If you feel bummed every time you have an acne breakout because nothing in your bathroom cabinet seems to keep the pimples at bay, you’re not alone. Adult acne is incredibly common, affecting 40-54% of people over the age of 25. And yet, as common as it is, every person’s skin responds differently to different treatments. Like, that face-wash your friend swears by may leave your skin feeling dryer than you would like, while that cream you saw people raving about on TV doesn’t quite zap your zits.
Overall, the search for the perfect acne-clearing products can be tricky and, at times, really frustrating. One of the keys to effectively treat your acne is getting to the root of why your pimples pop up in the first place.
What causes acne?
Acne is a condition that manifests whenever your poor hair follicles get all blocked up by either excess oil, dead skin cells, bacteria or inflammation according to dermatologists at the Mayo Clinic. What results is a breakout that may show up as whiteheads, blackheads, pimples or all of the above.
Dead skin, oil and bacteria build up can happen for a number of reasons, like…
- Slow cell turnover rate. For some skin types, dead skin doesn’t shed as easily when it’s time for them to go, according to experts from Harvard Health. Instead, these skin cells can clog your hair follicles and prevent them from secreting sebum (the oil that makes your skin nice and supple) as well as bacteria that cause infection.
- Overproduction of oil. This can occur when you wash your face too much, don’t use enough (or the right moisturizer), or live in a hot or humid environment. Your body’s natural production of oil can even be influenced by your genes.
- Hormone fluctuations. The changing levels of estrogen and progesterone during menstrual cycles or the menopause transition can also cause your skin to ramp up its oil production.
- Heavy or greasy personal products. Certain lotions, makeup and hair pomades that come in contact with acne-prone skin may contribute to breakouts.
- An inflammatory diet. There’s some research out there that says that certain foods can make acne worse. But which foods could be triggering or helpful for you is hard to say since there’s no consensus on specific dietary restrictions or suggestions.
The best ingredients to treat acne:
From oral antibiotics to over-the-counter (OTC) creams, gels and face washes, there are so many different options available to treat acne. Most mild, non-hormonal cases of acne can be cleared using OTC products, according to Angela Lamb, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai. These typically include acne-busting ingredients such as:
- Salicylic acid. One of the most common beta hydroxy acids (BHA) used to clear acne, it’s known for its ability to fight off bacteria, exfoliate dead skin cells, calm inflammation and keep whiteheads and blackheads at bay.
- Alpha hydroxy acids. While these are less commonly used in acne products, lactic acid and glycolic acid are sometimes used for their ability to increase skin cell turnover. Lactic acid specifically is known for being a good exfoliator while glycolic acid works to fight bacteria and decrease inflammation.
- Benzoyl peroxide. An antimicrobial ingredient that gets rid of the germs that can infect your skin as well as scrub off dead skin cells. While using it consistently can significantly improve your condition within a month, some people find that it can be too harsh and cause their skin to peel. It also can bleach hair and fabrics.
- Retinol. This vitamin A derivative can boost skin cell turnover as well as decrease oil production, reduce inflammation, and smooth out potential scarring. If you have skin allergies or dry skin, though, experts from the American Academy of Dermatology, generally warn against avoiding retinol altogether.
- Adapalene. Another vitamin A derivative, this is a retinoid (which tends to be more potent than retinol and usually only available in prescription form). Adapalene is especially great at stopping pimples from forming underneath the skin, according to experts at the National Institute of Health.
- Sulfur. While this ingredient reeks like rotten eggs, Danusia Wnek, one of our chemists at the Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab, says that it does help to dry out excess oil and shed dead skin cells.
Ingredients that can make acne worse:
As for ingredients you should steer clear away from, you want to avoid things that can clog your skin. Some moisturizers contain heavy ingredients like petrolatum or mineral oils that may block your pores, says Dr. Lamb. Looking at a product and not sure if the ingredients are “heavy” or not? Dawn Marie R. Davis, M.D., a dermatologist at Mayo Clinic, says to look for the “noncomedogenic” label, which means it’s skin-care that’s formulated to not clog things up. “For patients with oily skin or sensitive skin, looking for ‘oil-free’ products may also be important,” adds Dr. Davis.
Most of all, you definitely want to dodge any ingredient you know is irritating. When your skin is healing from acne, further irritating the affected area by washing, scrubbing or moisturizing with something your skin doesn’t like can lead to more breakouts. That’s why Dr. Lamb’s not a fan of certain exfoliators for acne-prone skin. “Patients think they are helpful when they tend to be too harsh,” she says.
In general, before you go shopping for products at the drugstore, it’s best to consult with your dermatologist to determine which ingredients would work to treat your acne. This is especially important if you have moderate to severe acne, in which case you may need an oral medication, a topical ointment (or a combination of both), which only your MD can prescribe.
Still, even when you do work with your doc, finding the most effective products for your unique skin can be a long process of trial and error. So, to give you a head start on your search, we’ve asked acne specialists — from dermatologists to aestheticians — what they thought were some of the best acne products on the market. Of course, always work with your skin doc before you try any of these so you can make sure you’re crafting the best skincare routine for you and your skin type.
How we chose these products:
On this list, we only selected treatments that were:
- Dermatologist or aesthetician recommended
- Tested and reviewed by members of the Good Housekeeping Beauty Lab and/or Beauty editorial team
- Had solid customer reviews
Since many acne treatments can cause your skin to be more vulnerable to sunburn, we also added expert recommended sunscreens that won’t clog your skin.
- BEST OVERALL ACNE FACE WASH PhytoAction Daily Deep Cleansing Gel
- BEST ACNE FACE WASH FOR SENSITIVE SKIN Foaming Facial Cleanser
CeraVe is one of the most popular, over-the-counter brands for creating products that are designed for various skin types. Jennifer Wong, PA-C, a dermatology physician’s assistant at Advanced Dermatology PC, loves this particular foaming wash because it’s gentle so it’s great for those who have sensitive, acne-prone skin. It’s a fragrance-free and non-comedogenic cleanser that removes excess oil and dirt that may clog your pores.
BEST ACNE FACE WASH TO PREVENT HYPER-PIGMENTATION Acne Clarifying Cleanser
“This cleanser combines salicylic acid, honey and rice bran extract to deeply cleanse the pores, hydrate the skin and control blemishes in a healing environment,” says Corey L. Hartman, M.D., the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology. In other words, this wash not only works to clear unwanted gunk away, it soothes and calm your skin while it works to improve your complexion. This product is especially great for those with darker skin types that may be affected by post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation, says Dr. Hartman.
BEST ACNE FACE WASH FOR OILY SKIN Antimicrobial Acne Creamy Wash
If your skin is on the oilier side, you may want to try a product that has benzoyl peroxide in it such as PanOxyl, according to Wong. Like salicylic acid, it helps to break up dead cells and excess oil, but it also works as an antiseptic that kills acne-causing bacteria. If your skin is really sensitive or on the dryer-side, though, you may find that benzoyl peroxide is too harsh, despite PanOxyl’s claim that this wash is on the gentler side.
BEST ACNE FACE WASH FOR DRYER SKIN LHA Cleanser Gel
SkinCeuticals is a acne-busting hydroxy acid-based wash that, “cleanses the skin deeply as it decongests the pores and gently exfoliates to refine the texture of the skin,” according to Dr. Hartman. “It help[s] to even the skin tone while cleansing the skin without over-drying.”
BEST ACNE FACE WASH TO BRIGHTEN SKIN Super Radiance Resurfacing Facial
If, for some reason, using the typical acne products in your daily regimen irritates your skin, Dr. Lamb recommends this resurfacing facial. “I love [it] because you can use it one to two times per week to help promote skin cell turn over if you aren’t able to use a acne prevention products regularly,” she says. It’s a bit expensive, but what makes this product unique is its blend of three types of hydroxy acids — glycolic acid, salicylic acid and bio agave acid — which each work together to exfoliate and brighten your skin.
BEST ADAPALENE ACNE GEL Effaclar Adapalene Gel
This oil-free, non-comdogenic gel is highly recommended by Beth Goldstein, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Central Dermatology Center. It’s a prescription strength retinoid treatment, and retinoids, according to experts at Stanford, help to clear acne and prevent breakouts by increasing cell turnover and reducing pimple-exacerbating inflammation. Oh, and by the way: This product has won a bunch of health and beauty awards in some of the most circulated magazines such as Cosmopolitan.
BEST SALICYLIC ACID GEL Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment Gel
This affordable, over-the-counter acne control gel is a winner among many dermatologists. It contains salicylic acid, which is “excellent for [getting rid of] excess oil,” as well as “dissolving dead skin cells that clog the pores,” according to Renée Moran, M.D., owner of Dr. Renée Moran Medical Aesthetics and RM Skincare.
BEST GEL FOR HORMONAL ACNE Goodbye Acne ™ Complete Acne Treatment Gel
“I tried this salicylic acid and retinol gel treatment when I was experiencing unusual hormonal breakouts around my mouth area, and they were less noticeable by the next morning and almost totally clear within a few days,” says April Franzino, the Beauty Director at Good Housekeeping. “I like that it contains other skincare ingredients like vitamin C, peptides and aloe to treat skin holistically and help reduce inflammation that can come with blemishes.”
BEST VALUE ADAPALENE GEL Acne Treatment
This is a very popular retinoid gel that can be very effective in treating troublesome breakouts, according to Tracy Evans M.D., M.P.H., a board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Pacific Skin and Cosmetic Dermatology. However, she does warn that this gel can be rather drying. For dryer skin types, this “needs to be used slowly like every third night after moisturizing,” says Dr. Evans. Or if you’re looking for a close alternative, “have your dermatologist prescribe Tretinoin (0.025-0.1%) in the correct strength for your skin,” she adds.