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Acne: It’s the most common skin condition in the United States, affecting up to 50 million Americans every year. That’s a lot of pimples.

Anyone who has experienced a breakout knows that everyone, from well-meaning aunts to citizens of the internet, has a different opinion on the best treatments they “swear by.” It’s no wonder wading through the deluge of options feels exhausting — and dabbed with skepticism.

So we’re here to help armor your skin with expert-informed advice on the best treatments for acne. We’ll even make braving the skin care aisle easier with tips and product recs from licensed estheticians and dermatologists.

When it comes to over-the-counter products, these are the ingredients that are most effective for mild to manageable acne breakouts. Most ingredients aim to kill bacteria and clear up pesky dead skin cells, but your mileage may vary depending on the ingredient.

Dana Murray, a licensed esthetician, warns that treating acne-prone skin as its own skin type is one of the most common mistakes she sees.

Acne is a skin condition that any skin type may experience, so how a person with dry skin would treat their acne would be different than how someone with very oily skin would. It’s important to take into consideration a person’s skin type and the condition their skin is in to start with. Doing so will provide a better outcome.”

IngredientResultsFind it in
alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)may prevent acne by keeping pores unclogged and treat associated hyperpigmentation by removing dead skin cellscleansers, toners, and serums
beta hydroxy acid (BHA) can reduce acne by reducing oil and inflammationcleansers and toners
benzoyl peroxideunclogs pores and kills the bacteria that causes acnetoners and lotions
vitamin Ccan manage inflammation and pigmentationserums
niacinamidecan regulate oil production, reduce inflammation and redness associated with acne, and reduce appearance of poresserums and lotions
retinoidscan treat inflammatory acne and hyperpigmentation and improve texture (avoid mixing with AHAs, BHAs, or benzoyl peroxide)serums and moisturizers
sulfurcan treat whiteheads and blackheadsspot treatments and cleansers
tea tree and rosemary oilhas antibacterial properties that may help with acne treatment, especially for people resistant to antibioticscleansers and toners
zinccan soothe inflammatory acne and suppress sebum productionlotions and spot treatments

Dr. Angelo Landriscina, who recently finished his dermatology residency at The George Washington University Hospital, stresses that people with acne should see a dermatologist for their acne at least once. “Many conditions like rosacea, perioral dermatitis, and malassezia folliculitis can look like acne to the untrained eye. Without the correct diagnosis, it will be hard to find relief.”

Plus, a dermatologist can help you figure out your skin type and then recommend the right ingredient. You don’t want your skin to be a testing ground! Leave that to the clinical trials.

But if you know and you’re ready to go, come shop with us.

To create our list of recommendations, we looked for the top reviewed products made with the ingredients above and sourced priority picks from beauty editors, dermatologists, and licensed estheticians. We also broke down these products by skin type.

Pricing guide

$ = under $5 per ounce
$$ = $5–$10 per ounce
$$$ = $11–$20 per ounce
$$$$ = over $20 per ounce

Marie Veronique Intensive Repair Serum

Price: $$$$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Lactic acid, salicylic acid, vitamin B5

Greatist senior editor Christal Yuen, who has oily skin, uses this product twice a week to tackle persistent whiteheads. She says, “When I can’t get my regular facial, this gel keeps my skin hydrated and smooth, giving almost a glass-like texture.”

Your skin may take a bit of time to adjust, but expect to see clear, smooth, and balanced skin after two or three uses.

Buy Marie Veronique Intensive Repair Serum.

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

Price: $$$$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Adapalene (retinoid)

Landriscina says, “A retinoid is a must in every skin care regimen for acne! And we now have prescription-strength adapalene over the counter from brands like Differin and La Roche-Posay.”

We like this gel because it’s effective and easy to find at any drugstore in the United States.

Buy Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment.

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Price: $$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Salicylic acid
Bonus: Cruelty-free

Murray says, “One of my favorite products is the Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid, which can be used as a toner treatment. Salicylic acid is good for [both] blackheads and whiteheads.”

Buy Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant.

Makeup Artist’s Choice Mandelic Acid Toner

Price: $
Acne-fighting ingredients: Mandelic acid
Bonus: Cruelty-free

Yuen says, “I’m afraid of using too many acids because that can damage the skin barrier. Mandelic acid is much gentler due to its large molecular structure.” Research shows it also penetrates the skin more slowly than other acids. This single-ingredient toner is an excellent way to not break the bank.

Buy Makeup Artist’s Choice Mandelic Acid Toner.

Face Theory Pink Clay AHA Face Mask MK1

Price: $$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Lactic acid, vitamin C, clay, jojoba oil
Bonus: Vegan

A pilot study found that people who used clay masks in conjunction with jojoba oil saw improvement in acne after 6 weeks. This particular bestseller features lactic acid, vitamin C, and pink clay to cleanse pores and promote cell turnover, plus jojoba and argan oils to hydrate.

Buy Face Theory Pink Clay AHA Face Mask MK1.

Maelove NIA 10 Calming Serum

Price: $$$$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Niacinamide, zinc
Bonus: Gluten-free

Murray loves this product. “The N10 serum from Maelove is great because it contains niacinamide and zinc,” she says. “Niacinamide is good for reducing redness, and interestingly, many people with acne are low/deficient in zinc. The combination of the two [is] a power couple that really helps acne.”

Buy Maelove NIA 10 Calming Serum.

Marie Veronique Treatment Cleanser

Price: $$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Lactic acid, salicylic acid

This cleanser combines AHA and BHA to unclog pores, but its formulation avoids drying out the skin. Yuen turns to this cleanser to gently exfoliate when she notices whiteheads and blackheads collectively taking up real estate on her skin. Afterward, her skin is as soft as a baby’s bottom.

Buy Marie Veronique Treatment Cleanser.

Deviant Gentle Resurfacing Liquid

Price: $$$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Five AHAs (mandelic, glycolic, lactic, citric, and malic acids), a BHA (salicylic acid), and even a polyhydroxy acid (PHA) called gluconolactone
Bonus: Cruelty-free

If you’ve never heard of PHAs, Landriscina has you covered. He notes on his website that PHAs can deliver similar results to AHAs but with less irritation. This product, which helps target deep and surface level acne, is especifically great for those with sensitive skin.

Buy Deviant Gentle Resurfacing Liquid.

The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%

Price: $$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Azelaic acid
Bonus: Vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free

This hot product lives up to the hype: Research suggests azelaic acid is effective at fighting acne and inflammation, and The Ordinary’s affordable product is a suitable option for all skin types. It has a lightweight texture and is fragrance-free. Those struggling with rosacea and acne at the same time might particularly benefit from it.

Buy the Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%.

Thayer’s Witch Hazel Facial Toner with Aloe Vera

Price: $
Acne-fighting ingredients: Witch hazel

This alcohol-free formula can actually work well for many skin types, as its ingredients can work together to balance the skin oil production without drying it out. LabMuffin, the internet’s go-to skin explainer, writes that she puts this in a spray bottle when her skin is dehydrated because “[it] contains irritation-killing witch hazel as well as glycerin, which will moisturize and hydrate.”

Buy Thayer’s Witch Hazel Facial Toner with Aloe Vera.

SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

Price: $$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Four AHAs (lactic, glycolic, citric, and malic acids) as well as salicylic acid

This exfoliating cleanser features a host of ingredients to fight acne and slough off dead skin cells while jojoba oil spheres take more gentle action on the skin.

Buy SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser.

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA

Price: $$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Lactic acid
Bonus: Vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free

Lactic acid is a more hydrating flavor of the AHA family, and the addition of hyaluronic acid provides extra hydration to balance things out as you remove dead skin cells. Lab Muffin notes, “This is a good product to try if you find glycolic acid too irritating.”

Buy The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA.

Face Reality Sulfur Spot Treatment

Price: $$$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Sulfur

Face Reality Spot Treatment can help treat acne and inflammation. Murray likes this product because it’s “great for those with big cystic pimples or pustules.” It’s also less drying for her skin than other acne products.

Buy Face Reality Sulfur Spot Treatment.

The Inkey List Bakuchiol

Price: $$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Bakuchiol
Bonus: Vegan and cruelty-free

Bakuchiol is a newer ingredient to the market that can have a similar effect to retinol without the potential irritation. Clean and natural beauty experts are often excited about this ingredient because it comes from a plant source.

Reviewers note, “It’s fragrance free, absorbs quickly into skin, and works well both over and under other skin care products.”

Buy The Inkey List Bakuchiol.

CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser

Price: $
Acne-fighting ingredients: Salicylic acid, niacinamide
Bonus: Cruelty-free

Landriscina likes to have salicyclic acid in wash-off formulations like CeraVe’s SA Cleanser. This nondrying, nonirritating formula provides gentle cleansing and exfoliation while soothing and moisturizing the skin with hyaluronic acid and niacinamide. Perfect for keeping whiteheads at bay.

Buy CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser.

Kate Somerville Anti-Bac Acne Clearing Lotion

Price: $$$$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Benzoyl peroxide

Spot-treating is a good way to hit acne where it lives without drying out areas that don’t need it. This product has more than 250 reviews, and many users note that it’s worth repurchasing. If something is that good, stick with it, right?

Buy Kate Somerville Anti-Bac Acne Clearing Lotion.

De La Cruz 10% Sulfur Ointment Acne Medication

Price: $
Acne-fighting ingredients: Sulfur
Bonus: Cruelty-free

For very pesky, specific spots that pop up and need a quick banish, Hadiyah Daché, a licensed esthetician also known as The Fairy Glow Mother, recommends spot-treating. Sulfur lies on the gentler end of the spot-treating spectrum, and those with combo skin will appreciate the ability to apply this product with precision.

Buy De La Cruz 10% Sulfur Ointment Acne Medication.

SkinCeuticals Phlorectin CF with Ferulic Acid

Price: $$$$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Vitamin C, ferulic acid, phloretin

Each of the key ingredients in this product works to fight discoloration. Many estheticians (such as those at Sanova Dermatology) and derms (such as Dr. David Lim) like this product for its antioxidant abilities. The vitamin C and ferulic acid combo works to target acne, signs of aging, and discoloration.

Buy SkinCeuticals Phlorectin CF with Ferulic Acid.

With great beauty comes great hyperpigmentation, especially for those who are blessed with the gift of melanin. Here are some products that treat acne and hyperpigmentation while being gentle on the skin to avoid perpetuating the problem.

Starface Hydro-Stars

Price: $
Acne-fighting ingredients: Hydrocolloid
Bonus: Vegan

Hydrocolloid patches protect the spot from additional irritation while removing any excess fluid. The only ingredient in these adorable patches is hydrocolloid, so they’ll do their job to shrink whiteheads without causing any irritation.

Buy Starface Hydro-Stars.

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

Price: $$$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Retinol, niacinamide
Bonus: Cruelty-free

Retinol fights long-term acne while niacinamide soothes in this gentle formulation. It’s a top choice for those who are new to retinol because of its encapsulated formula. Encapsulated retinol is especially good for people with sensitive skin due to its improved ingredient stability and delivery.

Buy CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum.

The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA

Price: $$
Acne-fighting ingredients: Mandelic acid
Bonus: Vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free

“Many of the agents used to treat acne can be irritating, and irritation can inflame acne. This can make acne appear worse or even cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (especially in skin of color),” says Landriscina.

So a gentle AHA is just what the doctor ordered. The simple nondrying formulation will combat acne and hyperpigmentation at the same time.

Buy The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA.

Unsun Mineral Tinted Suncreen in Medium/Dark

Price: $$$
Acne-fighting ingredient: Zinc oxide

A sunscreen in an acne article? You read that right. “Almost all of these [acne-fighting] ingredients can make the skin sensitive to the sun, so wearing sunscreen is an absolute must!” adds Murray. “It will also help to prevent post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.”

Most mineral sunscreens leave a white or gray cast that’s noticeable on darker skin tones, but Unsun’s formulation blends right into the skin. It even won a 2019 Allure Best of Beauty Award.

Buy Unsun Mineral Tinted Suncreen in Medium/Dark.

Note: This product contains some coconut oil, which may clog pores. Don’t worry — we have plenty of sunscreen picks for all skin types.

1. Slow and steady really does win the race

Landriscina warns that you may have a long wait to see results from acne products. “I always tell my patients that you need to give a regimen 6 weeks to START to see results,” he says, noting that some products can take up to 12 weeks. Murray and Daché say to give a product 4 to 6 weeks before you give up.

“With any acne products, you can expect to see results after 3 months,” says Daché. “The reason for this is that it can take up to 3 months for acne lesions to be visible to you. So if you do start a new acne routine, I advise waiting it out and being patient with those products so that you can see it actually working.”

2. Don’t try everything at once

“Too many products can cause more damage than good,” Murray explains. Keep your acne-fighting regimen to one or two products rather than a whole line — especially with products that contain AHAs and BHAs.

“The biggest mistake is consumers mistaking more for better,” says Daché. “That’s overkill and often ends up damaging your skin in the process.”

The same goes for face-washing. “Another common mistake is feeling like your skin care needs to be extra harsh or that you have to scrub your face — overcleansing and harsh scrubs can actually make acne worse,” says Landriscina. “You are not dirty.”

3. Finally, remember that at-home treatments are not a replacement for expert care

As Landriscina noted, some skin conditions can look like acne to the untrained eye. Chronic acne or hyperpigmentation may require professional treatment.

Always use caution when adding new actives and proven ingredients to your routine. Ultimately, if you treat your skin kindly, you’ll be glowing sooner than you think.