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Dr Dami: Why Your Cleanser Could Be Making Your Acne Worse



Have you ever wondered why your acne doesn’t seem to get better despite using so many recommended products? Maybe you’ve tried everything from spot treatments, to creams, to antibiotic tablets and still no difference. I’d like you to consider the first stage of your skincare routine- ‘Cleansing’ and ponder with me if just maybe your cleanser could be making your acne worse.

You see, cleaning our face is very important in removing dirt, make up, bacteria and dead skin. It also provides a clean surface, which allows subsequent treatments to penetrate the skin better.

In cleansing the face, two main options are available, soaps or synthetic detergents (syndets).

What is the difference?
Let me take you back to chemistry class: true soaps are made by mixing a strong alkali with an oil or fat in a process called ‘saponification’. The resulting product is a combination of predominantly salts, fatty acids and alkali, which have a pH of 9-10.

A syndet on the other hand is a combination of different detergents or surfactants, manufactured by a process other than ‘saponification’. As a result, the final product has a slightly acidic or neutral pH, (around 5.5), making them very gentle for use in baby skin as well as eczema or psoriasis skin.

So I’ve mentioned ‘pH’ twice now. Let me clarify for the majority of us who are not chemistry geeks. pH stands for potential of Hydrogen, and refers to the amount of free hydrogen atoms in a solution. It ranges from 0 – 14, with water being neutral at pH 7, an acid having a pH less than 7 and a base or alkali a pH greater than 7. Another important thing to note, is that pH is ’logarithmic’ which means that each pH level is a factor of 10 such that a pH of 5 is 10 times lower than a pH of 6,  100 times lower than a pH of 7, 1000 times lower than a pH of 8 and so on.

So why is all this pH talk relevant anyway?
You see our skin has a slightly acidic pH of between 5.3 – 5.9, and it pretty much likes to remain that way. Hence, when we use alkaline products with pH’s above 7, we are greatly offsetting the pH balance of the skin especially when you look at it in ‘logarithmic terms’.

By using alkaline products, we can distort our skin barrier by damaging the proteins in the topmost part of the skin which causes us to loose excessive water, resulting in dry skin. Some people may think this is great, especially if they have oily skin. However, drying out the skin simply triggers the oil glands to produce even more oil, which can exacerbate acne. Furthermore, skin that is dry is also more prone to irritation.

Most worrying than this, is the fact that high pH products (>7), provide an environment that is conducive for the growth of acne causing bacteria (p. acnes), which eventually worsens acne you are trying to fight off to begin with.

Is there really any evidence for this?
Yes, there is. In fact, two studies by Korting and colleagues and Subramanyan and colleagues, showed an improvement in the number of acne lesions when a ‘syndet’ type of facial cleanser was used as opposed to a typical soap. The converse was also true, such that acne lesions increased when conventional soaps were used.

So how can we identify these so called ‘syndets’?
One way to do this is to look at the names by which they are marketed. If a product has been labelled ‘soap free’, a ‘beauty bar’ or ‘cleansing bar’, it is likely it is a ‘syndet’. A more sure way, however, of identifying them, is by going through the list of ingredients to see if you can spot any of the following ‘syndet’ ingredients:

  • Sodium cocoyl isethionate (most common),
  • Sodium cocyl monoglyceride sulphate,
  • Sulfosuccinates,
  • Betaines,
  • Alpha olefin sulfonates or
  • Alkyl glyceryl ether sulfonate

Because many of us won’t be bothered to look through these long tongue twisting names, I have decided to provide a non-comprehensive list of some examples :

  • Dove Sensitive skin beauty bar
  • Cetaphil Gentle cleansing bar
  • Eucerin pH5 soap-free bar
  • Aveeno moisturising bar
  • Uriage eau thermal xemose gentle cleansing syndet
  • Uriage extra-rich dermatological syndet bar
  • Vanicream cleansing bar
  • Seba med cleansing bar
  • Cerave hydrating cleansing bar
  • La Roche-Posay Lipikar Syndet soap free cleansing gel

Most of these products can be purchased from retail pharmacies such as Boots in UK. Cetaphil, Aveeno and Vanicream are more easily obtained in the US, whilst I’m unsure as to if Medplus in Nigeria stock some/all of the above. If you happen to find any of the above in Nigeria, please be a darling and mention in the comments section.
So there you have it, another way to fight this acne battle. Please do not hesitate to ask any questions related to this article.
Stay blessed and stay beautiful.


Photo Credit: Vladimirfloyd | Dreamstime

Dr Dami is a budding dermatologist with an interest in natural haircare, acne and skin of colour problems. In her spare time, she enjoys researching skincare and K-beauty trends, poring through Ebony & Essence magazines, listening to table topic discussions and travelling the world. Follow on IG @thedermcorner


  1. Flow

    November 6, 2017 at 11:29 am

    We have most of these products here, years back a doc recommended seba med and benzoyl peroxide 10% and some anti biotics while I had severe breakouts on my face, it worked! It smoothened out my stony face but I became very dark and it did nothing for the spots, what I will like to know Dr Dami is if there’s a way of permanently getting rid of stretch marks without surgery, I hear surgery is the only way, is this true?

    • Ogo

      November 6, 2017 at 1:44 pm

      Plz what are the antibiotics

    • D

      November 6, 2017 at 3:21 pm

      was Clindamycin one of the antibiotics you used?

    • Dr Dami

      November 6, 2017 at 10:30 pm

      Hey Flo, thanks for your feedback. Regarding the antibiotics I was wondering which one you were taking as some of them can cause you to be more sensitive to the sun or even cause the skin to darken.
      To be honest stretch marks are a cosmetic problem I haven’t personally treated. They usually occur during growth spurts, as people get bigger, or if you have been using steroid creams or tablets for a long time. From the books certain creams and lasers can be used, however are not always effective. I would however recommend to see a dermatologist in person.

  2. Damian hope

    November 6, 2017 at 11:47 am

    I really do not understand the write up. Do you mean that the products stated above are good for clearing acne from the face.

    • Dr Dami

      November 6, 2017 at 10:35 pm

      Hi Damian, the take home message is simply to use ‘low-pH’ cleansers to wash the face if you have acne instead of regular soaps. I provided a list of such cleansers which are generally considered gentle enough. Clearing acne will require more than just a cleanser, however selecting the right cleanser is always a good place to start. I hope that helps 🙂

  3. Joy E. Ojo

    November 6, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    Hello Dami, I recently suffered from Acne this year for about 6 months. It was a long battle from visiting spas to a dermatologist, not forgetting to mention all the creams, soaps, facial washes and lastly toners I bought, but I tell you, nothing worked. I then started using ACV mixed with water on my face as toner and I bought Evening Primrose oil to help balance my hormones, even though I had other vitamins like fish oil, maca etc. That was when I noticed a visible difference on my face. I stayed through to Oil of Olay light weight cream for the face and neck only. I have been fine ever since.

  4. Anonymous

    November 6, 2017 at 7:46 pm

    Please desist from using cetaphil, it will destroy your facial skin. Please don’t!!!!

    • evelyn

      November 7, 2017 at 1:50 am

      please how? been using it for about a year… should i be afraid?

  5. Dr Dami

    November 6, 2017 at 11:01 pm

    Hello Joy, I have read glowing remarks about ACV. However, there is a lack of clinical studies looking at it’s role in acne as such it’s not something I would confidently recommend. There are also cases of it causing burns to the skin, when used undiluted, so tread cautiously.

  6. The Cake Lady

    November 7, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    Please has anyone tried glutathione pills for acne and overall skin health? I’m curious about people’s experience – if it worked and how long it took to see results.

  7. Mark Burnett

    January 23, 2021 at 7:41 am

    Hey, thanks for sharing this. Loving your blog.

  8. Taiwo

    August 23, 2021 at 4:57 pm

    Hi doctor Dami,
    I have been having reaction to soap and I have tried using different types to see which one suit me but I don’t seem to find any. Some times they work for a while then I start having the reaction again. Previously whenever I have this reaction I use epiderm(a cream in Nigeria) and it subsides the reaction but currently no cream seem to curtail it. Please can you give me an advise as regards this. The common symptoms are eczema, itching and burning sensation.

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