Alpha-Hydroxy Acids – These are synthetic acids derived from sugary fruits that remove dead skin cells3 while reducing inflammation. The two common types that can be found in over-the-counter acne treatments are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Another benefit of these acids is that they improve the appearance of your acne scars and make your pores look smaller by stimulating the growth of new, healthy skin.
A 2013 study on acne vulgaris in The Nurse Practitioner concurred that a multidimensional approach to acne is usually necessary because most people have a combination of symptoms. Based on the advice of dermatologists and aestheticians, we turned our focus to regimen sets, analyzing the ingredients of more than 40 kits before finding our top picks.
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If you’re used to seeing advertisements for acne treatments using five or six different products to clear up blemishes, you might be surprised that a simple three-step kit is our top pick. In fact, we favored Paula’s Choice for its simplicity. This twice-daily, three-step kit — which includes a cleanser, an anti-redness exfoliant, and a leave-on treatment — is concise without cutting corners.
What it is: You may have heard of tretinoin in reference to "Retin-A" wrinkle treatments. Tretinoin is retinoic acid and vitamin A acid combined, and comes in various strengths in creams, gels, and liquids for topical use on the skin. It is used to treat acne and also to treat sun damaged skin or wrinkles and is usually applied once per day.1Learn more from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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.
Benzoyl Peroxide – A strong compound that kills the bacteria that causes acne1. It also gets rid of excess oil and the build-up of dead skin cells which clog your pores. This ingredient is exceptionally strong, and it can cause some side effects like redness, dry skin, burning or stinging and scaling. You’ll only find it in products at 2.5% to 10% strength. However, dermatologists recommend that adults stick to a low-dose of benzoyl peroxide, at around 3% for minimal irritation and to avoid bleaching your skin, hair or clothing.
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If you notice that you’re breaking out right around your period every month, your acne might be linked to hormones. “A sensitivity to the hormones called androgens manifests in the form of cystic acne,” says Linkner. Androgens, namely testosterone, cause the skin to produce more sebum. More sebum equals more acne. Birth control, which has estrogen and progestin, helps keep hormones balanced and skin clear. Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Estrostep, and YAZ are all FDA-approved as acne treatments.
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.”
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Oftentimes, our first instinct when we encounter bumps, pimples and other blemishes on our skin is to touch it. But if you’ve been dealing with acne for a while, you’ve probably learned by now that these practices only make acne and skin problems worse. For starters, our hands come into contact with more bacteria, pathogens and contaminants than any other part of our bodies. Even when we try to wash our hands often, there is only so much of that we can avoid putting on our faces every time we reach out to touch it. So, there’s the fact that we could be adding harmful bacteria our facial skin to begin with. But it doesn’t end there.
Not only does facial sunscreen protect your skin from harmful UV rays (which can lead to skin cancer), but it will also help fade your dark spots and acne scars. That’s because skimping on sunscreen only makes your hyperpigmentation worse, experts warn. Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City recommends this non-greasy drugstore SPF from Neutrogena in Prevention’s round-up of the best sunscreens of the year. It’s especially great for acne-prone skin, since it’s lightweight, absorbs quickly, and has a matte finish.
While a few people suffer from acne that is so severe it requires a medical prescription from a doctor, most people with mild to medium acne problems can find decent over-the-counter treatments that really work. The first key to getting your acne cleanser right is to know what active ingredients combat your acne, and then finding an acne treatment that contains it. Here are a few of the ingredients you want to look for:
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.

If you have oily, tight skin and tend to get age spots or sun spots, try an exfoliant made with glycolic acid right after you cleanse your skin, no more than 4 or 5 times a week. Aveeno Positively Radiant Cleansing Pads provides just a “dab” of exfoliant that will help lighten the spots without irritating your skin (which over the long run would create new brown spots).


Have you tried treating your acne with no luck? You might simply be using the wrong product for the type you have. Whether you have periodic breakouts or more stubborn cystic acne, there's a solution. We asked Dr. Neal Schultz, an NYC dermatologist, to share the best treatments for every type of acne. Read on for his expert product recommendations, along with some editor favorites, that'll give you clear skin in no time.
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