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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 acne treatments. We’ll even make braving the skin care aisle easier with tips and product recs from dermatologists. Let’s journey through all the pimple possibilities together.

We know it’s easy to get lost in the sauce with all the billions of acne treatments available. We needed some type of strategy to show you the best ones, here’s how we did that.

We considered stuff like:

  • Active ingredients. We played favorites with formulas that use well-established, helpful, safe ingredients for addressing acne. (We consulted the derms on these.)
  • Skin and acne type. What works for us may not work for you. That’s why taking skin type into account was hella important to us with this roundup. We chatted with the derms about how to let your skin type (and acne type) guide you to the right treatments.
  • Reviews. Reviews are king, so we take them seriously. We combed through them carefully, making sure they are legit, and that buyers are truly impressed and not just yanking our chain.
  • Price. We give you options. You can choose your acne treatment based on your current budget, or wait and save up for something a little extra next time.
  • Vetted products. We put all of our products through a thorough vetting process that checks for unsupported health claims and shady business practices. We also make sure the ingredients in each product actually do what the brand says they do. Only brands that passed that process made our list.

Pricing guide

  • $ = under $15
  • $$ = $15–$30
  • $$$ = $30–$60
  • $$$$ = over $60
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Best over the counter acne treatment

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

  • Price: $
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: Adapalene (retinoid)
  • Product type: gel
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: all acne types, including cystic acne

Dr. Angelo Landriscina, board certified dermatologist, 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.” That’s right, this fan favorite — also recommended by Chimento — used to be prescription only. WOOT.

It was a pretty big deal when the famous retinoid went over-the-counter (OTC). Especially considering the acne-fighting ingredient is FDA-approved for the treatment of acne. Besides being effective, we also like that it’s easy to find at any drugstore in the US of A and cheap AF.

Considerations: This stuff is STRONG, so it can be too harsh for sensitive skin types.

Writer’s review

Reviewers say that it takes some time to see results, but that patience pays off big time.

I can also confirm this since this was my go-to during some early acne days. Once my skin adjusted to the formula and did some “purging” (aka when things get worse before they get better), it worked wonders for erasing existing blemishes, preventing new ones, and improving the look of my skin’s texture too.

-Breanna Mona, writer

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Best prescription acne treatments


  • Price: $20/month, $0 with insurance
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: retinoid
  • Product type: gel, cream/lotion
  • Prescription: yes
  • Best for: moderate and severe inflammatory acne

There are a couple of name brands for this type of topical for treating acne (Fabior, Arazlo, Tazorac, to name a few.) but you should also be able to find it in a generic form. Basically, that active ingredient — tazarotene — is in the retinoid fam, which means it’s the prescription (read: strong) version of retinol (aka, vitamin A).

In fact, this retinoid is THE strongest prescription-strength topical vitamin A derivative. This guy is usually considered by derms for treating moderate and severe acne.

The nice thing about the gel version of this prescription is that it may also help out with acne scarring. According to a small 2019 study, Tazorac brand gel was just as helpful at easing the look of pitted acne scars as microneedling.

Again, only your derm knows which meds are right for you and your acne. Plus, you’ll need to go over possible side effects (this one is usually layered with moisturizer since some side effects are dry skin, burning, itching, and redness).

Considerations: Because this is the strongest retinoid you can get your hands on, the side effects (skin irritation, peeling, scaling) can be pretty gruesome. It can also cause severe birth deformities, so it’s not a good option to use during pregnancy.

Writer’s review

I originally started with Differin gel, but “graduated” after my skin adjusted to retinoids, leaving me curious about stronger options.

Now that I switched to Tazarotene, I found my forever treatment. Overall, I think this pick is the best prescription option and I’m practically in love with it. I wasn’t surprised to learn that it’s so effective at treating acne scars, either — I’ve been using it for years and have really noticed a difference.

I tolerate this gel very well when I layer it with my simple facial moisturizer (Vanicream Lotion). Without lotion, it would be too intense and drying, causing redness.

-Breanna Mona, writer

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Clindamycin gel

  • Price: $20/month, $0 with insurance
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: clindamycin
  • Product type: gel, lotion, solution
  • Prescription: yes
  • Best for: moderate to severe acne

Clindamycin is a treatment that you need a prescription for. Why? Because it’s an antibiotic that works to bring acne-causing (P. acnes) bacteria to a halt.

Although researchers aren’t 100 percent clear on the details, a 2019 review says that P. acnes brings on the zits for some (but not others), which is why clindamycin is prescribed for some people with acne — it kills off that bacteria.

It’s considered super effective, but like any other prescription, there are some things to consider — like side effects or how it interacts with any other topicals or meds you may be taking. So, you’ll need to chat with your derm about that ish first.

If your derm gives you the green light on this one, you can pick this up (with your prescription and whatever costs that come along with it) at most pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens, as well as other prescription platforms like Nurx.

Considerations: There’s a possibility that using this kind of gel regularly will lead to bacterial resistance. Most derms recommend using benzoyl peroxide alongside topical antibiotics to avoid this.

Best acne treatment cream

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Acne Treatment

  • Price: $$
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid
  • Product type: spot treatment cream/lotion
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: comedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne

Chimento recommends this noncomedogenic, fast-absorbing cream. The formula is supposed to be nondrying and safe for sensitive skin. We appreciate that it’s also made without fragrance, oil, or parabens.

Remember when we mentioned how benzoyl peroxide is generally safe for most skin types? This lotion has it babes, and it’s formulated to penetrate your pores to blast blemishes.

It also contains lipo-hydroxy acid, a derivative of salicylic acid that has all the same benefits but with less potential for irritation. Plus, it works over time to smooth skin’s texture. Glycerin is also added to moisturize and silica swoops in to absorb excess oil.

Reviews are overall glowing — especially from oily skin reviewers. A few point out that it burned their skin type though, which is something to keep in mind if you have sensitive skin.

Considerations: The combo of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid might cause irritation for sensitive skin.

Best spot acne treatment

Face Reality Sulfur Spot Treatment

  • Price: $$
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: sulfur
  • Product type: spot treatment
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: comedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne

This spot treatment promises to calm acne ASAP without bringing a strong odor or leaving dryness behind. The brand says this pick is good for all skin types, including oily and sensitive.

Your all-star fighter here is sulfur, which can help reduce inflammatory lesions, comedones, and oil production. It also contains bisabolol and allantoin, two soothing ingredients that help prevent the sulfur from drying you out.

Here’s what you’ll do: Use it by applying a thin layer to inflamed or hella oily areas. The brand says you can also mix it with your fave SPF or face moisturizer for an all-over treatment.

Considerations: Research on how sulfur can help acne isn’t as robust as other acne ingredients. This product also isn’t widely available.

Kate Somerville Anti-Bac Acne Clearing Lotion

  • Price: $$$
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: benzoyl peroxide
  • Product type: lotion
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: mild to moderate inflammatory acne

This one uses 5 percent benzoyl peroxide to target blemishes head-on, making for a pretty strong spot treatment. But for oily and combo-skinned peeps, this can be applied all over to help reduce oil production and prevent new breakouts from forming.

Reviewers say this is suuuper fast-acting, flattening pimples STAT. People with normal skin types say using it daily can lead to dryness — so they use it strictly as a spot treatment — but oily-skinned folks say it helps keep breakouts at bay.

Considerations: This product contains alcohol, which can be drying for some.

Best acne treatment for oily skin

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

  • Price: $$
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: salicylic acid
  • Product type: liquid toner
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: comedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne
  • Bonus: cruelty-free

This BHA liquid by Paula’s Choice can be used as a toner treatment. It’s a leave-on exfoliant with salicylic acid — a mighty little ingredient known for taking on blackheads and whiteheads. Because it’s an exfoliant, it also works fast to unclog pores, reduce fine lines, brighten, and even out your skin tone.

Because it’s a liquid, it’s also super lightweight and fast-absorbing too. Reviewers are in agreement overall, saying it’s effective AF. A smaller number of reviewers disagree about the hype though, finding that it didn’t work for their skin type.

Considerations: Daily use of this guy might cause peeling or irritation, so start slow (using 1–2x a week) at first.

Editor’s review

Until I found this product, I had basically accepted that I would always have breakouts. I’ve always had oily skin, so I figured I would have to deal with acne until my body decided to quit producing so much oil.

I tried EVERYTHING to get rid of them — cleansers, spot treatments, masks, mattifying lotions — but nothing did the trick until I started a regular salicylic acid routine.

I put this stuff on with a little reusable cotton round every morning (and use Paula’s Choice Pore Refining Toner every night before bed) and have been breakout-free for almost a year.

My skin has been completely pimple-free *and* I’ve noticed my blackheads fade away, too. I am a true stan of this stuff and think everyone with oily skin should give it a shot.

-Ruby Thompson, Market Editor

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Best acne treatment for sensitive skin

Makeup Artist’s Choice Mandelic Acid Toner

  • Price: $
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: mandelic acid
  • Product type: liquid toner
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: comedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne
  • Bonus: cruelty-free

Research shows that mandelic acid (an alpha-hydroxy acid, or AHA) is just as effective at treating acne as salicylic acid — but that mandelic acid is better at treating inflammatory lesions. It also causes fewer adverse effects.

Basically, this pick is a deep-cleaning exfoliant that targets acne, reduces the appearance of your pores, and boosts the texture of your skin while it’s at it.

The formula also includes green tea extract and aloe leaf extract, which are two soothing, inflammation-reducing antioxidants. This toner is an excellent way to not break the bank, BTW.

Considerations: This toner isn’t widely available, and it often sells out on Amazon.

Best acne treatment for dry skin

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% Exfoliating Serum

  • Price: $
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: lactic acid
  • Product type: serum
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: whiteheads and blackheads
  • Bonus: vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free

Lactic acid is a gentler and 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 and zap zits.

These ingredients — plus hydrating superstar glycerin — can also help address other skin concerns like dullness, fine lines and wrinkles, and uneven texture.

It’s made without alcohol, and it’s free of silicones, which we love. Reviewers adore this serum, saying it’s as effective (if not more!) as more expensive serums. One even calls it ~liquid gold~.

Considerations: This might cause irritation, so start slowly at first (1–2x per week) or use with a heavier moisturizer.

Best back acne treatment

CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser

  • Price: $
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: salicylic acid, niacinamide
  • Product type: cleanser
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: blackheads, whiteheads, mild inflammatory acne
  • Bonus: cruelty-free

Landriscina likes to have salicylic acid in wash-off formulations like CeraVe’s SA Cleanser. It’s formulated to be used on the face and body and is supposed to be a pretty sweet pick for people with acne-prone skin.

This nondrying, non-irritating formula provides gentle cleansing and exfoliation while soothing and moisturizing the skin with hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and ceramides. Quadruple threat much??

Oh, and it’s noncomedogenic and free of fragrance (!!!).

Considerations: Because it’s a rinse-off product, this cleanser might not get the job done on its own. Consider pairing it with a serum or spot treatment for best results.

Best acne scar treatment

Murad Invisiscar Resurfacing Treatment

  • Price: $$$
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: salicylic acid, vitamin C
  • Product type: spot treatment
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: acne scarring

We’re all well aware of salicylic acid’s acne-fighting powers, but it’s also a #1 pick for reducing post-acne hyperpigmentation.

The addition of vitamin C — an antioxidant that reduces hyperpigmentation and dark spots — makes this scar treatment an absolute powerhouse. We also love that it has dimethicone, an emollient that makes your skin feel super silky smooth.

Reviewers say it really works, even on their oldest acne scars. And because it has salicylic acid in it, many reviewers find it helps reduce active breakouts too.

Considerations: This spot treatment contains essential oils for fragrance, which can cause irritation for some.

Best drugstore acne treatment

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

  • Price: $$
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: retinol, niacinamide
  • Product type: serum
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: comedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne
  • Bonus: cruelty-free

Retinol and niacinamide work together to fight long-term acne in this gentle formula from CeraVe. It’s a top choice if you’re 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.

We love that this formula is also noncomedogenic and that the majority of reviewers love it. They mention it working for their sensitive skin types and one pointed out how it worked for their breakouts as well as hyperpigmentation.

Considerations: Retinol isn’t as strong as retinoids, so this serum might not be effective for more severe acne types. It also contains alcohol, which can be too drying for some people.

Best acne treatment for teens

Hers Custom Acne Treatment for Teens

  • Price: $5/month for the first 2 months when you start a subscription, or one-time purchase of $19
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: custom
  • Product type: customized based on skin and acne type
  • Prescription: yes
  • Best for: all acne types

OFC, acne is pretty much a rite of passage for teenagers. If you prefer to get something custom for your skin and acne types, you can check out Hers — a telehealth company selling OTC meds, prescriptions, and other products.

Here is how it works: People under 18 get consent from a guardian to chat with one of Hers experts, addressing their specific skin concerns and goals.

Based on those convos, you’ll receive a custom formula (right at your doorstep) made just for you. It could include tretinoin, clindamycin, azelaic acid, niacinamide — you name it.

Considerations: This is a subscription service, which can be costly. You might be able to find the same ingredients in more affordable options elsewhere.

Best acne patch

Starface Hydro-Stars

  • Price: $
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: hydrocolloid
  • Product type: stickers
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: whiteheads
  • Bonus: vegan

People LOVE their acne patches. And the ingredient most people go bananas for is hydrocolloid, which helps speed up wound healing.

These patches can help protect your acne spots from additional irritation (aka NO picking!) while speeding up the healing process. The only ingredient in these adorable patches is hydrocolloid — which only really works on open lesions like whiteheads, so they’re not a good pick for deeper blemishes like you see in cystic acne.

Most reviewers say these stickers are cute *and* effective. Of course, some disagree, saying they didn’t notice these working for their skin.

Considerations: These don’t contain any additional acne-fighting ingredients, so their best use case is for healing open acne lesions and whiteheads and preventing picking.

Best budget-friendly acne treatment

The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%

  • Price: $
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: azelaic acid
  • Product type: cream/lotion
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: all types of acne
  • 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 dealing with rosacea and acne at the same time might particularly benefit from it.

This pick is also supposed to have serious brightening powers, working to improve the look of dull, uneven tone and texture. We went digging through reviews and it was tough to find a negative one. Once we finally spotted one, it pointed out that this formula was too drying — making the reviewer’s face feel too tight.

Also, have you seen its teeny price tag?

Considerations: Some reviewers say this pills under makeup and recommend applying a moisturizer immediately after applying the serum — before it dries.

Best acne treatment with niacinamide

Paula’s Choice Niacinamide Booster

  • Price: $$$
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: niacinamide
  • Product type: serum
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: comedonal and mild inflammatory acne
  • Bonus: helps reduce signs of aging

This serum has one of the baddest boys of skin care: niacinamide. This ingredient can do all kinds of stuff — including reducing acne lesions, curbing oil reduction, reducing inflammation, and hydrating and strengthening your skin’s barrier. It’s also great at smoothing out wrinkles. Hellll yes.

It also has skin soothers like panthenol (aka vitamin B) and licorice root extract, which makes this a great pick for sensitive skin. But because niacinamide is such a powerhouse, it’s really good for any skin type.

Considerations: Niacinamide doesn’t fight acne by exfoliating like AHAs and BHAs — it’s a bit gentler. That means it might take a little time to see results.

Editor’s review

Me again! Shortly after starting my Paula’s Choice BHA liquid exfoliant, I added this Niacinamide Booster to my routine. In just a few weeks, my skin felt and looked *so* much healthier.

Niacinamide’s anti-inflammatory, hydrating, and skin barrier-strengthening properties were immediately obvious. Even though the salicylic acid toner works wonders for clearing and preventing breakouts, adding this booster gave me a second line of defense. It was also a huge help when I was still trying to heal my skin.

I am a big fan of this product. It’s now a permanent staple in my skin care routine.

-Ruby Thompson, Market Editor

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Best acne treatment mask

Face Theory Pink Clay AHA Face Mask MK1

  • Price: $$
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: lactic acid, clay
  • Product type: mask
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: all acne types
  • 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.

Using it is easy peasy. Just apply a thin layer and leave it on for 10 minutes before rinsing.

Reviewers are impressed, saying it’s moisturizing and not drying — like some clay masks are known for. We also appreciate that it’s cruelty-free and also free of parabens, silicones, PEGs, SLS, SLES, and mineral oils.

Considerations: This mask isn’t widely available — most peeps will have to buy it directly from Face Theory’s website.

Best acne treatment cleanser

Marie Veronique Treatment Cleanser

  • Price: $$$
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: lactic acid, salicylic acid
  • Product type: cleanser
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: comedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne

This cleanser combines AHAs and BHAs to unclog pores, but its formulation is designed to prevent your skin from drying out. You can thank soothing green tea extract and hydrating glycerin for that.

We know, we know, we’ve been tooting lactic acid’s horn so much by now. But here, we love that it not only exfoliates but it also offers aging support like boosting natural ceramides production to keep moisture locked in. Plus, the brand says it can help lighten up hyperpigmentation issues we tend to see after acne has cleared.

Considerations: This cleanser isn’t widely available. It also contains essential oils for fragrance, which can cause irritation for some people.

Best splurge acne treatment

Marie Veronique Intensive Repair Serum

  • Price: $$$$
  • Acne-fighting ingredients: lactic acid, salicylic acid
  • Product type: serum
  • Prescription: no
  • Best for: comedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne

This gel serum loves to eat up oil without stripping or drying the sh*t out of your skin (oily friends, take note).

It contains AHAs (hi, lactic acid), BHAs (salicylic acid), *and* vitamin B5 (aka panthenol), which is known for helping prevent skin irritation — a MUST when you’re slathering acne-fighting acids all over your face. This combo is ideal for curbing oil production, clearing away dead skin cells, and soothing inflammation.

Your skin may take a bit of time to adjust, but reviewers say they see clearer, smoother, and more balanced skin after two or three uses.

Considerations: This serum is pretty dang expensive and not widely available.

PriceAcne-fighting ingredientProduct TypePrescription?Acne type
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment$Adapalene (retinoid)gelnoall acne types, including cystic acne
Tazarotene$$ ($0 with insurance)retinoidgel, cream/lotionyesmoderate and severe inflammatory acne
Clindamycin gel$$ ($0 with insurance)clindamycin (antibiotic)gel, cream/lotionyesmoderate to severe inflammatory acne
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Acne Treatment$$benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acidspot treatment cream/lotionnocomedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne
Face Reality Sulfur Spot Treatment$$sulfurspot treatment cream/lotionnocomedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne
Kate Somerville Anti-Bac Acne Clearing Lotion$$$benzoyl peroxidespot treatment cream/lotionnomild to moderate inflammatory acne
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant$$salicylic acidliquid tonernocomedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne
Makeup Artist’s Choice Mandelic Acid Toner$mandelic acidliquid tonernocomedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% Exfoliating Serum$lactic acidserumnocomedonal acne
CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser$salicylic acid, niacinamidecleansernocomedonal, mild inflammatory acne
Murad Invisiscar Resurfacing Treatment$$$salicylic acid, vitamin Cspot treatmentnoacne scarring
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum$$retinol, niacinamideserumnocomedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne
Hers Custom Acne Treatment for Teens$$customcustomized based on skin and acne typeyesall acne types
Starface Hydro-Stars$hydrocolloidacne patchnowhiteheads
The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%$azelaic acidcream/lotionnoall types of acne
Paula’s Choice Niacinamide Booster$$$niacinamideserumnocomedonal and mild inflammatory acne
Face Theory Pink Clay AHA Face Mask MK1$$lactic acid, claymasknoall acne types
Marie Veronique Treatment Cleanser$$$lactic acid, salicylic acidcleansernocomedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne
Marie Veronique Intensive Repair Serum$$$$lactic acid, salicylic acidserumnocomedonal, mild to moderate inflammatory acne

Determine what type of acne you have

Figuring out which type of acne you’re dealing with will help you pick your fighter.

Dr. Stacy Chimento, a board certified dermatologist in Miami, says acne can range from mild whiteheads to severe cystic acne. She generously built us this crash course in zit-ology:

Comedonal acne

Also called mild noninflammatory acne, comedonal acne consists of:

  • Whiteheads. These are minor blemishes with white “heads” that pop up on the skin’s surface. Sometimes these guys are called comedones, and they can happen when hair follicles become clogged with oil and dead skin cells. Whiteheads, Chimento says, also cause pores to stay closed at the surface of the skin, which is another reason it appears to have a white head.
  • Blackheads. They’re blemishes that look like tiny black dots. They can also be considered comedones but are open at the surface of the skin.

Mild inflammatory acne

A step above comedonal acne, mild inflammatory acne includes whiteheads, blackheads, plus a small amount of the following:

  • Papules. These are a step above whiteheads. Chimento says these become inflamed and infected, are usually very sensitive to touch, and are basically just hard, clogged pores. Papules will annoyingly leave your skin with a pink or red look.
  • Pustules. A step above whiteheads, but these ones have yellow or white pus that can be seen on the skin’s surface — which is why Chimento says they’re often mistaken for whiteheads. One way to tell them apart is by looking for red surrounding the white or yellow head on the skin’s surface. Pustules are also very tender to the touch and painful (owie).

Moderate inflammatory acne

This kind of acne includes everything we’ve already covered — except you’ll usually have a higher number of papules and pustules. You’ll also see a few of these guys:

  • Nodules. The large and inflamed bumps are firm to the touch, deep within the skin, and very painful, Chimento says. Moderate inflammatory acne usually only includes a few of these — you’ll typically see more of these with severe acne.

Severe inflammatory acne

Severe acne can last for months and usually loves to spread quickly. Severe acne includes everything we’ve already covered — with each type of lesion arriving in multiples — plus a few additions:

  • Cysts. They’re one of the most famous types of acne and are pus-filled lesions that look similar to boils. Chimento explains these usually happen after infections and are more likely than any other acne to scar.
  • Acne conglobata. This is a highly inflammatory condition, mostly affecting men associated with steroids or testosterone. “It involves several inflamed nodules that are connected underneath the skin. Most patients develop symptoms between 18 to 30 years of age, appearing on the neck, chest, back, and arms,” Chimento says.

Find the best ingredients for your acne type

When it comes to OTC products — plus a couple of prescription options we snuck in here — these are the ingredients that are most effective for acne:

ResultsAcne type
alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs — like glycolic and lactic acid)These guys may prevent acne, unclog pores, and reduce hyperpigmentation by removing dead skin cells and reducing inflammation. comedonal
azelaic acidThis ingredient helps reduce acne *and* post-acne hyperpigmentation. It’s also a good pick for people with rosacea.mild to moderate inflammatory acne
beta hydroxy acid (BHA — like salicylic acid) A bad B that can reduce acne by reducing oil and inflammation.comedonal, mild and moderate inflammatory acne
benzoyl peroxideA reliable (but strong AF) active ingredient that kills the bacteria that causes acne.mild, moderate, and severe inflammatory acne
clindamycinA topical antibiotic that can help treat inflammatory acne.mild, moderate, and severe inflammatory acne
niacinamideAn ingredient commonly found in lotions and serums, it can help regulate oil production, reduce inflammation and redness associated with acne, and reduce the appearance of pores.comedonal, mild and moderate inflammatory acne
retinoids (tretinoin and adapalene) Available in OTC and prescription strengths, the FDA has approved certain retinoids (like adapalene) for the treatment of acne.comedonal, mild, moderate, and severe inflammatory acne
sulfa-based productsThis ingredient can help reduce inflammatory lesions, comedones, and oil production.comedonal, mild, and moderate inflammatory
zincAn anti-inflammatory that reduces the bacteria that cause acne and suppresses sebum production.comedonal, mild, and moderate inflammatory

tl;dr: Most ingredients aim to kill bacteria and clear up pesky dead skin cells, but your mileage may vary depending on the ingredient. Plus, your skin type will dictate which to choose to help you avoid harsh side effects like dryness or excess oil.

Consider your skin type, too

We know — taking your acne *and* skin type into consideration can be a drag. But if you want to avoid side effects like irritation and peeling, you’re gonna want to pay attention to this.

  • Most skin types. Chimento says Benzoyl peroxide is well-tolerated by most skin types. She does warn to be careful with the amount of this active ingredient, saying less is more. “You only need about 2.5% for it to work. Results may take a few days to begin showing.”
  • Oily skin. Salicylic acid helps prevent pores from getting clogged. “Salicylic acid is usually used to aid oily skin, control oil production, and reduce acne breakouts,” Chimento says. Sulfur is another helpful ingredient for oily skin. Chimento points out that it helps to remove dead skin cells that clog pores and removes excess oil. Another tip for oily babes: avoid alcohol-based products. “These can increase oil production and affect your skin barrier. Make sure to reach for products that read ‘oil-free’ and ‘noncomedogenic,'” Chimento says.
  • Dry skin. Basically, your job is to steer clear of ingredients that are too drying for already dry skin — like salicylic acid. Dry skin types tend to tolerate sulfur-based products best because they’re slightly less drying. In general, you should START SLOW to help your skin build up a tolerance to your treatments. That means only using them a couple of times a week at first.
  • Combination skin. Chimento suggests combo skin peeps look for products with hyaluronic acid. “It both hydrates the skin and smooths the appearance of fine lines without layering on too greasy.”
  • Textured, mature skin. As Chimento points out, AHAs (namely glycolic acid and lactic acid) reduce acne by removing dead skin cells and reducing inflammation. They’re also pretty bomb at smoothing out textured skin.

When it comes to your skin care routine, Chimento says you don’t need to make it too complicated to see results. She gave us the when, the what, and the how for applying your acne treatment and other lotions and potions too.

When to apply

According to Chimento, you can apply your acne treatment after your initial cleansing but before moisturizing. This can be about twice a day — once when you wake up and again before bed. (But read your product’s label carefully for specifics.)

How to apply

Getting acne under control requires an entire skin care routine — not just acne treatments. Here’s what yours should look like (for the most part):

  1. It’s best to start with your cleanser so that your skin is primed and ready to absorb the products you put on it, Chimento explains.
  2. Then, you can use your toner— Chimento suggests one that’s filled with either BHAs or AHAs so you can unclog those pores, prevent breakouts, and blast blackheads over time.
  3. Then she says you can apply serums (which is essentially just applying highly concentrated nutrients and antioxidants to hydrate your skin and amplify its health) and eye creams.
  4. Ding ding! Time to apply your acne treatments.
  5. Finish with your fave moisturizer and sunscreen during the day, switching it out for retinol at night.

PSST. There is no “one-size” anything, including skin care. But a good routine is crucial and we have more tea on how to build your routine right here in this guide.

Try to be patient

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.

Keep it simple

Don’t try everything at once. Keep your acne-fighting regimen to one or two products rather than a whole line — especially with products that contain AHAs and BHAs.

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.”

Don’t pop ’em

We know it’s so tempting, but you’ll thank yourself later. You can bet squeezing and popping will only make things worse and ultimately lead to scarring.

Patch test

Always use caution when adding new actives and proven ingredients to your routine. The best practice is to perform a little patch test on yourself before using your new acne treatment. This will help you avoid an allergic reaction and to make sure your pick isn’t too intense for your skin type. Ultimately, if you treat your skin kindly, you’ll be glowing sooner than you think.

If topical OTC and prescription treatments aren’t working, you still have other options:

  • Oral antibiotics. Your derm can prescribe a round of oral antibiotics to help clear severe acne. This can cause bacterial resistance though, which can be troublesome if you ever need antibiotics for more serious infections in the future.
  • Isotretinoin (Accutane). Currently considered the closest thing to a “cure” for acne, isotretinoin is a vitamin A derivative used to treat severe acne. While the risk of bacterial resistance goes away with this one, the side effects (extreme dryness and birth defects) are *not* fun.

Both of these options are prescription, so you’ll need to work with a dermatologist to decide if they’re right for you.

Remember that at-home treatments are not a replacement for expert care. Landriscina 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.

What’s the #1 best acne treatment?

TBH, it depends on the type of acne you have and what your skin type is.

If you have whiteheads and blackheads (aka comedonal acne), look into products with these ingredients:

  • AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid
  • BHAs like salicylic acid
  • niacinamide
  • retinoids
  • sulfur
  • zinc

If you have mild to moderate inflammatory acne (aka acne with nodules, papules, and pustules), look for products with these:

  • azelaic acid
  • BHAs like salicylic acid
  • benzoyl peroxide
  • clindamycin (prescription only)
  • niacinamide
  • retinoids (prescription and OTC)
  • sulfur
  • zinc

If you have severe inflammatory acne (aka cystic acne), look for:

  • retinoids (prescription and OTC)
  • topical and oral antibiotics like clindamycin (prescription only)
  • benzoyl peroxide

Which acne product clears acne the fastest?

Prescription retinoids and topical antibiotics usually clear acne the fastest, so if you’re looking for a quick fix for mild, moderate, or severe inflammatory acne, consider making an appointment with a dermatologist.

If you don’t have access to a derm, try Differin Adapalene Gel — it’s the strongest retinoid available OTC and it’s pretty cheap.

What do dermatologists recommend for acne?

Dermatologists can prescribe you stronger acne treatments like prescription retinoids and antibiotics. But depending on the type and severity of your acne, they might have you start with OTC benzoyl peroxide or adapalene treatments first.

How can I permanently cure acne?

The only “cure” for acne at this point in time is a drug called isotretinoin (aka Accutane). It’s a retinoid (kind of like the kind we recommend above), but you take it orally in pill form every day for 4 to 6 months.

But while it’s super effective, it’s not a one-and-done “cure” — some people need multiple courses of treatment and still need to use topical products to manage their acne.

Accutane has some pretty gnarly side effects (like extreme dryness and severe depression) and it can also cause serious birth deformities if taken before or during pregnancy, so your derm will only recommend it if the treatments we discussed above don’t work at all.

Our process and why you should trust us

We consulted with two dermatologists to get tips for choosing the best acne treatments for different skin types and concerns. We used those tips to pick the products above.

Before writing about those products, we put them all through a thorough vetting process that checks for unsupported health claims (like “This acne treatment gets rid of breakouts in one use!”), shady business practices, and lawsuits concerning a company’s products. We also checked that the main ingredients in each product are evidence-based and actually do what the company says they do.

After wrapping up our recommendations and tips, we sent this entire article to a third medical professional specializing in dermatology (in this case, Reema Patel, MPA, PA-C) for review.

So basically, you can feel good knowing that we put in WORK to get you these recommendations.

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