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Photographer: Shana Novak Prop, Stylist: Michelle Longo, Hand Model: Divya Sethi, Design: Lauren Park

The idea that pimples are the inevitable result of poor hygiene is a myth. While strong soap may seem like the logical remedy, treating acne isn’t always so simple as using foaming scrubs.

“Many teenagers and adults think that acne is caused because the skin is dirty or improperly cleaned — this is not true,” says Dr. Kathleen Welsh, a San Francisco–based dermatologist and the founder of Bay Area Cosmetic Dermatology. “It’s a combination of genetics, hormones, stress, diet, and bacteria.”

Whether or not soap will help your acne depends on your acne type, skin type, and the other aspects of your overall routine.

Tips for choosing the right soap:

  • If you want a simple 3-step routine, look for cleanser with active ingredients. AHA/BHAs, salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sodium sulfacetamide, zinc, or tea tree oil ingredients may help.
  • If you like a 5- or 10-step routine, focus on simple and gentle cleansers that help clean your skin. Let other acne products, such as serums and spot treatments, do the work.
  • Cleansers with anti-inflammatories are good for sensitive skin and cystic acne.
  • Salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and sodium sulfacetamide are good for oily skin.
  • Dry skin may benefit from the use of a hydrating cleanser.

“Soap isn’t necessarily bad for acne, but the wrong type of soap or cleanser can irritate the skin, making acne worse or making it difficult to use appropriate acne medications — many of which are drying,” Welsh says. “A good acne cleanser will remove surface oils and makeup thoroughly without irritation.”

Curious to tackle acne with the right cleanser? We broke down the best 15 soaps, noting which key ingredients make them effective and what kind of skin type might benefit from each one. And keep reading to find out other effective ways to maintain an acne-based routine.

Tea tree oil

How it works: Backed by research, this powerful oil is often used to spot-treat pimples, but when it comes to cleansers, experts advise against using it undiluted. Instead, look for it as a diluted ingredient in cleansers to provide an effective antiseptic and anti-inflammatory effect on bacterial and inflamed acne.

Most effective for: Oily skin.

Cost: $6-29

Where to buy: Available on Amazon, The Body Shop, and Sephora.

Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser

How it works: The low-lather formula includes non-comedogenic cleansing ingredients like glycerin to remove daily dirt without drying out your pores of natural oils.

Most effective for: Normal to oily skin.

Cost: $6-10

Where to buy: Your local drugstore will carry this product. Also available online at Amazon and Walmart.

ROHTO Hadalabo Gokujun Cleansing Oil

How it works: The popular Japanese cleanser contains high-purity olive oil for cleansing, hyaluronic acid for moisture, and jojoba seed oil for balancing sebum. Jojoba oil helps signal to your skin not to overproduce oils.

Most effective for: Oily to combination skin.

Cost: $13-16

Where to buy: Available on Amazon.

Charcoal soap

How it works: Regardless of the form (bar, liquid, foaming, etc.), activated charcoal is believed to work by binding to other substances, like excess oil. There’s no research to verify these claims, but user testimonials on products remain positive.

Most effective for: Normal to oily skin.

Cost: $5-10

Where to buy: Known brands available on Amazon: Biore, Aspen Kay Naturals, Keika, The Yellow Bird.

Kate Somerville EradiKate Daily Cleanser Acne Treatment

How it works: Sulfur draws out impurities and clears pores while honey and rice bran extracts calm redness, and natural oat extract removes excess oil.

Most effective for: Normal, oily, and combination skin.

Cost: $38

Where to buy: Available on Sephora.

Bonus: Parabans-, sulfates-, and phthalates-free.

CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser

How it works: The ceramides (natural lipids found in the skin) help to lock in hydration while hyaluronic acid attracts moisture. The gentle cleanser is non-irritating and fragrance-free.

Most effective for: Normal to dry skin.

Cost: $10-15

Where to buy: This is available at your local drugstore and online at Amazon and Walmart.

Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

How it works: Phthalates-free, this cleanser contains a variety of acid-based exfoliators to help kill bacteria, clear out pores, and remove dead skin without being drying. However due to the high acid content, this cleanser isn’t for everyday use. We recommend alternating with a gentle, low pH cleanser.

Most effective for: Dry skin.

Cost: $39

Where to buy: Available at Sephora, Amazon, and Ulta.

DHC Deep Cleansing Oil

How it works: For folks who wear makeup, this water-soluble formula is perfect for cleaning your skin’s canvas. It’s rich in vitamins and antioxidants to avoid drying out the skin and easy to rinse off with water so you don’t have to worry about leftover dirt and surface oils.

Most effective for: Dry, normal, and dehydrated skin.

Cost: $21-28

Where to buy: Available on Dermstore, Amazon, and Ulta.

Bonus: No parabens.

COSRX Gentle Morning Cleanser

How it works: By matching your skin pH, this cleanser’s goal is to minimize bad skin reactions. With gentle BHA and tea tree oil for exfoliating pores and removing dirt, the morning cleanser is ideal for bacterial acne and irritated skin. This is also a great second-step purchase for folks who double cleanse.

Most effective for: All skin types, especially dry and sensitive skin.

Cost: $10

Where to buy: Available on Amazon.

Marie Veronique Treatment Cleanser

How it works: The salicylic acid and lactic acid provide a powerful pore-clearing combo without compromising your skin’s protective barrier or moisture content. Phloretin and apple cider vinegar help battle inflamed acne.

Most effective for: All skin types, especially dry skin. Not for sensitive skin due to essential oils.

Cost: $37

Where to buy: Available at Marie Veronique.

African black soap

How it works: This plant-based antibacterial product contains shea butter for added moisture, agents like vitamins A and E, and nourishing ingredients like cocoa pods and coconut oil, which may help gently counter inflamed acne.

Most effective for: All skin types, though those with dry skin may want to add honey for added moisture.

Cost: $13-18

Where to buy: Known brands available on Amazon: Alaffia, Incredible, Nubian Heritage, Sky Organics, and Wonderfully Natural.

Note: There are many knock-off African black soaps that aren’t plant based. Make sure to read the ingredient list and company history. Authentic African black soap is often handmade.

Bonus: Cruelty-free, vegan, and all-natural.

Eucerin Redness Relief Soothing Cleanser

How it works: This soap-free formula includes licochalcone, a licorice root extract that can help calm acne-prone skin.

Most effective for: Sensitive skin.

Cost: $10

Where to buy: Available online on Amazon and Walmart.

Banila Co Clean It Zero Cleansing Balm

How it works: This cult classic Korean cleanser is great for cleaning sensitive skin. It’s hypoallergenic and natural ingredients like centella asiatica extract and licorice root to soothe inflammation. When it comes to helping with acne produced via bacteria or dirt, this product is a dream.

Most effective for: All skin types.

Cost: $18-24

Where to buy: Available on Soko Glam, Peach & Lily, and various sellers on Amazon.

Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser

How it works: The soap- and oil-free cleanser is also free of common chemical irritants like fragrances and dyes, but is designed to gently clean skin with ingredients like glycerin. If affordable cleansers from Cetaphil or CeraVe don’t work for you, Vanicream might.

Most effective for: All skin types, especially sensitive skin.

Cost: $8-14

Where to buy: Available on Amazon.

Caudalie Instant Foaming Cleanser

How it works: The foaming formula contains grape seed polyphenols for antioxidant protection and antibacterial sage extract to prevent bacterial acne. It also contains anti-inflammatory chamomile extract to counter redness and soothe skin.

Most effective for: All skin types.

Where to buy: Available on Sephora.

Cost: $28

Bonus: Vegan, non-toxic, cruelty-free, and no synthetic chemicals.

“If your skin is getting dry, red, or irritated with your acne treatments, try switching to a gentler cleanser or seek an opinion from a dermatologist,” Welsh says.

A few things to avoid entirely:

  • antibacterial soaps intended for use on the body or dishes
  • harsh ingredients for sensitive skin — even essential oils can cause irritation
  • drying cleansers — if your skin feels squeaky and tight after, consider a low-PH (power of hydrogen) cleanser or one with fewer active ingredients.

The goal of any soap or wash you use is to clean the skin and remove impurities and dirt from the day. Remember to thoroughly (but gently!) cleanse your skin for one minute — a simple splash-and-go isn’t enough time to clean those pores.

And it’s best to avoid using an entire line or multiple anti-acne products at once (e.g. cleanser, toner, spot treatment, and moisturizer) as that can dry out your skin. Consider incorporating products that work for you at various points in your routine. Some people find toners and serums to be especially helpful in clearing acne, while others find spot treatments to be their best bet.


Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco–based journalist, marketing specialist, ghostwriter, and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech for outlets like Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Teen Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, and more.