Safe Soaps and Cleansers for Acne

What's the big deal about washing your face? You slather on some soap, splash your skin with water, pat dry, and you're on your way.

For people with problem acne, however, skin care involves a little extra time and effort.

If you have acne, choosing the right cleanser can help rid your skin of the bacteria that make their way into clogged hair follicles and lead to breakouts. A thorough cleaning also removes dead cells on the surface of your skin, which makes it easier for your acne medication to be absorbed.

To help control acne breakouts, look for a cleanser that is strong enough to remove dirt and keep skin clean. Avoid harsh face soaps that can strip your skin of its natural oils. Harsh cleansers and scrubbing will only leave you with red, irritated skin that can promote flare-ups of your existing acne.

You can ask your dermatologist to recommend a prescription or over-the-counter cleanser that works on acne-prone skin, but also pay careful attention to your daily acne skin care routine. Here are a few tips on choosing skin care products, and cleaning your skin to keep it looking its best.

Which Cleansers Should I Use?

You can buy an inexpensive over-the-counter cleanser at your local supermarket or drug store. Or, if you're willing to spend a little more, you can splurge on one of the high-end cleansers that are sold at your dermatologists' office. It's not how much you spend that's important, but how well the product works.

Some brands of face soap have a very alkaline pH, which can be irritating and drying on your skin. When shopping for cleansers that work well on acne-prone skin, here's what to look for:

  • Choose a gentle, nonabrasive, and alcohol-free cleanser.
  • Ask your dermatologist to help you find an acne cleanser that is appropriate for your acne treatment program. Look for an acne cleanser that matches your skin type -- oily, dry, or a combination of the two.
  • Some acne cleansers and face soaps have added ingredients to fight acne and improve the skin's appearance. Medicated cleansers contain acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, sodium sulfacetamide, or benzoyl peroxide, which can help clear up skin while cleaning it. Salicylic acid helps clear blocked pores and reduces swelling and redness. Benzoyl peroxide exfoliates the skin and kills bacteria. Sodium sulfacetamide interferes with the growth of bacteria.
  • To keep your skin hydrated, look for cleansers that contain emollients (petrolatum, lanolin, mineral oil and ceramides) or humectants (glycerin), which hold moisture in your skin, or exfoliants (alphahydroxy acids) to smooth rough areas.

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Other skin care products you can include in your routine:

  • After cleansing, you can add a toner to restore a more natural pH balance to your skin.
  • Exfoliating regularly will remove dead skin cells and help keep your pores open. This allows your skin's natural oil to drain before it can clog your follicles and lead to more breakouts.

After washing, use a moisturizer labeled "non-comedogenic," meaning that it doesn't clog pores. A moisturizer will prevent your skin from dehydrating, especially if you're using an acne treatment that tends to dry the skin, such as benzoyl peroxide. If you have oily skin, a cleanser that already contains a moisturizer may be all you need.

Acne Skin Care Basics

Follow this acne skin care routine to limit breakouts and prevent skin irritation:

  • Twice-a-day routine. Wash your face every morning when you wake up and again before you go to bed. If you've been working out and you're all sweaty, wash, or at least rinse your face, as soon as possible. Perspiration can make your acne worse.
  • Clean technique.Each time you wash your face, apply a little bit of cleanser to your fingertips. Gently rub it into your face, and then rinse with lukewarm water. Don't scrub, because it can dry out and damage your skin. Also avoid using a washcloth or sponge, which can be rough enough to irritate the skin.
  • Be thorough.Your acne skin routine isn't just for your face. Treat other parts of your body where you have acne, too.
  • Protect your skin. Skin care doesn't end when you leave your bathroom. Wear a noncomedogenic (non-pore clogging) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more that offers both UVA and UVB protection to shield your sensitive skin against the sun's harsh rays. A water- or light liquid-based sunscreen is best for acne-prone skin. Limit your time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. While outside, wear a hat with at least a 2-inch brim and clothing to cover exposed skin.

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WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on January 13, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology: "How to Wash Acne-prone skin."

Pfenninger, J. Pfenninger and Fowler's Procedures for Primary Care, 3rd ed., Mosby Elsevier, 2010.

Choi, Y. The Journal of Dermatological Treatment, May 2010.

Wolverton, S. Comprehensive Dermatologic Drug Therapy, 2nd ed., Saunders Elsevier, 2007.

Goodman, G. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, 2009.

Burkhart, C. Dermatology Online Journal, 2006.

FDA.

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