Few things are quite as frustrating as waking up with breakouts or being unable to tackle stubborn pimples—so finding the best acne treatment is key. Whether you’ve been combating acne since your teenage years, suffer from maskne, or only started breaking out as an adult, the quest to find that right product is always daunting.
“Acne (acne vulgaris) is one of the most common skin conditions affecting millions each year,” says board-certified dermatologist Michele Green. “Most people get acne at some point in their lifetime, and the underlying cause of a breakout may vary depending on the type of acne.” She notes that while “a combination of factors contributes to the formation of acne, including hormones, genetics, environmental factors, stress, skin care, and diet,” at the end of the day, the main cause is an overproduction of sebum and clogged pores.
Nonetheless, the right treatment goes back to what kind of acne and skin you have. According to Los Angeles–based dermatologist Jessica Wu, “hormonal acne can be treated by prescription-strength topical or oral hormone-balancing medication. Inflammation and clogged pores can be improved by using the proper cleanser. Maskne can be improved by using softer masks and keeping them clean.”
Both dermatologists Elyse Love and Whitney Bowe emphasize the importance of a balanced diet to combat acne, too—specifically for healthy gut health, which Bowe says contributes to inflammation and, in turn, breakouts. In fact, her three golden rules to reduce gut inflammation are to cut down on processed foods, limit dairy consumption, and incorporate probiotics into your diet.
While it is advised to consult with your doctor around dietary guidance and curating the proper beauty regimen, our experts share that salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, and topical retinoids like adapalene are the most effective ingredients to treat and prevent acne.
With this guidance in mind, these are the dermatologist-approved acne treatments and products to add to your routine.
“If you notice that your skin is acne-prone, it can feel good to double cleanse because it helps degrease the skin,” says Dr. Bowe, who recommends starting with Bioderma’s micellar water then cleansing with Skinfix’s foaming cleanser—both options she notes are gentle enough not to damage the skin barrier. The La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Cleanser is a favorite of hers as well. “It is made with prebiotic thermal water to help nurture and restore your skin’s healthy microbiome,” she explains. Or perhaps the iS Clinical Cleansing Complex is more your speed to gently clarify pores and blemishes for a smoother complexion.
Corey L. Hartman, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, likes the CeraVe Foaming Cream Cleanser, especially for those with sensitive skin; or the SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel, which is formulated with a cocktail of acids to “treat acne and prevent aging.” Meanwhile, Dr. Wu recommends the Avène Cleansing Foam for those with acne-prone dry, sensitive skin and the Paula’s Choice Pore Normalizing Acne Cleanser for normal to oily skin types because it “contains salicylic acid to fight blackheads and congestion, along with panthenol to soothe skin and help prevent irritation.”
Post-cleanse, look for a toner or exfoliating solution to further unclog congested pores, wipe away dead skin, and remove impurities. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant is one of the most recommended products, and Dr. Green says it’s gentle enough for daily use. “This product gently exfoliates the skin, breaking down sebum and debris that are clogging the pores to reveal a smoother, healthier complexion,” she explains.
Moon Juice’s Acid Potion Resurfacing Exfoliator, which features a blend of AHAs and BHAs, is Dr. Bowe’s pick. “The AHAs are great for hyperpigmentation and age-related changes, but the BHA is ideal for oily skin because the salicylic acid dives into the pores and dissolves the sticky ‘glue’ holding the sebum and dead cells together.”
Dr. Love is a fan of the acclaimed Glossier Solution, and board-certified dermatologist Onyeka Obioha prefers Mele Even Tone Post Cleanse Tonic because it’s a “gentle yet effective lactic acid-based toner to remove impurities.”
Serums & Moisturizers
If you’re interested in adding an acne-treating serum or moisturizer to your regimen, consider starting with The Ordinary’s Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%—a notably affordable option that’s recommended by several of our experts. “[Niacinamide] has a calming and brightening effect on the skin, helping to improve overall tone and texture while reducing breakouts and controlling excess sebum and oil production,” says Dr. Green, who notes that those with oily skin or breakouts will benefit from the healing, anti-inflammatory properties of this serum.
To treat blackheads and whiteheads, Bowe likes the Skinceuticals Silymarin CF—an oil-free vitamin C serum that can also help reduce signs of aging. She recommends moisturizing with a hydrating cream like Farmacy’s Honey Halo, “which soothes irritated skin and helps to heal a compromised skin barrier.” Or, perhaps try the Avène Cleanance Concentrate if you have sensitive skin.
The Differin gel that many of us may have been prescribed to treat pubescent acne may still be worth a place in your acne-fighting routine. According to Dr. Wu, “this over-the-counter retinoid gets deep into the pores to help dissolve blackheads. It’s strong and can cause sun sensitivity, so only use it at night and be sure to use SPF.”
For other topical daily acne treatments, consider the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel for a topical retinoid or Paula’s Choice Clear Daily Skin Clearing Treatment, which is formulated with benzoyl peroxide and plant extracts to soothe skin.
For those rogue breakouts, there are a plethora of products to minimize the size of a pimple over a couple of hours, like a Mighty Patch hydrocolloid sticker, drying treatments by Mario Badescu, and Versed overnight. For spot treatments like these and the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo, apply to acne spots directly. Board-certified dermatologist Hadley King also recommends Acne Free’s Terminator 10 Acne Spot Treatment because it contains “calming anti-inflammatory ingredients [that] are helpful to decrease the inflammation in the active pimple.”
If you’re low on time, apply Sunday Riley’s Saturn Sulfur treatment for 20 to 30 minutes, then rinse off, to reduce the appearance of breakouts. Or, for a daily treatment to reduce to look of hyperpigmentation, blemishes, and texture, consider what commerce writer Alexis Bennett calls her holy-grail skin-care product: the Vivant Skin Care Daily Repair Pads. She writes, “If you want your pores to completely disappear and your face to look as smooth as a dolphin’s fin, then you have to try these wipes.”
A good face mask is necessary for any self-care night or a skin refresh, so why not use one that has acne-fighting benefits too? According to Dr. Hartman, “Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial is used as a mask and is great for all skin types. It boasts a blend of AHAs (glycolic, tartaric, lactic, and citric acids) and increases cell turnover. The BHA, salicylic acid, unclogs pores for an overall nonirritating exfoliation with maximum hydration.”
Otherwise, consider the Peter Thomas Roth mask, which is infused with sulfur and kaolin clay to absorb excess oil and prevent future breakouts. The well-loved Kiehl’s pore-minimizing mask is also formulated with clay to help unclog pores. Take a new approach to masking with the Dr. Dennis Gross LED device to combat blemishes by destroying acne-causing bacteria through an at-home blue light treatment.
Of course, acne is not reserved for the face. Our experts recommend products packed with salicylic acid to treat the skin. While Dr. Wu likes the Versed body mist to treat the back, butt, arms, or chest, other dermatologists look to body washes like CeraVe’s SA. Otherwise, Kosas’ Good Body Skin gently exfoliates, brightens, and soothes with the help of an AHA blend, fruit enzymes, and allantoin.
From Vogue US