Just because the road to clear skin can be a long and regimented one doesn't mean it needs to be expensive, too. Case in point: Some of the best acne products are inexpensive and can easily be found at a local drugstore.
For more on the subject, we turned to dermatologists Cindy Bae, MD, of the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of New York; Adam Friedman, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences; and Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, clinical instructor at NYU Langone and Mount Sinai Hospital, for advice on how to pick the right drugstore acne treatment and what products they recommend.
Their top tip? When it comes to acne treatment, it's all about the ingredients. All three dermatologists we spoke to agree that these are the top terms to look for on a product label at the drugstore: Retinol, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid.
"It's common to panic when you get acne, and there is an urge to use every single acne-fighting treatment," says Levin. "But over-treating or over-exfoliating can do more harm than benefit since the skin can become dry and irritated, making acne worse. I recommend adding one product at a time and waiting one to two weeks, and if the skin isn't irritated, then you can add another active product."
Scroll down to see the top expert-recommended drugstore products for acne.
Differin Acne Treatment Gel
Retin-A (tretinoin) is a form of vitamin A that helps the skin renew itself by encouraging cell turnover. It's commonly prescribed for acne, fine lines, and sun-damaged skin.
"Retinoids are the absolute backbone of an acne treatment," says Levin. "They de-clog pores by normalizing skin cell turnover to prevent dead skin cells from clogging pores, but they also act as an anti-inflammatory." But be careful when mixing with other treatments; Friedman says not to use a retinoid with a benzoyl peroxide. "Retinoids like adapalene and benzoyl peroxide cannot be used at the same time, or else the adapalene will be eaten up," he says.
Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment
"Salicylic acid is a common over-the-counter product that breaks up dead skin cells to clear out blackheads," says Levin. "More importantly, salicylic acid is a lipid-loving acid and, therefore, concentrates in pores, since pores are connected to our oil glands."
Cetaphil DermaControl Oil Control Moisturizer SPF 30
Less is more with acne-fighting ingredients. Bae cautions against using them altogether, as they all contribute to drying out the skin. "Alcohol-based products like astringents can further exacerbate dry skin as a result of treating with these ingredients. It's so important to ensure daily sunscreen use and to moisturize." This Cetaphil moisturizer fights oil while providing UV protection.
Thayers Witch Hazel Alcohol-Free Toner - Rose Petal
Toner can be a godsend for those who regularly experience breakouts, but many formulas are very harsh and packed with a few too many acne-fighting ingredients. We're big fans of this alcohol-free witch hazel, which has aloe and rose petal meant to soothe while also controlling oil.
Cetaphil DermaControl Oil Removing Foam Wash
"The most important thing to remember is acneic skin is damaged skin. A harsh cleanser will cause more harm than good," says Friedman. "Mild cleansers that are pH balanced and do not contain surfactants (the part of soap that binds to dirt/fat on the skin) are ideal. Some foaming cleansers, like Cetaphil DermaControl, are mild and good for oily skin."
Differin Daily Deep Cleanser
Benzoyl peroxide is an organic acid in the peroxide family that has been used to treat acne because of its keratolytic, moderate comedolytic, and antibacterial properties, which include the reduction of P. acnes and Staph. aureus on the skin.
"An acne-free, oil-free cleanser with benzoyl peroxide and glycolic acid [is my favorite] because the lower percentage benzoyl peroxide is gentle yet effective to treat acne, and the added glycolic acid helps exfoliate the skin, like the Differin Daily Deep Cleanser, which contains 5 percent of benzoyl peroxide," says Bae. "When it comes to BPO, less is more," Friedman says.
Burt's Bees Herbal Complexion Stick
If you're sensitive to the popularly-touted anti-acne ingredients mentioned in this article, like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, try this tea tree oil blemish stick from Burt's Bees. The combination of astringent tea tree and juniper oils, exfoliating willow bark, and soothing calendula come in a convenient roll-on stick form for easy reapplication.
Glytone Mild Gel Cleanser
"My favorite gentle acne cleansers are those with glycolic acid," says Levin. "Many of my patients who are dealing with female adult acne also have an intolerance to the traditional acne medications that they used to be able to tolerate as a teenager, such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Using a mild exfoliating cleanser with glycolic acid chemically exfoliates the skin with a small percentage of glycolic acid."
Prosacea Rosacea Treatment Homeopathic Topical Gel
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.
As a spot treatment, Prosacea's product "contains sulfur, which is a keratolytic with antibacterial properties," says Bae. "The product also includes skin soothers like aloe to help moisturize and soothe the skin."
Cover Dot Acne Care Hydrocolloid Waterproof Clear Pimple Absorbing Acne Patch
One of these patches will help heal a pimple faster "because it absorbs the fluid from the pimple; creates a moist environment to allow for faster and improved healing; protects the pimple from you picking and against sunlight, which accelerates healing; and minimizes exposure to UV radiation to minimize hyperpigmentation," says Levin.
EB5 Anti-Aging Vitamin C Serum Concentrate
"We are learning that free radicals can also contribute to acne. Therefore, using an antioxidant serum can help combat this cause," says Bae. "Plus, vitamin C is known to help brighten skin, so it will also help fade those acne marks."
Cortizone Maximum Strength Ointment
When breakouts are extremely inflamed, they can be painful. Sometimes, the thought of putting possibly irritating ingredients on already red, itchy, and swollen patches of skin can make you cringe. Have a tube of cortisone ointment on hand to soothe that discomfort and prevent itchiness.
Blaskovich MAT, Elliott AG, Kavanagh AM, Ramu S, Cooper MA. In vitro antimicrobial activity of acne drugs against skin-associated bacteria. Sci Rep. 2019;9(1):14658. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-50746-4