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.

Most people either choose to live with acne, or out of frustration turn to medications or chemical treatments that often have side effects or simply don’t work at all. Dermatologists can prescribe medications to treat acne, including gels, lotions, cleansers and even antibiotics. The harsh chemicals used in over-the-counter and prescription acne products can cause further irritation to already-sensitive or inflamed skin, so using these is not always the best option, or safe for continued use.

Getting rid of stubborn pimples, blackheads and whiteheads starts with thorough but gentle cleansing of the skin. Try my recipe for Homemade Honey Face Wash to cleanse skin without causing irritation. It features apple cider vinegar, honey, coconut oil, probiotics and essential oils (like tea tree oil). The honey soothes the skin, the coconut oil helps to fight bacteria and fungus, and the tea tree oil helps to invigorate the skin. Dampen skin with warm water, and massage into face and neck. Rinse well and pat dry. Do this each morning and evening and, if needed, after workouts. Refrain from cleansing more often, as this can irritate the skin and cause an overproduction of oil.

This dermatologist-tested formula is a foaming face wash that works incredibly fast. It can make skin visibly clearer in as little as 12 hours. It’s made with 2% salicylic acid, Acceladerm Technology™, and PHAs, polyhydroxy acids that open pores, improve skin moisturization and calms the skin. It unblocks pores, kills bacteria and calms and soothes the skin. This Clearasil product is guaranteed to be so good that if it doesn’t work for you, they have a 30-day money-back guarantee that you can take them up on.

Benzoyl peroxide. This ingredient kills the bacteria that cause acne, helps remove excess oil from the skin and removes dead skin cells, which can clog pores. OTC benzoyl peroxide products are available in strengths from 2.5 to 10 percent. Possible side effects include dry skin, scaling, redness, burning and stinging, especially if you have sensitive skin. Be careful when applying benzoyl peroxide, as it can bleach hair and clothing.
All the dermatologists we talked to agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to acne. Every patient responds to treatments differently, and sometimes it can get worse before it gets better. But with the help of your dermatologist, you can find an acne treatment regimen that works for you. And, yes, we do stress how helpful it is to work with a derm to get it right.
First, let’s talk about what causes acne. Pimples form when the oil and dead skin cells on your skin combine to form a plug that blocks the pores. “As the P. acnes bacteria that naturally live on skin overgrow within this plugged follicle, the area becomes inflamed and this is when you start to see papules, pustules, and cystic lesions,” RealSelf dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D., tells SELF. The treatments ahead work to exfoliate away dead skin cells, suck up excess oil, stop inflammation, and kill the P. acnes bacteria. There are even a few treatments that target hormonal acne specifically.
The best acne medication differs from person to person, but because acne is caused by so many different factors, the best solution for most people is an acne treatment that includes multiple key ingredients. For the vast majority of people with acne, the best medicine for acne is a gentle, over-the-counter option that treats the causes of acne without irritation the skin. Below, we’ve included three of our favorite over-the-counter acne treatment options.
This single cleanser unclogs pores, clears up blackheads, reduces blemishes, brightens skin tone, smoothes texture, moisturizes, and shrinks the appearance of pores. The ingredients that make all this happen include moisturizers like hyaluronic acid, aloe, and cucumber. Then, there are grapefruit and orange oils to revitalize dull skin. Plus, peptides and panthenol help rebuild texture while Clary Sage purifies.
A review published in the Archives of Dermatological Research found evidence that sleep deprivation, stress and other aspects of “modern life” are linked to adult female acne. The researchers point out that “Modern life presents many stresses including urban noises, socioeconomic pressures and light stimuli. Women are especially affected by stress during daily routine. Women also have a higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety. Sleep restriction is added to these factors, with several negative consequences on health, including on hormonal secretion and the immune system.” (7)

The best acne-fighting ingredients will offer several benefits, including reducing or eliminating excess oil and removing the dead skin that builds up and clogs your pores. There are two main chemical ingredients that are FDA approved for fighting acne and you can find them in a range of acne-fighting products, including the ones in the chart above. The natural ingredients, on the other hand, have been proven to work by scientific studies but not all have been approved by the FDA as a guaranteed acne-fighting ingredient, like tea tree oil for example. Nonetheless, you will still find a combination of these chemical and natural ingredients in many skin care products on the market, and many of them work amazingly on the right skin type.
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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.
If your acne is severe, painful, or refusing to get lost, you may just be beyond what an over-the-counter treatment can do. Not only can a professional set you up with the really powerful stuff, but also Fitz Patrick explains that “working closely with an aesthetician or dermatologist means you can keep tweaking a routine to make it work best for you.”
What it does: Benzoyl peroxide is the only known substance which can bring oxygen under the skin surface. Since bacteria cannot survive in the presence of oxygen, when used in an adequate dosage, benzoyl peroxide eradicates 99.9% of these bacteria almost immediately. It also exerts a mild drying and peeling effect, which is thought to help prevent breakouts.1-6 Benzoyl peroxide also helps lessen inflammation.7-9 2.5% benzoyl peroxide is just as effective as higher concentrations with less side effects.6,10
“I use it approximately three nights a week either layered over my moisturizer or directly after cleansing. It has reduced my overall breakouts, decreased the time it takes for my breakouts to heal, and helped overall to even my skin tone and minimize pore appearance. I also think it has made my skin slightly less oily, as long as I moisturize properly. I do not use any chemical exfoliation currently, but use a konjac sponge occasionally to help with any dead skin or texture. I have not experienced any excessive dryness or flaking, and also did not ever purge. It is my HG for my acne and I plan on repurchasing until the end of time.”

Cysts are another troublesome type of acne to treat successfully without the help of a doctor. A cyst forms similar to a nodule—way beneath your skin’s surface. However, cysts are thought to form from pustules because they contain pus. They are painful when touched resemble a boil. They appear to be a large, red, swollen lump on the skin surface. People who are prone to them may get one large cyst or a clump of cysts.
A complete skin care regimen to control acne usually starts with washing. The ideal face wash creates a soft creamy lather in warm water. It rinses off dirt, excess oil, and makeup, leaving the face ready for the next step in daily skin care, whether that is toner, moisturizer, exfoliant, sunblock, or more makeup. It is fragrance-free, and it does not create a foam, film, or tingly sensation on the face. Any product that foams and suds vigorously, like a detergent, is a strict no-no for acne treatment, especially on dry skin.
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A purifying gel cleanser made with 99.4% natural ingredients, this face wash is clinically proven to wash away excess oil, impurities and the bacteria that causes acne. It’s made with salicylic acid naturally derived from willow bark extract, evening primrose and beet root extracts that reduce acne, prevent future breakouts and calms acne prone skin. Best for oily skin types, this face wash helps to keep you oil-free without making your dry or irritated.

Dapsone is a topical gel medicine sold under the brand name Aczone for treating severe acne, and it’s perfect for people who want a low-maintenance acne treatment plan. Unlike many of the best acne medications, dapsone only needs to be applied once daily, and it is the only medications most people will need, though it’s always good to include a face wash and moisturizer in your skin care routine if possible. Dapsone can function on its own because it is both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory10, effectively taking care of two of the biggest causes of acne.
The alkaline ingredients in Ivory Soap reach into the skin and dissolve the fats and ceramides that lock moisture in and keep the skin soft and flexible. Tight skin constricts pores, locking oil and acne bacteria inside. If you wash your face with Ivory Soap once or twice a day, you almost certainly will have no big pieces of dirt or grime lurking in enlarged pores, but you are likely to have an ongoing problem with whiteheads and blackheads, and the constant irritation will also make pimples redder and more inflamed.
Oh, hello old friend. Salicylic acid is the go-to fix for pimply preteens. And cruising through the aisles at the drugstore, you’ll find it as the active ingredient on the majority of products labeled “acne wash” or “spot treatment.” Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that works by dissolving excess oil and gently exfoliating away dead skin cells. Salicylic also has anti-inflammatory properties to help with inflamed cystic breakouts that can occur when blockages deep in the hair follicles rupture beneath the skin. It’s best to apply this ingredient as a toner, moisturizer, or leave-on spot treatment instead of a face wash to give it time to do its work. And keep in mind, salicylic acid can dry out the skin if over-applied, so maybe choose only one product with the ingredient to use every day.
This dermatologist-tested formula is a foaming face wash that works incredibly fast. It can make skin visibly clearer in as little as 12 hours. It’s made with 2% salicylic acid, Acceladerm Technology™, and PHAs, polyhydroxy acids that open pores, improve skin moisturization and calms the skin. It unblocks pores, kills bacteria and calms and soothes the skin. This Clearasil product is guaranteed to be so good that if it doesn’t work for you, they have a 30-day money-back guarantee that you can take them up on.

This top-of-line cleanser is one that really works amazingly for normal, combination and oily skin types. It’s a foaming face wash with 3% sulfur that makes your skin visibly clearer without drying it out. It removes blemishes, unclogs pores, draws out impurities all while calming redness and reducing excess sebum production. The sulfur in it helps to prevent future breakouts and tames even the worst acne breakouts.


Glycolic acid is another chemical exfoliant that dissolves the structural lipids that hold dead skin cells and bind them to the surface. But aside from this, studies have also shown that glycolic acid effectively encourages and stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, restoring damaged skin faster and reducing signs of environmental damage with continuous use.
Aside from adding bacteria to your skin, these forms of contact can irritate the skin, adding to the appearance of redness and causing increased inflammation. In the event that your pimples get ruptured during this process, the oil and bacteria that was trapped inside could spread to the surrounding skin on your face, which causes acne to spread. So, not only will rubbing, squeezing and scratching leave your acne-ridden skin further irritated, it will increase the amount of acne you will have to deal with.

This content is strictly the opinion of Dr. Josh Axe and is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of medical advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Axe nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.

Feverfew – Commonly known as wild chamomile, feverfew is a plant that has been used for generations. It was once called “parthenium” by the ancient Greeks and is used to treat various ailments and disease. When it comes to your skin, feverfew is anti-inflammatory7, reducing and preventing redness and swelling. It’s also high in anti-oxidants and can be consumed orally in the form of tea for added benefits, like healing your skin from the inside out.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne is the most common skin condition in the United States. (1) Occasional breakouts and chronic acne plague tens of millions of Americans of all ages every year. About 85 percent of teens experience some type of acne, but even many adults deal with at least occasional breakouts too. About half of teens and young adults suffering from acne will have severe enough symptoms to seek out professional help from a dermatologist.
Oral isotretinoin is very effective. But because of its potential side effects, doctors need to closely monitor anyone they treat with this drug. Potential side effects include ulcerative colitis, an increased risk of depression and suicide, and severe birth defects. In fact, isotretinoin carries such serious risk of side effects that all people receiving isotretinoin must participate in a Food and Drug Administration-approved risk management program.
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