Life is stressful, but skin care shouldn’t be. Whether you’re suffering from a bout of pubescent acne, you can’t seem to get your maskne under control or you’re getting the far too occasional stress breakout, it can feel so relieving to find products best suited to treat your skin.
“Acne is a genetic condition. There are a few different things that come together to cause someone to develop acne,” Dr. Elyse Love, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist explains. “At one level there’s a little abnormality at the level of the follicle where the cells get clogged. At the second level, there’s inflammation at the level of the follicle, which can be worsened by the bacteria p. acne. Then, we also know that hormonal changes can have an influence, expressed by the amount of sebum our follicles make.”
According to Dr. Charlotte Birnbaum, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist who specializes in acne treatment, acne can be categorized in two ways: comedonal, which is composed of blackheads and whiteheads, or inflammatory, which she categorizes as pink cystic bumps. New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss comments that “acne is treated differently on younger or older patients, depending on the underlying cause of acne.” She shares that in younger patients, acne is usually “driven from inflammation and sweat production,” whereas in older women it’s “more hormonally driven,” due to the female body’s natural fluctuation of hormones. In fact, Love says that men tend not to get adult-onset, hormonal acne at all.
What ingredients should you look for to treat acne?
Retinoids: Birnbaum calls retinoids “the holy grail of acne treatment” because they’re backed by years of scientific studies that show they really work. She says that “retinoids increase skin cell turnover, help unclog pores and decrease inflammation,” to improve inflammatory acne. Love also shares that retinoids “help normalize pigment production, which is good for people who get dark spots after a breakout.” Love recommends starting it in your routine two to three times a week and slowly building up because retinoids can cause dryness and flakiness. If you’re looking for a gentle retinoid, she recommends you consider adapalene. Our experts share that retinoids make skin more sensitive to sun, so make sure to wear SPF, but they are best used at night anyway.
Benzoyl peroxide: Benzoyl peroxide is one of Love’s favorite over-the-counter acne solutions because it’s “anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and it helps decrease the oiliness of the skin,” making it great to treat all types of acne. Our other experts certainly agree — Birnbaum notes that you should use benzoyl peroxide at a different time of day as your retinoid, because it can make the retinoid less effective. Love explains that adapalene, however, is safe to use with benzoyl peroxide, unlike other retinoids.
Salicylic acid: Salicylic acid is the next ingredient to look out for, recommended by all of our experts. Idriss explains that it’s a “beta hydroxy acid (BHA) and oil-loving, therefore goes deeper than those hair-loving follicles.” Love notes that it’s great for exfoliating the skin, or treating whiteheads and blackheads. Birnbaum comments that alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid are good acne-fighting ingredients as well.
Azelaic acid: According to Birnbaum, azelaic acid is “antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, with the ability to break up clogged pores,” as well as the ability to improve dark marks. Our experts share that this is safe for those who are pregnant and nursing.
Sulfur: Lastly, Love explains that “sulfur is great for inflammatory acne.” Better yet: This ingredient is also safe for those who are pregnant and nursing.
All three of our experts emphasize consulting with your dermatologist if you’re ever concerned about your routine. But as a general rule from our experts, start slow when introducing new ingredients to your skin. According to their guidance, it can take anywhere from six weeks to three months to see results. Furthermore, Idriss advises you to “avoid excessive cleansing and abrasive methods” and be sure to remove makeup at night.
Birnbaum cautions against using facial oils if you have acne-prone skin, remarking that she “sees acne patients flaring from facial oils on a daily basis.” Love recommends you look for products that say “oil-free” or “noncomedogenic” to verify that it won’t worsen your acne by clogging your pores.
Ahead, we consulted our expert dermatologists and researched some of the most effective acne-fighting products on the market with this in mind. From cleansers to spot treatments to sunscreens, we’ve curated acne treatments that will save you the stress of finding what works for you and keep your breakouts in check.
Neutrogena Pink Grapefruit Oil-Free Acne Wash ($7.97; amazon.com)
This might be the cleanser that reminds you of your pubescent acne, but it’s still one of Love’s recommendations. Not only is the cleanser a great morning wake-me-up due to the grapefruit, but it contains salicylic acid. She advises that this “cleanser works better if you let it sit on your face before rinsing it off” so that the salicylic acid has time to work on the skin.
CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser ($11.97, originally $14.99; amazon.com)
This creamy cleanser comes as a top pick from Birnbaum. It even contains hyaluronic acid and ceramides to not only clear and prevent new acne but also hydrate and nourish the skin. This is Love’s favorite as well because of the featured ceramides, stating that “it’s meant to be tolerated by sensitive skin.”
NeoStrata Foaming Glycolic Wash ($38.66; amazon.com)
Birnbaum recommends chemical versus physical exfoliants to treat acne, and this pick of hers comes as a glycolic acid cleanser. Using this to exfoliate in the morning will give you an unmatched glow in advance of the day ahead.
Serums and treatments
L’Oréal Paris 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum ($21.30, originally $23.99; amazon.com)
Idriss recommends this glycolic acid serum that’s meant to reveal younger-looking skin. The glycolic acid works as an exfoliator but also contains aloe to be gentle enough for daily use.
Versed Game Over Acne Drying Treatment ($16.99; versedskin.com)
The Versed Game Over Acne Drying Treatment comes at the recommendation of Love for being a sulfur-based spot treatment. It includes 10% sulfur to dry out existing blemishes by absorbing excess oils and unclogging pores, along with bentonite and kaolin clay to further treat the skin.
Differin Acne Treatment ($12.88, originally $14.99; amazon.com)
Love calls this the “revolution starter” because it was the first adapalene treatment of its kind to hit the market. You probably know it as the acne treatment your dermatologist prescribed you while you were growing up, before the FDA approved it for over-the-counter use in 2016.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel ($29.99; amazon.com)
As an alternative adapalene treatment, this gel by La Roche-Posay comes recommended by Birnbaum. She advises you start slow as your skin builds tolerance to the formula.
The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% ($7.90; sephora.com)
Birnbaum recommends The Ordinary’s Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%, a product formulated to reduce the look of blemishes and brighten your complexion. One reviewer called it “magic for adult acne and redness.”
Hero Cosmetics Mighty Patch Original ($12.50; amazon.com)
The Mighty Patch by Hero Cosmetics is Birnbaum’s go-to. She says that “hydrocolloid patches are great for helping heal inflammatory acne lesions, but also help prevent picking.”
Starface Hydro-Stars Starter Pack ($14.99; target.com)
Pimples are completely normal, so why try to hide them? Accentuate your zit with these adorable Starface patches. Recommended by Idriss, these work as a hydrocolloid treatment to absorb the fluid in your breakout and shrink them overnight.
ZitSticka Killa Kit ($29; ulta.com)
The ZitSticka Killas are one of our favorite pimple patches we’ve tried. It uses what the brand calls “microdart technology” to deliver hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and salicylic acid to your most stubborn and early-stage blemishes.
Body acne treatments
Versed Back-Up Plan Acne-Control Body Mist ($14.99; versedskin.com)
“Versed has this salicylic acid spray that’s pretty cool,” says Love. “It’s specifically made for the body to spray directly onto the skin for easy application.” The brand recommends even spraying your clean face with the mist to help with maskne. Brilliant.
PanOxyl Acne Creamy Wash ($9.49; target.com)
Idriss and Love are fans of this benzoyl peroxide wash by PanOxyl, but Love likes it specifically for the body. She explains that she “recommends [her] patients put it on and let it dry for about 30 seconds before rinsing it off. This is so that it has time to penetrate into the skin.”
Moisturizers and SPF
EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 ($37; amazon.com)
Birnbaum emphasizes the importance of sunscreen in your routine if you have acne. “Acne medications make the skin more sensitive to the sun and the sun contributes to pigmentation of acne lesions,” she explains. This lightweight SPF by EltaMD is her pick because it’s unlikely to cause breakouts.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Moisturizer ($19.99; target.com)
Birnbaum recommends “oil-free moisturizers with ceramides for acne-prone skin, including the La Roche-Posay Double Repair Moisturizer.” This noncomedogenic lightweight moisturizer also includes SPF 30, niacinamide and glycerin for healthy-looking skin each day.
Aveeno Calm + Restore Oat Gel Moisturizer ($17.97, originally $18.89; amazon.com)
We can always count on Aveeno for a sensitive skin solution. If you’re looking for a gentle moisturizer, opt for this gel formula from the brand’s Calm + Restore collection. Recommended by Idriss, this lightweight cream is made with prebiotic oat and feverfew for hydration without stressing your skin.
Peter Thomas Roth Therapeutic Sulfur Mask ($52; sephora.com)
Formulated with 10% sulfur, kaolin clay, bentonite clay and aloe vera, this top-rated and Underscored-approved mask works to clear your blemishes, absorb oil and unclog your pores. It’s basically the deep clean your acne-prone skin needs.
Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay ($14.95; amazon.com)
You might have this Indian healing clay in your cabinet to revitalize your luscious curls, but don’t forget you can use it to clear out all those toxins and impurities in your skin. We’ve used this mask over and over again, and it remains an Underscored bestseller. One reviewer even said that it’s “the only acne cure that worked” for them.
Glossier Solution Exfoliating Skin Perfector ($24; glossier.com)
Love would recommend Glossier’s Solution as a good chemical exfoliant, explaining that salicylic acid has recently become popular in toners. It contains a cocktail of AHAs, BHAs and PHAs to wipe away dead skin and reveal baby-smooth skin. It’s also a favorite of the Underscored team.
Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant ($29.50; paulaschoice.com)
This salicylic acid exfoliant by Paula’s Choice is one of our favorites too, not to mention the product has become super popular amongst beauty insiders. It features 2% BHA, which is also known as salicylic acid, to unclog pores and exfoliate dead skin cells.
Hyperpigmentation and acne scarring treatments
Alpha-H Liquid Gold Exfoliating Treatment With Glycolic Acid ($48; sephora.com)
“Glycolic acid is very helpful for treating pigmentation,” says Love. We’d suggest considering the Alpha-H Liquid Gold for an overnight treatment that’s meant to help with wrinkles, pigmentation and sun damage. Keep in mind, though, that Love advises you focus on stopping the development of new breakouts before treating the dark spots.
Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster ($36; paulaschoice.com)
This azelaic acid booster by Paula’s Choice is recommended by Idriss. Containing licorice and salicylic acid as well, this cream is mean to clarify uneven skin tone, fade acne scarring and reduce redness. According to Idriss, this pregnancy-safe formula “acts as a great anti-inflammatory adjunct” too.