Acne: It’s the most common skin condition in the United States, affecting up to 50 million Americans every year. That’s a lot of pimples.
Anyone who has experienced a breakout knows that everyone, from well-meaning aunts to citizens of the internet, has a different opinion on the best treatments they “swear by.” It’s no wonder wading through the deluge of options feels exhausting — and dabbed with skepticism.
So we’re here to help armor your skin with expert-informed advice on the best treatments for acne. We’ll even make braving the skin care aisle easier with tips and product recs from licensed estheticians and dermatologists.
Keep your eyes peeled for these ingredients when reading labels
When it comes to over-the-counter products, these are the ingredients that are most effective for mild to manageable acne breakouts. Most ingredients aim to kill bacteria and clear up pesky dead skin cells, but your mileage may vary depending on the ingredient.
Dana Murray, a licensed esthetician, warns that treating acne-prone skin as its own skin type is one of the most common mistakes she sees.
“Acne is a skin condition that any skin type may experience, so how a person with dry skin would treat their acne would be different than how someone with very oily skin would. It’s important to take into consideration a person’s skin type and the condition their skin is in to start with. Doing so will provide a better outcome.”
Dr. Angelo Landriscina, who recently finished his dermatology residency at The George Washington University Hospital, stresses that people with acne should see a dermatologist for their acne at least once. “Many conditions like rosacea, perioral dermatitis, and malassezia folliculitis can look like acne to the untrained eye. Without the correct diagnosis, it will be hard to find relief.”
Plus, a dermatologist can help you figure out your skin type and then recommend the right ingredient. You don’t want your skin to be a testing ground! Leave that to the clinical trials.
But if you know and you’re ready to go, come shop with us.
How we chose our products
To create our list of recommendations, we looked for the top reviewed products made with the ingredients above and sourced priority picks from beauty editors, dermatologists, and licensed estheticians. We also broke down these products by skin type.
Marie Veronique Intensive Repair Serum
Price: $$$$Acne-fighting ingredients: Lactic acid, salicylic acid, vitamin B5
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
Price: $$$$Acne-fighting ingredients: Adapalene (retinoid)
Landriscina says, “A retinoid is a must in every skin care regimen for acne! And we now have prescription-strength adapalene over the counter from brands like Differin and La Roche-Posay.”
We like this gel because it’s effective and easy to find at any drugstore in the United States.
Buy Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment.
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Price: $$Acne-fighting ingredients: Salicylic acidBonus: Cruelty-free
Murray says, “One of my favorite products is the Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid, which can be used as a toner treatment. Salicylic acid is good for [both] blackheads and whiteheads.”
Buy Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant.
Best for oily skin
Makeup Artist’s Choice Mandelic Acid Toner
Price: $Acne-fighting ingredients: Mandelic acidBonus: Cruelty-free
Yuen says, “I’m afraid of using too many acids because that can damage the skin barrier. Mandelic acid is much gentler due to its large molecular structure.” Research shows it also penetrates the skin more slowly than other acids. This single-ingredient toner is an excellent way to not break the bank.
Buy Makeup Artist’s Choice Mandelic Acid Toner.
Face Theory Pink Clay AHA Face Mask MK1
Price: $$Acne-fighting ingredients: Lactic acid, vitamin C, clay, jojoba oilBonus: Vegan
A pilot study found that people who used clay masks in conjunction with jojoba oil saw improvement in acne after 6 weeks. This particular bestseller features lactic acid, vitamin C, and pink clay to cleanse pores and promote cell turnover, plus jojoba and argan oils to hydrate.
Buy Face Theory Pink Clay AHA Face Mask MK1.
Best for sensitive skin
Maelove NIA 10 Calming Serum
Price: $$$$Acne-fighting ingredients: Niacinamide, zincBonus: Gluten-free
Murray loves this product. “The N10 serum from Maelove is great because it contains niacinamide and zinc,” she says. “Niacinamide is good for reducing redness, and interestingly, many people with acne are low/deficient in zinc. The combination of the two [is] a power couple that really helps acne.”
Buy Maelove NIA 10 Calming Serum.
Marie Veronique Treatment Cleanser
Price: $$Acne-fighting ingredients: Lactic acid, salicylic acid
This cleanser combines AHA and BHA to unclog pores, but its formulation avoids drying out the skin. Yuen turns to this cleanser to gently exfoliate when she notices whiteheads and blackheads collectively taking up real estate on her skin. Afterward, her skin is as soft as a baby’s bottom.
Buy Marie Veronique Treatment Cleanser.
Deviant Gentle Resurfacing Liquid
Price: $$$Acne-fighting ingredients: Five AHAs (mandelic, glycolic, lactic, citric, and malic acids), a BHA (salicylic acid), and even a polyhydroxy acid (PHA) called gluconolactoneBonus: Cruelty-free
If you’ve never heard of PHAs, Landriscina has you covered. He notes on his website that PHAs can deliver similar results to AHAs but with less irritation. This product, which helps target deep and surface level acne, is especifically great for those with sensitive skin.
Buy Deviant Gentle Resurfacing Liquid.
The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%
Price: $$Acne-fighting ingredients: Azelaic acidBonus: Vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free
This hot product lives up to the hype: Research suggests azelaic acid is effective at fighting acne and inflammation, and The Ordinary’s affordable product is a suitable option for all skin types. It has a lightweight texture and is fragrance-free. Those struggling with rosacea and acne at the same time might particularly benefit from it.
Buy the Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%.
Best for dry skin
Thayer’s Witch Hazel Facial Toner with Aloe Vera
Price: $Acne-fighting ingredients: Witch hazel
This alcohol-free formula can actually work well for many skin types, as its ingredients can work together to balance the skin oil production without drying it out. LabMuffin, the internet’s go-to skin explainer, writes that she puts this in a spray bottle when her skin is dehydrated because “[it] contains irritation-killing witch hazel as well as glycerin, which will moisturize and hydrate.”
Buy Thayer’s Witch Hazel Facial Toner with Aloe Vera.
SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
Price: $$Acne-fighting ingredients: Four AHAs (lactic, glycolic, citric, and malic acids) as well as salicylic acid
This exfoliating cleanser features a host of ingredients to fight acne and slough off dead skin cells while jojoba oil spheres take more gentle action on the skin.
Buy SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser.
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA
Price: $$Acne-fighting ingredients: Lactic acidBonus: Vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free
Lactic acid is a more hydrating flavor of the AHA family, and the addition of hyaluronic acid provides extra hydration to balance things out as you remove dead skin cells. Lab Muffin notes, “This is a good product to try if you find glycolic acid too irritating.”
Buy The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA.
Face Reality Sulfur Spot Treatment
Price: $$$Acne-fighting ingredients: Sulfur
Face Reality Spot Treatment can help treat acne and inflammation. Murray likes this product because it’s “great for those with big cystic pimples or pustules.” It’s also less drying for her skin than other acne products.
Buy Face Reality Sulfur Spot Treatment.
The Inkey List Bakuchiol
Price: $$Acne-fighting ingredients: BakuchiolBonus: Vegan and cruelty-free
Bakuchiol is a newer ingredient to the market that can have a similar effect to retinol without the potential irritation. Clean and natural beauty experts are often excited about this ingredient because it comes from a plant source.
Reviewers note, “It’s fragrance free, absorbs quickly into skin, and works well both over and under other skin care products.”
Buy The Inkey List Bakuchiol.
Best for combination skin
CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser
Price: $Acne-fighting ingredients: Salicylic acid, niacinamideBonus: Cruelty- free
Landriscina likes to have salicyclic acid in wash-off formulations like CeraVe’s SA Cleanser. This nondrying, nonirritating formula provides gentle cleansing and exfoliation while soothing and moisturizing the skin with hyaluronic acid and niacinamide. Perfect for keeping whiteheads at bay.
Buy CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser.
Kate Somerville Anti-Bac Acne Clearing Lotion
Price: $$$$Acne-fighting ingredients: Benzoyl peroxide
Spot-treating is a good way to hit acne where it lives without drying out areas that don’t need it. This product has more than 250 reviews, and many users note that it’s worth repurchasing. If something is that good, stick with it, right?
Buy Kate Somerville Anti-Bac Acne Clearing Lotion.
De La Cruz 10% Sulfur Ointment Acne Medication
Price: $Acne-fighting ingredients: SulfurBonus: Cruelty-free
For very pesky, specific spots that pop up and need a quick banish, Hadiyah Daché, a licensed esthetician also known as The Fairy Glow Mother, recommends spot-treating. Sulfur lies on the gentler end of the spot-treating spectrum, and those with combo skin will appreciate the ability to apply this product with precision.
Buy De La Cruz 10% Sulfur Ointment Acne Medication.
SkinCeuticals Phlorectin CF with Ferulic Acid
Price: $$$$Acne-fighting ingredients: Vitamin C, ferulic acid, phloretin
Each of the key ingredients in this product works to fight discoloration. Many estheticians (such as those at Sanova Dermatology) and derms (such as Dr. David Lim) like this product for its antioxidant abilities. The vitamin C and ferulic acid combo works to target acne, signs of aging, and discoloration.
Buy SkinCeuticals Phlorectin CF with Ferulic Acid.
Best for skin prone to scarring or hyperpigmentation
With great beauty comes great hyperpigmentation, especially for those who are blessed with the gift of melanin. Here are some products that treat acne and hyperpigmentation while being gentle on the skin to avoid perpetuating the problem.
Price: $Acne-fighting ingredients: HydrocolloidBonus: Vegan
Hydrocolloid patches protect the spot from additional irritation while removing any excess fluid. The only ingredient in these adorable patches is hydrocolloid, so they’ll do their job to shrink whiteheads without causing any irritation.
Buy Starface Hydro-Stars.
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
Price: $$$Acne-fighting ingredients: Retinol, niacinamideBonus: Cruelty-free
Retinol fights long-term acne while niacinamide soothes in this gentle formulation. It’s a top choice for those who are new to retinol because of its encapsulated formula. Encapsulated retinol is especially good for people with sensitive skin due to its improved ingredient stability and delivery.
Buy CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum.
The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA
Price: $$Acne-fighting ingredients: Mandelic acidBonus: Vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free
“Many of the agents used to treat acne can be irritating, and irritation can inflame acne. This can make acne appear worse or even cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (especially in skin of color),” says Landriscina.
So a gentle AHA is just what the doctor ordered. The simple nondrying formulation will combat acne and hyperpigmentation at the same time.
Buy The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA.
Unsun Mineral Tinted Suncreen in Medium/Dark
Price: $$$ Acne-fighting ingredient: Zinc oxide
A sunscreen in an acne article? You read that right. “Almost all of these [acne-fighting] ingredients can make the skin sensitive to the sun, so wearing sunscreen is an absolute must!” adds Murray. “It will also help to prevent post- inflammatory hyperpigmentation.”
Most mineral sunscreens leave a white or gray cast that’s noticeable on darker skin tones, but Unsun’s formulation blends right into the skin. It even won a 2019 Allure Best of Beauty Award.
Buy Unsun Mineral Tinted Suncreen in Medium/Dark.
Note: This product contains some coconut oil, which may clog pores. Don’t worry — we have plenty of sunscreen picks for all skin types.
What else do the experts say?
1. Slow and steady really does win the race
Landriscina warns that you may have a long wait to see results from acne products. “I always tell my patients that you need to give a regimen 6 weeks to START to see results,” he says, noting that some products can take up to 12 weeks. Murray and Daché say to give a product 4 to 6 weeks before you give up.
“With any acne products, you can expect to see results after 3 months,” says Daché. “The reason for this is that it can take up to 3 months for acne lesions to be visible to you. So if you do start a new acne routine, I advise waiting it out and being patient with those products so that you can see it actually working.”
2. Don’t try everything at once
“Too many products can cause more damage than good,” Murray explains. Keep your acne-fighting regimen to one or two products rather than a whole line — especially with products that contain AHAs and BHAs.
“The biggest mistake is consumers mistaking more for better,” says Daché. “That’s overkill and often ends up damaging your skin in the process.”
The same goes for face-washing. “Another common mistake is feeling like your skin care needs to be extra harsh or that you have to scrub your face — overcleansing and harsh scrubs can actually make acne worse,” says Landriscina. “You are not dirty.”
3. Finally, remember that at-home treatments are not a replacement for expert care
As Landriscina noted, some skin conditions can look like acne to the untrained eye. Chronic acne or hyperpigmentation may require professional treatment.
Always use caution when adding new actives and proven ingredients to your routine. Ultimately, if you treat your skin kindly, you’ll be glowing sooner than you think.
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