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However, salicylic acid isn’t just for those of us with sensitive skin. It can also help those of you with tougher skin, through higher concentrations. Over-the-counter, you can find salicylic acid in concentrations up to 2 percent, but if you want something even more intense, many spas and dermatology offices offer salicylic acid chemical peels with 20-30 percent salicylic acid. Beware, these peels will likely leave your face very photosensitive for a few days, but they have been known to significantly reduce sebum for a few weeks at a time.
San Francisco-based dermatologist William Kwan, MD, swears by this treatment—and its powerful ingredients. "It has a combination of glycolic acid (AHA) and salicylic acid (BHA)," he explains. "These are helpful to exfoliate the comedone and heal the acne." Dr. Kwan also likes that this gel contains licorice extract, which helps lighten dark spots left behind by past blemishes.
Retinoids: Retinoids are substances that are derived from vitamin A, which includes retinol, but also includes synthetic versions of retinol with activated retinoic acid which tends to be more effective in treating acne. Retinoic acid has been shown to reduce sebum production8 and regulate skin cell production9, which together can greatly reduce acne. These synthetic retinoids include adapalene, tretinoin, isotretinoin, and others. Although these synthetic options are more reliably effective, they also tend to have more side effects, like burning, itching, and dryness. Unlike retinol, which is available over-the-counter, nearly all synthetic retinoids are prescription-only. One of the main exceptions is Differin, which is a brand that sells a topical gel containing adapalene, a mild synthetic retinoid, over-the-counter.
Some of us grew up with parents telling us to quit eating potato chips and other greasy foods, because they cause acne. Fact is, gobbling down chips and chicken wings will ruin a well-balanced diet, but they won’t cause you to break out in pimples. Stress, on the other hand, can contribute to acne’s formation, but a steady diet of junk food just gives you indigestion, among other potential health issues.
Skincare is an extra challenge for those with sensitive skin because certain ingredients might cause irritation or inflammation. Spending too much time out in the wind and sun can also increase reactions. You can have oily, dry or combination skin and still have sensitive skin, too. For both skincare products and cosmetics, try out only one product at a time to see what effects it will have on your skin. The best way to start out is by patch-testing the product on your inner forearm. If you see no negative impact, you can apply it to the area behind your ear before trying it on your face. There are many products on the market now that advertise as effective for sensitive skin, but testing them is the only way to determine which is best for your skin.
In severe cases, oral isotretinoin may be considered. This medication can be very effective but can also cause serious side effects including severe birth defects. Strict protocols must be followed. Monthly appointments with the treating doctor must be kept throughout the treatment period to monitor for any side effects. In females of child-bearing age, protocol includes two forms of birth control. The treatment period is usually five months.
How to Handle It: Pair two of the best-known acne-fighting ingredients, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, in the week leading up to your period. (If you're feeling bloated, now's the time to do it.) The combo can help prevent hormonal acne from happening in the first place. Zeichner suggests following a salicylic acid wash, like fan-favorite Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser ($7), with a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment, such as Murad Acne Spot Fast Fix ($22). If you're still seeing zits, "visit your dermatologist to discuss prescription options, like birth control pills, oral spironolactone — which blocks oil — or topical Aczone 7.5 percent gel," says Zeichner. "It's shown to be particularly effective in adult women without causing irritation." Oral contraceptives level out those hormone fluctuations, keeping your oil production normal and your skin clear.
Antibiotics are frequently applied to the skin or taken orally to treat acne and are thought to work due to their antimicrobial activity against P. acnes and their ability to reduce inflammation.[19][81][87] With the widespread use of antibiotics for acne and an increased frequency of antibiotic-resistant P. acnes worldwide, antibiotics are becoming less effective,[81] especially macrolide antibiotics such as topical erythromycin.[15][87] Commonly used antibiotics, either applied to the skin or taken orally, include clindamycin, erythromycin, metronidazole, sulfacetamide, and tetracyclines such as doxycycline and minocycline.[46] When antibiotics are applied to the skin, they are typically used for mild to moderately severe acne.[19] Antibiotics taken orally are generally considered to be more effective than topical antibiotics, and produce faster resolution of inflammatory acne lesions than topical applications.[1] Topical and oral antibiotics are not recommended for use together.[87]
For female adult patients, one medication that Dr. Turner often recommends is spironolactone. Many patients consider it the “miracle drug.” When used at low doses, such as 50 to 150mg per day, the androgen hormones are not cycling so rapidly, which in turn helps to relieve cystic acne, especially located on the lower cheeks, jawline and neck regions. Interestingly, spironolactone is an older drug that has been used since the ’50s, but at different doses, it acts by a completely different mechanism. Thus, it is as though it is two completely different drugs, depending on the dose, but it has the same name. The only negative aspect of spironolactone dosing at these levels is that a woman should never get pregnant while medicating with this due to ambiguity in the fetal genitalia.
Chemical peels can be used to reduce the appearance of acne scars.[31] Mild peels include those using glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, Jessner's solution, or a lower concentrations (20%) of trichloroacetic acid. These peels only affect the epidermal layer of the skin and can be useful in the treatment of superficial acne scars as well as skin pigmentation changes from inflammatory acne.[31] Higher concentrations of trichloroacetic acid (30–40%) are considered to be medium-strength peels and affect skin as deep as the papillary dermis.[31] Formulations of trichloroacetic acid concentrated to 50% or more are considered to be deep chemical peels.[31] Medium-strength and deep-strength chemical peels are more effective for deeper atrophic scars, but are more likely to cause side effects such as skin pigmentation changes, infection, and small white superficial cysts known as milia.[31]

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Genetics is thought to be the primary cause of acne in 80% of cases.[2] The role of diet and cigarette smoking is unclear, and neither cleanliness nor exposure to sunlight appear to play a part.[2][13][14] In both sexes, hormones called androgens appear to be part of the underlying mechanism, by causing increased production of sebum.[5] Another frequent factor is excessive growth of the bacterium Propionibacterium acnes, which is normally present on the skin.[5]
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Retinoids and retinoid-like drugs. These come as creams, gels and lotions. Retinoid drugs are derived from vitamin A and include tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A, others), adapalene (Differin) and tazarotene (Tazorac, Avage). You apply this medication in the evening, beginning with three times a week, then daily as your skin becomes used to it. It works by preventing plugging of the hair follicles.
“You unfortunately cannot determine the strength of a product strictly by the percentage of its active ingredients because how well a product works depends on how well its inactive ingredients help it penetrate the skin,” explains Dr. Green. “In other words, a 2 percent benzoyl peroxide may be more effective than another brand’s 5 percent benzoyl peroxide because there are other ingredients helping out.”
What it is: Spironolactone is a prescription medication in tablet form used to treat certain patients with hyperaldosteronism (the body produces too much aldosterone, a naturally occurring hormone), low potassium levels, and in patients with edema (fluid retention) caused by various conditions.1 Learn more from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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.

This inflammatory cascade typically leads to the formation of inflammatory acne lesions, including papules, infected pustules, or nodules.[1] If the inflammatory reaction is severe, the follicle can break into the deeper layers of the dermis and subcutaneous tissue and cause the formation of deep nodules.[1][66][67] Involvement of AP-1 in the aforementioned inflammatory cascade leads to activation of matrix metalloproteinases, which contribute to local tissue destruction and scar formation.[44]
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According to a 2016 review of research that examined how diet may impact breakouts, researchers concluded that “compelling evidence shows that high glycemic load diets may exacerbate acne.” Foods high on the glycemic index (GI) tend to be higher in refined carbs, like those found in white bread. Scientists suspect that raised insulin levels from the carbs may trigger a release of hormones that inflame follicles and increase oil production.
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.

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.
Even though it may be convenient to wash your face with whatever you have in your bathroom, there are a lot of reasons why you want to avoid that like the plague. Summed up in one word, those reasons are; ingredients. Because different people have different skin types, not all ingredients will work the same for everybody, but the general principle remains the same.
Just as there are no bells and whistles with Purpose above, there are none with this baby-mild product that renowned dermatologists swear by. So why is this $10 cleanser such a must-have? It's creamy, simple and isn't loaded with chemicals or perfumes that can irritate the skin. Cetaphil products are revered in the industry and their cleanser is one of the best drugstore buys out there. Period.
Combination therapy—using medications of different classes together, each with a different mechanism of action—has been demonstrated to be a more efficacious approach to acne treatment than monotherapy.[10][46] The use of topical benzoyl peroxide and antibiotics together has been shown to be more effective than antibiotics alone.[10] Similarly, using a topical retinoid with an antibiotic clears acne lesions faster than the use of antibiotics alone.[10] Frequently used combinations include the following: antibiotic and benzoyl peroxide, antibiotic and topical retinoid, or topical retinoid and benzoyl peroxide.[46] The pairing of benzoyl peroxide with a retinoid is preferred over the combination of a topical antibiotic with a retinoid since both regimens are effective but benzoyl peroxide does not lead to antibiotic resistance.[10]
Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most popular acne medications available, and it works especially well for pimples because it kills the bacteria that causes them. It works by bringing oxygen under the skin, killing the particular type of bacteria associated with acne, known as p. acnes. P. acnes are anaerobic, meaning they can’t live where there is oxygen, so benzoyl peroxide is a great way to kill bacteria under the skin instantaneously1. This medication can often eradicate acne if used in the right dosage and in the right way.
In women, acne can be improved with the use of any combined birth control pill.[89] These medications contain an estrogen and a progestin.[90] They work by decreasing the production of androgen hormones by the ovaries and by decreasing the free and hence biologically active fractions of androgens, resulting in lowered skin production of sebum and consequently reduced acne severity.[10][91] Although oral estrogens can decrease IGF-1 levels in some situations and this might be expected to additionally contribute to improvement in acne symptoms,[92][93] combined birth control pills appear to have no effect on IGF-1 levels in fertile women.[90][94] However, cyproterone acetate-containing birth control pills have been reported to decrease total and free IGF-1 levels.[95] Combinations containing third- or fourth-generation progestins including desogestrel, dienogest, drospirenone, or norgestimate, as well as birth control pills containing cyproterone acetate or chlormadinone acetate, are preferred for women with acne due to their stronger antiandrogenic effects.[96][97][98] Studies have shown a 40 to 70% reduction in acne lesions with combined birth control pills.[91] A 2014 review found that antibiotics by mouth appear to be somewhat more effective than birth control pills at decreasing the number of inflammatory acne lesions at three months.[99] However, the two therapies are approximately equal in efficacy at six months for decreasing the number of inflammatory, non-inflammatory, and total acne lesions.[99] The authors of the analysis suggested that birth control pills may be a preferred first-line acne treatment, over oral antibiotics, in certain women due to similar efficacy at six months and a lack of associated antibiotic resistance.[99]
Aside from adding bacteria to your skin, these forms of contact can irritate the skin, adding to the appearance of redness and causing increased inflammation. In the event that your pimples get ruptured during this process, the oil and bacteria that was trapped inside could spread to the surrounding skin on your face, which causes acne to spread. So, not only will rubbing, squeezing and scratching leave your acne-ridden skin further irritated, it will increase the amount of acne you will have to deal with.
The good news: Topical spot treatments can quickly and effectively aid in the skin's healing process, shrinking existing pimples and preventing acne scars from forming. But with so many products on the market, it can be difficult to figure out which zit-zapping formulas are the most effective, so we turned to skincare professionals to get their expert opinions. Here, six powerful acne spot treatments that dermatologists swear by.
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