Cleansing is the most important step when it comes to treating acne—here's the 9 best face washes for the job

It's all about selecting the right formula

Woman washing face with water
(Image credit: Getty Images/Cavan Images)

There are few things I feel as though I can say for certain as a beauty editor but this is one of them: if you experience breakouts, finding the best acne face wash is by far the best acne treatment out there. You can buy all of the best spot treatments and acne patches the world has to offer, but until you've got your skincare routine for acne nailed with a great cleanser, you'll be fighting a losing battle.

Sure, selecting the best moisturiser for acne-prone skin is also important, but for the most part acne starts with a build up of bacteria on the skin's surface (note that this isn't always the case and that different types of acne have different causes). The best way to bust acne-causing bacteria? An effective cleansing routine, of course.

"Cleansing is a step that must not be missed, especially for those with acne-prone skin. It’s essential to cleanse away the build up of bacteria to prevent acne from forming," says cosmetic doctor and co-founder of Victor & Garth, Dr Lauren Hamilton.

If you're currently experiencing acne on your face (there are a number of great acne body washes if you're experiencing it elsewhere like your back, neck or bum) and don't have a cleansing routine that appears to be working for you, I've reached out to some of skincare's biggest and best experts to help get to the bottom of what makes the best acne face wash (and rounded up the best formulas after many years of testing).

What is cleansing so important for acne-prone skin?

If you haven't already got the message, cleansing is really important when it comes to treating acne-prone skin. "Being thorough and consistent with cleansing your skin is very important. It helps to clean out pores and remove elements that would otherwise cause acne, such as dirt and excess dead skin cells and oil," explains Spirithoula Koukoufikis, Senior Medical Aesthetician at Skinfluencer. 

Beyond ridding the face of acne-causing bacteria, cleansing also helps prep the skin for any active ingredients for acne you might apply later on in your skincare routine. "It is also important to cleanse so that you have nothing on the skin that will be creating an occlusive layer. This means that the active ingredients of the rest of your regime can penetrate to be effective," Koukoufikis adds.

What ingredients should be in the best acne face washes?

There are a number of ingredients to keep an eye out for to ensure your acne face wash is working the hardest it possibly can. As a beauty editor who has battled with acne for years, my go-to face wash ingredients come in the form of exfoliating acids (both alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acid). 

"An alpha-hydroxy cleanser using glycolic or lactic acid or beta-hydroxy acid cleanser with salicylic, will help speed up cell renewal and exfoliate within the pore as well as on the skin's surface to keep the bacteria associated with acne from building up," explains Dr Hamilton.

However, it's also important to make sure you aren't overdoing it on the exfoliating acids. "I really like the combination of effective blemish-fighting ingredients (such as salicylic acid) with skin soothers and emollients such as niacinamide and ceramides," says CeraVe consultant dermatologist, Dr Alexis Granite. "Both of these ingredients help to prevent potential irritation that may occur when using ingredients such as salicylic acid to treat blemishes. Ceramides are emollients and work to moisturise and protect the skin barrier, whilst niacinamide has anti-inflammatory effects."

What ingredients should be avoided in the best acne face washes?

The answer to this is simple—just avoid anything that will exacerbate oiliness or clog pores. "Avoid oil-based products," says Dr. Raafat Lakkis, dermatologist at Dr Kayle Aesthetic Clinic, Dubai. "Also avoid anything that will irritate the skin such as alcohol and fragrances. Be careful with any plant-based ingredients that contain algae, as well. Although algae is an anti-inflammatory, it may also be comedogenic and clog the pores," he adds.

Further to this, most experts recommend avoiding oil cleansers and cleansing balms if you have acneic skin, as they risk leaving a film on the skin which could cause pore blockage. If you do want to use an oil or balm cleanser to remove make-up, be sure to follow it up with a second cleanse with a gel, cream or foam face wash.

What is the best cleansing routine for acne-prone skin?

Essentially, you should be making sure you're cleansing your face with an actual face wash twice a day (no, micellar or leave-on formulas don't count). "The best basic skincare routine would be to have a day and night routine that incorporates cleanse, tone, exfoliate, antioxidant and SPF. Salicylic acid in your cleanser or as an acid exfoliant helps to combat acne, but be mindful not to over exfoliate as this will further exacerbate any irritation," says Dr Hamilton.

As mentioned above, when it comes to your evening routine, a double cleanse could be a good idea. "You may benefit from a double cleanse in the evening if you’ve been wearing make-up. The idea of the first step would be to use an oil-based cleanser to help remove make-up and sebum. Make sure you’re properly cleansing to prevent the build up of bacteria that encourages acne," she adds.

The best acne face washes

As a beauty editor with acne, it's safe to say I have tried a fair few face washes in my time. In fact, there's hardly an acne face wash out there that I haven't given a test drive. Combining years of testing experience, a whole load of skincare knowledge and a bunch of expert recommendations, I have rounded up the very best acne face washes that meet the below criteria:

  • The best acne face wash must effectively reduce the appearance of spots and breakouts.
  • The best acne face wash must prevent the risk of further breakouts.
  • The best acne face wash must not irritate the skin.
  • The best acne face wash must not cause dryness and tightness.

So without further ado, these are the best acne face washes that money can buy.

Best affordable acne face wash

Best expert-approved acne face wash

Best PHA acne face wash

Best acne face wash for sensitive skin

Best mattifying acne face wash

Best all-round acne face wash

Best acne face wash for evening skin tone

Best luxury acne face wash

Best gentle acne face wash

Shannon Lawlor
Executive Beauty Editor

Shannon Lawlor is the Executive Beauty Editor at Marie Claire. With nearly a decade of experience working for some of the beauty industry’s most esteemed titles, including Who What Wear, Glamour UK, Stylist and Refinery29, Shannon’s aim is to make the conversation around beauty as open, relatable and honest as possible. As a self-confessed lazy girl, Shannon has an affinity for hard-working perfumes, fool-proof make-up products and does-it-all skincare.