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What are the Different Types of Acne Cleanser?

By Liz Bowlin
Updated: May 17, 2024

Acne cleansers are either facial or body cleansers that aim to keep skin free and clear of blemishes such as pimples and blackheads. An acne cleanser cleans the skin by helping it slough off dead skin cells, by keeping pores open so that oil doesn't build up and sometimes by killing bacteria. They can be used alone for skin that is not terribly prone to acne or with a regimen for the best results. The different types of acne cleansers include salicylic acid cleansers, benzoyl peroxide cleansers, mild cleansers and specialty products.

Individuals often have different reactions to acne cleansers, so there can be a period of trial and error while one learns which acne cleanser is most effective. In addition to medications added to cleansers, they also come in a variety of applications. Generally speaking, soaps and foaming washes are more drying than lotions or cream cleansers.

Acne cleansers usually contain one of the two most popular acne-fighting ingredients: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Cleansers for acne-prone skin ideally should cleanse the skin of dirt and oil without over-drying, and they should help prevent breakouts. If a product causes the skin to feel tight and itchy, this is a sign of dryness and irritation, both of which can make the skin's condition worse.

A salicylic acid acne cleanser helps prevent acne by causing the outer layers of dead skin to slough off as they should. This keeps pores from being clogged. With routine use, this keeps the pores clean and the bacteria out. Salicylic acid occurs naturally in the bark of the willow tree, and some natural products will include willow bark instead of refined salicylic acids. The amount of salicylic acid present in any acne cleanser or facial product varies, but the strongest over-the-counter products contain 2 percent or less.

Benzoyl peroxide acne cleansers, like salicylic acid cleansers, also help slough off dead skin cells and keep pores clear, but it also kills any bacteria on the skin or in the pores. Essentially, both types of acne cleanser help keep pores from being clogged so that oils in the skin don't get trapped and form pimples. This, in turn, takes away the environment in which bacteria thrive. Benzoyl peroxide goes one step further than salicylic acid by killing any remaining bacteria. One of the most popular acne-cleansing systems uses benzoyl peroxide in its formulations, with 10 percent being the average concentration.

For some people, both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid acne cleansers can be too harsh. In these cases, dermatologists will recommended very mild, gentle cleansers. The purpose of a mild cleanser is simply to clean the skin and prepare it for the application of medications. Usually, people who are seeing a dermatologist and using prescription acne medications, whether oral or topical, are told to use mild cleansers.

Specialty products, such as pimple creams and overnight gel lotions, also can be used as needed to help clear up acne. Prescription lotions, spot treatments and oral medications can be added to acne cleansers. Both types of products come with the same ingredients as acne cleansers but also contain other medications, such as antibiotics or sulfur.

All of these acne cleansers and treatments come in varying strengths. Skin with more breakouts as well as severe breakouts is more suited to higher concentrations of medication or prescription medications. People who have only occasional breakouts typically can control their acne with milder cleansers and medications.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Feb 22, 2014

The best type of acne facial cleanser in my opinion is a mild one without oil and alcohol.

For some reason, some people think that the more drying a cleanser is, the better it is for acne. But that's not the case. When the skin becomes too dry, it has to produce more sebum to make up for the imbalance. This oil production causes more acne. A good acne cleanser should clean the face without stripping all of the natural oils. That's why it should not have alcohol. But it should not contain oil either as that will worsen acne as well.

By donasmrs — On Feb 22, 2014

@ddljohn-- I have never tried benzoyl peroxide cleansers so I can't comment about them. But I am using a salicyclic acid acne cleanser and I'm very happy with it. I bought it from the pharmacy, it contains 2% salicylic acid. It's not harsh on my skin but helps keep acne away. I think it's the best acne face wash I have used.

If you decide to use a salicylic acid cleanser however, try not to use toners and moisturizers with salicylic acid at the same time. This might cause some irritation. It happened to me once. My rule of thumb is to use only one product with salicylic acid in my skin care regimen. But everyone's skin is different and responds differently to products. So give it a try and decide for yourself.

By ddljohn — On Feb 22, 2014

So which type is the best acne cleanser -- one with salicyclic acid or one with benzoyl peroxide?

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