The problem with big bubbles of soap is that they have relatively high tension along their edges. This forces the soap into the top layers of the skin3, and that is a bad thing. When soap gets into pores, it dissolves oily sebum, but it may get stuck if the pores are too narrow. And the act of washing the skin with bubbly soap narrows pores by drying out and tightening the skin around them.
A desirable acne cleanser makes a creamy lather of very small bubbles. Small bubbles do not force soap into pores, and make the cleanser easier to rinse off the skin. This is important because many soaps contain ingredients that can irritate the skin4. Generally speaking, it you can smell your soap, with the exception of neem or tea tree oil soaps5, it contains an ingredient that can irritate your skin or dry it out.
You Can’t Scrub Your Acne Away
The very worst way to use soap as a cleanser for fighting acne is to wrap yesterday’s wash cloth around the bar and scrub away6 at your pimples. A used wash cloth can put grease, grime, skin oils, soap film, and acne bacteria right back on your skin as you are trying to get them off.
In fact, you should not use a wash cloth on your face at all. Instead, let your soap do all the work of cleansing your skin7. With clean fingertips (so you don’t put bacteria on your face), make a lather of soap. Apply the soap lather to your skin and allow it to do its work for 15 to 30 seconds. Then rinse off the soap with warm water and pat your face dry with a clean towel.
How You Can Tell Your Soap Isn’t Right For Your Skin
When you wash your face, you should not feel any lingering after-effects from your soap. You should not:
Feel tightness in the skin on your face 5 to 10 minutes after you dry your skin. Tightness is caused by excessive evaporation of water from the skin.
See grayness or scaliness when your skin dries. Soaps that contain acetone, alcohols, or sudsing agents often have this effect.
See redness or irritation when your skin dries. This is a sure sign that you have broken down the skin barrier.
Break out in hives after you use a soap. Herbal essences, fragrances, and floral ingredients are most likely to cause this problem.
The right cleanser can make acne, rosacea, or skin damage from Retin-A or Accutane better. There are also soaps that you can use for perianal itch, contact dermatitis, and dry skin caused by Sjögren’s disease, but you probably don’t want to put them on your face.
There is always someone who gets a bad reaction to just about any skin care product. When you are using a product for the very first time, test a tiny dab on the skin of your inside forearm, leaving it there for at least 12 hours. If you don’t have a skin reaction on your arm, you probably won’t have an immediate, severe, allergic reaction on your face.
There are soaps in all price categories that are good for acne. Here are just a few.
Alpha Hydrox Face Wash and Alpha Hydrox Foaming Face Wash are great for cleansing all the very driest skin. They cost between US $6 and $9.
Dove Cool Moisture Facial Cleansing Cloths are also good for all but the very driest, flaking skin. Each cloth in a package of 30 costs about US 20 cents. A bar of Dove soap, however, is usually a problem for dry skin.
Olay Foaming Face wash, for about US $5, is a great product for sensitive skin.
Jan Marini Bioglycolic Bioclean Cleanser, available at department stores, is good for exfoliating dry skin. It costs about US $30 per bottle.
Clean and Clear Daily Pore Cleanser, the oil-free version, is great if you have a problem with blackheads or whiteheads. It costs about US $6 a bottle.
Neutrogena Fresh Foaming Cleanser, for about US $7 a bottle, is good for blackheads and whiteheads. It won’t remove them immediately, but you may see results as soon as the next day or as long as a week later, depending on how impacted the blemish is. The Neutrogena make-up removal pads are a good buy if you use makeup.
Boots Expert Cleansing and Toning Wipes, for just US 15 cents each, are a great buy and a good choice for cleansing very dry or sensitive skin.
CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, at about US $12 for 12 oz (360 ml), is also a good buy for treating dry or sensitive skin.
Body Shop Aloe Calming Facial Cleanser, selling for about US $14 for 6.75 ounces (204 ml), is a good choice for sensitive skin.
And the worst possible choice? That’s hard to say, but probably Lava soap is the worst possible choice for treating acne-affected skin. Just say no to any product that contains harsh chemicals or scratchy abrasive ingredients.
And if you just don’t have time to look for, buy, and try one acne soap after another, consider investing in an acne treatment system like Exposed Skin Care, which comes with a money-back guarantee.
org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Skin care for acne-prone skin. 2013 Jan 16 [Updated 2016 Jul 28].
Stringer T, Nagler A, Orlow SJ, Oza VS. Clinical evidence for washing and cleansers in acne vulgaris: a systematic review. J Dermatolog Treat. 2018 Nov;29(7):688-693.
Burkhart CG. The role of soap in acne. Dermatol Online J. 2006 May 30;12(4):19.
Korting HC, Ponce-Pöschl E, Klövekorn W, Schmötzer G, Arens-Corell M, Braun-Falco O. The influence of the regular use of a soap or an acidic syndet bar on pre-acne. Infection. 1995 Mar-Apr;23(2):89-93.
Carson CF, Hammer KA, Riley TV. Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil: a review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2006 Jan;19(1):50-62.
10 skin care habits that can worsen acne | American Academy of Dermatology. Aad.org. 2019.
The beneficial effect of good bar soap and body wash hygiene habits upon slight to moderate acne in Chinese children. 2005/03/01. 10.1016/j.jaad.2004.10.102.
Korting HC1, Ponce-Pöschl E, Klövekorn W, Schmötzer G, Arens-Corell M, Braun-Falco O. The influence of the regular use of a soap or an acidic syndet bar on pre-acne. Infection. 1995 Mar-Apr;23(2):89-93.
Kulthanan K, Maneeprasopchoke P, Varothai S, Nuchkull P. The pH of antiseptic cleansers. Asia Pac Allergy. 2014 Jan;4(1):32-6.
Pluetrattanabha N, Kulthanan K, Nuchkull P, Varothai S. The pH of skin cleansers for acne. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2015 Mar-Apr;81(2):181-5.
Rodan K, Fields K, Majewski G, Falla T. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2016 Dec 14;4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp):e1152.