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.
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.
Meanwhile, salicylic acid, which is derived from willow tree bark, wintergreen oil or sweet birch and occurs naturally in fruits like raspberries, cantaloupe and granny smith apples, works well for most skin types. Aside from being an exfoliant that sloughs away dead skin cells and other pore-clogging impurities, it has anti-inflammatory properties that help to address inflammation, which is thought to be the primary cause of acne.
Globally, acne affects approximately 650 million people, or about 9.4% of the population, as of 2010.[157] It affects nearly 90% of people in Western societies during their teenage years, but can occur before adolescence and may persist into adulthood.[18][19][22] While acne that first develops between the ages of 21 and 25 is uncommon, it affects 54% of women and 40% of men older than 25 years of age,[46][158] and has a lifetime prevalence of 85%.[46] About 20% of those affected have moderate or severe cases.[2] It is slightly more common in females than males (9.8% versus 9.0%).[157] In those over 40 years old, 1% of males and 5% of females still have problems.[19]

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What it is: You may have heard of tretinoin in reference to "Retin-A" wrinkle treatments. Tretinoin is retinoic acid and vitamin A acid combined, and comes in various strengths in creams, gels, and liquids for topical use on the skin. It is used to treat acne and also to treat sun damaged skin or wrinkles and is usually applied once per day.1Learn more from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Acne vulgaris is the catch-all term for everything from angry red lesions to tiny white bumps, which are the results of hair follicles and their sebaceous glands becoming blocked and inflamed So our first plan was to look at it all — spot treatments, washes, scrubs and creams — until we learned that when it comes to over-the-counter treatments, there is no single cure.

Retinol: Retinol is simply another word for vitamin A, sort of like how we call vitamin B7 “biotin.” It’s important that our bodies get systemic vitamin A through our diet for good vision, a strong immune system, and general organ function, but some research suggests that vitamin A could have a positive impact on the skin when applied to it directly. The problem is, regular retinol doesn’t actually do much for acne. That’s because the retinoic acid found in retinol isn’t always activated when left to its own devices. We typically have to activate the retinoic acid synthetically through the creation of various medications.
Several scales exist to grade the severity of acne vulgaris, but no single technique has been universally accepted as the diagnostic standard.[68][69] Cook's acne grading scale uses photographs to grade severity from 0 to 8 (0 being the least severe and 8 being the most severe). This scale was the first to use a standardized photographic protocol to assess acne severity; since its creation in 1979, the scale has undergone several revisions.[69] The Leeds acne grading technique counts acne lesions on the face, back, and chest and categorizes them as inflammatory or non-inflammatory. Leeds scores range from 0 (least severe) to 10 (most severe) though modified scales have a maximum score of 12.[69][70] The Pillsbury acne grading scale simply classifies the severity of the acne from grade 1 (least severe) to grade 4 (most severe).[68][71]
Oral antibiotics are the standard of care in managing acne that is moderate to severe, resistant to topical therapy and covers large body surface areas. Oral antibiotics that may be prescribed to treat acne include tetracycline, doxycycline, minocycline, erythromycin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, trimethoprim and azithromycin. Combination therapy (the use of two or more therapies) including oral antibiotics and topical medication (often retinoids) may help treat acne.
The recognition and characterization of acne progressed in 1776 when Josef Plenck (an Austrian physician) published a book that proposed the novel concept of classifying skin diseases by their elementary (initial) lesions.[163] In 1808 the English dermatologist Robert Willan refined Plenck's work by providing the first detailed descriptions of several skin disorders using a morphologic terminology that remains in use today.[163] Thomas Bateman continued and expanded on Robert Willan's work as his student and provided the first descriptions and illustrations of acne accepted as accurate by modern dermatologists.[163] Erasmus Wilson, in 1842, was the first to make the distinction between acne vulgaris and rosacea.[164] The first professional medical monograph dedicated entirely to acne was written by Lucius Duncan Bulkley and published in New York in 1885.[165][166]
If you have acne that's not responding to self-care and over-the-counter treatments, make an appointment with your doctor. Early, effective treatment of acne reduces the risk of scarring and of lasting damage to your self-esteem. After an initial examination, your doctor may refer you to a specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of skin conditions (dermatologist).
The best acne treatment system will include a cleanser, exfoliant and a treatment product that can be used daily. The idea is to have a product that cleans and clears clogged pores, kills bacteria, exfoliates to remove dead cells and spot treats trouble spots to combat stubborn blemishes and reduces inflammation and redness. For those with oily skin, a toner may be useful. For those with black heads, deep cleansing pore strips will help. If you have dry skin, foaming face wash would be something you want to avoid. The point is, a carefully tailored system is the best approach to an effective acne treatment.
Retinoids are medications which reduce inflammation, normalize the follicle cell life cycle, and reduce sebum production.[44][83] They are structurally related to vitamin A.[83] The retinoids appear to influence the cell life cycle in the follicle lining. This helps prevent the accumulation of skin cells within the hair follicle that can create a blockage. They are a first-line acne treatment,[1] especially for people with dark-colored skin, and are known to lead to faster improvement of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.[35]
A purifying gel cleanser made with 99.4% natural ingredients, this face wash is clinically proven to wash away excess oil, impurities and the bacteria that causes acne. It’s made with salicylic acid naturally derived from willow bark extract, evening primrose and beet root extracts that reduce acne, prevent future breakouts and calms acne prone skin. Best for oily skin types, this face wash helps to keep you oil-free without making your dry or irritated.
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.
Oral antibiotics are the standard of care in managing acne that is moderate to severe, resistant to topical therapy and covers large body surface areas. Oral antibiotics that may be prescribed to treat acne include tetracycline, doxycycline, minocycline, erythromycin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, trimethoprim and azithromycin. Combination therapy (the use of two or more therapies) including oral antibiotics and topical medication (often retinoids) may help treat acne.
This foaming cleanser is a soap-free gel that will clear away clogged pores without drying skin out. Designed not to disturb the skin’s natural moisture balance, the formula is made with astringent lavender extract to minimize pores and balance PH, while the anti-inflammatory balm mint extract soothes inflammation, giving skin a visibly clearer appearance. It uses alpha hydroxy acids and quillaja saponaria to deep clean pores and fight acne-causing bacteria.
– Also known as peroxide benzoyl. This ingredient supplies oxygen to your skin which works to kill the bacteria that brings about pimples and breakouts. The scientific name for this bacteria is Proprioni Bacterium. This bacterium thrives in oxygen-less areas. Therefore, oxygen is needed to battle this bacteria and this is what benzoyl peroxide delivers.

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Any acne treatment is a weeks-long experiment that you’re conducting with your skin. Acne is slow to heal, and in some cases, it can get worse before it gets better (nearly every benzoyl peroxide product we looked at emphasized the likeliness of irritating acne further, and starting off with a lighter application). April W. Armstrong, a doctor at the University of California Davis Health System, recommends waiting at least one month before you deem a product ineffective.

Scientists initially hypothesized that acne represented a disease of the skin's hair follicle, and occurred due to blockage of the pore by sebum. During the 1880s, bacteria were observed by microscopy in skin samples affected by acne and were regarded as the causal agents of comedones, sebum production, and ultimately acne.[163] During the mid-twentieth century, dermatologists realized that no single hypothesized factor (sebum, bacteria, or excess keratin) could completely explain the disease.[163] This led to the current understanding that acne could be explained by a sequence of related events, beginning with blockage of the skin follicle by excessive dead skin cells, followed by bacterial invasion of the hair follicle pore, changes in sebum production, and inflammation.[163]

Risk factors for the development of acne, other than genetics, have not been conclusively identified. Possible secondary contributors include hormones, infections, diet and stress. Studies investigating the impact of smoking on the incidence and severity of acne have been inconclusive.[2][37][38] Sunlight and cleanliness are not associated with acne.[14]


One of the best face washes for sensitive skin, this soap-free, fragrance-free, non-comedogenic cleanser works to remove excess oil from your skin without irritation. It’s great for oily and combination skin types, as it cleans and purifies without making the skin taut and dry. Its formula is glycerin-based for a gentle cleanser that won’t provoke even the most sensitive of skin types.
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.

Topical and oral preparations of nicotinamide (the amide form of vitamin B3) have been suggested as alternative medical treatments.[134] It is thought to improve acne due to its anti-inflammatory properties, its ability to suppress sebum production, and by promoting wound healing.[134] Topical and oral preparations of zinc have similarly been proposed as effective treatments for acne; evidence to support their use for this purpose is limited.[135] The purported efficacy of zinc is attributed to its capacity to reduce inflammation and sebum production, and inhibit P. acnes.[135] Antihistamines may improve symptoms among those already taking isotretinoin due to their anti-inflammatory properties and their ability to suppress sebum production.[136]
^ Hay, RJ; Johns, NE; Williams, HC; Bolliger, IW; Dellavalle, RP; Margolis, DJ; Marks, R; Naldi, L; Weinstock, MA; Wulf, SK; Michaud, C; Murray, C; Naghavi, M (October 2013). "The Global Burden of Skin Disease in 2010: An Analysis of the Prevalence and Impact of Skin Conditions". The Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 134 (6): 1527–34. doi:10.1038/jid.2013.446. PMID 24166134.
You’ve probably heard of the benefits of retinoid creams for anti-aging, but vitamin A is also efficient at clearing up acne. “[Retinoids] cause skin cells to turn over at a faster rate, decrease oil production, and help skin exfoliate,” board-certified dermatologist Rita Linkner, M.D., tells SELF. Another benefit: Acne is inflammation, and retinoids are anti-inflammatory.
Oral contraceptives can help normalize hormonal surges and regulate monthly cycles so that oil glands don’t go into overdrive, says Dr. Zeichner. Doctors may prescribe one of four brands of birth control pills—Yaz, Beyaz, Estrostep, and Ortho Tri-Cyclen—that are FDA approved for treating acne. As always, patients taking oral contraceptives should be aware of potential birth control side effects, including blood clots or vaginal dryness.
Atrophic acne scars have lost collagen from the healing response and are the most common type of acne scar (account for approximately 75% of all acne scars).[31][32] They may be further classified as ice-pick scars, boxcar scars, and rolling scars.[30] Ice-pick scars are narrow (less than 2 mm across), deep scars that extend into the dermis.[31] Boxcar scars are round or ovoid indented scars with sharp borders and vary in size from 1.5–4 mm across.[31] Rolling scars are wider than icepick and boxcar scars (4–5 mm across) and have a wave-like pattern of depth in the skin.[31]
Oh, hello old friend. Salicylic acid is the go-to fix for pimply preteens. And cruising through the aisles at the drugstore, you’ll find it as the active ingredient on the majority of products labeled “acne wash” or “spot treatment.” Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that works by dissolving excess oil and gently exfoliating away dead skin cells. Salicylic also has anti-inflammatory properties to help with inflamed cystic breakouts that can occur when blockages deep in the hair follicles rupture beneath the skin. It’s best to apply this ingredient as a toner, moisturizer, or leave-on spot treatment instead of a face wash to give it time to do its work. And keep in mind, salicylic acid can dry out the skin if over-applied, so maybe choose only one product with the ingredient to use every day.
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.

Acne is only cosmetic. FALSE. Acne is a disease that gets worse if left untreated. It might not be a life-threatening condition, but it affects how you look and feel about yourself. Bacteria that gets into your pores and clogs them up can quickly multiply, leading to an out-of-control situation. Blemishes should be taken seriously and treated as soon as possible to keep them under control and to prevent permanent scars.
Oral antibiotics are the standard of care in managing acne that is moderate to severe, resistant to topical therapy and covers large body surface areas. Oral antibiotics that may be prescribed to treat acne include tetracycline, doxycycline, minocycline, erythromycin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, trimethoprim and azithromycin. Combination therapy (the use of two or more therapies) including oral antibiotics and topical medication (often retinoids) may help treat acne.
The use of antimicrobial peptides against P. acnes is under investigation as a treatment for acne to overcoming antibiotic resistance.[10] In 2007, the first genome sequencing of a P. acnes bacteriophage (PA6) was reported. The authors proposed applying this research toward development of bacteriophage therapy as an acne treatment in order to overcome the problems associated with long-term antibiotic therapy such as bacterial resistance.[178] Oral and topical probiotics are also being evaluated as treatments for acne.[179] Probiotics have been hypothesized to have therapeutic effects for those affected by acne due to their ability to decrease skin inflammation and improve skin moisture by increasing the skin's ceramide content.[179] As of 2014, studies examining the effects of probiotics on acne in humans were limited.[179]
Considerations: Side effects are generally mild and short lived. Most common, in 1-5% of people are itching, burning, stinging, and tingling. Other side effects were reported in less than 1% of people. There have been a few reports from darker skinned people of lightening of the skin. Azelaic acid has not been well studied in people with dark complexions.1
Dermabrasion is an effective therapeutic procedure for reducing the appearance of superficial atrophic scars of the boxcar and rolling varieties.[31] Ice-pick scars do not respond well to treatment with dermabrasion due to their depth.[31] The procedure is painful and has many potential side effects such as skin sensitivity to sunlight, redness, and decreased pigmentation of the skin.[31] Dermabrasion has fallen out of favor with the introduction of laser resurfacing.[31] Unlike dermabrasion, there is no evidence that microdermabrasion is an effective treatment for acne.[8]
Why is this so important? Because layers of dirt, grime, and other stuff can create a barrier between any products and the skin. Simply put, the product won’t impact the skin as it won’t be able to penetrate the overlying layer of dead skin cells, dirt, sebum and god knows what else! I love a good analogy…so imagine trying to paint a wall that’s filthy!!! Pointless.
According to Dr. Bailey, it’s not enough to have a facial cleanser designed for acne-prone skin. Half the battle is properly washing your face. Here’s what she recommends: “First, wet your face with warm water, then lather your cleanser over all of your facial skin. Depending on your skin type, you can use your fingers, an exfoliating cloth or a sonic skin-cleansing brush system. Rinse well with warm water to remove the lather entirely. Some of the important acne cleanser ingredients will stay behind, but the cleanser’s foaming agents, as well as built-up oil, dead cells, products and bacteria, will be rinsed off of your skin.”
Although there is no one single cure for acne, we based our reviews first on what doctors are saying about these products and their ingredients. Then we did some digging into all the reviews. We ruled out those products that had primarily negative responses. After all that, we consulted natural product experts to see which system they felt were the best acne treatment.
Whether it’s just or not, you are judged by your appearance: the clothes you wear, your hairstyle, your body language. And if you have acne, life can be more difficult for you. You may feel uncomfortable in social settings. You may lose your confidence. It could destroy intimacy with someone you care about. If your poor self-esteem affects your job performance, then having acne could even have a negative impact on your income and career advancement. There’s no such thing as ‘growing out of acne’. It’s an issue that needs to be taken seriously. The only way to fight acne is by treating it. And to fight acne head-on, you need to find the best acne treatment for you.
Tea Tree Oil – Another anti-bacterial ingredient that is common in over-the-counter treatments, tea tree oil combats acne-causing bacteria. While the FDA hasn’t officially approved it for acne treatment, some dermatologists say it’s almost as effective as benzoyl peroxide for clearing skin, although it doesn’t work quite as fast. It can be used for spot treatment as well.

It's a common misconception that those with oily skin shouldn't moisturize. Be sure you're treating your entire face to a full routine and not solely relying on spot treatments to battle your breakouts. If your acne comes with a side of oil, this is your best bet for a daily moisturizer. It contains panadoxine, a vitamin B6 derivative that improves skin’s overall healthy balance by visually minimizing pore size and shine.

Considerations: Benzoyl peroxide is able to produce complete clearing of acne only when used in an adequate dosage and within a properly applied benzoyl peroxide regimen. Some dryness, redness, and itchiness is to be expected in the first few weeks of use.6 Scientists call this initial period the "hardening effect" of benzoyl peroxide. About 1-3% of people are allergic to benzoyl peroxide and experience an inflammation of the skin or severe crusting.3This should not be confused with the "hardening effect" of benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide, like any other peroxide, can bleach hair and fabric.1


Light therapy – Light therapy uses non-laser sources of light that help prevent everyday pimples and pustules. More severe acne lesions don’t respond as well to light therapy, however. Light therapy has lower potential side effects than some treatments and also is relatively affordable. While it produces results, light therapy will not clear acne completely.

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.
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^ Hay, RJ; Johns, NE; Williams, HC; Bolliger, IW; Dellavalle, RP; Margolis, DJ; Marks, R; Naldi, L; Weinstock, MA; Wulf, SK; Michaud, C; Murray, C; Naghavi, M (October 2013). "The Global Burden of Skin Disease in 2010: An Analysis of the Prevalence and Impact of Skin Conditions". The Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 134 (6): 1527–34. doi:10.1038/jid.2013.446. PMID 24166134.
Acne inversa (L. invertō, "upside down") and acne rosacea (rosa, "rose-colored" + -āceus, "forming") are not true forms of acne and respectively refer to the skin conditions hidradenitis suppurativa (HS) and rosacea.[25][26][27] Although HS shares certain common features with acne vulgaris, such as a tendency to clog skin follicles with skin cell debris, the condition otherwise lacks the defining features of acne and is therefore considered a distinct skin disorder.[25]
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