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.
Pustules, as their name suggests, are filled with pus. They usually have a white or yellow center surrounded by extremely inflamed skin that is pink or red. The pus isn’t just bacteria and skin cells—it contains some dead white blood cells that were trying to fight the bacteria, too. Squeezing these can cause the skin around them to darken and scar.
Just as there are no bells and whistles with Purpose above, there are none with this baby-mild product that renowned dermatologists swear by. So why is this $10 cleanser such a must-have? It's creamy, simple and isn't loaded with chemicals or perfumes that can irritate the skin. Cetaphil products are revered in the industry and their cleanser is one of the best drugstore buys out there. Period.

Alpha hydroxy acids. Two types of alpha hydroxy acids that are used in nonprescription acne products are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Alpha hydroxy acids are synthetic versions of acids derived from sugar-containing fruits. They treat acne by helping to remove dead skin cells and reduce inflammation. Alpha hydroxy acids also stimulate the growth of new, smoother skin. This helps improve the appearance of acne scars and gives the impression of smaller pores.
Considerations: Despite the frequent referencing of an initial flare of acne when starting is tretinoin, there is no scientific evidence to back this up. You should not expect an initial worsening of acne.3-4 Exposure to sunlight should be minimized as you may be more sensitive to its rays. Ask your doctor before using other medication on the skin, especially anything containing sulfur, resorcinol, or salicylic acid, as the combination may be too irritating. Abrasive soaps and cleansers should be used with caution for the same reason. Side effects can include skin irritation, swelling, lightening or darkening of the skin, an increase in acne sores, excessive redness, and crusted or blistered skin.

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.
Any acne treatment is a weeks-long experiment that you’re conducting with your skin. Acne is slow to heal, and in some cases, it can get worse before it gets better (nearly every benzoyl peroxide product we looked at emphasized the likeliness of irritating acne further, and starting off with a lighter application). April W. Armstrong, a doctor at the University of California Davis Health System, recommends waiting at least one month before you deem a product ineffective.

Even though it may be convenient to wash your face with whatever you have in your bathroom, there are a lot of reasons why you want to avoid that like the plague. Summed up in one word, those reasons are; ingredients. Because different people have different skin types, not all ingredients will work the same for everybody, but the general principle remains the same.

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.
Those with dry skin can experience flaking and skin that feels tight. Dehydration is one cause of dry skin, so be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Also stay away from alcohol and caffeine, which can draw fluid from your body. Exfoliating daily with a product that is non-abrasive will help with skin cell turnover without erasing your skin’s natural oils. Look for moisturizers that contain hyaluronic acid (also listed as sodium hyaluronate in the ingredients list), glycerin, and algae, which is a marine component that can attract water and send it to your skin cells. Emollients like camellia oil and squalene are great to smooth and hydrate your skin.
If even a trace of sodium lauryl sulfate is left on the skin for more than an hour, however, the upper layer of living skin cells is irritated and dies. Tiny flakes of skin make the texture of the skin look uneven, and they can clog pores. The scent of sodium lauryl sulfate also causes your nose and tongue to be less sensitive to sweet tastes and their associated odors, so you will crave sugar.
For some, the right dosage can be found over-the-counter in concentrations as low as 2.5 percent or up to 10 percent, but for others, a prescription dosage is needed to see the best results. Prescription doses rarely go over 10 percent, as benzoyl peroxide is known to cause stinging, burning, itching, flaking, peeling, and redness2 when used in concentrations over 5 percent, but they may combine the benzoyl peroxide with other acne medications.
“Acne cleansers with these ingredients will gradually unclog pores, reduce the size of existing blackheads and slow or stop the formation of new ones,” she says. “Benzoyl peroxide is also the best ingredient for treating the acne-causing bacteria called p. acnes. In fact, study after study continues to show that benzoyl peroxide is more effective than prescription topical antibiotics at treating p. acnes.”
What's Going On: Do you tend to get these at the same time every month — say, just before you get your period? Because these are the work of fluctuating hormones, says Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist and the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Hormones can put oil production into overdrive, and having an excess of it means that it’s more likely to settle in your pores and cause zits.
Simple alcohols like isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and denatured alcohol are everywhere in acne treatment because they trick you into thinking they’re working: Splash some on and any oil on your face instantly vaporizes. However, these ingredients destroy the skin’s barrier, called the acid mantle. When your acid mantle is damaged, you’re actually more susceptible to breakouts, enlarged pores, and inflammation. To make matters worse, evaporating all the oil on your face can actually set your sebaceous glands into overdrive, leaving your skin oilier than ever. If any product included a simple alcohol high up in its ingredients list, we nixed its whole kit.

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.
Combined oral contraceptive pills contain progesterone and estrogen and help to balance out the levels of testosterone in the body12 One obvious effect of this is birth control, but dermatologists have also found it very useful for treating hormonal acne. Testosterone doesn’t directly cause acne, but when hormone levels fluctuate and testosterone increases above its baseline level, it can lead to increased acne for some. This is because increases in testosterone and other androgens leads to an increase in sebum production, which can cause more clogged pores and more p. acnes bacteria, leading to blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, or even cysts.

Dermatologists aren’t sure why azelaic acid is so effective at clearing up inflammation, but it’s often used as an option for sensitive skin or pregnant patients. Linkner says the ingredient is good at treating malasma, acne, and rosacea. Your dermatologist can prescribe a foam product with azelaic acid, and you can also find beauty products with very small amounts of this active ingredient.

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.”
“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.”

How to Handle It: Consider salicylic acid your secret weapon. "This beta hydroxy acid helps remove excess oil and exfoliate dead cells from the skin's surface to keep pores clear," says Zeichner. Try Clinique's Acne Solution Clearing Gel, a two-time Best of Beauty winner that packs both salicylic acid and sea whip extract — an ingredient with skin-soothing properties — to help counteract the dryness sometimes caused by salicylic acid. The formula does double duty: It works as a spot treatment for mild to moderate acne and as a nightly allover treatment for pimple prevention. And since it dries clear, you can wear it to fight zits whenever, wherever.
What's Going On: You might be all too familiar with these, which tend to make their debut when you’re in high school. "Blackheads, like whiteheads, are blocked pores," says Zeichner. What gives them their namesake color, though, is the oil. It's already dark, but blackheads also have a larger opening at the surface than whiteheads do, meaning air can enter and oxidize that oil sitting inside the pore, turning it even darker.

What's Going On: You might be all too familiar with these, which tend to make their debut when you’re in high school. "Blackheads, like whiteheads, are blocked pores," says Zeichner. What gives them their namesake color, though, is the oil. It's already dark, but blackheads also have a larger opening at the surface than whiteheads do, meaning air can enter and oxidize that oil sitting inside the pore, turning it even darker.

DIY scrubs to fight acne and keep skin fresh are easy to make and economical. First, you need something that is gritty. Sea salt, brown sugar and ground oatmeal are good choices. In addition, you need a base. Coconut oil, kefir and honey are all good choices. These bases help to fight bacteria, fungi and candida overgrowth on the skin while the textured ingredients help to unplug pores and remove dead skin.
How to Handle It: Speaking of touching, don't! Picking it, squeezing it, or poking at it will only worsen the situation. These may disappear on their own after a few days. Otherwise, Zeichner suggests visiting your dermatologist for a shot of cortisone, which will reduce inflammation and shrink it in just 24 to 48 hours. But if a last-minute appointment isn't in the cards, play mad scientist. First, ice the area, and then apply salicylic acid gel, benzoyl peroxide gel, and 1 percent hydrocortisone cream. The combo will calm skin, kill bacteria, and draw out excess oil from the pimple — all things necessary to take this down, says Zeichner.
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.
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.
Aside from the obvious fact that a good face wash can help heal acne and pimple-prone skin, your choice of facial cleanser really matters when you’re trying to get rid of acne. For starters, the wrong face washes can cause acne, or at least, make yours a lot worse. Throughout the day, your skin does come into contact with a lot of dirt and grime, and it also secretes sebum – an oily, waxy, fatty substance that keeps your skin waterproof and lubricated. Oily skin is the result of an excessive amount of sebum secretion, and most soaps are designed to remove that oil from your skin. However, your skin actually needs some of that sebum to function normally. Without it, you end up with dry skin that tightens to create clogged pores and, ultimately, acne.

Acne is caused by what you eat. SOMEWHAT FALSE. This isn’t a complete lie, but studies are still being done. To date, there have only been small studies done on a few people that have shown a possible connection between acne and high carbohydrate foods like bread, pastries and sodas. There are also studies involving more people, but they relied on adults remembering their acne and eating habits when they were in high school. There just isn’t enough evidence to link any food with breakouts. Some people swear that certain foods make their acne worse. The best way to determine if a food is causing your pimples to appear is by keeping a food/skin diary. Keep track of everything you eat and assess your skin condition in the morning and evening of each day. If you find a pattern, it can’t hurt to avoid the foods that lead to more blackheads and whiteheads. Keep in mind that eating a balanced diet is always a good idea.
For years the French have have opted for super moisturizing cold creams. You simply massage this in and then wipe off with a tissue or a warm washcloth and you're left with super soft skin. It removes makeup without leaving skin feeling "tight." Plus, because you aren't using water to rinse the face, you might be saving your skin from the drying effects of water.
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.
The Exposed Facial Cleanser is our top pick. This cleanser is one of the very best on the market and it works for all skin types. The gentle yet rich formula is ideal for anyone, and it’s especially good for those with sensitive skin. It’s non-comedogenic, hypoallergenic, and soap free, with just 0.5% salicylic acid. Plus, it’s made with a combination of natural ingredients, including sage leaf extract, and vitamins like pro b5.
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.
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.

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.

Dry Skin – Skin that doesn’t produce enough sebum, so it doesn’t retain moisture well and dries out. Dry skin tends to crack, peel, and become itchy, flaky, irritated or inflamed easily. Acne is caused by dead skin cells and bacteria clogging pores, while dryness tightens the pores to clog them further. The best acne face washes should exfoliate your skin, but shouldn’t dry it out further.


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
Exposed Skin Care: Exposed Skin Care products include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and azelaic acid (see below for more details), all at low concentrations that are safe for all skin types. Plus they also incorporate powerful natural ingredients, like tea tree oil, vitamin E, and green tea extract. Before jumping straight to the strongest (and harshest) prescription treatment available, we highly recommend giving this gentle but effective brand a try for a few weeks. If it doesn’t work, you can always send your empty product bottles back to the company and they will reimburse you in full.
Antibiotics for acne, both topical and oral, used to be the top prescriptions for getting clear skin, but research has revealed that they aren’t the best option for most people today due to something called antibacterial resistance. This is where bacteria mutate, become immune to certain antibiotics, then reproduce offspring that are also immune, creating entire colonies of bacteria that can’t be killed by certain antibiotics.

Remember, when making the choice to buy a certain face wash, always consider your unique skin type. A face wash tailored to your skin type will give you the best results, and help you clear up your acne. Also, keep in mind that a good face wash is only one important step in a system of skin care for clear and healthy skin. With the right adjustments, you can achieve that glowing, beautiful skin you know you deserve.
Considerations: Benzoyl peroxide is able to produce complete clearing of acne only when used in an adequate dosage and within a properly applied benzoyl peroxide regimen. Some dryness, redness, and itchiness is to be expected in the first few weeks of use.6 Scientists call this initial period the "hardening effect" of benzoyl peroxide. About 1-3% of people are allergic to benzoyl peroxide and experience an inflammation of the skin or severe crusting.3This should not be confused with the "hardening effect" of benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide, like any other peroxide, can bleach hair and fabric.1
“I bought it for butt acne. I have ended up using it all over and love it! Dry elbows are now so soft. Weird brown skin between my breasts is fading. Butt skin is so soft and clearing up. But the best is my face — it looks so clear and bright, and the black sebaceous filaments on my nose are just about invisible. It has AHA. I have read it has a weird smell/feel but to me it felt fine and the smell was very, very faint. I am so happy, I recommend at least trying a sample if you can find one.”
Alpha hydroxy acids. Two types of alpha hydroxy acids that are used in nonprescription acne products are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Alpha hydroxy acids are synthetic versions of acids derived from sugar-containing fruits. They treat acne by helping to remove dead skin cells and reduce inflammation. Alpha hydroxy acids also stimulate the growth of new, smoother skin. This helps improve the appearance of acne scars and gives the impression of smaller pores.
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.
Sodium sulfacetamide-sulfur is another acne medications often found in over-the-counter treatments, and it works especially well for those with mild-moderate acne that is largely made up of pimples. This is because it effectively dries out excess sebum without drying out the skin, and some studies suggest that this combination of sodium sulfacetamide and sulfur has antibacterial properties. According to one study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, sodium sulfacetamide 10 percent-sulfur 5 percent can significantly reduce the size of p. acnes colonies when used as an emollient foam6. This treatment option is also available as a facewash, topical gel, and topical cream, and can be found at most drugstores.
Keep in mind that even if some products market themselves toward severe acne breakouts, all the kits we looked at are definitely designed for mild to moderate acne. Not sure if you fit on that scale? You’re not alone! When you’re in the middle of a breakout, all acne seems severe, so it can be difficult to self-diagnose your symptoms. We talked to dermatologists and cosmetic chemists to better understand the differences between the various types of acne (see below).
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