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There are approximately a bajillion (scientific term) products that promise to help put blemishes on blast — but how are you supposed to know which ones actually work?

Acne creams and spot treatments are made for zit-uations that require a rapid response. Most often, they work by drying out the offending pimple (“Out, damn spot!”), which can help minimize its appearance and kick-start healing. But some products are better for pre-pimple pore clearing.

Regardless, we deferred to the pros here. All these products contain ingredients recommended to us by skin care experts in all their epidermal wisdom. Here are the best acne creams and treatments.

A lot goes into choosing the right acne cream, and it might take a little trial and error to find what works best for you. We spoke to skin care experts to get tips for choosing the best of the best acne treatments out there.

Ingredients

According to Shawnda Dorantes, RN, master nurse injector and co-owner of Beauty Lounge Medical Spa in San Marcos, California, the 🔑 to an effective acne spot treatment (vs. one that’s a total bust) is the main ingredient. She recommends benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, or salicylic acid.

In addition to these, Robin Evans, MD, a dermatologist at Southern CT Dermatology in Stamford, Connecticut, recommends retinoids and tea tree oil. And NYC-based dermatologist Hadley King, MD, adds clay to the list.

We made sure to include all these ingredients on our list, since they all have different strengths and use cases (more on that below).

Reviews

We looked to reviews from real people to make sure they got the results they wanted.

Vetted products

We put all products through a thorough vetting process to check for unsupported health claims, shady business practices, and lawsuits concerning a company’s products. We also make sure that the key ingredients in each product actually do what the company says they do, so you’re not wasting your money.

Best benzoyl peroxide acne cream

ZO Skin Health Acne Control Cream

  • Price: $$$
  • Active ingredient: benzoyl peroxide
  • Other ingredients: tea tree oil, green tea extract, pine bark extract, red tea extract, grapeseed extract
  • How to use: Apply to affected area 1–3 times daily.

This spot treatment is Dorantes’ favorite. She loves that it contains 10 percent benzoyl peroxide, which she says is the max strength you can get without a prescription.

She also loves that it contains natural skin-soothing antioxidants like tea tree oil — one of our fave acne-fighting ingredients — as well as green tea, pine bark extract, red tea, and grapeseed oil, which are antioxidants that can help tone down benzoyl peroxide’s harshness a bit.

The reviews are excellent — especially from oily-skinned folks. We also love that Zo Skin Health makes it easy to filter reviews by age, skin type, skin concern, and skin goals so you can read reviews from people with skin similar to yours.

Best sulfur acne cream

Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment

  • Price: $$
  • Active ingredient: sulfur
  • Other ingredients: salicylic acid
  • How to use: Apply the sediment nightly to affected areas using a cotton swab; rinse off the next morning.

Catchy name aside (yay, puns ❤️ ), this sulfur-based spot treatment has rave reviews and — according to the folks at Kate Somerville — can improve the appearance of breakouts by more than 90 percent in just 1 hour. Perfect for pimple emergencies!

According to King, sulfur works by helping to decrease inflammation. Sulfur and acne-fighting salicylic acid are a proven combo that really goes to WORK on those pimples.

But reviews are hit or miss. Some people rave about how great it is for troublesome acne spots, and others say it has no effect on them.

Best salicylic acid acne cream

Murad Rapid Relief Acne Spot Treatment

  • Price: $$
  • Active ingredient: salicylic acid
  • Other ingredients: witch hazel, shea butter, pine, thyme
  • How to use: Apply to affected area 1–3 times daily.

Need a fast-acting acne treatment? This one’s literally got “rapid relief” in the name.

Murad says it can significantly reduce redness from breakouts in just 4 hours. With 2 percent acne-zapping queen salicylic acid and witch hazel (a double-whammy ingredient that tightens pores and reduces inflammation), this spot treatment ain’t messing around. It also contains shea butter, pine, and thyme to help reduce irritation.

Reviewers say the treatment really does help improve blemishes, but multiple applications per day are needed to get them under control.

Top-rated acne cream

Paula’s Choice CLEAR Extra Strength Skin Clearing Treatment

  • Price: $$
  • Active ingredient: benzoyl peroxide
  • Other ingredients: bisabolol, allantoin
  • How to use: Apply to affected area once or twice per day; reduce frequency if dryness occurs.

On top of acne baddie benzoyl peroxide, this treatment from Paula’s Choice contains bisabolol, an ingredient that comes from chamomile and helps soothe inflamed skin. It also has allantoin, another skin soother that’s helpful for healing acne lesions *and* goes to work on scars.

Paula’s Choice claims that most users of the CLEAR line report smaller pores and less severe acne.

Big note: Like other benzoyl peroxide products, this one may stain your pillowcase and towels, according to Evans (and many reviewers of this product). It can also be drying, which is one way it helps fight acne.

Best budget acne cream

ELF Acne Fighting Spot Gel

  • Price: $
  • Active ingredient: salicylic acid
  • Other ingredients: tea tree oil, witch hazel, aloe, green tea
  • How to use: Roll onto affected area.

On a budget or simply looking for that max value? This super-convenient salicylic acid ROLL-ON (so easy!) from ELF is only THREE dollars. That’s right: $3.

It’s super gentle and great for sensitive skin but also has plenty of reviews attesting to its effectiveness as a spot treatment. And it’s got the goodies it needs to be effective: Salicylic acid and tea tree oil fight acne head-on while witch hazel, aloe, and green tea soothe TF out of any irritation. Two thumbs up.

The reviews are mostly positive, but some people say it had no effect on their skin or their acne. Still, at $3, it may be worth a shot!

Best acne treatment mask

Peter Thomas Roth Therapeutic Sulfur Mask

  • Price: $$$
  • Active ingredient: sulfur
  • Other ingredients: clay, aloe
  • How to use: Apply only to affected areas, let dry for 5–10 minutes, rinse thoroughly.

This powerful mask from Peter Thomas Roth is made with super high quality ingredients like acne-fighting sulfur, kaolin and bentonite clay (which pull impurities right out of your pores), and soothing anti-irritants like aloe.

BUT because this is a mask and not a traditional cream/spot treatment, you can’t put it on and leave it on — you’ll have to rinse it off after letting it dry. Masks can be satisfying AF, though, so it just depends on what you prefer.

Reviewers caution that the sulfur can have a strong smell (and may burn your eyes for a little bit), but the effects of the mask are astounding re: acne control.

Best acne cream for men

Jack Black AcneRemedy Clearing Spot Treatment

  • Price: $$
  • Active ingredient: sulfur
  • Other ingredients: turmeric, green tea, bisabolol, reishi mushroom, aloe
  • How to use: Apply to affected areas 1–3 times daily.

This spot treatment from Jack Black is made with acne-clearing sulfur, anti-inflammatory turmeric, and adaptogenic reishi mushroom — an ingredient that’s supposed to be hydrating and healing. It also contains bisabolol, that skin-soothing ingredient we mentioned before, which King says may help clear your pores, kill bacteria, and dry out acne.

Jack Black specializes in high end skin care products for men, but really, anyone can use it. This is a new product, so reviews so far are sparse but positive.

Best acne cream for sensitive skin

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Action Acne Spot Treatment

  • Price: $
  • Active ingredient: benzoyl peroxide
  • Other ingredients: salicylic acid, vitamin E, glycerin
  • How to use: Apply to affected areas 1–3 times daily.

The downside of spot treatments is that they can be really harsh. Dryness and redness are super common side effects.

Although this product may have the same effects because of the benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid it contains (hence the term “dual action”), all the products from the Effaclar line are specifically designed for the needs of acne-prone sensitive skin. This product in particular has superstar moisturizers glycerin and vitamin E to help calm down irritation.

If you’re particularly sensitive, start low (once a day) and go slow. La Roche-Posay also recommends applying moisturizer before this product to act as a buffer. Reviewers say to use it sparingly at first, until your skin adjusts, but patience can reap some great results.

Best tea tree oil acne cream

Burt’s Bees Natural Acne Solution Targeted Spot Treatment

  • Price: $
  • Active ingredient: salicylic acid
  • Other ingredients: tiger grass, tea tree oil
  • How to use: Apply to affected area 1–3 times daily.

Designed specifically for oily, acne-prone skin, this spot treatment from Burt’s Bees contains salicylic acid, tea tree oil, and several soothing essential oils that can help treat and prevent acne and remove excess oil. It’s also gentle, so it can be used on sensitive skin too.

The tea tree oil gets a major boost from the inclusion of salicylic acid in this formulation. If you’re looking for something all-natural, try pure tea tree oil diluted in a carrier oil like coconut oil or almond oil.

As with many acne products, the reviews on this one are mixed — some say it works, some say it doesn’t.

Dermatologist-recommended acne cream

Beauty by GLU — (On the) Spot Treatment

  • Price: $$
  • Active ingredient: sulfur
  • Other ingredients: clay
  • How to use: Apply 2–3 times weekly on problem areas; leave on for 15–20 minutes.

King recommends this product by name, thanks to its acne-busting duo of sulfur and clay. Sulfur is anti-inflammatory, according to the good derm, and clay helps dry up blemishes and draw out impurities.

It’s kinda like a mini mask just for your pimples — you’re supposed to apply it to problem areas and wash it off after 15–20 minutes.

Reviews are limited, but we definitely trust a product that’s dermatologist-approved.

Best retinoid acne cream

Differin Gel

  • Price: $$
  • Active ingredient: adapalene
  • Other ingredients: n/a
  • How to use: Apply a thin layer to affected area no more than once daily.

Evans recommends adapalene, a type of retinoid that’s approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating acne. Differin uses a strength that is available over the counter (OTC), but there are also stronger adapalene products that a derm can prescribe for you if necessary.

The gel has a handful of other ingredients, but adapalene is the only powerhouse ingredient (and the only powerhouse ingredient the product needs, TBH).

While retinoids can sometimes be harsh, this low-dose formulation is a good introduction that can help your skin adjust. Best of all, reviewers say Differin really works — as long as you stick with it.

Type of acne

According to our experts, spot treatments won’t work for all acne. In fact, explains King, “Spot treatments are generally most helpful for individual inflammatory acne lesions that are at least partially superficial — particular pustules and red papules, not deep cystic pimples.”

(FYI: Pustules are pus-filled white bumps surrounded by red skin, and red papules are small red bumps.)

Other types of acne, like cystic acne, probably won’t respond to OTC topicals, explains Evans.

According to our experts, spot treatments and acne creams containing retinoids, salicylic acid, and clay may help clear the pores, which is key for whitehead and blackhead prevention.

Ingredients

Take a look at the ingredients — don’t just get the first acne product you come across. Here’s a quick rundown of the ingredients our experts recommend:

  • Benzoyl peroxide. “[Benzoyl peroxide] kills off P. acnes, the bacteria on our skin that lives deep in our pores and is responsible for those pesky breakouts,” Dorantes says. She explains that benzoyl peroxide can minimize oil production, reduce inflammation, and decrease redness as well.
  • Sulfur. This is another powerful ingredient that can be used as a fast-acting acne treatment. Although it may be a little too strong for everyday use, it’s commonly added to spot treatments and masks.
  • Salicylic acid. Research shows that it reduces oil production and has anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Tea tree oil. Evans explains that “Tea tree oil is an over-the-counter herbal product that can help somewhat,” thanks to its mild anti-inflammatory properties. King adds that it has antibacterial properties.
  • Clay. According to King, clay is useful for spot treatments because it helps dry up pimples. Since you remove it once it dries, it may also help clear your pores by lifting up pore crud. 🤢
  • Retinoids. Rounding out our list: retinoids. Evans recommends adapalene specifically, since it’s an FDA-approved treatment for acne vulgaris.

Additionally, make sure ALL the products that come in contact with your face (makeup, skin care, even shampoo) are labeled “noncomedogenic” (meaning they won’t clog pores, potentially causing acne).

How to apply

Always defer to packaging instructions for each product, but in general you apply the spot treatment directly to the affected area and allow it to sit — unlike a cleanser, which you’d immediately rinse off.

Caveat: If it burns or stings, remove it quickly with cool water, without scrubbing your face excessively (which can add to any damage that may have been done).

When to apply

Well, spot treatments tend to be applied on an emergency basis, so it’s best to apply as soon as you can.

If you’re wearing makeup, be sure to remove it all before you apply the spot treatment so the product can make maximum contact with your skin.

According to Evans, many spot treatments work by drying out the spot. Apply the product before bed and leave it on overnight so you’ll be able to leave it alone and let it do its thing while you sleep. (But once again, the packaging instructions take precedence if they differ from these — like if it’s a mask you’re only supposed to leave on for 15 mins.)

Perfect your skin care routine

Dorantes notes that although spot treatments are a super-important part of skin care triage, you also need to make sure you’ve got the right skin care routine going to help prevent acne in the first place.

“Investing in a high quality cleanser, exfoliator, and toner are key,” she says.

At minimum, your skin care routine should include removing ALL your makeup every single night (yes, we’re looking at YOU), washing your face once or twice daily with a gentle cleanser and toner, moisturizing, and the all-important sunscreen. Exfoliation doesn’t have to happen daily, but once a week is a good idea.

And don’t be afraid to speak with a derm about how to tweak your skin care routine!

What causes acne?

The answer isn’t one-size-fits-all. In some people, the cause of acne can be hard to pin down. Genetics and hormones are often big contributing factors (yes, you may have gotten it from your mama). Here are some other potential causes:

  • Dirt, germs, and dead skin cells can contribute, according to Dorantes, so washing your face (gently) on the regs is vital, as is changing your sheets and pillowcases.
  • Excessive oil production can lead to clogged pores, which can kick off an acne party on your face.
  • A diet high in sugar and inflammatory, high fat processed foods may contribute to acne dev.
  • Sometimes, allergies to foods, medicines, cleaning products, or personal care products can manifest as skin problems. It’s a good idea to get an allergy test if you think this might be the case for you.
  • Inflammation is a major contributor, which can have many causes — stress, poor sleep, diet, medical conditions, etc. Don’t be afraid to seek help or advice from a primary care doc or dermatologist.

When should I see a dermatologist about my acne?

Your acne doesn’t have to reach a certain level to warrant consulting a dermatologist — you can make an appointment any time you’re ready. No matter how severe your acne is, if you’re having a hard time managing it, then it may be time to give them a call.

Are there any other treatments I should consider?

Dermatologists have a wide range of prescription options at their disposal, including stronger versions of retinoids, adapalene, and benzoyl peroxide, along with topical antibiotics, according to Evans.

What we’re trying to say is: Don’t be afraid to go to the derm. If you’re trying to decide whether you should, then the answer is probably “Yes, you should.”

Persistent acne can be hard to deal with, but a derm is an invaluable resource. They can do waaaay more than just write you a prescription. They know all the ins and outs of a good skin care routine, how your lifestyle affects acne, and more.

Acne spot treatments may work for certain types of acne, but you should def consult a dermatologist if you’re having persistent acne problems.

Look out for active ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, salicylic acid, tea tree oil, clay, and/or retinoids. Most of these quick fixes can help dry out a pimple and minimize its appearance in a pinch, but we’re still waiting on that magical insta-cure for eleventh-hour zits.