Most people turn to acne treatment when faced with acne.
Acne is irritating, embarrassing, and in severe cases, can even be disfiguring, leaving your face pitted with scars.
With so many people affected by acne, even into their adult life, there’s a huge industry of cosmetic products that claim to fight acne.
Trying to figure out what actually works can be a nightmare. Fortunately, our research team has looked up the most effective and scientifically validated acne treatments and ranked the best products that deliver them.
1. Neutrogena Complete Acne Therapy System
Neutrogena is the leading name in acne treatment and for good reason. This three part kit shows that they’ve done their homework. It incorporates the two best acne fighting compounds you can get, namely, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.
In addition, the kit comes with a moisturizing lotion that includes sunscreen, which is especially important when using strong oxidizers like benzoyl peroxide because of their tendency to induce hypersensitivity to sunlight in your skin.
With a complete combination of cleansing, exfoliation, and hydration, Neutrogena’s Complete Acne Therapy System is hard to beat for a comprehensive acne treatment program.
2. Paula’s Choice CLEAR Acne Kit
Instead of trying to cobble together your own acne treatment routine, it’s often easier to get a kit that’s got everything you need.
Paula’s Choice comes highly recommended from skincare aficionados thanks to its inclusion of both salicylic acid and 5% benzoyl peroxide. Even so, you’ll still want a non-clogging moisturizer to use afterwards, especially if you have sensitive skin.
3. DRMTLGY Tri-Active Acne Pads
These pads are infused with glycolic acid, lactic acid, and most importantly, salicylic acid, and help wash away sweat, dirt, and oils from your face.
A salicylic acid-based daily washing routine should be part of any acne treatment program, assuming your skin doesn’t react poorly to salicylic acid.
Its chemical exfoliating abilities are well-demonstrated in dermatological studies, and DRMTLGY’s Tri-Active Pads are a great way to apply salicylic acid while also removing the matter that accumulates on your skin during the day. They’re an excellent choice for a nightly face-washing routine.
4. Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment
For skin that doesn’t respond well to benzoyl peroxide, what are your options for spot-treating a breakout or a cyst? One of the best ways to deal with it is with Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment.
The precision applicator uses a double-dosage of salicylic acid to fight the redness, irritation, and inflammation that is part and parcel of an acne cyst. Benzoyl peroxide is usually a better option if your skin can take it, but if not, this is a great choice.
5. Replenix Acne Wash
Replenix is a simple and powerful acne face wash. Its active ingredient is benzoyl peroxide, which is a highly reactive compound that helps dry out oily skin and get rid of acne.
However, it’s very powerful: at a 10% concentration, many people will find that this causes redness, irritation, dry skin, or flakiness. It’s definitely not for you if you’ve got sensitive skin, but recalcitrant acne that’s resisted more gentle treatments will often succumb to a strong benzoyl peroxide wash.
It’s essential that you rehydrate your skin with a non-clogging moisturizer after use, though, because of the incredibly strong drying properties of the benzoyl peroxide in this product.
6. TreeActiv Cystic Acne Spot Treatment
For people with sensitive skin, it can be hard to find a good treatment for breakouts and stubborn acne cysts. The usual weapon of choice, benzoyl peroxide creams, can often make problems worse if your skin doesn’t react well to it.
TreeActiv solves that problem with their spot treatment cream that’s based on natural and less-irritating ingredients. The principle beneficial ingredient in this formula is tea tree oil, which has been scientifically demonstrated as an effective acne treatment.
It does take longer to work than a traditional chemical treatment, but it has a lower incidence of side effects.
7. Neutrogena Light Therapy Acne Spot Treatment
If sensitive skin is a problem with all of the products that you try, there’s a way around this: use light instead. Neutrogena’s Light Therapy is not a cosmetic product; it’s really a pen light with two LEDs that apply high-intensity light at specific wavelengths tuned to fight inflammation and kill the bacteria in your skin that cause acne.
Dermatology clinics use higher-power versions of this same phototherapy treatment to attack acne underneath the skin. Though this technique for fighting acne is scientifically validated, it does have some practical limitations. First, it can only be used for spot treatment, since the area where the light focuses is quite small.
Second, it can be pretty impractical to hold this pen-light up to your face for five minutes, three times per day. But that inconvenience might be worth it if your skin rebels at all of the spot treatments you try.
8. Neutralyze Moderate To Severe Acne Treatment Kit
Neutralyze is out on the cutting edge of skin cosmetics, employing several new chemicals in this combo kit to attempt to get around some of the limitations of traditional acne treatments.
It has a standard face wash without any exfoliating compounds in it to first wash dirt away from your face. Next, it applies an acne treatment based on salicylic acid as well as mandelic acid, a related compound that acts through a slightly different mechanism.
In the third part of the kit, which would typically be an aggressive benzoyl peroxide wash, Neutralyze instead uses a blend that aims to generate nitric oxide.
This compound should also be able to oxidize acne, but Neutralyze hopes that it’s less likely to cause side effects. These newer compounds aren’t proven like the tried and true ingredients, but might be worth a look if usual treatments fail.
9. Proactiv 3-Step Acne Treatment System
Proactiv offers three acne treatment steps that are based around benzoyl peroxide, though in a lower concentration (2.5%) than some of the higher-powered acne washes.
The intermediate step in the treatment process involves refreshing your skin with a hydrating solution that has witch hazel and glycolic acid in it, which assist with exfoliation.
This combination has the promise of working well, but may dry out your skin too much if you don’t have oily skin to begin with.
10. Vie Naturelle Spot Treatment
Vie Naturelle takes the interesting step of combining a fairly strong benzoyl peroxide solution with moisturizers like shea butter and natural acne-fighters like tea tree oil.
It’s only a spot treatment, but might be kinder on your skin than some of the more harsh benzoyl peroxide creams on the market.
Who should buy an acne treatment?
Whether you have constant acne or just the occasional breakout or pimple, and acne treatment can help.
Since acne is an extremely common dermatological problem, it’s been heavily studied, and there are several great products on the market that are based on solid scientific research into the problem of acne.
Acne is commonly associated with teenagers, but plenty of adults continue to have acne problems. It’s most common on your face, but acne can also appear on your back, shoulders, or chest.
If acne is giving you trouble, don’t bother with a folk remedy—you want a well-crafted, powerful product to fight pimples and blackheads, without irritating your skin.
How we ranked
Acne is a heavily studied subject, with hundreds of scientific papers being published on its causes and potential treatments.
As such, our research team had a wealth of data to draw on when formulating our rankings. Our first and most important criteria for any product that was considered for our rankings was that it contain at least one of three proven ingredients that fight acne: salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or tea tree oil.
Each of these ingredients have a substantial amount of scientific evidence that indicate they are an effective way to fight acne. Next up, we evaluated the expected efficacy of each product depending on the concentration and choice of its active ingredients.
For products with benzoyl peroxide, we had to take a careful risk-benefit analysis. Benzoyl peroxide can come in cosmetic products at concentrations of up to 10%, and the greater the concentration, the greater the oxidizing power to eat away at pimples.
However, higher concentrations also carry a greater risk of side effects like redness and irritation. Scientific research suggests that most people should start out with a product that provides 2.5% benzoyl peroxide for starters, then increase to a greater concentration of up to 10% if the initial results are not what you want.
So, while our top-rated products tended to contain 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, we made sure to retain a few that contained higher concentrations for people with stubborn acne that does not respond to lower concentrations.
Standard face washes with salicylic acid were also important constituents of the products on our rankings.
Salicylic acid is not as harsh as benzoyl peroxide, and as such, it’s much easier for many people to use. Salicylic acid products were a good way to balance out the use of benzoyl peroxide as a spot treatment: a whole-face wash that uses salicylic acid can control most of your acne, with targeted application of benzoyl peroxide when necessary.
Finally, we made sure to include products with tea tree oil for people looking for a milder and more natural product to treat acne. But, we didn’t want pure tea tree oil—a cream-based product is better, as it holds the tea tree oil next to the problem areas for longer.
Tea tree oil can be nearly as effective as standard acne treatments, but with fewer side effects, so while our top placements were reserved for the more potent salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide products, we made sure that the best tea tree oil products made the list as well for people whose skin can’t handle the harsher chemicals that are usually used for acne.
Treating acne is a long-term project, but with the right treatment tools, you can get the benefits you want. These benefits include clearer skin, a reduction in newly-formed pimples, and avoiding acne scars.
Fighting acne in the skin is largely a matter of clearing up clogged pores and preventing them from getting dirt, sweat, oil, and bacteria inside them in the first place. Given the high prevalence of acne, there are several well-researched treatment options that should be part of any acne treatment you use.
Salicylic acid is one of the mainstays of acne treatment. This compound helps exfoliate your skin and cut down on the oil and dead skin that accumulates and contributes to the development and worsening of acne. It’s fairly mild as far as chemical exfoliants go; most people tolerate salicylic acid fairly well.
A study published in the scientific journal Dermatologic Surgery by the dermatologist Pearl Grimes tested the efficacy of salicylic acid in a wide variety of patients with different skin types and ethnicities (1).
The study found that nearly 90% of patients had a good response to the salicylic acid treatment, with side effects like redness and flakey skin occurring in 16% of the patients.
The next step up in terms of aggressiveness is benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is a strong oxidizing agent that can dry out skin and clear up oil with incredible efficacy. This strength comes with stronger side effects, though; it’s prone to cause dryness, redness, and irritation in some people.
Regardless, it’s the best option for spot-treating a breakout or a cyst, and for people with acne that’s resistant to treatment, a benzoyl peroxide face wash can make a big difference. Benzoyl peroxide comes in several different concentrations, and as you’d guess, the stronger the concentration, the more powerful the effect–but also the higher the likelihood of negative effects.
This was the conclusion of a study published in the International Journal of Dermatology that compared 2.5%, 5%, and 10% benzoyl peroxide (2). The study concluded that most people should start with a 2.5% concentration, because this had the best combination of efficacy and low risk of side effects.
For people who find benzoyl too harsh on their skin, one natural alternative might be tea tree oil. A scientific article published in 1990 compared benzoyl peroxide to tea tree oil in a group of 124 patients with acne and found that, while the tea tree oil took longer to take effect, it was an effective treatment for acne, and had significantly fewer side effects (3).
If chemical based treatments are too harsh on your skin, one alternative to look into is light therapy. Using LEDs that transmit red and blue colored light, it’s possible to decrease inflammation and kill the bacteria that cause acne. Some consumer-grade products offer this technology, which used to be reserved for dermatology offices.
A scientific article published in the British Journal of Dermatology found that phototherapy (the scientific name for this treatment) that used both blue and red wavelength light was an effective short-term treatment for acne that had no observable side effects (4).
The downside to this treatment strategy is the inconvenience that comes with aiming a light at spot breakouts for several minutes at a time, two or three times a day.
Tea tree oil is an effective natural treatment for acne. If the harsh chemicals that are usually used to treat acne aren’t up your alley, or if you want something that is more gentle on your skin, an acne treatment based on tea tree oil might be exactly what you need.
According to research published in India, tea tree oil can significantly reduce the number of pimples over the course of a 45 day treatment period when compared to a placebo (5).
Tea tree oil is thought to kill the bacteria that cause the inflammation and swelling that is the root cause of acne, as reported in a 2002 scientific article on the chemical properties of tea tree oil (6).
Compared to the best treatments out there, tea tree oil appears to work a bit slower, but also may cause fewer side effects. That was the conclusion of a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, which compared tea tree oil to a 5% benzoyl peroxide cream (7).
While it took a few more weeks for the tea tree oil to have an effect, the people who were randomly assigned the tea tree oil had fewer side effects than those who were assigned the benzoyl peroxide.
These findings suggests that tea tree oil as a natural alternative could be a good choice if your skin gets too dry, red, or irritated by standard acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Try using a cream instead of liquid tea tree oil, though, as a cream based product is more likely to be effective.
Unfortunately, part of the reason why there are so many different acne treatments out there is that many people experience side effects when they use whatever they find on the shelf at a store.
Typically these occur because the chemicals used on the skin are too harsh for people with sensitive skin. Though side effects are most common in benzoyl peroxide based products, they can occur any any topical skin treatment. Tea tree oil appears to be the least problematic among the treatments for acne that actually work.
If you have redness, irritation, or worsening of your acne, you should try backing off on your acne routine–perhaps only using your face wash twice a week, for example.
If this still doesn’t help, you should switch to a different product. If you use benzoyl peroxide, it’s especially important to be aware of photosensitivity, which means that your skin is much more likely to get damaged by sunlight after being treated with benzoyl peroxide.
As a result, you should use a moisturizing lotion which also contains sunscreen if you use a benzoyl peroxide based treatment. Some combination kits include these lotions as part of their formulation.
Most dermatologists recommend some variant of the following routine: first, wash your face, using a face wash that’s based on salicylic acid or, for more stubborn cases of acne, benzoyl peroxide.
If you have a lot of sweat and grime on your face, or if you wear makeup during the day, you may want to use a standard face wash first to remove all of that.
You’ll want to pat your face dry with a clean towel, and if you are going to bed, use a clean pillowcase. If you have active pimples, you should apply a spot treatment that is based on benzoyl peroxide.
If you’ve used any product with benzoyl peroxide in it in the morning, you’ll want to finish off by applying sunscreen: benzoyl peroxide causes photosensitivity, so your skin is much more vulnerable to sun damage. Choose a sunscreen that is non-comedogenic, meaning that it will not block your pores.
Q: What is the best treatment for acne?
A: The best treatment for acne is a combination of a face wash that is based on either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, and spot treatment that uses benzoyl peroxide to attack active pimples.
Since you’ll be using benzoyl peroxide, you’ll want to include a good sunscreen in your routine as well, as benzoyl peroxide makes your skin more vulnerable to sun damage. While it can take several weeks to see benefits, these are the best treatments for acne according to dermatological research.
Q: What is a good way to get rid of acne?
A: If you have active pimples, the best way to treat them is using a benzoyl peroxide-based “spot treatment.”
Spot treatments are concentrated creams that are designed to keep a concentrated amount of benzoyl peroxide next to the pimple, which will dehydrate it, shrink it, and eventually make the dead skin flake off and reveal new, healthy skin underneath.
In combination with a general face wash that uses either benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid to increase the rate at which dead skin is removed from your face, this is the best strategy for getting rid of acne.
Q: What would a dermatologist prescribe for acne?
A: Dermatologists usually start by recommending a face wash that uses salicylic acid, plus a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment.
Depending on the severity of your acne and the sensitivity of your skin, a dermatologist might prescribe a higher concentration benzoyl peroxide cream.
If you don’t respond to these first-line treatments, a dermatologist might prescribe retinoids like Retin-A (a type of retinol cream), or oral antibiotics.
Q: What are some homemade acne treatments?
A: Some people swear by home remedies for acne that are based on clay, apple cider vinegar, or other natural products you can make at home, but these remedies do not have the strength of dermatological evidence behind them that salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or even tea tree oil have. If you want to stick with something natural, tea tree oil is a better product than a home remedy.
Q: What is the best spot treatment for acne?
A: For spot treating an angry pimple or blackhead, there’s no doubt that benzoyl peroxide is the best weapon you can choose. It dehydrates the pimple and also causes the dead skin surrounding it to slough off, leaving healthy skin below.
If a pimple doesn’t respond to a spot treatment, you can try increasing the concentration of benzoyl peroxide from 2.5% to 5% or even 10%—but you should be aware that this increases the risk of side effects, and scientific evidence thus far indicates that 2.5% is the best balance between efficacy and side effects for most people.
Q: Is retinol cream good for acne?
A: Retinol cream has been studied as a treatment for acne, with some success. It uses similar principles to salicylic acid to treat acne: it increases the turnover rate of the skin cells on your face, so your skin is renewed more rapidly.
Retinol cream’s biggest use, however, is actually for treating acne scars: thanks to its anti-wrinkle properties, retinol cream
Q: How do you treat acne scars?
A: A good retinol cream is a great first-line treatment for acne scars. Retinol cream is also sometimes used to treat acne, and is perhaps better-known for its use as an anti-aging treatment, but it is surprisingly effective at healing acne scars.
Some dermatologists even believe that retinol should be used in conjunction with other acne treatments to prevent scarring from happening in the first place (8).
While it can take a few months for retinol to have its full effect, it is one of the most powerful over the counter treatments to heal acne scars.
If retinol does not do the trick for you, it’s a good idea to see a dermatologist, as there are some prescription medications and procedures that can also be used to heal acne scars.
Finally, make sure you use a sunscreen religiously when you are using a retinol cream, because retinol increases your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.
Q: How do you use tea tree oil for spot treatment of acne?
A: Tea tree oil is easiest to use as a spot treatment when it comes in a cream. While you can get liquid-form tea tree oil, these tend not to stay on your skin as well.
Cream based tea tree oil products, like TreeActiv Cystic Acne Spot Treatment (which you can find in our rankings), will sit on your skin better and will keep the tea tree oil in contact with the problem area for much longer. If you have a tea tree oil cream, you can use it just like you’d use benzoyl peroxide cream.
Q: How do you find the right acne treatment for you?
A: Finding the best acne treatment can take some trial and error, especially if you have sensitive skin. Even so, with a topic as heavily studied as acne treatment, it never hurts to start with what works for everyone else.
That means a salicylic acid face wash, plus a 2.5% benzoyl peroxide spot treatment. If those don’t do the trick, you can move up to a benzoyl peroxide face wash if you aren’t getting the treatment result that you want, or you can switch to tea tree oil if your skin is getting too red and irritated.
At this point, you can also experiment with adding a retinol cream if you are worried about scarring, or if you want an additional compound to treat your acne.
If you still aren’t getting the results you want, or if you are still having skin irritation problems, it’s worth your while to see a dermatologist to get a tailored acne treatment program, plus identify any potential underlying skin problems that could be making it more difficult to reduce your acne.
Treating acne does not have to be an impossible task. With the right treatment plan that incorporates effective compounds, you stand a very good chance of reducing or eliminating your acne problem.
Most people should start with a salicylic acid based treatment and see how their skin reacts. If your skin handles the salicylic acid treatment fine, but your acne does not improve, you can try a stronger benzoyl peroxide face wash.
If you do, make sure you get a non-clogging moisturizer to use afterwards, ideally one that offers some sun protection to prevent photosensitivity. If your skin can’t handle even salicylic acid, a product that is based on tea tree oil might be more effective.
This is also a good fall-back option for people who need something more powerful than salicylic acid but whose skin does not react well to benzoyl peroxide.
For BodyNutrition‘s #1 acne treatment recommendation, click here.