If you’re used to seeing advertisements for acne treatments using five or six different products to clear up blemishes, you might be surprised that a simple three-step kit is our top pick. In fact, we favored Paula’s Choice for its simplicity. This twice-daily, three-step kit — which includes a cleanser, an anti-redness exfoliant, and a leave-on treatment — is concise without cutting corners.


Benzoyl peroxide attacks the P. acnes bacteria. However, one of its main side effects is dryness: If you’re going to use anything with benzoyl peroxide, make sure to moisturize afterwards. Sulfur and azelaic acid are less common and less severe alternatives to benzoyl peroxide. Dr. Peter Lio, assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University, says sulfur-based treatments are “a good fit for patients who can’t tolerate the side effects of benzoyl peroxide.”

Considerations: Despite the frequent referencing of an initial flare of acne when starting is tretinoin, there is no scientific evidence to back this up. You should not expect an initial worsening of acne.3-4 Exposure to sunlight should be minimized as you may be more sensitive to its rays. Ask your doctor before using other medication on the skin, especially anything containing sulfur, resorcinol, or salicylic acid, as the combination may be too irritating. Abrasive soaps and cleansers should be used with caution for the same reason. Side effects can include skin irritation, swelling, lightening or darkening of the skin, an increase in acne sores, excessive redness, and crusted or blistered skin.

Oral isotretinoin is very effective. But because of its potential side effects, doctors need to closely monitor anyone they treat with this drug. Potential side effects include ulcerative colitis, an increased risk of depression and suicide, and severe birth defects. In fact, isotretinoin carries such serious risk of side effects that all people receiving isotretinoin must participate in a Food and Drug Administration-approved risk management program.

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.
If your acne is severe, painful, or refusing to get lost, you may just be beyond what an over-the-counter treatment can do. Not only can a professional set you up with the really powerful stuff, but also Fitz Patrick explains that “working closely with an aesthetician or dermatologist means you can keep tweaking a routine to make it work best for you.”

Considerations: Cigarette smoking with oral contraceptive use increases the risk of serious heart disease.2 There are many negative side effects and positive side effects to taking birth control pills for acne. Talk to your doctor to decide if it is right for you.1-3 While it is a widely held belief, evidence does not show a correlation between pregnancy rates and concurrent administration of birth control pills and oral antibiotics. [With the exception of anti-tuberculosis drugs like rifampin.]
Considerations: Because tazarotene is a retinoid (vitamin A derivative), like Accutane, it should not be used by women who are pregnant because of potential harm to the fetus. Exposure to sunlight should be avoided. Wind or cold may be more irritating when taking tazarotene. Side effects occured in 10-30% of patients and included dry peeling skin, burning, stinging, dry skin, redness, and itchiness.

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]
Blue light rays penetrate follicles to kill off acne-causing bacteria. For severe cases, photodynamic therapy adds a topical solution called Levulan to blue light therapy. Note that these treatments can cause temporary redness and may not be covered by insurance. Prices vary greatly depending on the location and severity of acne, but can cost at least $50 for one blue light treatment and $100 or more per photodynamic therapy session. Most patients will need multiple treatments to see effective results, but many dermatologists offer package deals.
If you take a close look at the acne-fighting ingredients, you will find that no single ingredient does all the work to get rid of acne. Each one has a unique effect that plays a role in the elimination of acne, but only when they are used combined or in sequence in a system do they have ability to get rid of acne altogether. This is why it is so important to use an effective system for fight acne, not just a single product.
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Azelaic acid has been shown to be effective for mild to moderate acne when applied topically at a 20% concentration.[66][129] Treatment twice daily for six months is necessary, and is as effective as topical benzoyl peroxide 5%, isotretinoin 0.05%, and erythromycin 2%.[130] Azelaic acid is thought to be an effective acne treatment due to its ability to reduce skin cell accumulation in the follicle, and its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.[66] It has a slight skin-lightening effect due to its ability to inhibit melanin synthesis, and is therefore useful in treating of individuals with acne who are also affected by postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.[1] Azelaic acid may cause skin irritation but is otherwise very safe.[131] It is less effective and more expensive than retinoids.[1]
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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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.
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.
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What's Going On: If it's big, red, and painful, you're probably experiencing cystic acne, one of the more severe types. "Cystic pimples are caused by genetics and hormonal stimulation of oil glands," says Zeichner. Not only are they large, but they're also notoriously tough to treat. They often recur in the same place, because even if you manage to get rid of one, it can keep filling up with oil again and again, like an immortal pimple.
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.
If you're a fan of the Allure-editor approved Kate Somerville EradiKate Spot Treatment, you'll love its creamy, whipped wash sister from the same mister. The cleanser—which magically foams up when wet—is formulated with 3 percent sulfur to tackle breakouts (including those hard-to-handle cystic acne flare-ups) and rice-bran extract to soothe red, itchy skin.
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