Every skin care regimen starts with a good cleanser, and if you're dealing with cystic acne, ensuring that you're using the right one is more important than ever. According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Y. Claire Chang, with whom Elite Daily spoke for this article, the best face washes for cystic acne contain one of two key ingredients: benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. She explains, “Benzoyl peroxide has been shown in clinical studies to significantly improve acne by decreasing inflammation and fighting acne-causing bacteria. Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that goes deep in the pores to remove impurities, reduce comedones, and prevent inflammatory acne."
Dr. Chang also says to look for noncomedogenic facial cleansers, and to avoid ingredients like coconut oil, wheat germ oil, cocoa butter, sodium lauryl sulfate, isopropyl palmitate, lanolins, and certain alcohols. Acne-prone patients should stay away from cleansers that contain added fragrance, too. "Fragrances are a common cause of allergic skin reactions, which can worsen irritation and inflammation in patients with skin that is already inflamed," Dr. Chang explains.
Since acne-fighting face washes often work synergistically with other topical acne products for increased efficacy, Dr. Chang has patients use a benzoyl peroxide cleanser in addition to a salicylic acid acne spot treatment or topical prescription antibiotic. Or, a patient could pair a salicylic acid cleanser with a topical retinoid, like Differin Gel, to effectively reduce both non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne.
To shop the best cleansers for cystic acne, including a few picks from Dr. Chang, scroll on.
1. Derm’s Pick: Best Benzoyl Peroxide Face Wash
Benzoyl peroxide works to kill the bacteria on your skin that leads to breakouts, so Dr. Chang recommends Differin's Daily Deep Cleanser for patients dealing with cystic acne. It contains 5% benzoyl peroxide, which she explains is "just as effective as 10% maximum-strength benzoyl peroxide, but with less irritation and dryness." Consider picking up some benzoyl peroxide resistant towels, as the ingredient can bleach dark-colored fabrics.
2. Derm’s Pick: Best Salicylic Acid Face Wash
Fragrance-free, oil-free, and noncomedogenic, La Roche-Posay's Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser is formulated with 2% salicylic acid, which is the most common percentage of salicylic acid found in OTC washes, Dr. Chang says. Salicylic acid is excellent at digging deep into the pores to remove acne-causing oil and dead skin, and is typically safe for most skin types to use.
This face wash is a cult-favorite, too — it has a devoted following online and IRL, and has been awarded over 2,000 five-star ratings by Amazon shoppers. One reviewer wrote, "The Effaclar medicated gel cleanser has worked better for my adult onset cystic acne than any other product I’ve tried on the market."
3. Another Derm-Approved Face Wash For Cystic Acne
This popular drugstore face wash is another of Dr. Chang's picks. It also contains 2% salicylic acid, as well as moisturizing aloe and soothing chamomile, which helps balance out the drying effects of the salicylic acid. Note that it does contain a light fragrance, so steer clear of this one if you're sensitive to scents.
Hot tip: Since this comes in a three-pack, store one bottle in the shower and use it on your back and chest to prevent breakouts there.
4. The Best Face Wash For Dry Skin & Cystic Acne
Whether your skin is naturally dry or because of any prescription acne treatments you're using, fighting breakouts without stripping your skin can be very tricky. What's nice about CeraVe's Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser is that, in addition to the 4% benzoyl peroxide, it contains skin-calming niacinamide, as well as barrier-strengthening ceramides and hydrating hyaluronic acid. This is a fragrance-free, paraben-free, noncomedogenic product that's gentle enough for most skin types.
5. The Best Mild Cleanser For Cystic Acne
Paula's Choice CLEAR Pore Normalizing Cleanser contains a lower concentration of salicylic acid (0.5%), so it's great if your skin is on the sensitive side, or if you're already using other topical treatments and need a less powerful cleanser. Other ingredients in this fragrance-free formula include soothing arginine and skin-softening pro-vitamin B5. It's great for helping with redness, too.
Dr. Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York.