Acne is one of the most frustrating skin concerns, and with so many treatment options available, it can be difficult to know which one to start with—especially when you want to avoid using anything that will make your skin worse. That’s why we’ve tracked down the best acne-fighting ingredients and products out there.
The key to navigating the world of acne treatments is to avoid getting swept up in the latest trends. The best approach is to educate yourself on the active ingredients, then experiment with different products to see which one works best for your skin type.
To get you started, here’s what to look for when shopping for products to keep your face healthy and clear.
Don’t get nervous when you see the word “acid.” It just means this is a treatment with a low pH that’s being used to treat and prevent acne. Essentially, exfoliating acids break down old skin cells, promote cell turnover, and unclog pores to combat some of the biggest acne-causing culprits.
For the most part, you’re likely to come across products that use one or both of the following exfoliating acid groups:
- AHAs: Products that contain these use water-soluble acids to work on the surface of the skin. While they don’t penetrate deep into the skin’s layers, they’re great at addressing problems on the surface, including mild acne breakouts, and helping to keep the skin healthy and fresh to avoid future breakouts. Acids in this group include lactic, glycolic, mandelic, malic, and tartaric acids, and they’re usually safer to use in higher concentrations than their cousin (see below).
- BHAs: This “group” really only contains one ingredient: salicylic acid. You might recognize it from acne-specific skincare products you’ve used in the past. Because it’s an oil-soluble acid, it can penetrate the skin and dissolve any impurities lurking in your pores. It also combats excessive oil production. BHA is a more intense treatment, so you’ll usually find it in a lower concentration (usually 2%) in most skincare products.
For stubborn acne, try a simple, clean BHA serum that targets breakouts with a 2% formulation. The Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant is a hugely popular option, with a formula that includes green tea for soothing and is gluten-free, cruelty-free, and free of a large number of common toxic ingredients like parabens, sulfates, and phthalates.
If your skin is a little more sensitive, a lactic acid product could be a great option for you. Try The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA for an effective but gentle exfoliant that also includes tasmanian pepperberry to calm the skin. For an even gentler product, it also comes in a 5% concentration.
Niacinamide is one of the newer, “trendier” ingredients in anti-acne skin care. It’s a form of vitamin B3 that offers a wide variety of skin benefits, including reducing inflammation, fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and, yes, acne—even severe acne, in some cases!
Like many other ingredients, niacinamide should be used in relatively low concentrations. If you have sensitive skin, you might want to start with as low as a 2% concentration; more common in serums and other skincare products are concentrations around 5% to 10%.
As with any product, though, don’t expect miraculous, overnight results. It takes the skin some time to adjust, so be sure to allow enough time for the product to be effective.
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% is one of the best-known niacinamide products on the market right now. Affordable and with a typically-effective 10% concentration, the serum also includes zinc to help regulate sebum production on your face.
Similarly, The INKEY List Niacinamide Oil Control Serum features a 10% concentration of niacinamide for reducing oiliness, redness, hyperpigmentation, and acne blemishes. It also includes a 1% concentration of hyaluronic acid to hydrate and plump the skin.
Benzoyl peroxide is a “classic” acne-fighting ingredient that’s been popular in skincare lines for quite some time. It’s an active ingredient in many over-the-counter products, as well as in prescription medications at a higher concentration.
The primary acne-fighting mechanism in benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial. It kills the bacteria beneath the skin, which can be the culprit for cystic and inflammatory acne (as opposed to smaller white- and blackheads). Benzoyl peroxide also can help reduce sebum production and remove dead skin cells that clog the pores and cause breakouts.
Because it’s a peroxide, this treatment does have the side effect of bleaching items it comes into contact with, like towels, pillows, or clothing, so keep that in mind when you use it. Like other acne products, it can also lead to dry skin, so be sure to have a reliable moisturizer in your skin care routine as well!
The benzoyl peroxide treatments you’re most familiar with are probably topical creams and gels, like the Paula’s Choice CLEAR Daily Skin Clearing Treatment. It features a 2.5% concentration of the active ingredient.
The gel treatment also feels light on the skin, but addresses the root causes of acne right away. It also includes active ingredients to help calm the skin and avoid side effects, like dryness and irritation.
Benzoyl peroxide also works as an ingredient in cleansers, targeting acne with the foundational step of any skincare routine. The Differin Daily Deep Cleanser contains a 5% concentration of benzoyl peroxide, a strength that should help clear acne effectively without damaging the skin. The cleanser also includes a gentle moisturizer to combat any dryness.
Retinoid, aka, the big guns of skin care, can be an effective way to treat acne, along with its other uses. Essentially, retinoids are a large family of ingredients derived from vitamin A. They come in several different varieties and strengths. Generally, all retinoids help stimulate cell turnover and treat acne, as well as working wonders for hyperpigmentation and other skin issues.
If you’re getting an over-the-counter skincare product, it most likely contains a retinol. This is a gentler, lower-strength retinoid, so it can take a while to see results. Retinol exfoliates, unclogs pores, and encourages cell turnover at a faster rate for fresher, healthier skin.
Again, it can take some time to find the retinol product that works best for you. You might want to start with one that has a particularly low concentration, then gradually work your way up as your skin adapts.
The CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum is a great starter product. It has a gentle retinol combined with a low concentration of niacinamide for double the blemish-fighting power. It also contains hyaluronic acid for hydration. Ceramides restore the skin’s protective barrier, while the retinol is gentle enough to be suitable for daily use on most skin types.
For a more complex, but still relatively gentle retinol product, try The INKEY List Anti-Aging Serum. A combination of 1% stabilized retinol and 0.5% granactive retinoid improves the overall texture of skin, encourages cell renewal, and reduces other areas of concern, like fine lines and wrinkles.
Plus, the formula also includes squalane, which hydrates the skin and soothes any potential irritation.
Prescription retinoids are the active ingredients in products like tretinoin and Accutane. These types of treatments require a visit to the dermatologist.
These are less of an ingredient and more of a delivery method. Known by several other names (healing dots, pimple patches, and so on), these treatments are exactly what they sound like: thin stickers that are placed on the skin over individual blemish spots and left there to deliver a healing treatment.
Not only are these a great way to deliver active ingredients over a longer period and draw out any impurities in your pores, but they also prevent you from mindlessly picking at your spots!
The Peace Out Salicylic Acid Acne Healing Dots use hydrocolloid technology and salicylic acid (in a non-irritating 0.5% concentration) to deliver long-lasting acne treatment over several hours. The salicylic acid penetrates deep into the skin to rid your pores of all the clogging, acne-causing impurities, while aloe vera and vitamin A promote clear, healthy, and soothed skin.
Peach & Lily, the popular K-beauty brand, have an entire line of “Peach Slices” skincare that includes the Peach Slices Acne Spot Dots. These translucent dots use hydrocolloids to absorb impurities and dry out acne spots before they become a full-blown breakout. You can even wear these under your makeup!
For even more acne-fighting power, try Peach Slices Deep Blemish Microdarts. These patches actually contain self-dissolving “microdarts” that deliver targeted salicylic acid, tea tree, niacinamide, and willow bark to those pesky blemishes. The formula is a team of super-ingredients designed to stop breakouts in their tracks.
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from the harsh face scrubs and drying acne medications from back in the day. Be sure to take the time to experiment and find which product works best for your skin. While you’re at it, be sure to treat yourself to the occasional face mask, as well.