Thought your acne days were over? Think again. Some of us have been dealing with it way into our adult years, and we’re desperate to find a solid routine to fight back.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there are tons of over-the-counter products that can help reduce and treat acne. This is great news! Why? Because these products tend to be inexpensive and pretty convenient to find—as long as you know what to look for.
The key to a successful acne treatment plan is selecting products that a) reduce oil, b) decrease inflammation, c) unclog pores and d) kill bacteria.
So, where can you find this miracle product that does all of the above?
Sadly, no such product exists. That’s why it’s essential to use a combination of products that target each cause (we’ll get to that in a second!).
But don’t expect overnight results. Treating breakouts—even mild ones—is serious business. Expect your routine to take a minimum of six to eight weeks to really notice improvement. Oh, and you might even notice that your breakouts get worse before you start seeing any improvement.
So, let’s dive in. I’ve put together this super user-friendly guide to help you navigate the best active ingredients to use on acne. It’s time to make peace with those little red bumps, once and for all.
Active Ingredients that Fight Bacteria
Why it works: Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most widely known active ingredients responsible for killing bacteria. Specifically, it kills p.acnes, which is the bacteria that causes acne. It’s also been shown to control acne and reduce flares when used daily.
Where to find it: Try Neutrogena’s Clear Pore Cleanser + Mask. This is a great product to use as a daily cleanser or a few times a week as a face mask. It combines the bacteria-killing power of benzoyl peroxide, kaolin and bentonite clays to reduce oil and unclog pores.
Why it works: Sulfur is what’s known as a bacteriostatic agent—this helps to prevent pimple development, suppressing the bacteria and preventing it from multiplying. It also helps unclog your pores. This is a very targeted remedy that is better to be applied as a spot treatment.
Where to find it: Try Indie Lee Blemish Lotion. In addition to sulfur, this spot treatment also contains salicylic acid which helps exfoliate while the sulfur suppresses bacteria. Just make sure you don’t shake the bottle before using it. Although it’s tempting, allow the product to settle in the base of the bottle.
Active Ingredients that Reduce Oil + Unclog Pores
Why it works: a derivative of vitamin A, Retinol helps to reduce oil production and unclog pores by exfoliating the dead layer of skin cells off the surface of your skin. Retinol can be very irritating so it is best to go slow and increase to nightly use as tolerated. Retinol products should be used only at night and sunscreen should be used daily because it does increase sun sensitivity.
Where to find it: This best over-the-counter retinol product for treating acne is Adapalene or Differin Gel 0.1%. If this product isn’t helpful, consider seeing a dermatologist for a prescription-strength version at a higher percentage. Keep in mind that all retinol products are not created equal and not always strong enough to treat acne. So if it claims anti-aging, it’s probably not going to work as well.
Salicylic Acid (Beta Hydroxy Acids)
Why it works: Also known as a beta hydroxy acid, salicylic acid is an oil-soluble ingredient, which means it can get deep into your skin to do its job. That job exactly? Exfoliating and removing the dead layer of skin cells on the surface—aka, the main culprits that clog pores.
Bonus! In addition to unclogging pores, salicylic acid also works to ease inflammation.
Where to find it: Not only do these Acne Healing Dots by Peace Out fight against acne-causing bacteria, they also use vitamin A to speed up the healing process and extract impurities. Made with aloe vera to soothe redness, these stickers help your blemish look less red, less painful in just six hours.
AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acids)
Why it works: While AHAs, or Alpha Hydroxy Acids, aren’t quite as effective in unclogging pores as salicylic acid, glycolic is still a close second. You also might want to consider lactic or fruit acids if you have more sensitive skin.
Where to find it: My Multitasker Night Serum contains 15% Fruit Acid Complex—these mildly exfoliating, gentle, naturally occurring alpha hydroxy acids help remove dull and damaged skin cells, leaving your skin brighter and more refreshed.
Active Ingredients that Decrease Inflammation
Why it works: Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, helps to soothe irritation and inflammation caused by acne. In addition, it also fades PIH, or post inflammatory hyperpigmentation—aka, those pesky little red marks left after a breakout has resolved.
Where to find it: My Multitasker Night Serum contains 7% Niacinamide and exfoliating fruit acids which help to exfoliate, unclog pores, reduce oil production and decrease inflammation. Use at night and wear sunscreen daily.
Acne Devices to Consider
The thought behind facial cleansing brushes—the most popular being the Clarisonic—is that the oscillating motion helps to remove makeup and dead skin cells, allowing your skincare to penetrate deeper. While there are no studies done to prove this, it makes sense that removing the dead layers of skin reduces clogged pores and helps these products work better.
My favorite cleansing cloths are made by Norwex. Not only are they thought to have antibacterial properties, they also help to physically exfoliate without being too abrasive. However, please note that there haven’t been any studies done to prove the efficacy of these cloths to help treat acne. However, they’re a safe-and-sound alternative in addition to using topical products.
Natural Ingredients to Consider for Treating Acne
I’m a huge fan of clay—specifically of the bentonite, kaolin and french green variety. These are best used as a mask to help control oil and unclog pores. My favorite is the Sand & Sky Australian Pink Clay Porefining Face Mask, which detoxifies and brightens your complexion in only 10 minutes.
Or, if you want to DIY it, here’s a fun little recipe:
- 1 tablespoon French green clay
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tsp grapefruit juice
This on-trend ingredient is gaining popular acclaim, and for good reason, too. This detoxifying ingredient is best incorporated into your routine as a bar soap or face mask. Bonus: it may also help reduce oil, if used daily. The best charcoal cleansing bar I’ve come across is the Charcoal Cleansing Bar by Beautycounter.
If you’ve ever been to a Target store, you’ve more than likely seen this product before. Witch hazel helps decrease inflammation and balance oil. Because of this, it’s best used as a toner. I also love to apply it after a workout, if I can’t immediately cleanse my face. The gold standard for witch hazel is Thayers, but just make sure to stick with the unscented version, because synthetic fragrance and essential oils can sometimes worsen acne.
When it comes to acne, keep in mind that less is always more. One to two products that treat acne on different levels should be your goal. Unfortunately, while it may be tempting to layer on multiple products and wash your face every time you feel the least bit oily, excessive product use can stress out skin and worsen acne. Resist this! Cleansing too often can also be irritating for your skin. My rule of thumb? Limit cleansing to morning and night or after exercising.
The most important takeaway with acne treatment is that over-the-counter products take a minimum of four to eight weeks to start improving your skin. However, if you’re not noticing an improvement by week eight, you should follow up with a board-certified dermatologist or dermatology nurse practitioner.
Phew! That was a lot. I’m sure you still have tons of acne questions on your mind. Need to know if a product in your routine is worth the hype? Struggling to realize if it’s time to visit your dermatologist? Leave a comment below and I’ll try to answer ASAP.