Contrary to the marketing promises of “blemish banishers” and “zit zappers,” immediate results are not the trademark of acne treatments — a frustrating truth to anyone suffering through a breakout. And while pimples are personal (your stress-induced spots will look and act differently than your best friend’s breakout), the best acne treatments will include a regimen of products to hit all of acne’s root causes. We tested 43 kits to find the most well-rounded breakout-fighting solutions on the market.
“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.”
You’ll need to practice patience with acne treatments that contain tretinoin, but many users say the wait is worth it, considering the results. Generally, it takes up to six months, but often less, to notice results from tretinoin. Note: you may experience a slight increase in acne in the first couple of weeks of use, but it’s only temporary as your body adjusts to the medicine.
Those with dry skin can experience flaking and skin that feels tight. Dehydration is one cause of dry skin, so be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Also stay away from alcohol and caffeine, which can draw fluid from your body. Exfoliating daily with a product that is non-abrasive will help with skin cell turnover without erasing your skin’s natural oils. Look for moisturizers that contain hyaluronic acid (also listed as sodium hyaluronate in the ingredients list), glycerin, and algae, which is a marine component that can attract water and send it to your skin cells. Emollients like camellia oil and squalene are great to smooth and hydrate your skin.
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.
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]
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Although combined oral contraceptives are a more popular treatment with women, men can use them as well, as they may also experience hormonal fluctuations. The only downside is that birth control pills tend to produce feminizing features in the person taking them, such as reduced hair growth or enlarged breast tissue. To get a prescription for a combined oral contraceptive, you can talk to your family doctor, a dermatologist, or an OB/GYN, or visit your local Planned Parenthood.
This dermatologist-tested formula is a foaming face wash that works incredibly fast. It can make skin visibly clearer in as little as 12 hours. It’s made with 2% salicylic acid, Acceladerm Technology™, and PHAs, polyhydroxy acids that open pores, improve skin moisturization and calms the skin. It unblocks pores, kills bacteria and calms and soothes the skin. This Clearasil product is guaranteed to be so good that if it doesn’t work for you, they have a 30-day money-back guarantee that you can take them up on.
Pustules, as their name suggests, are filled with pus. They usually have a white or yellow center surrounded by extremely inflamed skin that is pink or red. The pus isn’t just bacteria and skin cells—it contains some dead white blood cells that were trying to fight the bacteria, too. Squeezing these can cause the skin around them to darken and scar.
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.
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.
The gel also contains benzoyl peroxide, which is essential for eliminating bacteria that provoke inflammation and redness of the skin. Apply a small amount of gel to cleansed skin and leave it on for a few minutes. After that, rinse with water. The number of applications should be from 1 to 3 times per day. The gel is well tolerated and can be used on all skin types, including sensitive.
If even a trace of sodium lauryl sulfate is left on the skin for more than an hour, however, the upper layer of living skin cells is irritated and dies. Tiny flakes of skin make the texture of the skin look uneven, and they can clog pores. The scent of sodium lauryl sulfate also causes your nose and tongue to be less sensitive to sweet tastes and their associated odors, so you will crave sugar.
If you're willing to invest in some serious skincare to soothe your acne-prone skin woes, Lancer's blemish-control polish is a great addition to your skincare routine. This treatment can be used as an exfoliant in conjunction with the best spot treatment for your acne type to further treat severe acne and improve the overall appearance of blemishes.
Keep in mind that even if some products market themselves toward severe acne breakouts, all the kits we looked at are definitely designed for mild to moderate acne. Not sure if you fit on that scale? You’re not alone! When you’re in the middle of a breakout, all acne seems severe, so it can be difficult to self-diagnose your symptoms. We talked to dermatologists and cosmetic chemists to better understand the differences between the various types of acne (see below).

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.]
Although the late stages of pregnancy are associated with an increase in sebaceous gland activity in the skin, pregnancy has not been reliably associated with worsened acne severity.[137] In general, topically applied medications are considered the first-line approach to acne treatment during pregnancy, as they have little systemic absorption and are therefore unlikely to harm a developing fetus.[137] Highly recommended therapies include topically applied benzoyl peroxide (category C) and azelaic acid (category B).[137] Salicylic acid carries a category C safety rating due to higher systemic absorption (9–25%), and an association between the use of anti-inflammatory medications in the third trimester and adverse effects to the developing fetus including too little amniotic fluid in the uterus and early closure of the babies' ductus arteriosus blood vessel.[46][137] Prolonged use of salicylic acid over significant areas of the skin or under occlusive dressings is not recommended as these methods increase systemic absorption and the potential for fetal harm.[137] Tretinoin (category C) and adapalene (category C) are very poorly absorbed, but certain studies have suggested teratogenic effects in the first trimester.[137] Due to persistent safety concerns, topical retinoids are not recommended for use during pregnancy.[138] In studies examining the effects of topical retinoids during pregnancy, fetal harm has not been seen in the second and third trimesters.[137] Retinoids contraindicated for use during pregnancy include the topical retinoid tazarotene, and oral retinoids isotretinoin and acitretin (all category X).[137] Spironolactone is relatively contraindicated for use during pregnancy due to its antiandrogen effects.[1] Finasteride is not recommended as it is highly teratogenic.[1]

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.

Acne and stress aren’t connected. FALSE. Scientific studies have shown the opposite to be true. Students with acne were examined before and after major exams at school, and their acne got worse when they experienced stress before exams. It is a double-edged sword. Acne can cause stress, but it can also get worse with stress. Stress hormones such as cortisol can overstimulate the oil glands in your skin. And we already know that oil, bacteria and dead skin cells are what really cause acne. So try to keep away from stressors while you try to get your skin healthier.

You won't find a face wash in this list that's not universally beloved, but keep in mind that what works for one person won't work for everyone. The biggest secret to finding a great facial cleanser is choosing one that's formulated for your skin type: dry, oily, combination, sensitive or blemished. Unfortunately, few women really know their skin type.
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.
Resorcinol – Almost always found coupled with sulfur, this ingredient breaks down hardened, rough or scaly skin, while disinfecting and fighting infections5. This ingredient is often used topically to treat pain and itching stemming from small injuries like scrapes and cuts, burns, bug bites, sunburn, poison ivy and more. It’s also used to treat skin conditions like eczema, seborrhea, psoriasis, warts, corns and other disorders. It is generally found in strengths of up to 2%.
The Pore Targeting Treatment gel and Complexion Perfecting Hydrator moisturizer slip on nicely, with the former powered by skin-loving glycerin and the latter by a whole slew of delicious ingredients, like licorice root extract, sodium hyaluronate, bisabolol, and allantoin. The three-step solution is easy to use and makes cleansing the face a quick, efficient process.
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]

If a pore is open, it’s called a blackhead or “open comedo”. Because of the opening, contact with the air oxidizes the dead skin cells inside the pore. The air contact turns the melanin inside them darker in color, similar to the way a peeled banana left exposed to the air will darken. This is how the blackhead forms. The color of a blackhead is not because of dirt. It’s a mixture of air and the skin pigment called melanin.
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.
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.
Combined oral contraceptives. Four combined oral contraceptives are approved by the FDA for acne therapy in women who also wish to use them for contraception. They are products that combine estrogen and progestin (Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Yaz, others). You may not see the benefit of this treatment for a few months, so using other acne medications with it the first few weeks may help.
Neutrogena is one of the best drugstore beauty brands, hands-down, and you can't go wrong with this simple acne wash for acne-stricken skin. It's an Allure Magazine Reader Choice Awards winner, as well. Readers love it because the salicylic acid gel is gentle and soothing — spiked with aloe and chamomile. It also dries out breakouts without drying out sensitive, irritable skin, according to Allure.
Spironolactone has relatively minor side effects, like low appetite, weakness, or cramping, but there’s one major exception: spironolactone comes with a black box warning about its cancer-causing effects. The FDA is required to include this label based on a study conducted in the 1950s that found carcinogenic properties in the spironolactone given to rats in an experiment. However, the dose of spironolactone used in this study was nearly 500 times higher than the dose currently prescribed, and no studies since have found anything carcinogenic about spironolactone. Because of this, most dermatologists feel comfortable prescribing spironolactone for acne. Still, it’s something to be aware of before you take it. Additionally, those with low blood pressure or kidney conditions are likely not good candidates for spironolactone and may want to explore other acne treatment options.
You’ll need to practice patience with acne treatments that contain tretinoin, but many users say the wait is worth it, considering the results. Generally, it takes up to six months, but often less, to notice results from tretinoin. Note: you may experience a slight increase in acne in the first couple of weeks of use, but it’s only temporary as your body adjusts to the medicine.

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]
“We’ve seen it work against a wide range of organisms, including 27 of the 32 strains of acne-causing bacteria,” says Michael Murray, ND, a naturopath and coauthor of The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Multiple studies, including a review of research in the International Journal of Dermatology, back the plant’s power. You can find tea tree oil in a wide variety of soaps, skin washes, and topical solutions. Look for a minimum concentration of 5 percent of the oil to test how your skin reacts. If you find it is too irritating as an all-over treatment, you can use tea tree as a simple spot treatment for more stubborn pimples.
It’s safe to say there are more types of treatment for acne than there are types of acne. From OTC medicines to home remedies to dermatologist-prescribed products, there are many ways to combat acne breakouts. We’ve talked primarily about over-the-counter products, but here are just a few other treatment options (as well as a look at acne’s causes – and myths).
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.
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