All the dermatologists we talked to agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to acne. Every patient responds to treatments differently, and sometimes it can get worse before it gets better. But with the help of your dermatologist, you can find an acne treatment regimen that works for you. And, yes, we do stress how helpful it is to work with a derm to get it right.
Beyond making sure the system contains safe combinations of ingredients, a system can also treat all aspects of acne. By picking and choosing individual products, you may miss an important step. Plus, treatment systems contain ingredients like glycolic acid that help smooth acne scars, something you might not think about when you are shopping for products. Did you know probiotics help reduce inflammation? Or that kojic acid and arbutin can lighten brown spots? When it comes to treating acne, you should leave the mixing to professionals. You still can try out a variety of systems to find the one that works best for you.
Ideally, you want to find an acne face wash and care system that utilizes a number of these ingredients, for best results. It can be a full system by a single brand, like Exposed Skin Care, or it can be a combination of products that you’ve tried and tested for yourself. The important thing to take away here is that there are several ways to treat your acne and knowing what each ingredient does will help you tailor the perfect solution for you.
Cortisone is a quick fix for acne emergencies. We mean got a big board meeting tomorrow kind of quick. Go into the dermatologist’s office for a shot of this corticosteroid, and acne will disappear in 24 to 48 hours. The treatment works to curb inflammation, which makes it best for cystic breakouts and can be really good at combatting hormonal flare-ups. If done incorrectly, a cortisone shot can leave a small depression in the skin that lasts about eight weeks. “It’s a rare side effect that happens if dosage of cortisone is too high,” explains Linkner. “You want to go to someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Shah often recommends over-the-counter retinols or prescription retinoids to her acne-prone patients. “I find that compared to other treatments they are beneficial for not just treating acne but also preventing new acne from forming as they help prevent that initial stage of the follicle getting clogged,” she says. “They can also help with some of the post acne [problems] such as hyperpigmentation.” But keep in mind if you have sensitive skin (or eczema or rosacea), a prescription retinoid might be too strong an option. However, your dermatologist can recommend an over-the-counter retinol with a low concentration (0.1 to 0.25 percent), which might be better tolerated. Retinol also isn’t a quick fix. It takes time to see results, and it’s something you’ll have to keep using to maintain its benefits. Shah also mentions that retinol plays well with other acne treatments on the list. "Retinol can be combined with other over-the-counter or prescription medications such as benzoyl peroxide, topical antibiotics, and oral medications. The right combination depends on the severity of the acne and your skin type."


Kiehl’s number one option for men’s acne treatment has men with oily skin in mind. When used daily, the Deep Cleansing Exfoliating Face Wash removes excess oil, sweat, and other grime to A) clean pores and B) reduce the shine that comes with oily skin. As its name suggests, the Deep Cleansing Face Wash also removes dead skin cells to leave your skin smooth and refreshed.

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.
Sometimes birth control alone isn’t enough to really make a difference in hormonal acne. That’s when your doctor might recommend adding in an androgen blocker such as Spironalactone. Spiro (as it’s called) minimizes the amount of androgen hormones in circulation by blocking the receptors that bind with testosterone. When these pills are taken at the same time as an oral contraceptive, 90 percent of women see an improvement in breakouts, according to Linkner. The drug is sometimes prescribed to women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) to relieve androgen-related symptoms like excessive hair growth, hypertension, oily skin, and acne.
Salicylic acid is a topically applied beta-hydroxy acid that stops bacteria from reproducing and has keratolytic properties.[132][133] It opens obstructed skin pores and promotes shedding of epithelial skin cells.[132] Salicylic acid is known to be less effective than retinoid therapy.[19] Dry skin is the most commonly seen side effect with topical application, though darkening of the skin has been observed in individuals with darker skin types.[1]
Retinoids – Recommended for people with moderate to severe acne, retinoids can unclog your pores, allowing for your other medicated acne treatments to penetrate deeper. They can reduce your potential for outbreaks and the formation of acne scarring2. You can also use a retinoid cream directly as a treatment after your face cleanse, or even take it in the form of a retinoid pill to treat oil/sebum production and to treat inflammation and acne-causing bacteria.
Both salicylic acid and benzoyl acid are commonly found in the top acne treatments for getting rid of mild to severe acne. They work in tandem to getting rid of the dead skin and killing bacteria, which are two of the main contributors to the spread of acne. Salicylic acid breaks up the skin to clear pores from skin, oil and bacteria and benzoyl peroxide kills the bacteria slowly over a 48-hour period.
Accutane – Accutane works to reduce the size of the skin’s oil glands and, therefore, the amount of oil that they produce. It also slows down the rate at which the skin produces cells within the pore. Your acne may get worse during the early stages of Accutane treatment, but results are promising over the long haul. Accutane – also known as isotretinoin – was discovered in 1979 and is a vitamin A derivative. It’s administered in pill form and prescribed for up to 4 ½ months or more, depending on the strength of dosage.

How to Handle It: Consider salicylic acid your secret weapon. "This beta hydroxy acid helps remove excess oil and exfoliate dead cells from the skin's surface to keep pores clear," says Zeichner. Try Clinique's Acne Solution Clearing Gel, a two-time Best of Beauty winner that packs both salicylic acid and sea whip extract — an ingredient with skin-soothing properties — to help counteract the dryness sometimes caused by salicylic acid. The formula does double duty: It works as a spot treatment for mild to moderate acne and as a nightly allover treatment for pimple prevention. And since it dries clear, you can wear it to fight zits whenever, wherever.
In 2015, acne was estimated to affect 633 million people globally, making it the 8th most common disease worldwide.[9][17] Acne commonly occurs in adolescence and affects an estimated 80–90% of teenagers in the Western world.[18][19][20] Lower rates are reported in some rural societies.[20][21] Children and adults may also be affected before and after puberty.[22] Although acne becomes less common in adulthood, it persists in nearly half of affected people into their twenties and thirties and a smaller group continue to have difficulties into their forties.[2]
Cortisone is a quick fix for acne emergencies. We mean got a big board meeting tomorrow kind of quick. Go into the dermatologist’s office for a shot of this corticosteroid, and acne will disappear in 24 to 48 hours. The treatment works to curb inflammation, which makes it best for cystic breakouts and can be really good at combatting hormonal flare-ups. If done incorrectly, a cortisone shot can leave a small depression in the skin that lasts about eight weeks. “It’s a rare side effect that happens if dosage of cortisone is too high,” explains Linkner. “You want to go to someone who knows what they’re doing.”
Benzoyl peroxide (BPO) is a first-line treatment for mild and moderate acne due to its effectiveness and mild side-effects (mainly skin irritation). In the skin follicle, benzoyl peroxide kills P. acnes by oxidizing its proteins through the formation of oxygen free radicals and benzoic acid. These free radicals are thought to interfere with the bacterium's metabolism and ability to make proteins.[79][80] Additionally, benzoyl peroxide is mildly effective at breaking down comedones and inhibiting inflammation.[78][80] Benzoyl peroxide may be paired with a topical antibiotic or retinoid such as benzoyl peroxide/clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide/adapalene, respectively.[35]
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.
I get asked all the time about my favorite organic skin care products. It seems everyone is worried about putting toxins in and on their bodies. So for cleansers, I recommend Dr. Hauschka's Cleansing Cream. Organic and void of chemicals, the Dr. Hauschka line is super popular among those concerned with healthy skin. So what's in this magic cleanser? Sweet almond meal and extracts of anthyllis, calendula, chamomile and St. John's wort. This cleanser gently exfoliates while adding moisture to skin, which makes it great for aging skin, dry skin and combination skin.
Feverfew – Commonly known as wild chamomile, feverfew is a plant that has been used for generations. It was once called “parthenium” by the ancient Greeks and is used to treat various ailments and disease. When it comes to your skin, feverfew is anti-inflammatory7, reducing and preventing redness and swelling. It’s also high in anti-oxidants and can be consumed orally in the form of tea for added benefits, like healing your skin from the inside out.
Tretinoin: As we said above, tretinoin (common brand name: Retin-A) is a synthetic retinoid, but it is stronger than some of the other options, and its cousin, isotretinoin, is even stronger. Isotretinoin, better known as Accutane, is an oral synthetic retinoid typically only prescribed for very severe cases of cystic acne because it can cause intense side effects and is a powerful teratogen, meaning it causes birth defects. However, after taking isotretinoin for several months, many people never need to do any serious acne treatment again, so for some, it is well worth the side effects.
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.]
According to Dr. Bailey, the best facial cleansers for acne should have at least one of these key ingredients: salicylic acid, glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide. Cleansers with these ingredients can penetrate your pores and eliminate pore-clogging impurities—like dead skin cells, makeup, excess oil and bacteria—that irritate skin and make acne worse.
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.
Sodium sulfacetamide-sulfur is another acne medications often found in over-the-counter treatments, and it works especially well for those with mild-moderate acne that is largely made up of pimples. This is because it effectively dries out excess sebum without drying out the skin, and some studies suggest that this combination of sodium sulfacetamide and sulfur has antibacterial properties. According to one study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, sodium sulfacetamide 10 percent-sulfur 5 percent can significantly reduce the size of p. acnes colonies when used as an emollient foam6. This treatment option is also available as a facewash, topical gel, and topical cream, and can be found at most drugstores.
The treatment regimen your doctor recommends depends on your age, the type and severity of your acne, and what you are willing to commit to. For example, you may need to wash and apply medications to the affected skin twice a day for several weeks. Often topical medications and drugs you take by mouth (oral medication) are used in combination. Pregnant women will not be able to use oral prescription medications for acne.

Hydroquinone lightens the skin when applied topically by inhibiting tyrosinase, the enzyme responsible for converting the amino acid tyrosine to the skin pigment melanin, and is used to treat acne-associated postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.[34] By interfering with new production of melanin in the epidermis, hydroquinone leads to less hyperpigmentation as darkened skin cells are naturally shed over time.[34] Improvement in skin hyperpigmentation is typically seen within six months when used twice daily. Hydroquinone is ineffective for hyperpigmentation affecting deeper layers of skin such as the dermis.[34] The use of a sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher in the morning with reapplication every two hours is recommended when using hydroquinone.[34] Its application only to affected areas lowers the risk of lightening the color of normal skin but can lead to a temporary ring of lightened skin around the hyperpigmented area.[34] Hydroquinone is generally well-tolerated; side effects are typically mild (e.g., skin irritation) and occur with use of a higher than the recommended 4% concentration.[34] Most preparations contain the preservative sodium metabisulfite, which has been linked to rare cases of allergic reactions including anaphylaxis and severe asthma exacerbations in susceptible people.[34] In extremely rare cases, repeated improper topical application of high-dose hydroquinone has been associated with an accumulation of homogentisic acid in connective tissues, a condition known as exogenous ochronosis.[34]
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.
Properly selected face cleanser will help rid your skin of bacteria that clog pores and multiply in them. High-quality face cleaning also removes dead skin cells, making acne treatment more effective. It will take a strong but gentle remedy to remove dirt without new irritations. Therefore, you should avoid abrasive scrubs and soaps for the face, which can deprive the skin of its natural oils and may cause the painful irritation.
Hair follicles are the tiny structures that grow hair in the scalp. Sebaceous glands produce sebum. On areas where acne develops, sebaceous glands surround the hair follicles. The combination of the sebaceous glands and the hair follicles is the "pilosebaceous unit," where acne pimples and cysts develop. Sebum moisturizes hair and skin. Each hair pushes up through the skin surface along with sebum.

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.


Dry Skin – Skin that doesn’t produce enough sebum, so it doesn’t retain moisture well and dries out. Dry skin tends to crack, peel, and become itchy, flaky, irritated or inflamed easily. Acne is caused by dead skin cells and bacteria clogging pores, while dryness tightens the pores to clog them further. The best acne face washes should exfoliate your skin, but shouldn’t dry it out further.
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 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.


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.”

First, let’s talk about what causes acne. Pimples form when the oil and dead skin cells on your skin combine to form a plug that blocks the pores. “As the P. acnes bacteria that naturally live on skin overgrow within this plugged follicle, the area becomes inflamed and this is when you start to see papules, pustules, and cystic lesions,” RealSelf dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D., tells SELF. The treatments ahead work to exfoliate away dead skin cells, suck up excess oil, stop inflammation, and kill the P. acnes bacteria. There are even a few treatments that target hormonal acne specifically.
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