I've made no secret of the fact that my skin and I have a bit of a complicated relationship. And by complicated, what I mean is that sometimes I really hate my skin and sometimes I'm totally indifferent towards it, but unless I have recently discovered a magical new foundation, I'd rarely say I love it.
Sure, now that I'm in my 30s I've pretty much worked out the skincare products that work for my skin—although pregnancy skincare was a whole new challenge—but my stubborn hormonal acne insists on hanging around like that friend who refuses to leave your house even when it's 1 a.m. and you've started washing up the wineglasses. I get it—in 2021 when we're all about embracing the skin we're in, admitting that you just don't love your complexion feels somewhat disempowering. But I'd hazard a guess that most people who deal with regular breakouts will feel the same.
"Acne affects nearly 80% of the population at some point during their lifetime," explained Tijion Esho, MD, skin expert and founder of the ESHO clinic. "Most commonly, it begins during puberty, but it can be triggered by hormonal changes or even certain medications. The symptoms vary in severity but are usually characterised by comedones (blackheads and whiteheads) and pus-filled spots (pustules) that may cause scarring and significantly impact self-confidence."
Luckily, though, however many active breakouts you might be facing right now, there are certain skincare steps you can take to bring even the most acne-prone skin back into balance. And while there are plenty of hardworking acids, fancy face oils and trending skincare ingredients, I'm a firm believer in bringing things back to basics when your skin is going haywire. Which is why I'm focusing on arguably the most basic and essential step of every skincare routine: your cleanser.
Honestly, I've probably tried every acne product on the market at this stage, and while things have come on leaps and bounds since the skin-stripping formulas available at Boots during my teenage years, there are only a few cleansers I'd genuinely attribute a reduction in breakouts to.
While I can't promise that they will vanish spots overnight, I can guarantee that with continued use, these cleansers will calm active blemishes, reduce redness and pigmentation caused by old spots, and generally help your skin to look clearer, brighter and less congested.
Keep scrolling for the expert lowdown on why cleansing is so important for acne-prone skin and shop the six best acne cleansers I've tried and tested.
The importance of cleansing
"Cleansing is important for all skin types, but especially for acne-prone skin before you go to bed to remove all excess oils and impurities," explained skincare expert and facialist Lisa Franklin. "Skin restores itself overnight, so we need to make sure we're giving it the best chance to work its magic! With acne-prone skin, it's also important to make sure you're cleansing to remove bacteria that thrives in oily conditions and leads to more breakouts."
"Benzoyl peroxide is a great over-the-counter ingredient to look for to help treat acne," advised Franklin. "Salicylic acid is great too. It's a powerful exfoliant that helps clear pores, and it also has anti-inflammatory properties so it's easier for sensitive skin to tolerate than glycolic acid. If you prefer natural ingredients, try tea tree oil, a natural treatment with antibacterial and antimicrobial qualities that help clear pores."
Skincare brand founder Susanne Kaufmann is similarly confident that natural ingredients can do the trick when it comes to treating acne-prone skin. "Sage is a popular remedy for skin problems such as acne and eczema due to its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties," she advised. "It has proven itself best against skin blemishes, pimples and blackheads. When I was a teenager, my grandmother gave me a soap with sage for cleansing."
Choosing a formula
"Those who are prone to acne or oily skin are usually well-served with antibacterial cleansing gels," said Kaufmann. "It's always a good sign when the product foams together with water on the skin."
"If you're using a medical acne treatment, opt for a a milder cleanser. It's important to remember that whatever you choose should not make your skin feel tight, dry, itchy or red," said Franklin.
Franklin's recommendation comes in the form of her eponymous cleanser: "It contains guava-leaf extract—a natural source of salicylic acid—plus panthenol, which is anti-inflammatory."
A recommendation from Kaumann herself comes in the form of this gentle cleansing gel. "Our cleansing gel contains a herbal compound of ribwort, mahonia and masterwort. These alpine herbs are known for their soothing, clarifying and antibacterial effect," she said.
Keep scrolling to shop the 8 best acne cleansers I've tried:
I swear by this cleanser for keeping my skin balanced and clear—and honestly, it's probably the best cleanser for acne I've ever tried. Its success is down to a blend of alpha-hydroxy acids, which remove dead, pore-clogging skin cells to prevent congestion and boost radiance. After just a couple of weeks of using this morning and night, I found that my breakouts were less regular and blemishes were less severe when I did get them. A serious skincare game changer.
Turns out green beauty really does work when it comes to cleansing acne-prone skin effectively. Tata Harper is 100% natural and totally free from synthetic ingredients, yet this cleanser really lives up to the hype. Trust me—beauty editors rave about this cleanser. Again, it contains exfoliating acids (I personally think this is the key to a successful cleanser for treating blemishes) to clarify the skin and really reduce the appearance of spots.
Disciple Skincare was founded by psychotherapist Charlotte Ferguson with the sole aim of helping to sort out stressed skin—and they are fast becoming one of my favourite skincare brands. This cleanser smells like a fancy spa treatment, and is brimming with those crucial alpha-hydroxy acids to lift away dead skin and reveal the new cells beneath. Plus, it also contains cactus oil to maintain moisture levels without weighing skin down.
Salicylic acid is one of the best ingredients to look out for when choosing skincare for acne-prone skin thanks to its ability to dissolve dead skin cells that could otherwise clog your pores and reduce inflammation and redness. This lightweight cleanser contains the hero ingredient alongside skin-smoothing niacinamide and turmeric—a natural antioxidant and skin protector. I'd use this as a second cleanse in the evening and genuinely feel like it helps to keep my skin looking softer, smoother and more even.
This is a newer cleanser discovery for me but I've found myself reaching for it regularly thanks to its gentle, skin-soothing formula—it's particularly good when I'm dealing with a particularly angry breakout. It contains zinc oxide, a natural anti-inflammatory that reduces redness, alongside a blend of oils chosen for their antiseptic benefits. My skin always feels and looks so much more calm after using this.
A few years ago, I used this cleanser religiously and my skin was probably in the best condition it’s ever been in. It was recommended to me by an old manager, and I don't know why I ever abandoned it. Rather than relying on acids to do the hard work, it uses French clay to detoxify, manuka honey for its antibacterial properties and willow-bark extract to soothe the skin. After just a couple weeks, you'll notice that pores look less congested and the texture of your skin feels smoother.
As the name might suggest, this deep cleansing formula has a mud-like texture. That's down to diatomaceous earth, which does a brilliant job of drawing impurities to the surface of your skin and absorbing excess oil. Like many of my other favourites, it also contains glycolic acid to dissolve dead skin cells and unwanted debris for clearer, brighter skin. It's worth noting that this cleanser does have a tingle when applied, though. Personally, I love it (it means it's working, right?), but sensitive skin types might want to use this sparingly.
I'll admit that when it comes to treating acne, I've always been a bit sceptical about the efficacy of natural beauty products. This purifying cleanser from Urban Veda really holds its own against other specialist formulas on the market, though. The star ingredient is neem oil—something I wasn't previously aware of, but turns out it's renowned for its natural antibacterial and antiseptic properties. Although it's great at mattifying oily skin and calming active spots, it really comes into its own for treating blackheads by deeply cleansing stubborn blocked pores.