Sulfur – Not to be confused with irritating sulfates that can be found in some cleansers and treatments, sulfur is an element that can be quite good for your skin. It removes the dead skin cells and excess oils that clog your pores. But just like any chemical ingredient, too much of it can dry your skin out. You’ll likely find it coupled with other ingredients in your cleanser, like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and resorcinol.
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.
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.
Corticosteroid injections may be used to treat large, painful lesions. These injections can ease the pain and help clear a large lesion more quickly. A systemic acne treatment that you may have heard about is isotretinoin (aka Accutane). This is the only medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat severe resistant nodular cystic acne, the most severe form. Dr. Turner does use Accutane in appropriate patients, however it is typically a five- to six-month course of therapy, which requires monthly office visits.
For daily washing, use cleansing products that are designed to care for your skin type. The composition of these funds should not contain soap, dyes and flavors, as well as components such as sodium lauryl sulfate and parabens. All these substances can cause redness, irritation, stimulate the formation of acne. You cannot use a usual soap, it only dries the skin. Gels or foams, which contain acids, are perfect for oily skin prone to imperfections. It does not matter where you buy a cleansing gel or tonic – in a pharmacy or in the nearest supermarket. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on it. It is important that the acne remedy works.
Perhaps one of the most popular cleansers for combination skin care on the market today, Boscia's purifying cleansing gel works best for oily to normal skin types. It works by gently cleansing skin without stripping it and adding harsh elements to the skin. It can be a tad drying, so it works best on women with more oily spots than dry spots. You can also use it to cleanse your oily T-zone, but keep it away from your dry spots, where you may want to moisturize more.

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]

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But the side effects of targeted breakout cream treatments aren’t always worth it. “So many products instruct consumers to use benzoyl peroxide spot treat red bumps and pustules. I don’t recommend it,” says Dr. Lawrence Green, board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at George Washington University. Such high concentrations of benzoyl peroxide cause added irritation and inflammation to already sensitive skin, so with this in mind, we cut kits that included spot treatments.

That’s why, no matter how uncomfortable your skin may feel while plagued with acne, you must resist the urge to touch your skin. If the irritating sensations become unbearable, there are other methods of treating your skin, such as cooling it with ice packs or aloe vera gel. You can even use medicated creams designed to soothe irritated skin – given that your dermatologist says it’s okay.


A major mechanism of acne-related skin inflammation is mediated by P. acnes's ability to bind and activate a class of immune system receptors known as toll-like receptors (TLRs), especially TLR2 and TLR4.[44][64][65] Activation of TLR2 and TLR4 by P. acnes leads to increased secretion of IL-1α, IL-8, and TNF-α.[44] Release of these inflammatory signals attracts various immune cells to the hair follicle including neutrophils, macrophages, and Th1 cells.[44] IL-1α stimulates increased skin cell activity and reproduction, which in turn fuels comedo development.[44] Furthermore, sebaceous gland cells produce more antimicrobial peptides, such as HBD1 and HBD2, in response to binding of TLR2 and TLR4.[44]
P. acnes also provokes skin inflammation by altering the fatty composition of oily sebum.[44] Oxidation of the lipid squalene by P. acnes is of particular importance. Squalene oxidation activates NF-κB (a protein complex) and consequently increases IL-1α levels.[44] Additionally, squalene oxidation leads to increased activity of the 5-lipoxygenase enzyme responsible for conversion of arachidonic acid to leukotriene B4 (LTB4).[44] LTB4 promotes skin inflammation by acting on the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPARα) protein.[44] PPARα increases activity of activator protein 1 (AP-1) and NF-κB, thereby leading to the recruitment of inflammatory T cells.[44] The inflammatory properties of P. acnes can be further explained by the bacterium's ability to convert sebum triglycerides to pro-inflammatory free fatty acids via secretion of the enzyme lipase.[44] These free fatty acids spur production of cathelicidin, HBD1, and HBD2, thus leading to further inflammation.[44]
Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is usually the result of nodular acne lesions. These lesions often leave behind an inflamed darkened mark after the original acne lesion has resolved. This inflammation stimulates specialized pigment-producing skin cells (known as melanocytes) to produce more melanin pigment which leads to the skin's darkened appearance.[34] People with darker skin color are more frequently affected by this condition.[35] Pigmented scar is a common term used for PIH, but is misleading as it suggests the color change is permanent. Often, PIH can be prevented by avoiding any aggravation of the nodule, and can fade with time. However, untreated PIH can last for months, years, or even be permanent if deeper layers of skin are affected.[36] Even minimal skin exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can sustain hyperpigmentation.[34] Daily use of SPF 15 or higher sunscreen can minimize such a risk.[36]

Hypertrophic scars are uncommon, and are characterized by increased collagen content after the abnormal healing response.[31] They are described as firm and raised from the skin.[31][33] Hypertrophic scars remain within the original margins of the wound, whereas keloid scars can form scar tissue outside of these borders.[31] Keloid scars from acne occur more often in men and people with darker skin, and usually occur on the trunk of the body.[31]
How to Handle It: Your best bet is benzoyl peroxide. "Benzoyl peroxide can kill acne-causing bacteria and reduce inflammation," says Zeichner. Try a cream like the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual-Action Acne Treatment ($37), which also exfoliates with lipo-hydroxy acid. Be aware that it can seriously dry out skin so moisturize well after you use it.
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.
It is widely suspected that the anaerobic bacterial species Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) contributes to the development of acne, but its exact role is not well understood.[2] There are specific sub-strains of P. acnes associated with normal skin, and moderate or severe inflammatory acne.[49] It is unclear whether these undesirable strains evolve on-site or are acquired, or possibly both depending on the person. These strains have the capability of changing, perpetuating, or adapting to the abnormal cycle of inflammation, oil production, and inadequate sloughing of dead skin cells from acne pores. Infection with the parasitic mite Demodex is associated with the development of acne.[29][50] It is unclear whether eradication of the mite improves acne.[50]
Considerations: Ask your doctor before using any other products on your skin while using erythromycin, as it may be too irritating. This includes other prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines (including those listed on this site), and harsh or abrasive cleansers, perfumes, or make-up.2 People report burning as the most frequent side effect, and also peeling, dryness, itching, redness, and oiliness, among others.2

Accutane (isotretinoin) has a mixed reputation, but among dermatologists it’s the finisher for patients with severe acne. “If you have an acne patient that doesn’t respond to anything, [Accutane] can really be a game changer,” board-certified dermatologist Adam Friedman tells SELF. Accutane is an oral retinoid, and it has all the same benefits of a topical retinol but is even more effective.


Some acne cleansers and face soaps have added ingredients to fight acne and improve the skin's appearance. Medicated cleansers contain acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, sodium sulfacetamide, or benzoyl peroxide, which can help clear up skin while cleaning it. Salicylic acid helps clear blocked pores and reduces swelling and redness. Benzoyl peroxide exfoliates the skin and kills bacteria. Sodium sulfacetamide interferes with the growth of bacteria.
Stronger cases may call for prescription retinoids (such as Retin-A or Tazorac), which “are really the standard of care for most acne therapy,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Certain drugs, such as Epiduo and Ziana, combine retinoids with antibacterials and may be more effective than separate products. Because retinoids also have anti-wrinkle properties (they help stimulate collagen production), they are especially beneficial for adult acne sufferers.
Alpha-Hydroxy Acids – These are synthetic acids derived from sugary fruits that remove dead skin cells3 while reducing inflammation. The two common types that can be found in over-the-counter acne treatments are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Another benefit of these acids is that they improve the appearance of your acne scars and make your pores look smaller by stimulating the growth of new, healthy skin.
The approach to acne treatment underwent significant changes during the twentieth century. Retinoids were introduced as a medical treatment for acne in 1943.[83] Benzoyl peroxide was first proposed as a treatment in 1958 and has been routinely used for this purpose since the 1960s.[167] Acne treatment was modified in the 1950s with the introduction of oral tetracycline antibiotics (such as minocycline). These reinforced the idea amongst dermatologists that bacterial growth on the skin plays an important role in causing acne.[163] Subsequently, in the 1970s tretinoin (original trade name Retin A) was found to be an effective treatment.[168] The development of oral isotretinoin (sold as Accutane and Roaccutane) followed in 1980.[169] After its introduction in the United States it was recognized as a medication highly likely to cause birth defects if taken during pregnancy. In the United States, more than 2,000 women became pregnant while taking isotretinoin between 1982 and 2003, with most pregnancies ending in abortion or miscarriage. About 160 babies were born with birth defects.[170][171]

But Accutane has mixed reviews for a reason. It makes the skin super dry and sensitive, which means it’s important to keep moisturizers and lip balm nearby while you’re on the treatment. Oh, and don’t even think about waxing your eyebrows (just imagine your skin ripping off). There’s another downside to Accutane: It requires a lot of paperwork and office visits. Since isotretinoin can cause birth defects, you have to come into the dermatologist once a month to get a pregnancy test and take a lengthy survey with embarrassing questions about your sex life to prove that you are using sufficient birth control. These precautions are intense, but dermatologists agree that the final results for Accutane are like no other. “This is one of the few medicines that I can look [patients] in the eye and guarantee them it will work,” says Friedman.

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
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.
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

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.

No single product can contain all of the necessary acne-fighting ingredients, despite what some may claim. Some chemicals shouldn’t be used together, while others work together to totally eradicate acne and all the blemishes that come with it. The best acne treatment systems can do that for you, but because everyone’s skin is unique, what works for one person may not work for another. The key lies in finding the right system, a combination of products, that work best for your unique skin.

Clean your face really well using a mild face cleanser and gently pat dry. Let your skin further air dry and don’t put anything else on it. Don’t put anything else on your face like moisturizer, serum, toner, etc. After a half hour, carefully check your cheeks, chin, forehead and nose, with a hand mirror, for any shine. Also, check if your skin feels tight when you smile or make exaggerated facial expressions.

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