Truth time: When I say "acne face wash," what pops into your head? Is it the image of a creamy, rich, fragrance-free cleanser? Or did you immediately think of some foaming, tingly, citrus-smelling formula in a vague, orangish…pinkish…yellowish…bottle? I'm willing to bet all my (nonexistent) money that it was the latter.
Because since the dawn of time (aka your puberty days), you've been led to believe that the first step to treating your breakouts and blackheads is to get your face really, really, intensely clean, usually by means of a "cooling," "refreshing," or "energizing" (translation: incredibly harsh) face wash. And hey, if your skin stings and tingles a bit in the process, all the better! But here's the thing: There's a good chance your beloved acne-fighting face wash is actually just making your zits way worse. Yup.
Wait, face wash can make acne worse?
Depending on which formula you're using, YUP! If your breakouts only seem to be getting worse the more you cleanse, don't just stop washing your face altogether. You need to use a face wash every day, but know that not all formulas are created equally. If you've been diligent about cleansing your face each morning and night and your acne won't clear up, it might be the kind of face wash you're using.
"Most acne face washes are filled with harsh detergents called sulfates, which are the same thing you'd find in your dish soap," says dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at Yale. And although sulfates are what give cleansers their satisfying foamy lather, they're also one of the worst things you could use on your skin—especially if it's broken out.
"Harsh, sulfate-filled washes destroy your skin barrier by stripping away all its moisture and leaving it dry and compromised," says Dr. Gohara. "And when your barrier is irritated and dry, it goes into overdrive and overproduces oil, leading to clogged pores, breakouts, blackheads, and oily skin." So even though it may feel like that foaming cleanser that kinda burns your face is helping to annihilate your zits, in reality, it's just making your whole situation a hundred times worse.
Do acne face washes work?
"Hey!" you cry. "My cleanser has acne treatments in it! It was expensive! It’s filled with good stuff! " Welp, sorry to give you even more bad news, but that tiny dose of salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide in your fancy cleanser isn't even making a dent.
"No acne cleanser that touches your face for 10 seconds is going to have an effect on your pimples," says Dr. Gohara. "At best, it'll wash away some surface-level oils, but at worst, i'’ll mess up your barrier and slowly, with prolonged use, trigger rashes, irritation, redness, oiliness, and extra breakouts." And what's worse, "most people don't realize their cleanser is to blame until their skin is officially freaking out," she says.
Of course, for every rule, there's always an exception, and if you've been using a foaming, scrubby, sulfate-filled cleanser for years, and your face looks pretty damn good, then congrats! You're the outlier. But based on logic and science, "there’s no way your skin wouldn't look even better if you switched to a gentle cleanser," says Dr. Gohara.
What is the best cleanser for acne, then?
Turns out, the best face wash for breakouts is not one seemingly designed to treat said breakouts. In other words, swap out your oil-stripping formula for a moisturizing one. "Acne-prone skin is inherently dry, irritated, and inflamed, which means you need to treat it gently and load it up with moisture to help decrease breakouts," she says. Yes, you read that right: Keeping your skin moisturized and calm will actually curb your breakouts, since it'll help normalize your oil production over time.
Before you set fire to your medicine cabinet, check the back of your cleanser to see if one of the first ingredients is a sulfate (look for sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate). If it's all clear, and it also doesn't have any exfoliating beads in it, doesn't tingle, burn, sting, or itch (even a tiny bit!), and it doesn't leave your face feeling dry or tight, then you're probably fine to continue using it.
But if any of those warning signs above made you think, "shit," or even made you feel a little defensive ("Ugh, whatever, my face wash is fine"), then it's officially time to switch your cleanser.
What kind of face wash do dermatologists recommend for acne?
Everyone's skin is different, so if you’re currently following a skincare routine designed for you by your dermatologist, stick with it. But in general, when it comes to face washes for acne-prone skin, Dr. Gohara says the gentler, the better. "It might go against everything your brain tells you, but the best face wash for acne is a creamy, gentle, hydrating cleanser with no active ingredients," says Dr. Gohara. Go ahead and screenshot that sentence, then repeat it over and over again while you shop for your new cleanser. Once you've found a mild face wash that fits the bill, you have my blessing to go forth and use it.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.