help decrease breakouts,” she says. Yes, you read that right—keeping your skin moisturized and calm will actually curb your breakouts, since it’ll help normalize your oil production over time.
Luckily, rather than have you spend an hour in the skincare aisle, scrutinizing labels while feeling totally overwhelmed, I went ahead and chose the very best, top-rated, gentle-as-hell cleansers to stock up on today. If you breezed past the higher-end recommendations at the beginning of this story, check out these equally excellent drugstore options, below, and please, for the love of good skin, throw that old face wash out.