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. 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.
3. Humane Acne Face Wash
Humane 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.
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. 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.
6. SMACNE Severe Acne Treatment Cream And Cleanser 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. SMACNE’s kit is one of these, and it’s geared specifically towards people with severe acne.
It uses two of the most effective weapons when it comes to fighting acne that’s hard to kick: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide at a 10% concentration. Like other high-concentration benzoyl peroxide products, it does run the risk of having sensitive skin reactions, especially considering that you’ll be using it alongside salicylic acid. Even though this is sold as a kit, it’s not a complete package.
You’ll still need an oil-free moisturizer to rehydrate your skin after you’ve washed it with SMACNE’s combo products. Otherwise, you’ll end up with dry skin that’s prone to cracking and flaking.
7. 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.
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 Acne Treatment Face Cream
Vie Naturelle takes the interesting step of combining a fairly strong benzoyl peroxide cosmetic (7.5%) with moisturizers like shea butter and natural acne-fighters like tea tree oil.
While it offers the promise of being able to hydrate and exfoliate at the same time, the fact that you don’t wash the benzoyl peroxide off your face could allow for increased irritation and sensitivity.
Acne treatment benefits and side effects
Treating acne is a long-term project, but with the right treatment tools, you can get the benefits you want. These 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%.
The next step up in terms of aggressiveness is benzoyl peroxide, a strong oxidizing agent that can dry out skin and clear up oil with incredible efficacy. This strength comes with stronger side effects, though.
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.
Unfortunately, part of the reason why there are so many different acne treatments out there is that many people experience side effects.
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.
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.