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Breakouts are inevitable, but especially during times of stress. So, it's no surprise 2021 has led to it's fair share of pimples cropping up on our (usually masked) faces. "In times of stress, your stress hormones rise and trigger your oil glands to produce more oil, which then triggers acne flares,” Donna Hart, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Austin, Texas, explains.
To figure out how to best proceed—i.e. using helpful, effective products to target and heal breakouts without feeling bad about our skin—we did some research. We tested, reviewed, and wrote everything down. Below, find the best acne products to tackle blemishes at any stage and in any situation.
Best for Clogged Pores: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
This ingredient-packed serum uses a potent combination of exfoliating acids, pore cleaners, antioxidants, and moisturizers to create an overnight treatment that operates like a gentler version of a glycolic acid peel. Expect a tingling sensation when you apply—that’s this serum sloughing off dead skin cells, unclogging pores, and evening out your skin tone while you sleep to help minimize the likelihood and duration of breakouts over time. Pro tip: Avoid using this serum in combination with other acne spot treatments.
Best Retinoid: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
Formerly available by prescription only, Differin is now for sale over the counter, and serious skincare gurus are overjoyed. It contains a prescription-strength retinoid called Adapalene, which dermatologists recommend specifically for the treatment of acne. Long story short: It’s more than worth a try. The water-based formula is free of oil, alcohol, and fragrance, and is an essential item in anyone’s acne-fighting arsenal.
Best Patch: COSRX Acne Pimple Master Patch
If you have a pimple that’s inflamed and you want to bring it down fast, these patches are a perfect overnight fix. Much like a bandage, hydrocolloid patches help the acne medication penetrate deeper into the skin by keeping it where it’s needed—no rubbing off on your pillow. The patch environment keeps the skin moist and permeable while keeping out bacteria. They have an almost magical ability to flatten even the worst zits and reduce their appearance quickly.
Best Spot Treatment: Mario Badescu Drying Lotion
Sulfur is a natural element that is an essential component for all living cells. Sulfur-based products tend to work best for mild-to-moderate acne, primarily whiteheads, blackheads, and papules.
Ask any woman who’s ever struggled with acne and she’ll at least have heard of this cult acne-fighter. People swear that just one drop of Mario Badescu’s famous drying lotion can heal and dry a zit up overnight; the calamine, colloidal sulfur, and salicylic acid ensure it.
Best Natural: Marla Rene Beauty & Co. Calendula Clear Serum
Aloe vera is a naturally derived ingredient known for its soothing and moisturizing properties. The aloe plant's inner gel mucilage (the part that's used in skincare products) is made up of 99.5% water.
This clarifying serum is 100% natural and plant-based to gently calm irritated and acne-prone skin. It has aloe vera to increase skin's elasticity and restore its optimum pH balance, and alcohol-free witch hazel to control oil production and prevent future breakouts. The real star ingredient is calendula, which promotes the fast healing and regeneration of skin.
Best for Acne Scars: Murad Post-Acne Spot Lightening Gel
Hydroquinone is a powerful ingredient that can help fade the look of post-acne skin discoloration. It works by blocking the production of melanin (the pigment that gives color to your skin) and over the course of a few months, it can help lighten the area you’re treating.
This 2% concentration is the highest available without a prescription, and an added combination of willow bark and tea tree oils help to soothe inflammation to reduce the overall appearance of the scar.
Runner-Up, Best for Acne Scars: Mary Louise Miracle Serum
If you've tried everything for your acne scars to no avail, this might be the serum for you. This vegan and cruelty free product is super packed with nutrients to target several skincare concerns, including acne scars, eczema, razor bumps, hydration, and hyperpigmentation. It absorbs quickly into skin for a non-greasy finish, and we especially love that this serum plays nicely under skincare.
Users say that it has anti-inflammatory properties and gave them a clearer, glowing complexion.
Best Mask: Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay
Apple cider vinegar is fermented apple juice formed by when yeast mixes with the sugar of the juice. It contains acetic acid, which has antibacterial and keratolytic properties, and it also contains malic acid, a gentle chemical exfoliant.
Not only is this cult product a major bargain, but it works like magic for super-oily problem skin. Mix the bentonite clay-based formula with water (or apple cider vinegar) and apply it to your face like a mask—the clay will soak up excess oils and debris, leaving your face feeling soft, fresh, and clean.
Best for Cystic Acne: Renée Rouleau Anti Bump Solution
Stubborn cystic acne (those painful red bumps that never quite come to a head) is particularly hard to treat, as the zit itself is hidden deep under the surface of the skin. This cult-favorite cystic acne treatment from celebrity esthetician Renee Rouleau uses ethyl lactate to purify your pores, methyl gluceth 20, which helps with inflammation, and citric acid to help with hyperpigmentation and scarring. Apply it immediately when you feel a cyst developing, and it will help reduce the inflammation and duration of the blemish.
Best Serum: Evologie Intensive Blemish Serum
The top-selling acne product online comes from doctor-developed brand Evologie. Its patent-pending YS3 Complex uses tea tree oil and salicylic acid to banish breakouts deep below the skin's surface, also brightening hyperpigmentation and acne scars. In other words, this might just be the miracle product you’ve been praying for.
Best LED: Foreo Espada
If creams and gels aren't your thing, light therapy is also effective at treating acne—and fast, too. This Foreo device uses a combo of laser-focused blue LED light and T-Sonic pulsations to fight acne-causing bacteria in just 30 seconds. It's also totally waterproof, and according to the brand, you can use it up to 100 times per charge. Just press the center button, point the device at your blemish using the targeting red light, and hold for 30 seconds; you can repeat this up to four times for a stronger treatment.
Best for Body: Paula's Choice Clear Acne Body Spray
Looking to treat hard-to-reach areas of the body (like your back)? Grab this Paula's Choice spray-on body exfoliant, which contains 2% salicylic acid to fight blemishes, bumps, and blackheads, as well as licorice root (to calm irritated skin) and barberry (which is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory). This product is also alcohol-free and dries quickly, so you can spray it on and go.
Best for Hyperpigmentation: Kiehl's Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (ie. pesky dark spots and discoloration that can crop up post-breakout) is super common—even more so for those with darker skin tones. The good news? This lightweight Kiehl's solution can help, ASAP. Activated C, a fast-acting form of vitamin C, and white birch extract work together to reduce the appearance of dark spots, while peony extract shields against oxidative damage. Clearer skin, coming right up.
Best for Blackheads: Glossier Solution
While pore strips may seem satisfying, they can actually cause more harm than good when it comes to treating blackheads. Glossier's Solution, a liquid exfoliator, is an alternative we love. It improves the appearance of blemishes with a 10% blend of skincare acids (salicylic acid, alpha-hydroxy acids, and polyhydroxy acid), while aloe, glycerin, and niacinamide hydrate and calm the skin. It's also dermatologist-tested, cruelty-free, and vegan.
Best Overnight Spot Treatment: Rosen Skincare Break-Out
This product looks a bit like Wite-Out, but it's not just a way to cover blemishes—it works to shrink and heal them overnight. The hero of its innovative formula is zinc oxide, which helps combat redness, irritation, and inflammation. From there, peppermint oil, which is antiseptic and anti-microbial, cools and calms the skin, and apple cider vinegar, which is anti-bacterial, helps prevent further breakouts. For clearer skin in the morning, apply to a problem area before you snooze.
Best Gel Moisturizer: Clinique Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel
This salicylic acid acne treatment has been a fan-favorite for years and guess what: It's still available and still highly effective. Depending on your skin’s needs, you can apply a thin layer twice a day after you cleanse your skin, or if you already use an all-over acne treatment, you can use it as a spot treatment on particularly stubborn zits. The ultra-simple formula is hypoallergenic as well as fragrance-, oil- and paraben-free. Win, win, win.