Acne equals agony for so many, from teenagers to adults. But with so many treatment options available in the market today, it’s really hard to know which one will be the magic bullet. That’s why we’ve laid out seven of the most popular so you can see what they’re made and make the decision for yourself. Ready? Let’s get started.
Salicylic Acid and Acne
What it is: Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxyl acid that naturally occurs in plants, like willow bark.
How it works: A natural exfoliant that works wonders at clearing dead skin cells, salicylic acid also has excellent anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
How it helps control acne: Acne happens when excess oil and dead skin cells block pores, causing acne-causing bacteria to run rampant. Salicylic acid goes to work at unclogging pores by breaking down the dead skin cells and oil so they can be cleared from the pores. It also helps decrease sebum production leading to less future breakouts1. Salicylic acid works best for mild acne, or whiteheads and blackheads.
Benzoyl Peroxide and Acne
What it is: A topical medication used to treat acne breakouts, benzoyl peroxide comes in the form of cleansers, lotions, creams, gels, and toners.
How it works: Benzoyl peroxide is a bactericidal substance, meaning it kills bacteria in its tracks.
How it helps control acne: When it comes to acne, benzoyl peroxide works particularly well on the inflammatory kind, characterized by red, pus-filled bumps, versus whiteheads or blackheads. Considered one of the most effective acne treatments available over-the-counter, it works its magic to keep pores clear from blockages leading to less breakouts2.
Retinol and Acne
What it is: Retinol is part of a group of drugs called retinoids, which is derived from vitamin A.
How it works: It helps unclog the pores, enabling skin to repair itself, leading to reduced swelling and a smoother appearance.
How it helps control acne: For those with moderate or severe acne, retinol just might be the ticket. Not only does it help kick start your cell turnover rate and reduce inflammation, it can help fade stubborn acne scars and marks left from breakouts past3. A good thing to note when using retinol: patience is a virtue. It can take up to 6-8 weeks to see results and your skin will be extra sensitive while you’re using it. For that reason, you’ll also need to be very careful around the sun. Protect yourself with a good SPF and seek shade whenever you can to avoid irritation.
Niacinamide and Acne
What it is: Niacinamide is a naturally occurring B3 vitamin that is an essential part of our overall health, supporting not just the skin but also the brain, nervous system, and digestive track.
How it works: This miracle worker increases ceramides in the skin (the ones responsible for keeping the natural moisture balance and suppleness within the skin).
How it helps control acne: Niacinamide is a natural, non-irritating anti-inflammatory. That makes it an incredibly desirable treatment for those with acne-prone skin, particularly severe acne as it works to heal the inflammation around papules and pustules. Not only that, but it’s also known to help repair the protective outer layer of skin and reduce hyperpigmentation from stubborn acne scars4.
Tranexamic Acid and Acne
What it is: Tranexamic acid is a synthetic derivative of the amino acid, lysine.
How it works: Typically a medical treatment prescribed to treat heavy bleeding, tranexamic acid has the ability to prevent the growth of new blood vessels and melanin (aka your skin pigment).
How it helps control acne: Not only is tranexamic acid known to reduce inflammatory acne effectively5, it’s also an excellent skin-brightening agent. It improves skin clarity and lightens acne scars to reveal skin that’s more even-toned and glowing.
Azeliac Acid and Acne
What it is: Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring acid found in grains, such as wheat, barley, and rice.
How it works: A powerful dead skin exfoliator and anti-inflammatory, azelaic acid is gentle on skin and safe for all skin types.
How it helps control acne: On acne, azelaic acid goes to work clearing pores of acne-causing bacteria and reducing inflammation so it becomes less visible. It’s also another cell cycle booster that gently encourages quicker turnover so skin heals more quickly and scarring is minimized6.
Tea Tree Oil and Acne
What it is: An essential oil that comes from the leaves of a tea tree, this oil is a natural bacteria and fungi killer.
How it works: Tea tree oil consists of antimicrobial compounds that help prevent bacterial growth, it also has antibacterial properties known as terpenes.
How it helps control acne: Best for those who are looking to treat mild to moderate acne, tea tree oil works it’s way into pores, helping to disinfect the skin. Because it penetrates deep down into the epidermis, it also helps unclog pores while speeding up the skin’s healing process after a breakout.
When shopping for skincare products to improve your acne, always be sure to look for non-comedogenic products, meaning they won’t clog pores. Other than that, it’s really just a matter of skin type and personal preference. If you need a little more help, talk to a dermatologist to see which acne-fighting ingredient is best for your skin type.
- Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015 Aug 26;8:455-61. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S84765. PMID: 26347269; PMCID: PMC4554394. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4554394/
- Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter Acne Treatments: A Review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012 May;5(5):32-40. PMID: 22808307; PMCID: PMC3366450. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3366450/
- Chivot, M. Retinoid Therapy for Acne. Am J Clin Dermatol6, 13–19 (2005). Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.2165/00128071-200506010-00002.
- Walocko FM, Eber AE, Keri JE, Al-Harbi MA, Nouri K. The role of nicotinamide in acne treatment. Dermatol Ther. 2017 Sep;30(5). doi: 10.1111/dth.12481. Epub 2017 Feb 21. PMID: 28220628. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28220628/
- Charoenwattanayothin A, Saiwichai T, Chaichalotornkul S. Adjunctive treatment for acne vulgaris by tranexamic acid. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2022 Apr 7. doi: 10.1111/jocd.14972. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35388589. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35388589/
- Marita Kosmadaki, Andreas Katsambas, Topical treatments for acne, Clinics in Dermatology, Volume 35, Issue 2, 2017, Pages 173-178, ISSN 0738-081X. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clindermatol.2016.10.010.
- K.A. Hammer, Treatment of acne with tea tree oil (melaleuca) products: A review of efficacy, tolerability and potential modes of action, International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, Volume 45, Issue 2, 2015, Pages 106-110, ISSN 0924-8579. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijantimicag.2014.10.011.