8 Ingredients Everyone with Acne-Prone Skin Needs
Dermatologists reveal the acne-fighting ingredients you should add to your skin care routine, from glycolic acid to witch hazel.
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Acne-fighting ingredients for your skin care routine
If you have acne-prone skin, chances are you know how frustrating it can be to find a product that works. After all, if you go to the skin care aisle at your pharmacy, there are an array of products that promise to get rid of blemishes. So, how do you know which one is the best for your acne?
First, to pick an acne product, you need to familiarize yourself with over-the-counter ingredients that can fight acne. Also, you need to determine whether these ingredients are favorable for your skin type. It’s important to talk with a dermatologist to see what acne treatment products work best for you.
In the meantime, we spoke with dermatologists who suggest acne-fighting ingredients that you should add to your skin care routine. (Here's what happens when you get rid of acne, but have acne scars.)
A hero ingredient for breakout days, glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant that helps increase cell turnover. The faster your cells replenish, the quicker you'll heal from breakouts, fade blemish scars, and get rid of dirt and impurities. (While you're dealing with breakouts, check out if any of these 12 sneaky reasons for acne might be affecting you.) Glycolic acid should be part of a daily skin care regimen for blemish-prone skin. As glycolic acid can be difficult to tolerate at first, work it in to your routine once or twice weekly in serum or toner. Eventually—you'll be able to use glycolic acid daily, and your skin will be all the brighter, clearer, and healthier for it. We love Glo Skin Beauty's Renew Serum, which combines glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and retinol for an all-in-one glowing skin cocktail.
One of the most popular ingredients for troubled skin, salicylic acid is found in everything from cleaners to spot treatments to BB creams. "Salicylic acid fights the breakout within the pore by helping to normalize excessive shedding of cells and excess oil production—the primary contributors to blocked pores and breakouts," says Howard Murad, MD, dermatologist and founder of Murad Skin Care. "Salicylic acid is known to be a gentle exfoliator to the upper layer of the skin and a powerful anti-inflammatory agent that helps to calm swollen, stressed skin." If you experience red bumps and irritation, you're going to want a Rapid Relief Spot Treatment in your purse at all times to help calm skin ASAP. (Here's what your acne breakout says about you.) According to Ashish Bhatia, MD, dermatologist at Oak Dermatology in Chicago, salicylic acid is ideal for "mild acne, blackheads and whiteheads."
Check out some surefire ways to step up your acne treatment—and then give benzoyl peroxide a try. The ingredient is available both in over-the-counter favorites and in prescription-strength spot treatments. benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial agent that works best on those with oily skin, says dermatologist Arash Akhavan, MD, of The Dermatology and Laser Group in New York City. Opt for benzoyl peroxide if you have more resilient skin, advises Elyse Blakey, corporate educator at IMAGE Skincare in West Palm Beach. It can be used to treat mild to moderately troubled skin, so if you experience some initial redness, it can be worth it to power through. One important benzoyl peroxide hack: Use it before you've dressed for work. In higher concentrations, it can leave bleach stains on colored clothes.
We love IMAGE's Clear Cell Medicated Acne Lotion, an aesthetican favorite for treating blackheads and whiteheads. If you prefer your treatment in a cleanser, talk to a dermatologist about the strength that's right for your skin.
A dermatologist-favorite, retinoids are a powerful addition to your skincare regimen for more than blemish-fighting reasons. Retinoids control pimples by increasing cell turnover, which means they also work as anti-aging ingredients. If you're in that sweet spot where you still get breakouts but are also fighting lines and wrinkles, add a retinoid into your routine ASAP.
"Retinoids can inhibit and decrease the number of orchestrators of inflammation, not to mention other inflammation players," says Adam Friedman, MD, interim chair, department of dermatology, George Washington University, Washington D.C. For Dr. Friedman, "topical retinoids are first line for the treatment of acne." Even at a low active concentration, like Differin's 0.1% adapalene gel, a topical retinoid can make all the difference in your skin both quickly and over time.
Tea tree oil
If you want to learn how to get rid of acne with all-natural ingredients, tea tree oil is a great ingredient to meet. Whether you swear by natural cures or just want to treat your skin a little more organically, tea tree oil is a natural blemish-fighter that can be us as effective as the big guns. As an antibacterial and antimicrobial ingredient, tea tree helps flush out the dirt and impurities that block pores.
"Tea tree oil has long been used to treat acne, and studies have shown tea tree oil lives up to the hype," says Rachel Winard, founder of natural beauty brand Soapwalla. "In some cases, it can be as equally effective in treating breakouts as benzoyl peroxide." Make sure to apply sunscreen if you use tea tree oil in your skincare routine, as it may make your skin more susceptible to UV rays.
All those clay-mask selfies don't just look good on Instagram. In the time it takes for clay to dry out on your face, it draws out oil and dirt and leaves you with clear pores. Especially if your skin is combination to oily, look for bentonite or kaolin clay on the ingredient list.
"Clays help to refine pores for a smoother-looking complexion," says Anna DeLaCruz, director of brand development at Glo Skin Beauty. Take the time to mask two to three times a week to help keep oil at bay, or look for a clay cleanser like Dr. Jart Trans-Foam Clay, which turns from clay to foam. (Here are 11 more blemish-busting face masks for acne-prone skin.)
Sulfur—the natural element responsible for that rotten egg smell—has a secret life as a breakout-fighting ingredient. Dermatologists may prescribe a sulfur wash, or look for it in spot treatments like Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment. "Sulfur is antibacterial while being less drying than benzoyl peroxide," says Dr. Akhavan. Opt for a product with a 10 percent sulfur concentration if you have combination to oily skin. Sulfur also has healing properties, so it may help treat leftover scars and hyper-pigmentation even as it targets current breakouts.
Witch hazel doubles as an astringent and a disinfectant, so it works to deeply cleanse skin and calm any irritations—all while healing damage from past breakout. "It's 100 percent natural and works on sensitive to normal skin," says dermatologist Marina I. Peredo, MD, clinical assistant professor, department of dermatology, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She swears by Dickinson's Original Pore Perfecting Toner, formulated to clear blemishes and refine pores. Throw it in your purse or gym bag; since it's a natural ingredient, it can be applied throughout the day as a quick refresh whenever your skin needs a pick-me-up (or when you just want to make sure you're tackling that breakout.)
Here are the other ways to use witch hazel.
- Howard Murad, MD, dermatologist and founder of Murad Skin Care
- Ashish Bhatia, MD, dermatologist at Oak Dermatology in Chicago
- Arash Akhavan, MD, dermatologist, The Dermatology and Laser Group in New York City
- Elyse Blakey, corporate educator at IMAGE Skincare, West Palm Beach
- Adam Friedman, MD, interim chair, department of dermatology, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
- Rachel Winard, founder of natural beauty brand Soapwalla
- Anna DeLaCruz, director of brand development at Glo Skin Beauty
- Marina I. Peredo, MD, dermatologist and clinical assistant professor, department of dermatology, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City