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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
What's Going On: If it's big, red, and painful, you're probably experiencing cystic acne, one of the more severe types. "Cystic pimples are caused by genetics and hormonal stimulation of oil glands," says Zeichner. Not only are they large, but they're also notoriously tough to treat. They often recur in the same place, because even if you manage to get rid of one, it can keep filling up with oil again and again, like an immortal pimple.
If you’re looking for a hormonal solution to your acne but don’t want to take a combined oral contraceptive, spironolactone may be the answer. This oral medication is a potassium-sparing diuretic originally designed to treat high blood pressure, but is now also used to treat acne. It mainly functions by reducing sebum production, leading to less acne formation13. If you are able to get pregnant, you don’t necessarily need to take a combined oral contraceptive, but you will want to use some form of birth control since spironolactone, like Accutane, is a well-known teratogen and is known for causing birth defects.
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.
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.
Although some people think they can get the best acne treatment by mixing and matching products, this is not the recommended method of treating blemishes. Aside from doctors, few people understand how different products can react with each other. In some cases, combining two products increases how well both work. For example, green tea extract and salicylic acid complement each other. Skin care system makers usually hire doctors to help improve the effectiveness of their systems.
The cleanser and powerful acne treatment in a single formula are designed to treat and prevent breakouts in just one easy step. It’s a deep-cleaning, oil-free formula for cleansing deep into your pores to help anyone, with any skin type, get rid of acne. With only 2% salicylic acid, this gentle formula has special skin soothers that help prevent irritation and over-drying, leaving your skin feeling soft and smooth without the oiliness.
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.
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.
Alternative and integrative medicine approaches used in the treatment of acne include fish oil, brewer's yeast, probiotics, oral zinc and topical tea tree oil. More research is needed to establish the potential effectiveness and long-term safety of these and other integrative approaches, such as biofeedback and traditional Chinese medicine. Talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of specific treatments before you try them.