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.
The Pore Targeting Treatment gel and Complexion Perfecting Hydrator moisturizer slip on nicely, with the former powered by skin-loving glycerin and the latter by a whole slew of delicious ingredients, like licorice root extract, sodium hyaluronate, bisabolol, and allantoin. The three-step solution is easy to use and makes cleansing the face a quick, efficient process.
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.
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.
Our favorite for banishing blemishes on the fly, Glossier's zit stick is not only effective, but it's portable. Just stash it in your purse for any unexpected breakouts! Packed with acne-fighting benzoyl peroxide, this convenient roll-on works extremely quickly. In a clinical trial, 83% of test subjects said that it lessened the appearance of pimples in just 3 hours. We've tried it ourselves and can confirm the 3-hour claim is true.
Conversely, not using any facewash on your skin leaves you with the build-up of dead skin cells, dirt, grime and excess oils. While many others swear by using the simple combination of warm water and a facial cloth for their skincare routine, warm water isn’t always enough to penetrate your oil-clogged pores that have dirt and bacteria trapped inside. If you think you might disagree, imagine rinsing an oily, used frying pan with just warm water. Without a proper cleanser, you can’t cut into the grease buildup or eliminate harmful bacteria. The same applies for your skin.
What it is: Originally under the brand name "Accutane" but now available only in generic form, isotretinoin is a derivative of vitamin A taken in pill form for 15-20 weeks. Doctors normally prescribe it for people with "severe nodular acne" that does not respond to other treatments. Nodules are inflammatory lesions with a diameter of 5mm or more. A single course of 15-20 weeks has been shown to result in complete clearing and long-term remission of acne in many people.1-2 Learn more on the Accutane page of acne.org.
“Cult-fave for a reason — simple, cheap, and effective. Dries down fast, alcohol-free, and incredibly convenient to use. Even with my normal-dry skin, I find that the drying effects of this product are easily mitigated with moisturizer (obviously your mileage may vary). This has seriously helped manage whiteheads, sebaceous filaments, and those little red inflamed buggers.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Acne isn’t just a problem for teens. According to studies, those pesky zits and pimples can pop up at any age. Whether it’s your diet, environment or stress that’s to blame, you don’t have to suffer helplessly. To get the skinny on acne, we talked to board-certified dermatologist Cynthia Bailey, M.D., president and CEO of Advanced Skin Care and Dermatology Physicians, Inc. and founder of DrBaileySkinCare.com. Here, she shares her best tips on how to choose the right acne cleanser for you, as well as how to use it to get the best results.
Although there is not enough research to determine if certain foods cause breakouts, there are certain changes you can make to your diet to help prevent them. For breakfast, switching to plain oatmeal that has only been sweetened with fresh fruit can help prevent excessive androgen production. When you eat fish, opt for salmon, which is high in omega-3s. One omega-3 called DHA is an anti-inflammatory. Snacking on sunflower seeds can give you more vitamin E in your diet. Vitamin E helps the immune system fight off bacteria before inflammation and cysts occur. Finally, make sure you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water each day. Your body needs almost half a gallon each day.
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.
Accutane is especially good for cystic acne in women and body acne in men. “Oral vitamin A basically shuts down your sebaceous glands. If you suppress [them] for a long enough period, you can cure someone of their acne, and about 50 percent do hit that cure rate,” says Linkner. A course of Accutane can take about six to nine months. Sometimes patients need to repeat the course at a higher dosage in order to truly eliminate acne.
Acne doesn’t discriminate based on age, race or gender. Between 40-50 million Americans have acne and know the daily struggle of living with this painful skin condition. 20% of them are adults. The other 80% are young people between the ages of 12 and 24, and one-quarter of these young people will suffer permanent scars on their skin from it. That means that 10 million young people will have permanent acne scarring.
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.
Named one of Prevention’s best moisturizers for oily, acne-prone skin, dermatologists recommend Cetaphil due to its lightweight, non-greasy, noncomedogenic formula (meaning it won’t further clog your pores). It’s also free of fragrances, making it especially great for sensitive skin types. Hydrating glycerin, dimethicone, and vitamin E work to combat any dryness caused by acne treatments.
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.
Considerations: Ask your doctor before using any other products on your skin while using erythromycin, as it may be too irritating. This includes other prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines (including those listed on this site), and harsh or abrasive cleansers, perfumes, or make-up.2 People report burning as the most frequent side effect, and also peeling, dryness, itching, redness, and oiliness, among others.2
The dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross did a major study on water and its effect on skin and he found that the heavy metals in tap water can actually ruin the benefits expensive lotions and serums do for skin. Some cities (New York and L.A., for example) have worse water than others (Seattle, for example). While some dermatologists aren't buying his claims, (Patricia Wexler for one), you can fight the drying effects of water on skin by cleansing with cold cream, a practice common with European women.
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.
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.
When whiteheads and blackheads become infected with bacteria, called Propionibacterium acnes, it leads to inflammatory acne. Regular bacteria is found in most whiteheads and blackheads, but P. acnes is attracted to the closed, oily environment. This bacteria makes acne more difficult to treat. The four different pimple types that characterize inflammatory acne are papules, pustules, nodules and cysts.
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.
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.