Fact: The best acne face wash is almost always not labeled as an acne face wash and acne face washes can actually cause acne.
What, you say? Let’s take a moment to reflect on the last cleanser you used for your acne-prone skin. I’m willing to bet it was kind of tingly or even stingy, bubbly and sudsy, and left your skin tight and probably “squeaky” clean? Yeah, those are all very bad things.
I have to break it to you… All of those things are NOT signs that your face wash is fighting your acne. In fact, they are red flags that your acne-fighting cleanser is potentially causing a major dysfunction of your skin’s protective physiology and immune activity, making your breakouts inevitably much worse.
Those marketing folks have corrupted our thinking about how acne cleansers should feel, or rather that “feeling” something is even a good measurement of how the cleanser is doing. We’ve all been wrongly led to believe that the key to getting rid of acne is by scrubbing it, rubbing it, foaming it up, drying it out, and splashing it with “cooling” or “refreshing” alcohol-based toners, when in reality, those are the exact things that can trigger more acne because they are actually outright damaging your skin.
What are the culprits?
The most common culprits that make acne face wash bad for your skin are detergents (emulsifiers and surfactants) and alkaline substances. Most acne face washes are filled with rough detergents, surfactants, and emulsifiers, which are the same thing you’d find in your dish soap. Harsh, emulsifier-filled cleansers destroy your skin barrier by stripping away all its good fatty acids and ceramides, leaving it compromised, dehydrated, and unhealthy. When your barrier is impaired, your skin will reactively try to heal the lipid bilayer and overproduce sebum to do so. Oily skin gets oilier. The skin’s natural keratolytic and proteolytic enzymes do not function properly when it is dehydrated and the pH is imbalanced. This leads to clogged pores, breakouts, blackheads, and dull skin. So, even though it may feel like that sudsy, foaming cleanser that stings your face is helping to annihilate your zits, it’s just making the whole situation physiologically so much worse.
How do you tell if a cleanser is bad for your skin?
Before you throw away everything in your medicine cabinet, check the back of your cleanser to see if one of the first ingredients is a sulfate. The worst three: sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate are in countless cleansers. Some ingredients may look the same, but are actually okay, like those ending in sulfoacetate, sulfosuccinate, and sarcosinate. However, there are other “cousins” to the big, bad three that are nearly as bad, and they are harder to recognize.
Most people stop at the ingredients list when it comes to finding the right skincare products, but there’s another valuable characteristic you’re likely overlooking when it comes to cleanser: pH. Our skin’s pH, and the pH of the products we put on that skin, make a huge difference in the way our skin looks, feels, and functions. The pH is a scientific indication of how acidic or basic something is. Everything has a pH which is measured by a number somewhere between zero and 14. The skin’s optimal pH is 4-5.5. This means that the skin is slightly acidic, and naturally adjusts to stay that way in order to function at its best. Therefore, you want your skincare products to be pH-balanced, close to 4-5.5 as well. What happens if you use a cleanser that isn’t pH-balanced? Your skin’s pH levels become compromised. Foaming washes bring the skin’s pH to 8-10. Most facial and body soaps are also 8-11, including castille soap coming in at an 11. A cleanser or product containing a high pH could lead to symptoms like dryness, inflammation, and acne. If the pH of the product isn’t on the label (and you don’t happen to have pH indicator strips laying around) then the best way to tell is whether or not the cleanser is pH balanced is to see if it bubbles or foams, which means it’s a high pH cleanser.
If it doesn’t tingle, burn, sting, itch, or feel like anything (even a little bit), and it doesn’t leave your face feeling dry or tight or “squeaky-clean”, then you’re probably fine to continue using it. But if any of these warning signs are there, then it’s officially time to switch your cleanser.
What about those “medicated” cleansers?
The most obvious acne-fighting cleanser would be one with acne-fighting ingredients in them, but as you may suspect from the rest of this blog—more shock—that little bit of salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide in your medicated face wash probably isn’t even doing anything to actually treat your breakouts. Those ingredients are better suited as spot treatments.
And, how do you tell if a cleanser is good for your skin?
So, what should your cleanser be doing if not all those things mentioned above? If you’re using the right formula, which is one that’s gentle, creamy, and super bland, it should be kind of boring, actually.
A good rule of thumb is the gentler, the better. It may be counterintuitive, but because acne-prone skin is inherently dehydrated, irritated, and inflamed, you need to treat it gently, hydrate it, and treat it with the right fats and ceramides to build a healthy barrier. It might go against everything acne marketing tells you, but the best face wash for acne is a creamy cleanser with minimal active ingredients.
Your cleanser should be free of artificial fragrance, free of harsh emulsifiers, paraben-free, PEG-free, and phthalate-free. Your face should feel supple after your cleanser. If you are using an emulsifier-free cleansing milk or cleansing oil, you may feel as if there is a light film on the skin. This is totally normal and indicates that good, healthy fats have been infused in tot lipid bilayer barrier to keep it healthy and in tip-top shape.
If the idea of spending an hour in the skincare aisle, magnifying glass in-hand and attempting to interpret chemistry ingredient labels sends you into a panic attack, don’t worry! You can always set up a “forensic” product consultation with me. In the meantime, I went ahead and chose the very best cruelty-free, mild and “clean” cleansers to stock up on today. You can even text us your order at 512-559-8090.
Then please, for the love of good skin, toss that old acne wash out!
Our favorite cleansers for Acne Care:
Dermaviduals Cleansing Gel- best for super-oily skin
Gentle cleansing for all skin types, particularly oily or blemish-prone. The Cleansing Gel is made with tensides on a vegetable base for a deep clean that still feels gentle. Featuring coco-glucoside, glycerin, Cymbopogon nardus oil (Lemongrass), and a foaming agent derived from sugar, this synthetic-free solution protects that natural lipid bi-layer, leaving the skin clean without feeling tight.
Dermaviduals Total Cleansing Cream- most versatile
This multi-use facial cleansing cream is just as described: total cleansing. Not only is it a face wash for all skin types, it also can be used as a replacement to traditional shower gels for sensitive skin, as a hand wash, and even as a shampoo for sensitive scalps prone to dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis and eczema. With a composition free from preservatives, it’s great for all skin types including sensitive and problematic skin. Enjoy a nourished, clean feeling with a faint touch of orange scent!
Dermaviduals Cleansing Milk- best for “combination”, imbalanced skin
The Cleansing Milk with DMS®, made with Dermaviduals’ unique Derma Membrane Structure, removes dirt particles and make-up residue without disturbing the skin’s natural barrier. In fact, it actually starts the healing process of an impaired barrier. Free of surfactants and emulsifiers, this creamy cleanser leaves a comfortable, nourished feeling for all skin types.
GlowBioticsMD Probiotic Revitalizing Cleanser- best for probiotic benefits
Probiotic Revitalizing Cleanser is a light, airy texture that gently washes away dirt and impurities without stripping your skin of vital moisture. Vitamin E and aloe hydrate and soothe for a clean, refreshed feel, while prebiotics and probiotics balance skin for a healthier-looking complexion. Soothes the appearance of redness while leaving skin feeling soft and smooth.
GlowBioticsMD Nourishing Gel-to-Oil Cleanser- best for the oil cleanser lovers
Probiotic Nourishing Gel to Oil Cleanser gently removes makeup, dirt and impurities from skin without causing dryness. Powered by probiotics, essential oils and antioxidants, this daily cleanser provides anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties that help rejuvenate skin. Increases skin hydration and elasticity while strengthening the skin barrier. Leaves skin feeling clean, soft and non-greasy.
AnteAgeMD Cleanser- best for any skin type
The universally-formulated AnteAGE® Cleanser is designed to provide a balanced approach to cleansing, for all skin types. As we are exposed to more environmental pollutants, our skin increasingly becomes hyper-sensitive. This gentle cleanser, enriched with essential fatty acids to enrich the barrier, anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory botanicals and detoxifying actives will thoroughly cleanse all traces of impurities, excess oil and surface debris, while leaving the skin soft, soothed, hydrated and balanced.