There are so freakin’ many ways to address acne with your skincare. Obviously consulting with your dermatologist is your best bet, but on the over the counter front, there are spot treatments, non-comedogenic moisturizers, anti-inflammatory benzoyl peroxide products, and, of course, the best salicylic acid cleansers. The latter is an integral part of a skincare routine for acne because it’s not only going to dry out existing pimples by busting up oil, but it's also going to keep your pores nice and clean so future breakouts are less common.
“Think of salicylic acid like a pipe cleaner for your skin,” explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Anna Karp. “Salicylic acid is both highly keratolytic and comedolytic, which means it not only dissolves dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, but it’s also able to get down into the pore, dissolve the oil, and break apart the debris inside that commonly leads to acne.”
Sounds pretty good, right? If you’re not sure which cleanser to add to your routine, we’ve got you covered. We’ve tried and tested dozens of salicylic acid cleansers—and talked to the professionals—to uncover the best ones out there. From drugstore options that are surprisingly powerful to luxe options designed to combat the drying side effects of the beta-hydroxy acids, here’s a definitive list of the pore-cleaning, pimple-busting face washes that’ll have you on your way to clearer skin.
The Best Salicylic Acid Cleansers
- The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Oil Control: Tata Harper Clarifying Blemish & Oil Control Cleanser (opens in new tab)
- The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Sensitive Skin: SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser (opens in new tab)
- The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Body: Naturium The Perfector Salicylic Acid Body Wash (opens in new tab)
- The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Large Pores: Paula’s Choice Pore Normalizing Cleanser (opens in new tab)
- The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Blackheads: SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser (opens in new tab)
The Best Drugstore Salicylic Acid Cleanser
"I have been using this salicylic acid face wash for years,” says Dr. Karp. “It leaves my skin feeling clean without stripping its barrier.” How does it do this, you ask? The foaming formula was designed with a special microclear technology that allows the powerful active, which is included at a two percent concentration, to get deeper into the skin and address the root of the problem. It’s a miracle worker where blackheads are concerns and chances are, you’ll notice results fairly quickly. Think: One week.
Pros: Affordable; Fast-Acting
The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Oil Control
While it’s not always the case, a lot of times people dealing with acne also have pretty oily skin. You know, a slicked, shiny appearance that can’t be mattified. Enter this Tata Harper cleanser, which is specifically designed to soak up extra oil and bring your complexion far, far away from greasy territory. In addition to acne-fighting alpha-hydroxy acids and salicylic acid, the foaming formula also includes a trio of botanicals (aka plant-sourced ingredients) that balance oil production over time.
Pros: Balances oil; Helps with redness; Mattifies skin
Cons: Strong smell; Might leave face dry and itchy; Expensive
The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser to Reduce Redness
I’m a big fan of Skinfix’s entire Acne+ line, as well as their non-comedogenic moisturizers, so it’s no surprise that this face wash landed on the list. While it checks off all the usual boxes thanks to the two percent salicylic acid inclusion, I want to call out how it goes above and beyond on the redness front. Because some acne can bring along angry, red inflammation, the brand added green tea, niacinamide, azelaic acid, and zinc to the formula in an effort to create a more even tone.
Pros: Reduces redness and inflammation; Addresses post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation
Cons: Can aggravate fungal acne, specifically malassezia folliculitis
The Best Derm-Formulated Salicylic Acid Cleanser
Ideal for oily, combination, and acne-prone skin types, this derm-loved cleanser is the real deal. In addition to salicylic acid, it contains a slew of exfoliating, deep cleansing ingredients like the brand’s proprietary lipo-hydroxy acid and glycolic acid. That powerhouse is going to not only keep your pores clean, and, fingers crossed, acne and bay, but will also give the added benefit of brightening your skin thanks to a freshly exfoliated complexion.
Pros: Effective, Good for aging skin
Cons: Leaky packaging
The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Sensitive Skin
With hundreds of five-star ratings, it’s safe to say that this baby is a cult-favorite, and it’s easy to see why. It not only features acne-fighting salicylic acid to help with breakouts and oil, but it also leverages a handful of alpha-hydroxy acids, like lactic and glycolic acids. These AHAs are going to get rid of dead skin cells, speed up turnover, and reveal a fresher, smoother, glowier, and younger-looking complexion.
Pros: Brightening; Multiple benefits
Cons: Good for all skin types, including sensitive
The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Body
In the same way that you can break out in blackheads and whiteheads on your face, you can have pimples pop up on your chest, back, neck—anywhere there is skin, there can be pimples. Instead of trying to coat your body with your facial cleanser, reach for this body-specific option from Naturium. It has a gel texture that feels super smooth upon application and works long after you've stepped out of the shower. If you want to get a more efficacious treatment, let the body wash sit on the skin for a few minutes before rinsing it off.
Pros: Affordable; Can also be used on the face
Cons: Non-foaming; Hard to squeeze out of the bottle
The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Dry Skin
One of the major CeraVe hallmark’s is its dedication to a healthy skin barrier. Even when the goal is to dry out acne, they still place skin health and hydration front and center. This specific cleanser leverages salicylic acid to treat whiteheads and blackheads galore, as well as a trio of ceramides to restore moisture and keep skin looking bouncy. As a result of the latter, it’s a good option for those with sensitive or easily irritated skin.
Pros: Affordable; Gentle
Cons: Doesn’t remove makeup
The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser On-the-Go
If you’re dealing with body acne or face acne one of the top tips is to cleanse immediately after a workout or a sweat session. We know it can be tricky to make a pit stop at home and do a true skincare routine, so consider tossing these cleansing wipes in your bag. They will clear your face of gunks, pollutants, makeup, and other debris, while infusing pores with exfoliating salicylic acid. You don’t need to rinse afterwards either, just go along with your day.
Pros: Great for on-the-go treatment; Easy to use
Cons: Not safe for eye area; Not as effective as a true cleanser
The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Large Pores
When a bunch of gunk makes its home sweet home your pores, your T-Zone is not going to look so great. Excess debris and makeup will not only contribute to blackheads, whiteheads, and other breakouts, but it can also make your pores look wayyyy larger than they need to. This cleanser is designed to go straight for the problem and dissolve all the unwanted ick that’s taken up residence. While it is effective, rest assured it’s not too harsh. The formula is balanced with soothing and calming agents.
Pros: Lightweight; Softens and soothes skin
Cons: Smells; Might cause irritation
The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser for Oily Skin
While this baby is likely going to be too harsh for anyone with dry or sensitive skin, it can be a savior for people with oilier complexions. In addition to salicylic acid, this cleanser features mandelic acid, which is an ingredient famed for its exfoliating and oil control powers. It’s going to smooth out skin texture and get rid of rough patches, all while preventing new acne from forming. Because it is a heavy duty cleanser, please make sure to follow up with a non-comedogenic moisturizer morning and night to keep irritation at bay.
Pros: Powerful; Fragrance-Free
Cons: Drying; Irritating
What Are the Side Effects of a Salicylic Acid Cleanser?
Perhaps the biggest downside of salicylic acid is that it can be drying and cause irritation—especially for those with dry or sensitive skin types. That’s why it’s important not to overdo it. “It is a mild exfoliant, so I wouldn’t combine a salicylic acid cleanser with too many other exfoliating products,” says Dr. Karp. “I would avoid using it with retinoids or other acids unless it’s already in the product as a combination.”
It’s also important to reinforce hydration with an oil-free, non comedogenic moisturizer.
Meet the Dermatologists
Anna Karp, DO, is a board-certified dermatologist at the Skin Institute of New York (SINY®). Dr. Karp specializes in medical, cosmetic, and surgical dermatology, and she treats adults and children at SINY’s® three offices in New York City’s West Village and Bay Ridge and Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York.
Dr. Karp is a native New Yorker, growing up on the South Shore of Long Island. After graduating magna cum laude with her bachelor of arts degree in Biology from the State University of New York at Binghamton, she went on to earn her medical degree from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City. She then completed dual residencies in Family Medicine and Dermatology at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway, New York.
During her residency, Dr. Karp presented at a number of local and national conferences, and she published several articles in peer-reviewed journals. She also served as Chief Resident during the final year.
Dr. Karp is an active fellow and member of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, and the American Medical Association. As a highly skilled dermatologist, she focuses on providing the highest level of individualized and compassionate care to all her patients.