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: Of every acne-fighting product I've ever tried—and I've tried them all, basically—the one I keep as a constant in my daily skincare routine is the Differin Acne Treatment Gel. I talk about it in so many articles and constantly recommend it to friends, family, and anyone who asks (I'm no Differin influencer, I swear) because it is just that good. And for $11, it's a steal. It's also proof that 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. (They, too, unanimously praised the Differin gel, in case you were wondering). Scroll down to see what the experts have to say, including what they consider to be the best drugstore acne treatments.
Ingredients to look for
When it comes to acne treatment, it's all about the ingredients, and all three dermatologists we spoke to agree that these are the top terms to look for on a product label at the drugstore:
"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."
2. Benzoyl Peroxide
We've broken down this vital acne-fighting ingredient before, and Friedman further explains that benzoyl peroxide kills everything, especially acne-causing bacteria. He cautions to use only the amount needed, though. "When it comes to BPO, less is more," he says.
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.
3. Salicylic Acid
"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."
Ingredients to avoid
If you're thinking of working any acne-fighting product into your routine, it's important to be mindful of which ingredients might counteract each other and which can cause irritation when mixed.
"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."
Similarly, Bae cautions against using all acne-fighting ingredients together, as they all contribute to drying out the skin.
"Perhaps use a gentle cleanser while starting a product with retinol, and then slowly add products with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid so the skin doesn't get too dry and irritated," she says. "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."
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.
As for two ingredients that should never be mixed, Friedman says to not 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.
Products to buy
"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% of benzoyl peroxide," says Bae.
"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."
"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."
For sensitive skin, Bae likes this product from Avène. It has a mattifying formula with a velvet-like texture that helps eliminate blemishes in the gentlest way possible.
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."
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.
"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."
So there you have it: definitive proof that clear skin doesn't need to cost you an entire month's rent. Excuse me while I go stock up on my beloved Differin.
Kraft J, Freiman A. Management of acne. CMAJ. 2011;183(7):E430-E435. doi:10.1503/cmaj.090374