Your Ultimate Acne Treatment Cheat Sheet

Navigating the endless sea of OTC acne treatments can be as difficult as finding an escape route when you've got a massive blemish on your face and you see someone you know out in public (been there, done that). However, once you understand what you need to use and why, it's not as tricky as it sounds (as for dodging your old high school crush, we can't help you too much there).

Below, you'll find a list of common acne ingredients in cleansers, creams, pads, etc., and what they do—because believe it or not, all acne treatments ar not created equally. Keep scrolling to learn more!

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

While also used as way to ward off dryness and uneven skin tone, AHAs pack a punch against acne, too. Similar to the way that it remedies dry skin, AHAs exfoliate the top layer of skin, sending a signal to cells underneath, encouraging an increase in cell turnover, which helps prevent clogs. However, it should only be used two to three nights a week, as more frequent use may be too strong. AHAs serve well for acne-prone skin since they don't scrub away at and irritate acne like mechanical exfoliators (scrubs, brushes, etc.) do.

Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser $36

Azelaic Acid

According to Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, azelaic acid helps to exfoliate and reduce inflammation, a must for those sore, red bumps that even concealer can't hide. It works by killing acne-causing bacteria and decreasing the production of keratin, a natural substance that can lead to the development of mild breakouts. Higher concentrations of azelaic acid need to be prescribed, but there are some products on the market containing smaller doses. Typically, a topical treatment of the acid can be used twice a day, but speak with a doctor about the best way to use it for your particular skin type. In any event, the key to remember here is that patience is a virtue; it could take up to four weeks or more to notice the full results of azelaic acid.

First Aid Beauty Skin Rescue Oil-Free Mattifying Gel Moisturizer

First Aid Beauty Skin Rescue Oil-Free Mattifying Gel Moisturizer $50

Benzoyl Peroxide

Ah, benzoyl peroxide. Using this ingredient in topical creams has saved this editor many an embarrassing breakout; as soon as I feel a pimple try to pop up and ruin my day, I'll apply a thin layer of it and wake up the next morning to a much smaller bump and reduced redness. Dr. Tanzi calls this ingredient an "oldie but goodie," adding that it "helps multiple issues, including bacterial overgrowth and clogged pores." This ingredient can be used to treat mild to moderate acne, but it's pretty strong, so wean your way into it by using every other day at first to get your skin acclimated to the ingredient.

Neutrogena On-The-Spot Acne Treatment

Neutrogena On-The-Spot Acne Treatment $9


Niacinamide is a jack of all trades. A form of vitamin B3, it's used to treat osteoarthritis, niacin deficiency (pellagra), diabetes, and so much more. More research needs to be done on niacinamide's efficacy in treating acne, but one study did find that a moisturizer with this ingredient helped the overall complexion of acne-prone skin. All in all, it has amazing skin benefits that could help improve your overall complexion.

SkinCeuticals Metacell Renewal B3

SkinCeuticals Metacell Renewal B3 $110

Salicylic Acid

Whether to use it over benzoyl peroxide—which plays more of a role in killing the bacteria that causes acne—is often debated, but salicylic acid slows the shedding of cells inside the hair follicle to prevent clogged pores. It also breaks down whiteheads and blackheads. Dr Katie Rodan says, "The best scenario for treating acne is combination treatment with both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide." That way, bacteria is fended off while cells are prevented from getting clogged at the same time. However, speak with your dermatologist about this, since using acne treatments in conjunction with one another may be too drying, which could then cause even more breakouts!

Clinique Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel

Clinique Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel $26


Sulfur—otherwise known as the mineral that smells like rotten eggs—actually helps treat breakouts. Thankfully, brands are combining it with other agents so your co-workers don't need to pinch their noses when you walk by. Dr. Tanzi says it's excellent for reducing excess oil and to use as a drying agent, so those pesky breakouts that pop up from an influx of sebum can be put to rest.

Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment

Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment $26

Tea Tree Oil

A bit of information that may come as music to the ears of beauty naturalists: According to some studies, tea tree oil works just as well as benzoyl peroxide. Try applying it with a cotton swap after cleansing, but test on a patch of skin first, as some people may find it to be irritating. 

Belif Tea Tree Oil

Belif Tea Tree Oil $26

Topical Retinoids

According to Dr. Tanzi, retinoids help unclog pores and keep them open, and are best to use to reduce blackheads and whiteheads. Topical retinoids also work in tandem with topical antibiotics (like benzoyl peroxide) to allow them to enter the pore and kill the acne-causing bacteria, but again, check with your doctor about using two products at once.

Philosophy Miracle Worker Miraculous Anti-Aging Retinoid Pads and Solution

Philosophy Miracle Worker Miraculous Anti-Aging Retinoid Pads and Solution $75

What OTC acne treatment have you found works best for you? Please tell us below!

Article Sources
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  1. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skinMolecules. 2018;23(4):863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863

  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Azelaic acid topical. Updated December 15, 2016.

  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Benzoyl peroxide topical. Updated August 15, 2015.

  4. U.S National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Niacinamide. Updated April 9, 2019.

  5. Santos-Caetano JP, Gfeller CF, Mahalingam H, et al. Cosmetic benefits of a novel biomimetic lamellar formulation containing niacinamide in healthy females with oily, blemish-prone skin in a randomized proof-of-concept study. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2020;42(1):29-35. doi:10.1111/ics.12576

  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Salicylic acid topical. Updated September 15, 2016.

  7. AMARodan K, Fields K, Falla TJ. Efficacy of a twice-daily, 3-step, over-the-counter skincare regimen for the treatment of acne vulgarisClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2017;10:3‐9. doi:10.2147/CCID.S125438

  8. Malhi HK, Tu J, Riley TV, Kumarasinghe SP, Hammer KA. Tea tree oil gel for mild to moderate acne; a 12 week uncontrolled, open-label phase II pilot study. Australas J Dermatol. 2017;58(3):205-210. doi:10.1111/ajd.12465

  9. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Retinoids, topical.

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