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.
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.
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.
I turn to Reddit for many things, from nostalgic news to the best anti-aging products, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that there is power in numbers. To find the best drugstore acne products, I trawled hundreds of posts and comments on the popular subreddit r/SkincareAddiction (relatable!) and found the most highly recommended treatments you can buy.
Sulfur – Not to be confused with irritating sulfates that can be found in some cleansers and treatments, sulfur is an element that can be quite good for your skin. It removes the dead skin cells and excess oils that clog your pores. But just like any chemical ingredient, too much of it can dry your skin out. You’ll likely find it coupled with other ingredients in your cleanser, like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and resorcinol.
Clean your face really well using a mild face cleanser and gently pat dry. Let your skin further air dry and don’t put anything else on it. Don’t put anything else on your face like moisturizer, serum, toner, etc. After a half hour, carefully check your cheeks, chin, forehead and nose, with a hand mirror, for any shine. Also, check if your skin feels tight when you smile or make exaggerated facial expressions.
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.
If you have non-inflamed acne, it means you have a lot of blackheads and whiteheads, but not a lot of redness and swelling. Most common acne face washes can work well for you. If you have inflamed acne, you want to make sure you buy a facial cleanser that has the ingredients to reduce inflammation, swelling, and redness. But you also want to be careful not to buy or use anything that can cause irritation, dry skin and thus, more redness and swelling.
You will see the results from the top performers in the comparison chart. Although any of these treatment systems can safely and effectively help reduce blemishes, Exposed Skin Care stands above the rest as the best acne treatment system. All the products are safe and regulated by the FDA, but Exposed Skin Care also works for a variety of skin types, including sensitive skin. The thing we like most about Exposed Skin Care is the 6-month money back guarantee. Many blemish products expect you to use them for six to eight weeks before you see results and then only provide you with a 1-month guarantee. If you purchase individual products in the store, you are stuck with them, since many do not come with any guarantees. Exposed Skin Care allows you to give their product a fair trial before you decide if it is working for your skin.
Ideally, you want to find an acne face wash and care system that utilizes a number of these ingredients, for best results. It can be a full system by a single brand, like Exposed Skin Care, or it can be a combination of products that you’ve tried and tested for yourself. The important thing to take away here is that there are several ways to treat your acne and knowing what each ingredient does will help you tailor the perfect solution for you.
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.
The Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution is mostly water, but its 2 percent salicylic acid is enough to eat through oil and remove the dead skin cells clogging your pores — and it boasts a higher concentration than nearly every other kit we looked at. Sodium hyaluronate, the super-moisturizing humectant we fell in love with in our review on the Best Face Moisturizer, also caught our eye sitting smack dab in the middle of the ingredients list.
Shah often recommends over-the-counter retinols or prescription retinoids to her acne-prone patients. “I find that compared to other treatments they are beneficial for not just treating acne but also preventing new acne from forming as they help prevent that initial stage of the follicle getting clogged,” she says. “They can also help with some of the post acne [problems] such as hyperpigmentation.” But keep in mind if you have sensitive skin (or eczema or rosacea), a prescription retinoid might be too strong an option. However, your dermatologist can recommend an over-the-counter retinol with a low concentration (0.1 to 0.25 percent), which might be better tolerated. Retinol also isn’t a quick fix. It takes time to see results, and it’s something you’ll have to keep using to maintain its benefits. Shah also mentions that retinol plays well with other acne treatments on the list. "Retinol can be combined with other over-the-counter or prescription medications such as benzoyl peroxide, topical antibiotics, and oral medications. The right combination depends on the severity of the acne and your skin type."
Combined oral contraceptives. Four combined oral contraceptives are approved by the FDA for acne therapy in women who also wish to use them for contraception. They are products that combine estrogen and progestin (Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Yaz, others). You may not see the benefit of this treatment for a few months, so using other acne medications with it the first few weeks may help.