So . . . you’ve got some acne. Congratulations! And welcome to the most prestigious of clubs! I myself have been a proud member since 1994. At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Why does that make you so special?” I’ll tell you. After dealing with acne for 19 years and counting, I’ve learned a thing or two. While these days I can keep it mostly under control by simply washing my face twice a day, that wasn’t always the case. Over the years, I’ve used a myriad of acne treatment products. I’ve used acne creams, pads, astringents, scrubs, etc., etc., etc. My point is, there are so many different acne skin care products that come in so many different forms, that figuring out what to use can be overwhelming.
In this article, I’ll use a mixture of experience and research to narrow things down for you. I won’t tell you exactly what to use, as everyone’s skin is different, but I’ll give you a starting point. If one acne product (or combination of products) doesn’t work for you, switch things up.
Best Acne Products
Cleansers. To avoid turning your face into an old piece of leather, always choose a gentle, non-comedogenic cleanser. Many cleansers, because of the addition of ingredients such as alcohol or menthol, can dry the skin and worsen acne by causing your skin to produce excess sebum. Look for facial cleansers such as Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser, Clinique Liquid Facial Soap, Clean & Clear Essentials Foaming Facial Cleanser, Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash, Aveeno Positively Radiant Cleanser, or my personal favorite, Olay Foaming Face Wash. If you want to go one step further, some facial cleansers, such as Phisoderm Deep Cleaning Cream Cleanser and Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash, contain salicylic acid (a weak acid used for the removal of dead skin cells that clog pores) and are specially formulated for acne control.
Toners. There’s much debate over the necessity of the use of toners. Many people claim that if you use a good facial cleanser, there is no need to follow it up with a toner. Toners have two functions, though; they help remove dirt and makeup that may have been missed through regular cleansing, and they help to moisturize the skin. If you have dry or sensitive skin, this is important. In fact, this is why one would want to use a toner, rather than an astringent, which may dry the skin and cause further irritation. Look for these highly regarded toners: Neutrogena Alcohol-Free Toner, Nivea Visage Moisturizing Toner, Lancôme Tonique Pure Focus, Olay Oil Minimizing Toner, and Burt’s Bees Rosewater Toner.
Astringents. If you have oily skin, you may benefit from adding an astringent to your lineup of acne solutions. The addition of alcohol, menthol, witch hazel, or other drying agents to astringents is what makes them effective against excess facial oil. These same substances also aid in killing acne-causing bacteria. Some astringents, including Bioré Blemish Treating Astringent, Neutrogena Clear Pore Oil-Eliminating Astringent, and Sea Breeze Actives Deep-Clean Astringent also contain salicylic acid, which breaks down the dead skin cells that build up in and around pores. Other notable astringents include any astringent by Sea Breeze and Earth Science Clarifying Herbal Astringent.
Creams and gels. An acne cream can be essential to your search for an acne cure. The active ingredients of most acne creams are either salicylic acid (removes dead skin cells) and/or benzoyle peroxide (a topical antimicrobial). Some other acne creams contain bentonite (absorbs oil), sulfur (dries skin and removes dead skin cells), or resorcinol (a topical antimicrobial). Some of the best acne creams and gels are made by Clearasil, Neutrogena, PCA, Zapzyt, Glytone, and Clean & Clear. When choosing an acne gel or cream, read the listed active ingredients/concentrations for each product you look at. Higher concentrations don’t necessarily mean better products. Start with one with a lower concentration of active ingredients, see how it works for you and how your skin reacts to it, and move to something stronger if you feel it’s appropriate. Also, whenever you start using a new acne product, expect to see some dryness, redness, and maybe even some peeling for a few weeks.
Lotions. Acne lotions are much like acne creams in both formulation and application. The main difference is that the lotions have moisturizers to reduce redness, drying, and peeling. Clearasil has a product called Ultra Overnight Face Lotion (active acne fighting ingredient: salicylic acid) designed to work while you sleep. They also have one called Ultra Acne + Marks Spot Lotion that, along with salicylic acid, contains vitamin B3 and licorice root extract to help reduce the appearance of acne marks. Neutrogena has one called Rapid Clear Acne Defense Face Lotion that boasts ingredients such as salicylic acid for acne control and botanicals to help with peeling and dryness. On the upper end of the cost spectrum is Murad Skin Perfecting Lotion (contains retinol, honey extract, glycerin, etc.), and Clinique Acne Solutions Clearing Moisturizer (contains benzoyl peroxide, green tea leaf extract, glycerin, gentian root extract, etc.).
Facial scrubs/exfoliants. Dead skin cells build up in and around your pores and facilitate the trapping of dirt, oil, and makeup inside of them, which can cause acne. For this reason, exfoliants are an important part of any acne skin care regimen. Scrubs work to exfoliate (remove dead skin cells) your skin with the use of weak acids (beta hydroxy, lactic, salicylic, citric, etc.) and/or light abrasives (plastic beads, crushed peach or apricot pits, crushed almond shells, diatomaceous earth, etc.). Only exfoliate once or twice per week and be extremely gentle. Massage, don’t rub or scrub. You don’t want to irritate your skin and make matters worse. Look for the Philosophy line of exfoliants from Sephora, Olay Total Effects Refreshing Citrus Scrub, Olay Skin Smoothing Cream Scrub, IQQU Jasmine Rice Bran Scrub, Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Scrub, Clearasil Ultra Acne Clearing Scrub, or Clean & Clear Deep Action Exfoliating Scrub.
Masks. Known also as masques, these are applied to clean skin and allowed to remain on the face for a set amount of time (anywhere from about three to twenty minutes, depending on the product). The most common active ingredient found in masks is sulfur. Sulfur helps with the shedding of dead skin and the minimization of oil. Most masks also contain an absorbent clay such as kaolin or bentonite that help to further reduce oil. On occasion, as with the highly regarded Murad Clarifying Mask and Clinique’s Acne Solutions Oil-Control Cleansing Mask, you will find salicylic acid along with the sulfur and clay. Because masks are drying, nearly all of them also contain moisturizers such as glycerin, aloe, and other botanicals. Aside from Murad, consider using the Glytone Acne Facial Masque, the Olay Pro-X Clear Intensive Refining Sulfur Mask, or, for a sulfur-free option, the Alba Hawaiian Papaya Enzyme Facial Mask.
Pads. Acne pads are among my favorite acne products. The main active ingredient in pretty much all of them is salicylic acid. The addition of salicylic acid — with its ability to loosen dead, pore-clogging skin cells — to a textured pad allows for easy removal of sloughed skin, dirt, oil, and makeup. Use face pads after washing and only do so between one and three times a day. Start with one application a day, see how your skin handles it, and increase usage as your skin gets used to the treatment. Stridex has a great line of pads with varying amounts of salicylic acid ranging from Sensitive (.5%) to Maximum (2%). Start with sensitive and work your way up. Other excellent facial pads to look for are Clearasil Ultra Rapid Action Pads, Neutrogena Rapid Clear Treatment Pads, Aveda Outer Peace Acne Relief Pads, and Noxzema Triple Clean Anti-Blemish Pads.
Acne Concealers.Even if you use all the top acne products and wash your face on a regular basis, you will still, on occasion, get a pimple. And that, my friend, is why we have concealers. Concealers come in numerous shades for all skin tones. Some are even green, which is excellent for covering up red blemishes. Not all concealers, however, are created equal. Some are medicated with salicylic acid to help fight acne as it conceals it; some are not. Look for Neutrogena Skin Clearing Blemish Concealer, Physician’s Formula Blemish Rx Blemish Healing Concealer, Murad Acne Treatment Concealer, Maybelline Pure Concealer, or Clinique Acne Solutions Clearing Concealer.
Acne Scar Cream. Turns out, the claim that scar creams can reduce scars is more or less hokum; in general, they don’t work any better than good ol’ petroleum jelly. While there are a couple that show slight promise (Alpha Hydrox Retinol Night ResQ, Mederma), you will probably have better luck with at-home acid peels and microdermabrasion (Glycolic Acid Peel 35% by Skin Laboratory), silicon sheets and gels (ScarGuard MD), or dermal rollers (Dr Roller 1.5mm). Please see our Acne Scar Treatment page for more information.
Acne systems are a good idea if only for the convenience. Most of them are nothing more than an acne cleanser, a toner, and an acne lotion, all placed and sold to you in a single box for your convenience. That’s not to say the products in the box are of poor quality. On the contrary. They work well. Part of their success, however, is that they come with good directions for use, and if you follow their simple 1-2-3 guidelines, your acne will improve. As far as mail order acne kits go, the two most popular are Proactiv and AcneFree. Both systems rely on benzoyl peroxide in the cleanser, a light acid in the toner, and more benzoyl peroxide in the lotion. The most notable difference I’ve come up with between these and the acne kits you buy in the store is that, with the mail order kits, the benzoyl peroxide is delivered to your skin via micro-crystal/encapsulation form, making it easier for the benzoyl peroxide to penetrate your pores. If mail order acne systems are out of your price range, Clearasil sells a kit called the Ultra Acne Solution System that also contains — you guessed it — a cleanser, a toner, and a lotion. My advice to you, though, is to devise your own acne system. Pick a good cleanser, toner, and lotion, and stick to a strict regimen. When picking the elements of your system, pay attention to the active ingredients and do what you can to have different ones in each element.