These ingredients can actually get rid of your acne
Banish breakouts once and for all.
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
Acne is quite the confidence buster. It shouldn’t be—after all, most people deal with it at some point during their lives. But the physical discomfort it can bring to your skin and the frustration you can feel trying to make it go away can be distressing. If you have acne, you’ve probably taken a stroll down the drugstore skincare aisles and realized there are dozens of pimple-fighting treatments using different or overlapping active ingredients. To help you understand what anti-blemish ingredients are best for your skin, we called on Dr. Farah Moustafa, a Boston-based dermatologist with Tufts Medical Center.
Option 1: Try salicylic acid
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that exfoliates and breaks down dead skin cells. Its exfoliating ability makes it great for counteracting and preventing acne, but you’ll find it even in skincare products not designated for acne. The reason it’s such an effective blemish treatment is its “lipophilicity,” which refers to its ability to get into the pore and dissolve the dead skin cells and oils clogging it. Because salicylic acid exerts its magic from inside pores, it works even when washed off the skin, preventing future comedones (the scientific name for blackheads and whiteheads). As an added benefit, you may notice hyperpigmentation or acne stains fade with use of salicylic acid because it causes cells to turn over at a faster rate.
Salicylic acid treatments typically come in 0.5% to 2% strengths and you can find them in face washes or leave-on treatments. Moustafa recommends using a wash as a prevention method if you have oily skin and are acne-prone, but using a leave-on treatment if you have already have comedones that you want to address, or if you have specific areas of the face you want to target with more of the active ingredient.
If you go with a wash, or you’ve used acne products before and know you're not sensitive to them, start with 2%. If you decide to go with a leave-on treatment, or if you have sensitive skin, Moustafa recommends you start with a concentration closer to 0.5%.
For a face wash that includes 2% salicylic acid, try the CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser. It keeps the skin barrier intact with ceramides (lipids found in the outer layer of the skin) and hydrates with hyaluronic acid.
If you want a 0.5% leave-on treatment, try the Organys Glycolic & Salicylic Exfoliating Pads. The pads claim to exfoliate and smooth the skin with salicylic glycolic acids.
For a 2% leave-on treatment, go with the mega-popular Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. It unclogs pores while soothing irritated skin with green tea extract. After washing your face, apply this to the skin with a cotton ball or round and follow-up with moisturizer.
- Get the CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser on Amazon for $9.87
- Get the Organys Glycolic & Salicylic Exfoliating Pads on Amazon for $8.97
- Get the Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant on Amazon for $29.50
Option 2: Add benzoyl peroxide
Another popular blemish fighter, benzoyl peroxide is an antimicrobial, meaning it stops the growth of microorganisms, like acne-causing bacteria. You can use benzoyl peroxide on its own or in conjunction with other treatments, like salicylic acid, because it performs a different function. “If you have more inflammatory lesions, I’d say go down the benzoyl peroxide route,” Moustafa suggests. “But I’d say a combination is totally reasonable, too, if someone can tolerate it.”
A combination doesn’t mean using the products in succession—you can use salicylic acid one day and use benzoyl peroxide the next. Moustafa says one of the greatest benefits of benzoyl peroxide is that, while bacteria can grow resistant to some treatments, like the common acne prescription clindamycin, there’s no evidence of bacterial resistance with benzoyl peroxide. In other words, it won’t lose its efficacy.
Like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide comes in different strengths (2.5% to 10%) and forms, and Moustafa's same advice applies: Go with a wash-off treatment, like a cleanser, if you have sensitive skin or want to prevent acne all over your face. If you have specific spots to target, try a leave-on. The downsides are that this ingredient can be drying on the skin and it can even bleach your sheets or towels, so you may not want to sleep on your good pillowcases. In terms of selecting your concentration, “you don’t get much more benefit after 4%, but you get more drying,” Moustafa says. “I say stick to 2.5% to 4%.”
Try the PanOxyl Antimicrobial Acne Foaming Wash for a daily cleanser that uses 4% benzoyl peroxide to kill acne-causing bacteria. It claims to be gentle on the skin and contains glycerin, which hydrates the skin.
For a leave-on treatment that uses a low concentration of 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, snag the Paula’s Choice Daily Skin Clearing Treatment. In addition to tackling breakouts, the lotion claims to calm redness with allantoin and soothe irritation with bisabolol.
- Get the PanOxyl Antimicrobial Acne Foaming Wash on Amazon for $9.48
- Get the Paula’s Choice Daily Skin Clearing Treatment on Amazon for $18
Option 3: Consider retinoids
You may think of retinoids as anti-aging ingredients, but their ability to regulate skin cell turnover is helpful to acne, too. Because of this, “you’re less likely to get that [pore] clogging,” Moustafa says. “[A retinoid] is almost a staple in acne treatments for that reason.” At the same time, a retinoid can stimulate the production of collagen (a protein in the skin), which can help plump up the skin and reduce the appearance of acne scarring as well as fine lines and wrinkles.
If you have very sensitive skin or you’re new to retinoids, Moustafa recommends starting with a retinol, as it’s a weaker retinoid. For this, try the LilyAna Naturals Retinol Cream, which has over 18,000 Amazon reviews and a 4.3-star rating. The moisturizer contains 2.5% retinol, hydrates the skin with hyaluronic acid, and soothes with aloe.
If you grow tolerant to a lower-strength retinoid or if your acne is more severe, you can try adapalene 0.1%. Previously a prescription, this type of retinoid is now available over the counter. A popular option is Differin Gel, a spot treatment you can use anywhere on the face that experiences breakouts, hyperpigmentation, and scarring.
- Get the LilyAna Naturals Retinol Cream on Amazon for $22.99
- Get the Differin Gel on Amazon for $12.88
Option 4: Experiment with other ingredients
While salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinoids make for great acne busters, there are cases where none of them quite fill the bill. For example, if you’re pregnant, Moustafa says all of these ingredients are off the table. Or maybe you use one or a combination of the three ingredients, but still have more concerns you want to target. There are a few ingredients that can replace or supplement the ones above. These include:
Sulfur: Like salicylic acid, sulfur dissolves the compact layers of dead skin that clog pores. It’s also antibacterial, which can help inhibit the growth of acne-causing bacteria. What sets this apart is that it’s also antifungal and antiparasitic, which matters if you have an acne-rosacea overlap. As Moustafa explains, a parasite on our skin called demodex can cause or exacerbate rosacea, an inflammatory skin condition. “[Sulfur] can help if there’s a crossover or if there are multiple things going on.” Sulfur is also safe for pregnancy. The one downside? Patients say this ingredient smells unpleasant, similar to rotten eggs. A popular sulfur option is the Peter Thomas Roth Therapeutic Sulfur Acne Treatment Mask, which you can apply all over the face or on specific areas for five to 10 minutes up to three times a week.
Azelaic acid: Another pregnancy-safe option, azelaic acid comes in both prescription (15% concentration) and over-the-counter (10%) options. This is a great option if you have dark skin or if you typically get staining after breakouts. “If you get a lot of hyperpigmentation, it can actually work against the enzymes that make the melanin pigment, so it can help block pigment production,” Moustafa says. Azelaic acid also gently exfoliates the skin. Add this ingredient into your routine with The Ordinary’s Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%, which has over 99,000 Sephora "loves."
Alpha hydroxy acids: A beta hydroxy acid like salicylic acid makes more sense for acne, as it gets down into the pores, but AHAs are pregnancy-safe and may also help ease acne despite not penetrating deeply. Of the AHAs, Moustafa recommends lactic acid, especially if you have dry or dehydrated skin. “A product with lactic acid as an ingredient can help with cell turnover and exfoliating the skin, but it will also keep the skin hydrated,” she says. Try The Ordinary’s Lactic Acid 10% + HA, which not only exfoliates but also soothes any inflammation and irritation with tasmanian pepperberry.
Clay: You’ve probably seen people talk about clay in skincare (think: the Aztec Secret Indian Clay Healing Mask). Clays are generally not effective at combating chronic acne, but if you feel like your pores are clogged and you like the tactile sensation and instant gratification or a clay mask, it can’t hurt. Plus, applying clay to the skin is typically safe during pregnancy. “It basically draws out oil [and] causes a light exfoliation of the skin,” Moustafa says. “All of the stuff clogging your pores can kind of come out with [the oil] and it can help with acne in that way.”
Hydrocolloid patches: Similar to clay, acne patches won’t combat chronic or cystic acne. However, these hydrocolloid dressings can draw moisture out of an existing pimple and keep it protected from water and bacteria. Plus, if you struggle with picking your skin, these can help you resist the urge by creating a barrier over the spot. If this sounds like a good temporary remedy for you, try the Hero Cosmetics Mighty Patch set, which includes 36 spot treatments.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.