What it is: Originally under the brand name "Accutane" but now available only in generic form, isotretinoin is a derivative of vitamin A taken in pill form for 15-20 weeks. Doctors normally prescribe it for people with "severe nodular acne" that does not respond to other treatments. Nodules are inflammatory lesions with a diameter of 5mm or more. A single course of 15-20 weeks has been shown to result in complete clearing and long-term remission of acne in many people.1-2 Learn more on the Accutane page of acne.org.

Antibiotics. These work by killing excess skin bacteria and reducing redness. For the first few months of treatment, you may use both a retinoid and an antibiotic, with the antibiotic applied in the morning and the retinoid in the evening. The antibiotics are often combined with benzoyl peroxide to reduce the likelihood of developing antibiotic resistance. Examples include clindamycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzaclin, Duac, Acanya) and erythromycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzamycin). Topical antibiotics alone aren't recommended.


The first thing you need to do to take care of your skin is to use sunscreen. The best acne treatment never includes sunbathing and staying out in the sun unprotected will not reduce the number of blackheads or whiteheads you have. It will, however, lead to more skin problems down the road and can cause a breakout or two right now. Wrinkles, age spots and even skin cancer are on the agenda of someone who decides they don’t need to protect their skin.

Acne and stress aren’t connected. FALSE. Scientific studies have shown the opposite to be true. Students with acne were examined before and after major exams at school, and their acne got worse when they experienced stress before exams. It is a double-edged sword. Acne can cause stress, but it can also get worse with stress. Stress hormones such as cortisol can overstimulate the oil glands in your skin. And we already know that oil, bacteria and dead skin cells are what really cause acne. So try to keep away from stressors while you try to get your skin healthier.

Considerations: Cigarette smoking with oral contraceptive use increases the risk of serious heart disease.2 There are many negative side effects and positive side effects to taking birth control pills for acne. Talk to your doctor to decide if it is right for you.1-3 While it is a widely held belief, evidence does not show a correlation between pregnancy rates and concurrent administration of birth control pills and oral antibiotics. [With the exception of anti-tuberculosis drugs like rifampin.]
Spot treatments are designed to give problem pimples a mega-dose of concentrated benzoyl peroxide — in a couple of regimens, like the Proactiv Teen Kit, the spot treatment had nearly three times the benzoyl peroxide as its all-over treatment. The logic: If benzoyl peroxide can be irritating to the skin in high concentrations, limiting its intensity to just the pimple itself could save the rest of your healthy skin.
Acne products can be irritating, so many women find that a gentle drugstore face cleanser like this one from CeraVe keeps their skin in better balance. The foaming formula is more suitable for normal to oily skin types compared to creamier versions. Plus, it is formulated with hydrating ceramides and hyaluronic acid, so your skin won’t feel stripped at all.
Once you hit your 30s, there's a good chance you'll still occasionally battle the same breakouts you've had since your teen years at the same time you're trying to stave off the fine lines that come with age. But you don't have to choose between a facial cleanser that only fights dull, aging skin or clears up zits. Plenty of products fight both—you just need to know what to look for. 
“Cult-fave for a reason — simple, cheap, and effective. Dries down fast, alcohol-free, and incredibly convenient to use. Even with my normal-dry skin, I find that the drying effects of this product are easily mitigated with moisturizer (obviously your mileage may vary). This has seriously helped manage whiteheads, sebaceous filaments, and those little red inflamed buggers.”

But the side effects of targeted breakout cream treatments aren’t always worth it. “So many products instruct consumers to use benzoyl peroxide spot treat red bumps and pustules. I don’t recommend it,” says Dr. Lawrence Green, board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at George Washington University. Such high concentrations of benzoyl peroxide cause added irritation and inflammation to already sensitive skin, so with this in mind, we cut kits that included spot treatments.


Tea Tree Oil – Another anti-bacterial ingredient that is common in over-the-counter treatments, tea tree oil combats acne-causing bacteria. While the FDA hasn’t officially approved it for acne treatment, some dermatologists say it’s almost as effective as benzoyl peroxide for clearing skin, although it doesn’t work quite as fast. It can be used for spot treatment as well.
I get asked all the time about my favorite organic skin care products. It seems everyone is worried about putting toxins in and on their bodies. So for cleansers, I recommend Dr. Hauschka's Cleansing Cream. Organic and void of chemicals, the Dr. Hauschka line is super popular among those concerned with healthy skin. So what's in this magic cleanser? Sweet almond meal and extracts of anthyllis, calendula, chamomile and St. John's wort. This cleanser gently exfoliates while adding moisture to skin, which makes it great for aging skin, dry skin and combination skin.
If a pore is open, it’s called a blackhead or “open comedo”. Because of the opening, contact with the air oxidizes the dead skin cells inside the pore. The air contact turns the melanin inside them darker in color, similar to the way a peeled banana left exposed to the air will darken. This is how the blackhead forms. The color of a blackhead is not because of dirt. It’s a mixture of air and the skin pigment called melanin.

Ask any dermatologist for advice on how you can reduce the chances of breakouts, and they’re most likely going to mention taking probiotics as one of their top tips. This facial cleanser, infused with tea tree oil, willow bark and yogurt, targets irritation-causing bacteria while controlling oil production. It also features a biocomplex of vitamins A, C and E, coenzyme Q10 and antioxidants that diminish wrinkles and other visible signs of aging.
Retinoids – Recommended for people with moderate to severe acne, retinoids can unclog your pores, allowing for your other medicated acne treatments to penetrate deeper. They can reduce your potential for outbreaks and the formation of acne scarring2. You can also use a retinoid cream directly as a treatment after your face cleanse, or even take it in the form of a retinoid pill to treat oil/sebum production and to treat inflammation and acne-causing bacteria.
Considerations: Ask your doctor before using any other products on your skin while using erythromycin, as it may be too irritating. This includes other prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines (including those listed on this site), and harsh or abrasive cleansers, perfumes, or make-up.2 People report burning as the most frequent side effect, and also peeling, dryness, itching, redness, and oiliness, among others.2
Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial ingredient, and it’s very effective at killing the P. acnes bacteria that causes breakouts. But benzoyl isn’t without its downsides. The leave-on creams and cleansing treatments can dry out sensitive skin types and bleach clothing if you aren’t careful. Board-certified dermatologist Eric Meinhardt, M.D., previously told SELF that it's best to stick to formulations that have no more than 2 percent of benzoyl peroxide listed on the active ingredients chart; stronger concentrations are harder on your skin without being any tougher on bacteria.

The trick is to identify a cleanser that offers a deep clean without over-drying the skin, which naturally produces less oil with age, says Jessica Wu, MD, a dermatologist in Los Angeles. "Adult or hormonal acne is different than teen acne—people are often dry on the top layer of skin, and broken out underneath that layer,” Dr. Wu says. “So Proactiv or Clean & Clear won't work as well once you hit your 30s.”
Your pimples need TLC, too. The study on acne vulgaris found that, in an attempt to dry out acne lesions, patients often use too many products or apply excessive amounts to problem areas, resulting in further irritation and over drying of the skin. Vigorous scrubbing and using harsh exfoliants can make acne worse by rupturing whiteheads and blackheads, turning them into painful red ones. And remember: no matter how satisfying it is, picking and popping your zits will also increase inflammation and opportunity for infection.
The other downside to Proactiv+ is that the bottles are small — like, half the size of Paula’s Choice small. Combine that with its recommended two or three-times daily application, and you’re going to be going through a lot of kits, which ultimately means spending more money on your treatment. If Proactiv is the only thing that works for you, it may very well be worth the investment, but we recommend starting with Paula’s Choice to see if you can get the same results at a cheaper price.
Acne vulgaris is the catch-all term for everything from angry red lesions to tiny white bumps, which are the results of hair follicles and their sebaceous glands becoming blocked and inflamed So our first plan was to look at it all — spot treatments, washes, scrubs and creams — until we learned that when it comes to over-the-counter treatments, there is no single cure.
How to Handle It: Think of these as bigger, pissed-off whiteheads. Your best bet, says Zeichner, is to stock up on benzoyl peroxide, which kills the bacteria. A spot treatment like Murad Acne Spot Fast Fix ($22) should do the trick. Also, try not to pop them — as tempting as that may be. Since they're inflamed, they're more likely to scar if you go the DIY route.
Acne is caused when the sebaceous glands in your skin get infected or inflamed. Blemishes and pimples are most commonly found on your face, chest and back. You have a system of oil glands under your skin, and this is where sebum is produced. Sebum is supposed to keep your skin healthily moisturized, but too much production of this oil can cause blackheads and whiteheads. When the oil is pushed out through your hair follicles, it can clog your pores if it attaches to bacteria or dead skin cells. If this happens, sebum will build up behind the plug and form a pimple. And we all know what that is.
Protect your skin. Skin care doesn't end when you leave your bathroom. Wear a noncomedogenic (non-pore clogging) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more that offers both UVA and UVB protection to shield your sensitive skin against the sun's harsh rays. A water- or light liquid-based sunscreen is best for acne-prone skin. Limit your time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. While outside, wear a hat with at least a 2-inch brim and clothing to cover exposed skin.
“I have had acne pretty much since I hit puberty (now 25) and this is the only cleanser I have found that doesn't break me out or dry me out! My skin leans towards the dry side and is prone to dehydration but this cleanser leaves my skin feeling perfect! For those of you who are dry and live in a drier climate this might be a little stripping, but for me it works well. It is the perfect gentle cleanser with no frills or extras. According to cosdna.com, this contains no acne-triggers, so it will probably stay my holy grail for life! I cannot say that this cleanser has single-handedly cleared me up, but it is part of my overall healthy skin routine!”
Meanwhile, salicylic acid, which is derived from willow tree bark, wintergreen oil or sweet birch and occurs naturally in fruits like raspberries, cantaloupe and granny smith apples, works well for most skin types. Aside from being an exfoliant that sloughs away dead skin cells and other pore-clogging impurities, it has anti-inflammatory properties that help to address inflammation, which is thought to be the primary cause of acne.
Retinol: Retinol is simply another word for vitamin A, sort of like how we call vitamin B7 “biotin.” It’s important that our bodies get systemic vitamin A through our diet for good vision, a strong immune system, and general organ function, but some research suggests that vitamin A could have a positive impact on the skin when applied to it directly. The problem is, regular retinol doesn’t actually do much for acne. That’s because the retinoic acid found in retinol isn’t always activated when left to its own devices. We typically have to activate the retinoic acid synthetically through the creation of various medications.
Genetics can also affect how your immune system works. When confronted with bacteria, your skin might erupt in painful red lumps called pustules while someone else might just get a blackhead. Or maybe your friend has sensitive skin that breaks out more often than yours does. Your family history has a lot to do with the type of skin you have and how it looks and feels.

According to Dr. Bailey, the best facial cleansers for acne should have at least one of these key ingredients: salicylic acid, glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide. Cleansers with these ingredients can penetrate your pores and eliminate pore-clogging impurities—like dead skin cells, makeup, excess oil and bacteria—that irritate skin and make acne worse.
Genetics play a big part in who gets acne and how severely, but each blemish can be blamed on some combination of sebum production, a bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), plugged follicles, and inflammation. Finding a good treatment is really about finding the right combination of ingredients to troubleshoot each of those issues. Some factors that might worsen acne include hormones, certain medications, diet and stress.
Some acne cleansers and face soaps have added ingredients to fight acne and improve the skin's appearance. Medicated cleansers contain acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, sodium sulfacetamide, or benzoyl peroxide, which can help clear up skin while cleaning it. Salicylic acid helps clear blocked pores and reduces swelling and redness. Benzoyl peroxide exfoliates the skin and kills bacteria. Sodium sulfacetamide interferes with the growth of bacteria.
Spironolactone has relatively minor side effects, like low appetite, weakness, or cramping, but there’s one major exception: spironolactone comes with a black box warning about its cancer-causing effects. The FDA is required to include this label based on a study conducted in the 1950s that found carcinogenic properties in the spironolactone given to rats in an experiment. However, the dose of spironolactone used in this study was nearly 500 times higher than the dose currently prescribed, and no studies since have found anything carcinogenic about spironolactone. Because of this, most dermatologists feel comfortable prescribing spironolactone for acne. Still, it’s something to be aware of before you take it. Additionally, those with low blood pressure or kidney conditions are likely not good candidates for spironolactone and may want to explore other acne treatment options.

Skin type, tone, and condition vary from person to person. That explains why what worked for your best friend hasn’t helped you at all. If you are at the end of your rope with your acne and find that it is affecting your life, you really should see a dermatologist before struggling to find a new treatment. A dermatologist might still have to try a few different approaches, but they are trained to get through the process quicker. However, if your acne hasn’t caused you serious problems yet, visiting a dermatologist can be a time-consuming and expensive option. This is why many doctors say mild- to moderate- acne can be treated with over-the-counter products.
However, salicylic acid isn’t just for those of us with sensitive skin. It can also help those of you with tougher skin, through higher concentrations. Over-the-counter, you can find salicylic acid in concentrations up to 2 percent, but if you want something even more intense, many spas and dermatology offices offer salicylic acid chemical peels with 20-30 percent salicylic acid. Beware, these peels will likely leave your face very photosensitive for a few days, but they have been known to significantly reduce sebum for a few weeks at a time.
The other downside to Proactiv+ is that the bottles are small — like, half the size of Paula’s Choice small. Combine that with its recommended two or three-times daily application, and you’re going to be going through a lot of kits, which ultimately means spending more money on your treatment. If Proactiv is the only thing that works for you, it may very well be worth the investment, but we recommend starting with Paula’s Choice to see if you can get the same results at a cheaper price.
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