SkincareYour Skin Cares Series

Finding the Best Cleansers for Oily or Acne-Prone Skin: 3 Things to Consider

Getty Images by Safai Fatimi

If you’re wondering why your skin has been off balance lately, and more breakouts are appearing, you may want to look into what you’re using to wash your face. It might come as a surprise, the cleansing step of their skincare routine may be wrecking more havoc than good especially if you have oily skin or prone to breakouts. If you’ve read the earlier post, Keeping Your Acne Under Control, one of the many factors that can contribute to developing oily skin, and worst “adult-onset acne” is over-cleansing.  Like everything in life, balance is key. The ideal cleanser for all skin types should provide a deep cleansing without dramatically altering the skin’s natural moisture balance.

SKINCARE SCIENCE 101: Skin pH matters

Our skin is a delicate organ and like everything else in our bodies, it has its “sweet spot” for optimal results. The normal pH of the skin’s outer layer hovers between 4 and 6 (slightly acidic) because of what’s called the “acid mantle”– which is a thin, protective layer or shield on top of skin’s outer layer that helps to regulate moisture, keeps bacteria out and allows it to function like the protective organ it is. There are so many factors that affect how well this layer of protection works, including increasing age, diet, pollutions and skincare products, especially cleansers. Let’s do a quick basic chemistry 101 recap on the pH scale.   The pH scale is a numeric scale (typically between 0 and 14) that measures how acidic or [neutral] something is. When the skin’s pH shifts from its normal level (remember a little acidity is healthy), the protection function of that acid mantle gets disrupts and predisposes the skin to inflammation and other skin conditions, including acne. In fact, research shows that acne-prone skin tends to have a slightly higher skin pH, or alkaline starting point, which contributes to the ideal environment for acne breakouts. What does this mean? In other words, without the right level of acidity, excess sebum production and overgrowth of the acne-causing bacteria, P. acnes becomes an even bigger problem for acne-prone skin.  In general, using a pH-balanced cleanser is really important for all skin types. When it comes to acne prone skin, this is particularly important because you want to avoid shifts in pH to prevent worsening breakouts.


When it comes to beauty and skincare, formulation matters and each type has its benefits and ideal use. For those who are acne-prone or have oily skin, gels and gentle foams are ideal to cleanse dirt and sebum without leaving the skin dry. While you may be tempted by trendier products like cleansing balms and oil cleansers, my recommendation would be to proceed with caution since these may not ideal for acne prone skin (of course, there are exceptions to this rule).

However, if you insist, be sure to avoid those with mineral oil and opt for products that fragrance-free, wash away easily without leaving any residue behind (because that can make matters worse).


Cleansers with at least one of these key ingredients work miracles for acne-prone skin: salicylic acid, mandelic acid, glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide. These ingredients penetrate the pores to eliminate pore-clogging impurities like dead skin cells, excess oil, and bacteria. In addition to sloughing away dead skin cells, they also help reduce the size of existing blackheads and slow (or stop) the formation of new ones. Benzoyl peroxide is often recommended by dermatologists and pharmacists alike, since it treats the acne-causing bacteria, P. acnes. While benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are great for acne, they can also be drying so pay attention to how your skin and adjust how often you use the cleansers with this ingredient.  Not only does mandelic acid helps slough away dead skin cells, it tends to be less irritating than glycolic acid and address hyperpigmentation (a major plus for women of color). Sulfur, zinc and tea-tree oil are a few other great ingredients that also help reduce oil production and control acne breakouts.

Here are six of our favorite cleansers for oily or acne-prone skin:

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