Tea Tree Oil – Another anti-bacterial ingredient that is common in over-the-counter treatments, tea tree oil combats acne-causing bacteria. While the FDA hasn’t officially approved it for acne treatment, some dermatologists say it’s almost as effective as benzoyl peroxide for clearing skin, although it doesn’t work quite as fast. It can be used for spot treatment as well.
However, salicylic acid isn’t just for those of us with sensitive skin. It can also help those of you with tougher skin, through higher concentrations. Over-the-counter, you can find salicylic acid in concentrations up to 2 percent, but if you want something even more intense, many spas and dermatology offices offer salicylic acid chemical peels with 20-30 percent salicylic acid. Beware, these peels will likely leave your face very photosensitive for a few days, but they have been known to significantly reduce sebum for a few weeks at a time.
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Keep in mind that even if some products market themselves toward severe acne breakouts, all the kits we looked at are definitely designed for mild to moderate acne. Not sure if you fit on that scale? You’re not alone! When you’re in the middle of a breakout, all acne seems severe, so it can be difficult to self-diagnose your symptoms. We talked to dermatologists and cosmetic chemists to better understand the differences between the various types of acne (see below).
This single cleanser unclogs pores, clears up blackheads, reduces blemishes, brightens skin tone, smoothes texture, moisturizes, and shrinks the appearance of pores. The ingredients that make all this happen include moisturizers like hyaluronic acid, aloe, and cucumber. Then, there are grapefruit and orange oils to revitalize dull skin. Plus, peptides and panthenol help rebuild texture while Clary Sage purifies.
How to Handle It: Consider salicylic acid your secret weapon. "This beta hydroxy acid helps remove excess oil and exfoliate dead cells from the skin's surface to keep pores clear," says Zeichner. Try Clinique's Acne Solution Clearing Gel, a two-time Best of Beauty winner that packs both salicylic acid and sea whip extract — an ingredient with skin-soothing properties — to help counteract the dryness sometimes caused by salicylic acid. The formula does double duty: It works as a spot treatment for mild to moderate acne and as a nightly allover treatment for pimple prevention. And since it dries clear, you can wear it to fight zits whenever, wherever.

How to Handle It: Speaking of touching, don't! Picking it, squeezing it, or poking at it will only worsen the situation. These may disappear on their own after a few days. Otherwise, Zeichner suggests visiting your dermatologist for a shot of cortisone, which will reduce inflammation and shrink it in just 24 to 48 hours. But if a last-minute appointment isn't in the cards, play mad scientist. First, ice the area, and then apply salicylic acid gel, benzoyl peroxide gel, and 1 percent hydrocortisone cream. The combo will calm skin, kill bacteria, and draw out excess oil from the pimple — all things necessary to take this down, says Zeichner.

For example, if you have acne on dry skin, you need something gentle enough to cleanse and exfoliate but not dehydrate, like a Neutrogena cleanser. If you have oily skin, you’re looking to exfoliate and combat oil production with a product like Cetaphil. If you have combination skin, you need something that can treat your unique skin and balance it out, like Exposed Skin Care.


It's a common misconception that those with oily skin shouldn't moisturize. Be sure you're treating your entire face to a full routine and not solely relying on spot treatments to battle your breakouts. If your acne comes with a side of oil, this is your best bet for a daily moisturizer. It contains panadoxine, a vitamin B6 derivative that improves skin’s overall healthy balance by visually minimizing pore size and shine.
Benzoyl peroxide (BPO) is a first-line treatment for mild and moderate acne due to its effectiveness and mild side-effects (mainly skin irritation). In the skin follicle, benzoyl peroxide kills P. acnes by oxidizing its proteins through the formation of oxygen free radicals and benzoic acid. These free radicals are thought to interfere with the bacterium's metabolism and ability to make proteins.[79][80] Additionally, benzoyl peroxide is mildly effective at breaking down comedones and inhibiting inflammation.[78][80] Benzoyl peroxide may be paired with a topical antibiotic or retinoid such as benzoyl peroxide/clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide/adapalene, respectively.[35]
Many skin conditions can mimic acne vulgaris, and these are collectively known as acneiform eruptions.[27] Such conditions include angiofibromas, epidermal cysts, flat warts, folliculitis, keratosis pilaris, milia, perioral dermatitis, and rosacea, among others.[19][72] Age is one factor which may help distinguish between these disorders. Skin disorders such as perioral dermatitis and keratosis pilaris can appear similar to acne but tend to occur more frequently in childhood, whereas rosacea tends to occur more frequently in older adults.[19] Facial redness triggered by heat or the consumption of alcohol or spicy food is suggestive of rosacea.[73] The presence of comedones helps health professionals differentiate acne from skin disorders that are similar in appearance.[8] Chloracne, due to exposure to certain chemicals, may look very similar to acne vulgaris.[74]
Pharaohs are recorded as having had acne, which may be the earliest known reference to the disease. Since at least the reign of Cleopatra (69–30 BC), the application of sulfur to the skin has been recognized as a useful treatment for acne.[162] The sixth-century Greek physician Aëtius of Amida is credited with coining the term "ionthos" (ίονθωξ,) or "acnae", which is believed to have been a reference to facial skin lesions that occur during "the 'acme' of life" (puberty).[163]
Retinoids and retinoid-like drugs. These come as creams, gels and lotions. Retinoid drugs are derived from vitamin A and include tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A, others), adapalene (Differin) and tazarotene (Tazorac, Avage). You apply this medication in the evening, beginning with three times a week, then daily as your skin becomes used to it. It works by preventing plugging of the hair follicles.
The recognition and characterization of acne progressed in 1776 when Josef Plenck (an Austrian physician) published a book that proposed the novel concept of classifying skin diseases by their elementary (initial) lesions.[163] In 1808 the English dermatologist Robert Willan refined Plenck's work by providing the first detailed descriptions of several skin disorders using a morphologic terminology that remains in use today.[163] Thomas Bateman continued and expanded on Robert Willan's work as his student and provided the first descriptions and illustrations of acne accepted as accurate by modern dermatologists.[163] Erasmus Wilson, in 1842, was the first to make the distinction between acne vulgaris and rosacea.[164] The first professional medical monograph dedicated entirely to acne was written by Lucius Duncan Bulkley and published in New York in 1885.[165][166]
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First, let’s talk about what causes acne. Pimples form when the oil and dead skin cells on your skin combine to form a plug that blocks the pores. “As the P. acnes bacteria that naturally live on skin overgrow within this plugged follicle, the area becomes inflamed and this is when you start to see papules, pustules, and cystic lesions,” RealSelf dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D., tells SELF. The treatments ahead work to exfoliate away dead skin cells, suck up excess oil, stop inflammation, and kill the P. acnes bacteria. There are even a few treatments that target hormonal acne specifically.
PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash: This product is marketed for facial acne, but we recommend using on pesky body acne instead. PanOxyl uses benzoyl peroxide, a highly effective acne-fighting ingredient that we’ll describe more just below, but at a concentration that is much too high to be used on your face. Most PanOxyl products contain 10% benzoyl peroxide, which will likely cause peeling and burning on your face, but could be the perfect solution for back or butt acne.
The dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross did a major study on water and its effect on skin and he found that the heavy metals in tap water can actually ruin the benefits expensive lotions and serums do for skin. Some cities (New York and L.A., for example) have worse water than others (Seattle, for example). While some dermatologists aren't buying his claims, (Patricia Wexler for one), you can fight the drying effects of water on skin by cleansing with cold cream, a practice common with European women.
Exposed Skin Care: Exposed Skin Care products include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and azelaic acid (see below for more details), all at low concentrations that are safe for all skin types. Plus they also incorporate powerful natural ingredients, like tea tree oil, vitamin E, and green tea extract. Before jumping straight to the strongest (and harshest) prescription treatment available, we highly recommend giving this gentle but effective brand a try for a few weeks. If it doesn’t work, you can always send your empty product bottles back to the company and they will reimburse you in full.
Beyond making sure the system contains safe combinations of ingredients, a system can also treat all aspects of acne. By picking and choosing individual products, you may miss an important step. Plus, treatment systems contain ingredients like glycolic acid that help smooth acne scars, something you might not think about when you are shopping for products. Did you know probiotics help reduce inflammation? Or that kojic acid and arbutin can lighten brown spots? When it comes to treating acne, you should leave the mixing to professionals. You still can try out a variety of systems to find the one that works best for you.
Some acne cleansers and face soaps have added ingredients to fight acne and improve the skin's appearance. Medicated cleansers contain acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, sodium sulfacetamide, or benzoyl peroxide, which can help clear up skin while cleaning it. Salicylic acid helps clear blocked pores and reduces swelling and redness. Benzoyl peroxide exfoliates the skin and kills bacteria. Sodium sulfacetamide interferes with the growth of bacteria.

Alternative and integrative medicine approaches used in the treatment of acne include fish oil, brewer's yeast, probiotics, oral zinc and topical tea tree oil. More research is needed to establish the potential effectiveness and long-term safety of these and other integrative approaches, such as biofeedback and traditional Chinese medicine. Talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of specific treatments before you try them.
Cortisone is a quick fix for acne emergencies. We mean got a big board meeting tomorrow kind of quick. Go into the dermatologist’s office for a shot of this corticosteroid, and acne will disappear in 24 to 48 hours. The treatment works to curb inflammation, which makes it best for cystic breakouts and can be really good at combatting hormonal flare-ups. If done incorrectly, a cortisone shot can leave a small depression in the skin that lasts about eight weeks. “It’s a rare side effect that happens if dosage of cortisone is too high,” explains Linkner. “You want to go to someone who knows what they’re doing.”
That’s why, no matter how uncomfortable your skin may feel while plagued with acne, you must resist the urge to touch your skin. If the irritating sensations become unbearable, there are other methods of treating your skin, such as cooling it with ice packs or aloe vera gel. You can even use medicated creams designed to soothe irritated skin – given that your dermatologist says it’s okay.
Accutane (isotretinoin) has a mixed reputation, but among dermatologists it’s the finisher for patients with severe acne. “If you have an acne patient that doesn’t respond to anything, [Accutane] can really be a game changer,” board-certified dermatologist Adam Friedman tells SELF. Accutane is an oral retinoid, and it has all the same benefits of a topical retinol but is even more effective.
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