Acne and I go way back, specifically to picture day in the seventh grade. I'd gotten a new sweater for the occasion (turtleneck, oatmeal-colored, ribbed, probably from Kohl's) and spent extra time on my taupe shimmery eye shadow, but what stared back at me in the bathroom mirror that morning was my first pimple—a giant one right near the tip of my nose.
From that moment on, my breakouts multiplied. I tried dozens upon dozens of products only to continue battling breakouts and the resulting scarring. Thankfully, after seeing a dermatologist and becoming educated on proper skincare, I finally discovered the products that work the best—and the fastest—without doing further damage to my skin. Now, as a 20-something, I've got the best skin of my life and know how to attack a burgeoning breakout (safely and efficiently).
Read on for the best acne treatment products that totally changed my skin.
Renée Rouleau Moisture Protecting Cleanser
While not a categorical "acne product," the single most important thing I incorporated into my routine was a gentle, moisture-protecting cleanser. Some skin types can tolerate a salicylic acid acne wash, but for my sensitive skin, these were too high-powered and made matters worse.
"While you certainly want a cleanser to offer a nice cleansing experience, you don't want it to unnecessarily strip water out of the skin, which will encourage dead skin cells, resulting in unhealthy skin," explains celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau. For a healthy foundation, try a skin-loving cleanser like this variation from Rouleau's eponymous skincare line.
Price at time of publish: $39
Mario Badescu Drying Lotion
If you've ever found that an acne treatment didn't "work" for you, it was probably because the pimple wasn't at the right stage to receive the cream/gel/etc. According to Rouleau, when a harsh spot treatment is applied the moment a blemish appears, it immediately dries out the skin's surface and creates dead, flaky cells. These cells keep the infection trapped, making it harder for it to fully heal. As a result, the longer these cells are trapped, the longer your blemish will remain. To ensure your treatment works, Rouleau suggests waiting for the whitehead to surface, then wrapping your fingers in tissue to gently extract the pus. Once the pore is empty, you can go ahead and apply your treatment, which she says will then permeate deeply and close up the surface of the skin.
I found this method to work especially well when applying this sulfur-based drying lotion. Just dip a Q-tip into the pink goo at the bottom of the bottle and dab onto the breakout, allow it to dry, and let it work its magic while you sleep. Celebrities are huge fans of this pimple-shrinking formula too.
Price at time of publish: $17
What Our Testers Say
"Mario Badescu's Drying Lotion does just what it says: stops pimples in their tracks and calms them at the same time." — Bianca Lambert, Product Tester
CVS Health Acne Treatment Cream With 10% Benzoyl Peroxide
This may sound silly, but there is something magical hidden within a tube of CVS brand acne treatment. And yes, specifically CVS generic cream, not the brands it's trying to imitate (though it far surpasses the efficacy of its competitors). I've been using it since high school before I had a dermatologist and after the fact when I was too lazy to book an appointment for another refill of prescription acne cream.
The thing is, though, this cream has 10% benzoyl peroxide, which is the strongest amount available in prescription offerings. 10% benzoyl peroxide has been reported to be more irritating, but research has shown 10% benzoyl peroxide is not significantly more irritating. However, that wasn't an issue for me, personally—I've used this formula for so long that I've seen the packaging change at least five times. But despite its new looks, the formula has stayed true to itself and works like nothing else I've tried. It gets rid of the bacteria and dead cells that clog the pore and cause the pimple in the first place.
Price at time of publish: $7
Best Spot Treatment
Renée Rouleau Anti Bump Solution
People are straight-up obsessed with this acne treatment, again from Rouleau's line. It's packed with methyl gluceth 20 and ethyl lactate, a purified form of lactic acid ester, and it promises to hydrate while exfoliating (and smoothing) the skin and reduce redness and inflammation. It's also clear, so you can discretely wear it underneath your makeup or on its own.
Price at time of publish: $50
Grown Alchemist Blemish Treatment Gel
I'm always drawn to chic Aussie brand Grown Alchemist for the sleek black packaging alone, but the contents inside always greatly deliver, which is a huge bonus. This tiny elixir packs a powerful punch with natural ingredients like antibacterial salix alba extract and Boswellia, and it promises to activate the fibroblast cells that produce collagen and elastin and visibly reduce redness. I put this on a breakout I'd extracted and saw a significant decrease by the next morning.
Price at time of publish: $52
Best With Benzoyl Peroxide
Proactiv Emergency Blemish Relief
Another one of my favorites, this high-powered benzoyl peroxide treatment absorbs quickly into the skin for quick relief. Your blemish will be noticeably smaller by morning.
Price at time of publish: $22 for 0.33 oz
GLAMGLOW SUPERMUD Charcoal Instant Clearing Treatment Mask
I always reach for cult-loved Supermud when my skin needs a major overhaul, like if I slept in my makeup the night before or am experiencing hormonal breakouts. But I've also found that it works like a charm as a spot treatment, too. What's cool is you can see it working—as the mud dries, you can see the oil being absorbed, and come morning, the lesion is close to being gone.
Price at time of publish: $25
Uma Oils Deeply Clarifying Blemish Spot Treatment
Never has there been a prettier acne treatment. This 100% natural and organic clarifying oil came across my desk way back when, and I find myself applying it to persistent blemishes while I'm in the office. It's an age-old Ayurvedic formula of tea tree, juniper, and clary sage, meant to effectively reduce the size and redness of a breakout without any burning sensation. It's important to note that we all react to oil-based products differently, and if you have acne-prone skin you should steer clear (or talk to your board-certified dermatologist first).
Price at time of publish: $55
What to Look For in an Acne Treatment
Ask for Dermatologist Recommendations
While there are many over-the-counter and drugstore acne treatments available, it’s always best to seek the advice of a professional before starting a new regime. “Take care with active ingredients that exfoliate or increase skin cell turnover,” advises Jonquille Chantrey,M.D., a surgeon, international lecturer and beauty scientist. “They can work extremely well together but this needs to be directed by a skin expert. I advise anyone interested in truly improving their skin health to obtain a diagnosis and supportive treatment plan.”
From blemish treatment gels, to drying lotions, cleansers and mud masks, there are several treatment types for acne. Some of these act as preventative measures while spot-on treatments and drying lotions are suited to treating surface blemishes and live breakouts.
What ingredients treat acne?
“Combinations of different acids such as salicylic and glycolic can be used to treat acne,” advises Dr. Chantrey. “Retinoids and retinoic acid are highly important, while benzoyl peroxide has historically been used as a supporting ingredient.”
Do you apply an acne treatment before or after moisturizer?
“This depends upon the formulation. But generally speaking, the majority of these acids discussed are applied to the skin first,” says Dr. Chantrey. “With my active acne patients, I use moisturisers sparingly and specifically to deliver light hydration that assists skin barrier function.”
How do you use acne spot treatments?
Most spot treatments are designed to be applied directly onto the area of concern in small volumes. Apply with a cotton swab or a clean finger. Many have a slight tint to them, so it may be best to apply at night and leave on while you sleep.
Santos-Caetano JP, Cargill MR. A randomized controlled tolerability study to evaluate reformulated benzoyl peroxide face washes for acne vulgaris. J Drugs Dermatol. 2019;18(4):350-356.