The Acne Experiment Guide to 10 Cleanser Types

Is my cleanser causing my acne? :: 10 Cleanser Types

Here's a fun bit of trivia: Your cleanser could be causing your acne. I know this because most of my "hormonal" acne mysteriously disappeared when I stopped using my "gentle, dermatologist recommended cleanser." Unfortunately, for those of us with acne-prone skin, most dermatologist know very little about OTC product formulations. There are a ton of cleansers out there and it can be confusing to navigate it all without some cleanser help.

Oh you lucky duck, I can be your cleanser helper! There are a whopping 10 cleanser types to choose from too:

  1. Traditional Foaming Cleansers
    Virtually every brand carries a facial cleanser that foams. Virtually every brand markets foaming cleansers to people with acne-prone or oily skin.

    The Bummer: Many foaming cleansers, especially those aimed at oily/acne prone skin, contain harsh ingredients or stripping surfactants that can actually make your acne worse.

    Recommendations: If you're testing cleansers, avoid ones that contain active ingredients such as salicylic acid or AHAs like glycolic acid. The reason for this is, if you break out while using a "medicated" cleanser, you won't know if it was an active ingredient causing it or if it was the cleanser itself. Additionally, treatments and exfoliants in cleansers aren't nearly as effective as a product meant to be left on for 20+ minutes. Important note: if you don't mind sulfates, avoid sodium lauryl sulfate and opt for it's milder cousin, sodium laureth sulfate.   Best Bets: CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser, Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash, Paula's Choice Hydralight Cleanser, Acne.org Gentle Cleanser
              CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser        Purpose Gentle Cleansing WashPaula's Choice Hydralight Cleanser  Acne.org Gentle Cleanser

  2. Sulfate Free Foaming Cleansers
    Most foaming cleansers contain "sulfates," a surfactant that foams spectacularly well. Going sulfate free was my first step outside of the traditional cleanser box. I had used Dermalogica Special Cleansing Gel for years before switching to the much cheaper, and easier to find, Cetaphil. When I developed perioral dermatitis (PD), I discovered that sulfates may contribute to it, so I cut it out of everything I put on my skin (shampoo, body wash, toothpaste, and facial cleanser). In my case, simply cutting out sulfates was not enough to fix all this (that is my face), but for those with sulfate sensitivity, it can be a godsend.

    The Bummer: Sulfate-free cleansers are not necessarily gentler than a sulfate-containing one. A "sulfate free" label is not a panacea; they can still break you out (they broke me out!)

    Recommendations: Remember that cleansers in this category still contain surfactants otherwise they wouldn't foam. Sulfate-free cleansers are also beloved by "natural" brands, but those products tend to be full of plant extracts which can be irritating to some skin. Stay woke.   Best Bets: Paula's Choice Earth Sourced Cleanser (my review), Trader Joe's All in One Facial Cleanser, First Aid Beauty Skin Rescue Deep Cleanser With Red Clay

            Paula's Choice Earth Sourced Cleanser    Trader Joe's All in One Facial Cleanser First Aid Beauty Skin Rescue Deep Cleanser With Red Clay
  3. Soap Based Cleansers

    Most liquid cleansers don't actually contain soap. Soaps are made from saponified fats (like olive oil or coconut oil) and usually have a higher pH than facial cleansers. A lot of people like soap because they tend to contain more natural ingredients.

    The Bummer: Soap's higher pH and it's characteristic oil content triggers acne in some people.

    Recommendations: If you have acne, tread lightly. Soap works amazingly well for some, and really fudges up others. My advice is to spot test and pray.   Best Bets: Dr. Bronners (my review), Glycerin Soap, African Black Soap, Dead Sea Salt Soap (Special note: Dr. Bronners did not work for me at all, so I cannot recommend soap from personal experience. I know these soaps have worked beautifully for other people though.)
      Dr. Bronners (review)African Black Soap Dead Sea Salt Soap

  4. Non Foaming Cleansers

    What do you do when every foaming cleanser you've tried gives you acne? Something that doesn't foam! Non foaming cleansers are among the gentlest cleansing options available; I believe non-foaming (aka "lotion" or "milk") cleansers can work for all skin types, even those with oily skin. The right product can provide proper balance, and you may not need to use a separate moisturizer anymore.

    The Bummer: If you are used to foaming cleansers, a non-foamer might make you feel like you aren't getting your face clean enough. Some non-foaming cleansers are too emollient for oily skin (the hyaluronic acid in Cerave was too much for me, for example).

    Recommendations: Some non-foaming cleansers are meant to be applied to wet skin and others should be applied to dry skin. Some can be tissued (or wiped) off, while others need to be rinsed like a normal cleanser. It really depends on the product.   Best Bets: Neutrogena Extra Gentle Cleanser, Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Hydrating Cleanser Creamy Formula, Yes To Cucumbers Gentle Milk Cleanser, CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser (for dryer skin)

              Neutrogena Extra Gentle Cleanser             Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Hydrating Cleanser Creamy Formula              Yes To Cucumbers Gentle Milk Cleanser       

  5. Cold Creams

    Cold creams conjure up images of your grandma slathering what looks like crisco all over her face (yes I'm imagining your grandma). The legendary tub-o-Ponds didn't die out in the 50s though, it just evolved into the much more posh sounding "cleansing balm." I'm including cold creams here as a distinct category from "Non Foaming Cleansers" because cold creams are thicker and more moisturizing, and tend to be better at removing makeup. Cold Creams are great for those with dry skin.

    The Bummer: Cold creams are often too heavy/emollient for acne prone skin. Many contain mineral oil and/or paraffin wax, both of which can be problematic for some.

    Recommendations: Like some non-foaming cleansers, cold creams are supposed to be applied to dry skin, massaged in, then "tissued off." You can also wipe the cleanser off with a wet washcloth, then rinse your face a few times with water. In general, I don't recommend cold cream/cleansing balm for acne prone skin. At the same time, I've had luck with products that aren't recommended for acne, so who the hell knows?   Best Bets: If you have acne and oilier skin, check out the non-foaming cleansers (#4) or the oils (#6). If you have acne and drier skin, and don't have problems with mineral oil/paraffin, I've heard good things about fragrance free Albolene (ingredients: mineral oil, petrolatum, paraffin, ceresin, and beta carotene).


  6. Oil Cleansers (aka OCM)

    Oil cleansers work in the same way as cold creams do: they are applied to dry skin, then wiped off. I discussed the Oil Cleansing Method (OCM) in my review of jojoba oil. OCM truly terrifies me, but a lot of people swear by it.

    The Bummer: Oil doesn't always mix well with acne or oily skin.

    Recommendations: SPOT TEST. There is too much risk here to leave this to chance. I'd avoid pre-formulated cleansing oils to start because they contain multiple kinds of oils. If something breaks you out, you'll want to be able to pinpoint which oil was the problem, and you won't be able to do that if you're using multiple oils at once. Best Bets: Hemp Oil (least comedogenic), Jojoba Oil (my review), Grapeseed Oil (slightly more comedogenic than Hemp, but considered one of the "least oily" or driest oils)

              Hemp Oil           Jojoba Oil (review)         

  7. Cleansing Wipes

    Cleansing wipes are a super popular alternative to face wash: virtually every major brand has a few varieties specifically for removing makeup and dirt, and dissolving oil. I'm not convinced something branded as a cleansing wipe is really that different from a baby wipe, fyi.

    The Bummer: A lot of cleansing wipes contain harsh detergents that should not be left on skin. Others contain oils and fragrance that can trigger acne or irritation.

    Recommendations: I do not recommend makeup wipes for regular cleansing of acne prone skin because the stuff on the wipes isn't typically rinsed off. If there is anything problematic in the cleanser, the effects will be amplified if you leave it on your skin. I can, however, get behind using cleansing wipes as an eye makeup and foundation remover, followed by a normal cleansing routine.   Best Bets: Lumene makes a good, inexpensive wipe (it's fragrance free and does not contain nasty ingredients).

          Lumene Cleansing Wipes

  8. Micellar Water

    This stuff is super trendy, right? Micellar water is not the same thing as a toner because micellar water is actually meant to cleanse; these guys contain surfactants y'all. If you don't do well with foamy face wash, you might have better luck with micellar water because it is milder.

    The Bummer: Micellar water may not get your face as clean as you like, and because they contain surfactants, they can be problematic for certain skin.

    Recommendations: Although it is different from toner, micellar water is applied in the same way: with a cotton ball. You can use it before or after you cleanse as a makeup remover; I recommend using it before.   Best Bets: Bioderma Sensibio H2O (my review), Simple Micellar WaterMarcelle Micellar Water (my review)
    Bioderma Sensibio H2OSimple Micellar Water
  9. Natural Alternatives

    For me, the main draw to natural cleansers is the super limited ingredient situation. If a one-or-two ingredient product doesn't work, you will have a very good idea who the culprit is.

    The Bummer: Natural alternatives may not be the best at removing makeup, they tend to require more time and effort to use, and they can be messy to apply.

    Recommendations: Rinse your face and dry it, apply your weapon of choice like a mask, then remove with a washcloth and warm water. If you want extra cleansing action, do the washcloth + water prior to applying as well and/or leave the "mask" on for 5-10 minutes   Best Bets: Clay+ACV (my review), Raw Honey

               Clay+ACV (review)            Raw Honey

  10. I can't use cleanser. I'm a freak. :(

    Perhaps you've learned that the more stuff you put on your face, the worse your acne gets. I have discovered (as have many others) that you can get your face pretty darned clean with just a washcloth and water. This can be a good option for those who use very few products, or as a part of a semi-regular cleansing routine (cleansing with only water every-other day, for example).

    The Bummer: Foundation, makeup, and other products may not remove fully if you aren't using a cleanser. You run the risk of triggering a breakout if you don't get it all off.

    Recommendations: If possible, don't wear makeup while doing a "water cleanse" trial. That way you will know if new breakouts are caused by a lack of cleanser or the makeup itself. If you cannot stop wearing makeup, I recommend using an eye makeup remover on a q-tip (jojoba oil works very well for this), then doing a thorough water cleanse with a microfiber cloth (like the Jane Iredale Magic Mitt). Microfiber cloths are better at removing makeup than plain washcloths are.   Best Bets: cheapie washcloths from Target 8 pack (I use these daily), Jane Iredale Magic Mitt (I use this when I wear makeup), the Caveman Method
          Target Washcloths    Jane Iredale Magic Mitt      
Whether you are trying to get rid of your acne with the help of a dermatologist or not, I highly recommend trying a cleanser purge to see how your face reacts. Even if your aren't willing to cut cleansers entirely, it is worth testing different products to figure out what cleanser type suits your skin type best. No dermatologist I've seen even hinted that a cleanser could be contributing to my acne problem. I never would have figured this out had I not tested it myself.


The Acne Experiment is a series I'm doing on this blog where I systematically test different "acne cures" on my face, observe results (or lack thereof), then blog about it/post really stunning before & after pictures. Lots of fun, guys. ALL Acne Experiment Posts are listed at The Acne Experiment MOTHER HUB.

The Acne Experiment Guide to 10 Cleanser Types
The Acne Experiment Guide to 10 Cleanser Types


  1. My daughter is 17yrs old and was just put on Retin-A...she is a senior and after really no major probs with acne she is having a bad case of it now three months before graduation...UGH! What would you recommend for face wash..I know you say to try a water cleanse but your supposed to wash off the retin-a in the morning so not sure if that would work or not. My older son ended up on Accutane five years ago as his was severe...I'm trying desperately to keep her off of that. Thanks.

    1. I use Retin-A and just rinse with water in the morning -- I always have done this in all the years I've been on Retin-A. It's mostly because I haven't found a proper cleanser that works for me. If my skin could handle it, I'd happily wash both in the morning and at night.

      I know that dermatologists aren't always the best at making product recommendations, but if your derm happened to give a specific recommendation, I'd try that first. If your daughter hasn't had issues with a specific cleanser in the past, she can probably just use whatever she was using before.

      If you want to try something new, here's what I'd do: The foaming cleansers at the tippy top of the list here are the usual starting point. A lot of people use these and are fine. If foaming cleansers are too drying, switch to a non-foamer (#4). I've found micellar water to be even gentler than that, but rinse after applying. Bioderma Sensibo H20 is my favorite.

      My routine right now is, rinse in the morning, apply my morning medication + oil/moisturizer. I apply Retin-A at night in the dosage recommended by my dermatologist. I use Bioderma micellar water as a "cleanser" every-other night, or whenever I wear makeup (I don't wear a full face of makeup very often). I also use the Jane Iredale cleansing cloth on days I have a lot of makeup on; I use it with only water, after the micellar water.

      I hope this helps!

    2. I forgot to mention, I found that moisturizer was an absolute must with Retin-A. If I skimp on moisturizer, my skin looks terrible. I apply a drop of jojoba oil + tea tree oil (in a 10:1 dilution) immediately after washing my face, then wait 30 minutes and apply the Retin-A, followed immediately by my moisturizer (Neutrogena oil-free combination skin moisturizer). If you haven't seen it, I also have a guide to Retin-A purging: http://www.crappycandle.com/2016/08/how-to-use-retin-survive-purge-acne.html


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