The Best Cleansers For Cystic Acne, According To A Dermatologist

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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.

Derm’s Pick: Best Benzoyl Peroxide Face Wash

Benzoyl peroxide works to eradicate 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.

Relevant review: “Greatest product I’ve found for cystic acne. I’ve tried them ALL. This product is life changing. The first month and a half were hell but I read the reviews and stuck with it like people suggested. Now, finally, I see an amazing difference in my skin I still have slight breakouts but they’re very small and disappear in 1-2 days. I wash with it am and pm. So glad I stuck with it.”

Another Great Benzoyl Peroxide Cleanser

PanOxyl’s benzoyl peroxide face wash is another great cleanser that’s popular with dermatologists and consumers alike. Be warned: This does contain the full 10% (maximum strength) BP, so it’s not for those with dry, sensitive skin. But if you are looking for a high-strength BP cleanser and think your skin can tolerate it, this is an excellent option.

Relevant review: “I have PCOS which causes me to get big, painful cystic acne on my face/neck. This is the only wash that actually does something and I've tried just about everything [...] The reason this works so well is because unlike the other products I've mentioned, this has 10% benzoyl peroxide, while the others only have 5% or less. But that same ingredient makes this product very drying, so pair it with a good moisturizer with spf and [you’re] good to go. I also suggest to follow the instructions and only begin with using it once daily to see how your skin reacts.”

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 7,000 five-star ratings by Amazon shoppers.

Relevant review: “This product is amazing! I used so many products for my hormonal cystic acne over the years and nothing helped. My dermatologist said only acutane would help me and I wasn’t exactly on board with that option. So I tried this as a last resort and I am so happy I did. It says it takes 10 days to work and I started seeing results in 2! My acne is almost all the way gone and my pretty clear skin is back. It doesn’t dry my skin out but gets rid of my pimples. It’s worth every penny.”

The Best Benzoyl Peroxide Cleanser For Cystic Acne & Dry Skin

Whether your skin is naturally dry or you’ve been using a lot of harsh acne treatments, 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, the creamy formula 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.

Relevant review: “Helps prevent cystic acne from popping up. Benzoyl peroxide is such a great active ingredient, but I usually avoid it because it is too drying and it bleaches everything. This cleanser fixes both those problems! I use it in the shower and it's gone by the time I get to my towel, so no bleaching. It is also very gentle and doesn't dry out my skin. LOVE LOVE LOVE”

The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser For Cystic Acne & Dry Skin

This cult-favorite cleanser also comes from CeraVe; but unlike the Cerave face wash above, the medicated ingredient in this formula is salicylic acid, not BP. Formulated with the brand’s signature blend of hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and ceramides — and more importantly, without fragrance — this gently lathering cleanser (made without harsh sulfates) is an effective choice for dry skin types prone to cystic breakouts.

Relevant review: “This cleanser is a freaking miracle worker! It’s the first product to completely clear up my cystic face and chest acne! [...] nothing holds a candle to CeraVe. I’m on my third bottle.”

Another Great, Mild SA Cleanser

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.

Relevant review: “I NEVER write reviews for products... but oh my gosh. This cleanser literally got rid of all of my hormonal cysts that i have been struggling with for years. [...] it got a little worse before it got better but it was sooo worth it. My skin is normal/dry combo and i have a lot of hormonal acne. It’s not drying or stripping it’s amazing!”

The Best Non-Medicated Cleanser To Use With Prescription Acne Treatments

If you’re already using a prescription acne treatment and are just looking for a gentle cleanser that won’t exacerbate any of the dryness or irritation you’ve been experiencing, Vanicream’s popular Gentle Facial Cleanser is a foolproof choice. Like all of the brand’s products, this mild cleanser is safe for even the most sensitive, reactive skin types. It doesn’t contain any common, potential irritants like fragrance, sulfates, or even soap, and it’s neither drying nor moisturizing — instead, it simply leaves skin feeling comfortable and balanced.

Relevant review: “The only face wash that my SUPER sensitive face likes. I’ve suffered with acne for years now and honestly, I get scared trying new products because there’s like a 85% chance it will break me out. It’s a frustrating experience especially when you must wait weeks to find out if your new awesome face wash is breaking you out but Vanicream does not fall into this category. [...] I had to go on Accutane, which is the last and harshest step to treat acne after everything else fails and this face wash was the least of my worries. I still use it now without issue...”

The Best Value

Sold in a budget-friendly pack of three, this popular drugstore face wash is another one 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.

Relevant review: “I have tried what feels like everything under the sun for my acne, even other salicylic acid products like this one. I tend to get nodule/cystic acne around my mouth and chin. I have seen this product hundreds of times at the store and finally decided to give it a chance. The morning after I used it I woke up for the first time in months and didn’t have a new pimple on my chin. I have been using it for a week now and not a single new pimple on my chin! Of course it dries you out a bit, but for me it was nothing a little moisturizer couldn’t handle. I wish I would have taken before and after pictures, but honestly I didn’t expect it to work this well. I highly recommend this face wash and I think i will be using it daily now!”


Dr. Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York.

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