It’s estimated that approximately 85 percent of people between the ages of 12 and 24 will experience acne at some point in their lives. But even beyond the teenage and young-adult years—30s and even into one’s 50s—it’s possible to experience adult-onset acne. Because so many people are affected by pimples, the anti-acne struggle is big business, which means shelves are loaded with the best skincare products for acne—along with not-so-good options. There are as many treatment options as there are types of acne, all targeting different root causes. But which are truly the best acne products?
Many acne treatments will target clogged pores, which are the initial causes of most types of acne. If pores never got clogged with oil and dead skin cells, acne would certainly be less of an issue. Bacteria is another trigger, as it lives inside pores and feeds on the natural sebum (oil) there. Bacteria can infect clogged pores and cause inflammation, which is essentially what pimples are.
There are various ways you can remedy clogged pores, from applying acids like salicylic acid and glycolic acid to getting regular professional facials where the blackheads will be physically extracted and laser therapy. You can also combat pimples by changing your lifestyle, tweaking your diet, using over-the-counter treatments like retinol and benzoyl peroxide and trying different types of laser treatments.
In this article, we’ll discuss the best acne treatments for teenagers and the best acne treatments for adults by explaining what may be causing your acne and how you can tailor the way you live to help reduce lesions, but also recommend certain ingredients and products to incorporate into your skincare routine.
The Best Acne Treatments
1. Lifestyle and Environment
Your lifestyle and environment can have a considerable effect on your acne. The healthier your lifestyle, the healthier your skin (and the rest of your body). Of course certain foods will keep your skin more clear than others, but in this case you can also follow some general guidelines to target acne problems. These solutions work well for adults and teens.
- Get Your Vitamin D – Even just ten minutes a day under the sun can give you the proper amount of vitamin D you need to stay healthy. Vitamin D is important because it has antimicrobial properties. Moreover, having enough vitamin D in your body can help prevent inflammation, which is one of the top causes of acne. One study actually found that individuals with vitamin D deficiency were far more likely to have nodulocystic acne (the painful, deep-in-the-skin kind of acne) than those with adequate levels of vitamin D. You can also incorporate vitamin D into your diet by taking supplements.
- Keep Your Devices Clean – Wiping your cell phone regularly throughout the day with an antibacterial wet wipe can go a long way in preventing acne-causing bacteria from proliferating on your face. Think of how often your cell phone is pressed against your skin, and you’ll realize that keeping it clean is crucial. This also pertains to anything that you might hold against your skin besides a cell phone.
- Don’t Touch Your Face – Touching your face (and picking at your existing acne) is a big no-no. When you touch your face not only do you transfer bacteria from your hands onto your facial skin, but you also make all that oil and dirt already on your face spread. This makes your face a breeding ground for acne lesions like inflamed pimples. Moreover, actually picking at your blackheads or popping your pimples can not only make the inflammation worse, it can also create scarring (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) that can be hard to get rid of, sometimes taking up to six months to fade away, and sometimes never fully going away at all.
2. Tweak Your Diet
Eating fresh, whole foods will give you more energy and strength—and it will also impact your skin from the inside out. There are certain foods, like dark chocolate, that have been shown to actually cause more acne lesions on your skin and body. One study found that dark chocolate exacerbates acne by causing more lesions to form on the skin of individuals who consume it. The study stated that consuming dark chocolate at regular amounts for four weeks in acne-prone persons can increase the number of acne lesions. Suffice it to say, dark chocolate is something you might want to steer clear of if you are prone to getting pimples and breakouts.
On the other hand, there are foods you can consume to help prevent acne formation. Probiotics, for example, can be helpful to keeping your skin stay clearer. That’s because probiotics (found naturally in foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, kimchi and other fermented foods) are basically live bacteria and yeasts that are good for you. There are tons of bacteria in our gut, both good and bad. If there is an imbalance of this good and bad bacteria, it can cause complications, and one of these complications is the formation of acne on skin. When bad bacteria outnumber the good bacteria (for example, by taking antibiotics you can actually “kill” some of that good bacteria), acne lesions can appear on your face and other common areas, like the chest and back. Consuming probiotics can help alleviate this problem. Probiotics basically return the proper balance to your gut, thereby helping to eliminate acne or prevent it from forming in the first place. Moreover, probiotics can even be applied topically. There are an increasing number of acne treatment products that contain probiotics to help treat acne from the outside. Consider incorporating foods like yogurt into your regular diet to always make sure you have the proper amount of probiotics in your system.
Finally, you should generally avoid refined or processed foods, fast foods, overly greasy foods, trans fats and saturated fats, dairy (for many, dairy can be a big acne trigger), white sugar. Other foods that are recommended as anti-inflammatories that can fight against acne include fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats like salmon, nuts, fish oils or fish oil supplements and healthy oils like olive oil.
3. Professional Facial
Professional acne facials performed regularly are among the best acne treatments for teenagers and adults. They can be executed by dermatologists or licensed and experienced aestheticians. Facials are not a cure (in fact, there is no actual “cure” for acne, only extremely effective ways to prevent or minimize it), but they can help calm inflammation, reduce the number of lesions and keep skin healthy overall.
Dermatologists and aestheticians who offer facials will usually cleanse, exfoliate, complete extractions if needed and apply a peel. Of course, it really depends on the type of acne you have. If you mostly suffer from blackheads or whiteheads, your aesthetician will probably apply a steaming to help soften skin so that the following extractions of the comedones will be easier and less painful. Typically, an aesthetician will use some type of extracting tool or their own fingers to unclog pores.
If you have inflammatory acne, the aesthetician may use LED therapy (consisting of white, red and blue infrared light) to improve tone, increase collagen and fight off acne-causing bacteria. LED therapy will help reduce inflammation and prevent further problems. This type of facial is great for regular red pimples.
Peels in general are also popular because they use ingredients like acids and enzymes to encourage the sloughing off of dead skin cells, which can clog pores and eventually lead to them being infected with bacteria. An unclogged, normal pore will usually not become infected by bacteria, so it’s the clogged pores you need to watch out for.
Before you go in for a facial, make sure your dermatologist is board-certified or that your aesthetician is properly licensed.
4. Laser Therapy
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, laser therapy is a good option in your acne treatment routine, although it’s not a perfect method. Like many non-prescription acne treatments, it may not necessarily clear your acne 100%, but it will provide some relief. The academy recommends that laser therapy treatments be combined with other treatments for best results. For example, for optimal results, your dermatologist may recommend an over-the-counter medication like benzoyl peroxide to be used in conjunction with regular laser therapy.
In studies of laser therapy on acne, researchers have stressed that multiple treatments are necessary for an individual to truly see some results. One treatment of laser therapy will usually not be enough. In one study, according to the AAD, individuals treated with a type of light therapy called photodynamic therapy had 50% fewer lesions after four weeks of treatment. But twelve weeks after their last treatment, they had 72% fewer lesions. This is pretty significant and explains why multiple treatments will work to your best advantage.
Some common laser therapy treatments include blue, red and blue and red light therapies. These are great options for run-of-the-mill pimples, but not whiteheads or blackheads, cystic or nodular acne. Infrared light treatment has been FDA-approved for pimples, but it also cannot treat comedones or cystic or nodular acne. Photodynamic therapy, on the other hand, is effective against painful cystic acne. It involves applying a solution onto the skin that makes it more sensitive to light before the laser is then employed. Finally, photopneumatic therapy is good for comedones like blackheads and whiteheads. It combines intense pulsed light laser with a vacuum that removes excess oil and blackheads, helping to unclog pores. Some pimples can also be treated with this procedure, but not cystic or nodular acne.
5. Know Your Ingredients
There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for acne. Every individual is different, and may need different types of treatment to fit their needs. Still, there are some typical treatments you can get over-the-counter to help you fight off comedones, blemishes and breakouts of all kinds. This list will go in-depth into some of the most common and effective ingredients that can help treat and prevent different kinds of acne.
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid. In essence, salicylic acid helps unclog pores. If you apply it on a breakout right away, you may find that it has shrunk in size overnight. Salicylic acid is oil-soluble, which allows it to penetrate deep into pores where it can do the most good – essentially removing all the gunk stuck in your pores that has the potential to turn into a pimple.
Though it can shrink inflamed pimples (because it’s also an anti-inflammatory), salicylic acid is especially great for blackheads and whiteheads because of its pore-unclogging ability. Once it’s inside a pore, it helps dissolve the dead skin cells and sticky oil that are clinging to each other for dear life.
It is believed that acne forms because dead skin cells do not shed properly or efficiently enough. Thus, they get trapped in pores. Salicylic acid helps loosen these dead skin cells and helps slough them away so that they don’t even get a chance to cause clogging. You can use salicylic acid as a preventative treatment if you’re prone to acne. However, be wary of overdoing it because it can sensitize skin, causing redness, flakiness and peeling.
Benzoyl peroxide directly targets acne-causing bacteria called P. acnes. It kills this bacteria instead of simply slowing down its growth. It can work rather quickly, showing changes in your acne in as little as five days. That may not seem like it’s fast, but with acne being as stubborn as it is, this is quite remarkable in terms of speed and efficacy. It is even able to prevent antibiotic resistance.
Benzoyl peroxide also helps exfoliate, similarly to salicylic acid. It sloughs away dead skin cells to unclog pores and help treat and prevent blackheads, whiteheads, and inflamed breakouts. Drawbacks to benzoyl peroxide include its ability to bleach hair and fabric, as well as the fact that it can sensitize skin – causing redness and irritation.
Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A. It is also an extremely popular acne treatment because of its ability to help dead skin cells shed more efficiently and dissolve the plugs that keep pores clogged. People with enlarged pores and oily skin who suffer often from breakouts can benefit greatly from OTC retinol.
Unfortunately, retinol can be very irritating and it may prevent some people from using the product long enough for it to be effective. Dermatologists recommend staying properly hydrated while using retinol to prevent some of the redness and peeling. Dermatologists also caution to avoid sun exposure when using retinol. As a bonus, retinol can also help with wrinkles and dark spots by resurfacing and refining skin.
Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid that also exfoliates like salicylic acid. However, it is water-soluble and doesn’t penetrate as deeply into pores. Nevertheless, it is a powerful ingredient that can be a great treatment for clogged pores and other types of acne.
Glycolic acid helps “unglue” dead skin cells that are stuck to skin’s natural oils inside pores, in addition to other debris. It also helps smooth skin overall for a more refined texture. If you have large pores, glycolic acid can help shrink them in size and also give you a lovely glow. Furthermore, glycolic acid, like retinol, can help with dark spots and wrinkles.
The Best Acne Products: Cleansers
There are so many acne-specific cleansers out there that you may find yourself overwhelmed by the choices. Luckily, there are plenty of great ones that work and have been not only vetted by dermatologists but also highly reviewed by everyday users and acne sufferers.
Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash
This is great for overall acne. Its main ingredient is salicylic acid to help break down clogged pores. Vitamin C is added to balance out oiliness.
Containing 5% benzoyl peroxide, this cleanser from Differin is effective against pimples but won’t dry out your skin like a product with a higher percentage of benzoyl peroxide.
Peter Thomas Roth Acne Clearing Wash
This acne wash also contains salicylic acid as a key ingredient to help fight blackheads and whiteheads. But it’s gentle on skin thanks to allantoin and vitamin B5.
Tata Harper Clarifying Cleanser
If you want a natural option, Tata Harper’s cleanser is the way to go. It features lactic and citric acids to exfoliate and unplug clogged pores, while also balancing oil production and calming redness.
Kate Somerville EradiKate Daily Cleanser Acne Treatment
Kate Somerville’s EradiKate cleanser contains 3% sulfur to target clogged pores and blemishes. Natural oat extract absorbs excess oil, while a botanical blend of honey and rice bran soothes and calms.
Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser
Glycolic acid is another great exfoliating ingredient that can help with acne problems. It is an alpha-hydroxy acid that penetrates deep into pores to unclog them and help prevent future breakouts.
SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel
This acne-fighting cleanser includes the double-whammy of salicylic and glycolic acids, which work together to reduce clogged pores and help dry out existing pimples for a clear complexion.
PCA Skin BPO 5% Cleanser
Another cleanser containing 5% benzoyl peroxide, which is a decent amount that won’t irritate sensitive skin, this product also contains soothing botanicals like aloe and chamomile to calm redness and irritation.
Dermalogica MediBac Clearing Skin Wash
Featuring salicylic acid and botanicals like tea tree (itself good at fighting acne) and eucalyptus, this Dermalogica face wash is great for calming irritation, reducing redness while obviously also fighting acne symptoms.
Biore Charcoal Acne Clearing Cleanser for Oily Skin
This cleanser from Biore features salicylic acid and charcoal to really dig deep into pores to clear them. It also leaves behind a very pleasant cooling sensation to relax skin that has just been treated with two powerful ingredients.
The Best Acne Products: Targeted Treatments
The following is a list of targeted over-the-counter treatments based on the above-mentioned ingredients that should significantly reduce acne lesions when used regularly and correctly. Some trial-and-error may be necessary before you land on the exact right product for you. Remember not to overdo it with these treatments as it can lead to irritation like redness, dryness, itchiness, peeling and sometimes, paradoxically, even more acne.
Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Oil-Free Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment and Moisturizer – If you need a moisturizer (and even those with oily skin do), this is a great choice. It not only provides hydration, but also helps treat breakouts because it contains salicylic acid 1%.
Clinique Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel – You can use this as a spot treatment, but also as an allover treatment. Apply a thin layer to your face twice a day after cleansing.
Neutrogena Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne Daily Leave-On Face Mask – Featuring 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, this face mask is gentle enough to use on a daily basis without causing irritation. It is a gel formula that dries clear and can be left on underneath a moisturizer.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Action – This is a best acne spot treatment featuring 5.5% benzoyl peroxide. It’s great because it’s safe for sensitive skin that can react to high percentages of benzoyl peroxide.
Differin Daily Deep Cleanser with Benzoyl Peroxide – For a daily cleanser that will work wonders, opt for this one from Differin that will be effective without causing irritation or dryness. It also helps hydrate without clogging pores.
First Aid Beauty Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate – This contains 0.25% retinol, which is low enough to be gentle but high enough to be effective. This formula also contains vitamins C and E and aloe and colloidal oatmeal to help calm and soothe irritation.
The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane– The Ordinary’s products are particularly great because they are affordable but don’t skimp on efficacy. This product is a serum you can apply all over your face or use as a spot treatment.
Dr. Brandt 2% Retinol Complex Serum – If you think you can handle something a little more powerful, you can try this retinol serum from Dr. Brandt. It features time-release retinol to give your skin tiny doses of retinol for best results.
SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel – This one contains glycolic acid and salicylic acid for a double-whammy punch against acne. Together, these two acids will thoroughly dissolve the debris in clogged pores and help shrink pimples and reduce blackheads.
NeoStrata Resurface High Potency Cream AHA 20 – Containing 18% glycolic acid, this cream from NeoStrata is very powerful and effective. In addition to reducing acne it can also help fade away acne scars left by long-healed pimples.
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel – A peel is a great way to fight acne while also helping to restore radiance to skin. This peel is followed by a neutralizer to prevent irritation. It also comes in gentler and stronger options depending on your skin needs.
The Best Acne Products: Moisturizers
When your skin is acne-prone it also tends to be oily, which means you might find yourself avoiding moisturizers like the plague. But the truth is even oily, acne-prone skin needs a good moisturizer. A solid moisturizer will help keep your skin balanced and healthy, not to mention help prevent premature signs of aging and keep skin supple in general. Of course that doesn’t mean that any old moisturizer will do for you—you absolutely should take your skin’s unique needs and physiology into account.
The right acne cream or acne moisturizer for your skin will need to be oil-free and non-comedogenic (won’t clog your pores). This will ensure that your skin will stay moisturized without your pores getting congested or your skin being frustrated by even more oiliness. Your skin will also not look annoyingly shiny, just well hydrated and soft to the touch. You don’t have to sacrifice hydration because you want to prevent more acne. You can enjoy being properly moisturized and not be afraid that pimples will start popping up everywhere.
In addition to looking out for oil-free and non-comedogenic moisturizing options, you can also benefit from opting for gel-based lotions that are more lightweight. They are usually not as thick or heavy as traditional moisturizers, which can have a negative impact on skin dealing with excess oil production.
We’ve curated a list of some of the best acne moisturizers for oily skin. The moisturizers on this list will help control excess oil production, refine pores to make them look smaller and mattify skin to reduce shine.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Mat
This entire line from La Roche-Posay is great for acne-prone or oily skin because it helps to refine and mattify, meaning smaller pores and no shine. This particular moisturizer features lipo-hydroxy acid to help make pores look smaller and thermal spring water to provide adequate hydration. Again, your skin will look beautifully matte, which is often a desire for those with oily skin who constantly have to deal with excess shininess. This also makes a great base for makeup, but doesn’t contain SPF, which you’ll have to apply on top.
CeraVe AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion
CeraVe is a popular and great drugstore brand beloved by many. This moisturizing lotion is also an excellent choice for oily skin because it is oil-free, non-comedogenic and also fragrance-free (good for sensitive skin types). Active ingredients include hyaluronic acid (a non-pore clogging hydrating ingredient) and ceramides, both of which provide thorough hydration. Another ingredient, niacinamide, can help decrease inflammation and reduce redness – these are often causes and effects of pimples.
Tatcha Water Cream
A gel-cream moisturizer like this one from Tatcha is an optimal choice for an acne moisturizer. Gel-creams are very lightweight and feel weightless on your skin as well. Not only that, but they are never oily or heavy either. Plant botanicals are the main ingredients in this acne moisturizer. Japanese Wild Rose helps tighten pores so they look smaller, and Japanese Leopard Lily helps control excess oil production. Of course this is also oil-free and non-comedogenic as all acne moisturizers should be.
Vichy Normaderm Anti-Acne Treatment Face Lotion
Specifically created for acne-prone skin, this lotion from Vichy contains glycolic acid and lipo-hydroxy acid to exfoliate, clear pores and thus prevent further acne from developing. But beyond that, of course it also provides hydration to keep skin smooth and supple. This lotion will also address large pores and excess shine by helping to tighten pores and control excess oil production. Oily, combination and normal skin types can benefit from this acne cream.
Elta MD UV Elements Tinted Broad-Spectrum
Elta MD’s UV Elements moisturizer comes recommended by dermatologists. This won’t make you break out or clog your pores, but will provide hydration and protect you from sun damage. As a bonus, it is also tinted, so it will help camouflage your existing acne and pimples to make them less noticeable while you’re waiting for them to heal. This is a very lightweight formula that will feel great on the skin.
Neutrogena Hydra Boost Water Gel
Another water-based formula, Neutrogena’s Hydra Boost Water Gel will work very well for oily, acne-prone skin. It is lightweight and absorbs easily into skin to help control oil and reduce shine. In addition to being oil-free and non-comedogenic, this moisturizer is also free of fragrances, making it a great choice for sensitive skin too. Active ingredients that provide hydration include glycerin and hyaluronic acid.
Aveeno Ultra-Calming Daily Moisturizer
This Aveeno moisturizer is particularly good for acne-prone skin because in addition to providing hydration, it also helps reduce redness and calm inflammation with oat extract. It will further soothe irritated and stressed skin that is being impacted by acne and inflamed blemishes. This moisturizer can potentially even help acne heal a little bit faster than without any treatment. Furthermore, this lotion contains SPF to protect against sun damage to keep skin from premature aging.
Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Hyaluronic Acid Cloud Cream
Peter Thomas Roth’s Water Drench Cream is a water-based cream that is actually recommended for all skin types, and not just oily or acne-prone skin. It features 30 percent concentrated hyaluronic acid (a substance that can hold 1,000 times its weight in water) that draws moisture from the environment to deeply hydrate skin. This cream is great for combating fine lines and wrinkles as well, with antioxidant-rich elderberry helping to scavenge free radicals and prevent them from causing damage to healthy skin cells. This can accelerate aging if left untreated.
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream – Drunk Elephant continues to grow in popularity because of products that work. It features vegan retinol and is very gentle on skin. You can wear it during the day as long as you cover up with sunscreen.
Ole Henriksen C-Rush Brightening Gel Crème
Ole Henriksen’s C-Rush Brightening Gel Crème offers hydration all day long, while reducing oil production to prevent shine. On top of that, it is packed with vitamin C, a potent ingredient that helps combat dark spots and discoloration. As acne often results in post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and leaves behind dark scars, this can be a great moisturizer for skin that is prone to these problems. Over time with regular use, skin will become far more even in tone.
Sunday Riley Tidal Brightening Enzyme Water Cream
Another super popular brand, Sunday Riley has revolutionized skin care with its cult-favorite products. This water cream is suited for all skin types, but particularly good for oily skin that battles acne on a regular basis. Two forms of hyaluronic acid and tamarind extract provide hydration, while papaya enzymes help refine, tightening pores and gently exfoliating to prevent further breakouts. Alpha-arbutin further helps lighten dark spots for an even complexion.
Boscia Cactus Water Moisturizer
A fast-absorbing moisturizer, Boscia’s Cactus Water helps combat loss of firmness and elasticity while also targeting dullness and dryness. This is important because even oily skin can become dry at times, especially if you happen to be applying a lot of anti-acne spot treatments that can dehydrate skin, like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. However, this moisturizer won’t exacerbate oiliness or acne.
Shiseido Pureness Matifying Moisturizer
This moisturizer from Shiseido features oil-absorbing powder to help mattify skin and keep oiliness at bay. You won’t suffer from unwanted shine as you go about your day, but will reap the benefits of this moisturizer’s hydrating powers. This one is also specifically recommended for oily and blemish-prone skin so you know it works.
Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum
A lightweight serum that won’t clog pores or make you shine like Rudolph’s nose, this offering from Drunk Elephant is much beloved by fans. It will provide intense hydration that lasts all day. Ingredients include vitamin B5 (to improve skin barrier function), pineapple ceramide (to plump up skin) and sodium hyaluronate (to plump up fine lines). Although it is mainly used to combat signs of aging, it is also recommended for oily skin because it is oil-free and extremely lightweight.
As we previously mentioned, an effective acne treatment must be tailored to an individual’s needs. We are all different, with different types of skin and the issues that come along with them. Some of us may simply suffer from acne like blackheads, while others may be more prone to cystic and nodular acne that is often very painful and much harder to treat. Furthermore, the chances are that one type of treatment may not always be enough. If you have severe acne, you will most likely need a combination of therapies like regular (weekly or monthly) professional facials, some laser therapy done in conjunction with using products that contain salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid or retinol. Even more, you may have to take a long, hard look at your lifestyle and eating habits, ascertain whether you are getting enough vitamin D, etc. to give yourself an advantage in the fight against acne. Acne is tenacious and stubborn. It needs you to be the same way if you are going to successfully fight it off and keep it from reappearing. Stay positive, though it will be tough if acne is constantly recurring, and stay stubborn and vigilant. With the right combination of the best acne treatments, you can be successfully keep blemishes at bay.
References: Dermato Endocrinology, “Preliminary Evidence for Vitamin D Deficiency in Nodulocystic Acne”; International Journal of Dermatology, “Dark Chocolate Exacerbates Acne”; International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, “The Effect of Probiotics on Immune Regulation, Acne, and Photoaging”; American Academy of Dermatology, “Lasers and Lights: How Well Do They Treat Acne?”