Acne is a common skin condition, and many people struggle to find a reliable treatment that offers effective, lasting results. Whether your acne is mild or severe, there are several science-backed acne treatments available.
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While there are certainly treatments that will improve your acne, the goal of most acne treatments is to minimize¹, not eliminate, it. Although it would be great to find a guaranteed cure for acne, the reality is that there is always a possibility that acne will return.
When trying a new acne treatment, it is important to give it enough time to see whether it is working for you. You should allow at least four weeks¹ to see results when starting to use a certain acne treatment before switching to another one. However, you can also try a combination of treatments if you find that works better for you.
Preventing acne is ideal, but if you already have acne, below are 10 science-backed treatments that will help to resolve your current acne issues.
1. Change your cleansing routine
How often do you clean your face when you have acne? Experts recommend that you wash your face twice daily¹ in the morning and at night for best results.
Washing your face will remove the build-up of sebum (oil that is naturally produced by the skin) and dead skin cells that could be blocking your pores and causing your acne.
Make sure not to wash your face more than twice a day unless you are exercising or sweating. Washing your face after sweating¹ will also help to keep your pores clear of excess moisture and oil.
Be gentle when washing your face where acne is present. Scrubbing or applying additional cleanser¹ to those areas could make your acne more inflamed (swollen), red, and dry, which can worsen acne.
You can also switch out your facial cleanser for one that has an oil-free, water-based formula². Neutral facial cleansers that do not contain soap or are intended for sensitive skin may be gentler on your skin and help to improve your acne condition.
2. Over-the-counter products containing benzoyl peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide³ is a substance added to various acne products and is available topically as a cream, cleanser, or mask. Benzoyl peroxide works by targeting the acne-causing bacteria called Cutibacterium acnes and Propionibacterium acnes. This treatment also reduces the production of oil that clogs pores.
Medical researchers say that using 10% benzoyl peroxide³ for two weeks will eliminate 98% of acne-causing bacteria. However, it is important to note that concentrations vary between products. Starting with a lower concentration can be recommended, such as 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, which will be gentler on your skin.
If you have experienced skin hypersensitivity³ in the past, you may need to limit or avoid using benzoyl peroxide to avoid adverse reactions. If you are unsure, test a small amount of product before proceeding with the treatment.
3. Over-the-counter products containing salicylic acid
Another acne treatment you can use is topical products that contain salicylic acid.
One study demonstrated that a 2% salicylic acid cleanser⁴ improved acne after two weeks of use. Salicylic acid peels are also available.
Medical experts⁵ have indicated that salicylic acid is generally better tolerated if you suffer from acne and skin sensitivities.
If you happen to experience significant redness and swelling⁵ with your acne, salicylic acid may help to minimize this problem.
Overall, salicylic acid will prevent your pores from being blocked⁵ and reduce some of the symptoms associated with acne.
4. Over-the-counter products containing glycolic acid
While many of the glycolic acid peels are not available over the counter, other products containing lower concentrations of glycolic acid are.
Over-the-counter glycolic acid treatments⁶ target the acne-causing bacteria called Cutibacterium acnes. Glycolic acid chemically exfoliates the skin and prevents pores from becoming blocked by oil and dead skin cells.
Lower concentrations⁶ of glycolic acid are preferable as this will cause less skin irritation.
Glycolic peels have been shown to have positive results for treating acne and can reduce scarring, inflammation, and redness. However, glycolic peels must be applied correctly, and regular use is not recommended. If you are interested in seeing whether a glycolic peel will help with your acne, it is best to see a certified skincare specialist, who can provide advice and/or apply the product for you.
5. Over-the-counter products containing azelaic acid
Topical treatments that contain azelaic acid⁷ can be an effective acne treatment as they target acne-causing bacteria, unclog pores, and reduce inflammation.
Studies have shown that treatments containing 10% azelaic acid⁷ result in a reduction in acne after four weeks of consistent use.
Compared to other acne treatments, azelaic acid may take slightly longer to work before you see results. However, medical experts claim that this treatment has fewer side effects and is less likely to cause skin irritation.
6. Natural treatments like tea tree oil
Although oily products are generally avoided for acne management, natural tea tree oil has shown some promising results in studies to date.
One such study demonstrated that tea tree oil⁸ was just as effective as benzoyl peroxide at reducing acne. The downside to using tea tree oil, however, is that it may take longer to work than benzoyl peroxide. It has been found that using 5% topical tea tree oil⁸ for six weeks reduced acne. In comparison, other studies have demonstrated that 10% benzoyl peroxide³ produced results after only two weeks.
An advantage of using tea tree oil as an acne treatment is that it has been reported as having fewer side effects⁸ than other types of treatment. If you are looking for a natural product that is unlikely to cause negative reactions, tea tree oil could be right for you. However, keep in mind that you will need to allow up to six weeks⁸ for it to work.
7. Topical retinoid, like adapalene
Adapalene⁹ is a topical retinoid that you can apply to acne to help treat it. Retinoids⁹ are derived from vitamin A and have both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects on acne.
Healthcare professionals suggest that adapalene⁹ is the best retinoid to use for acne because it has fewer side effects and causes less skin irritation when compared to other retinoid treatments.
Gels and creams that contain 0.1% adapalene have shown promising results.
If you want a two-in-one product, adapalene can be combined with salicylic acid¹ to maximize results.
8. Home remedies
If you do not have access to other treatments and/or want to see if there are natural alternatives to common acne treatments, you could try some home remedies¹⁰ that may help. These include applying apple cider vinegar, green tea, or aloe vera to acne.
Apple cider vinegar¹⁰ naturally contains citric acid, which targets Propionibacterium acnes, a type of bacteria that causes acne, and may reduce inflammation.
Green tea¹⁰ has powerful antioxidant properties and contains polyphenols that target acne-causing bacteria and reduce inflammation. Applying cold green tea to the affected area may soothe acne and prevent further oil production.
Aloe vera¹⁰ is a natural source of salicylic acid and is known for its healing properties, which may support the acne recovery process.
While there is some medical evidence to support the effectiveness of these remedies, you should be aware that there is no guarantee about how long they will work for you, if at all. There are also no clear guidelines around using these treatments.
9. Dermatologist or skincare clinic
Nonsurgical treatments¹ are available by consulting with your dermatologist or a skincare clinic. These treatments aid acne recovery and help to prevent further breakouts.
Glycolic acid peels are one treatment commonly offered by skincare professionals, along with a variety of other chemical peels, microdermabrasion, or low-level light therapy (LLLT).
Microdermabrasion¹¹ is a procedure that unclogs pores and facilitates new skin cell development in areas affected by acne. Tiny particles are blasted against your skin by a vacuum system to remove the dead skin cells and oil blocking your pores. During this procedure, the top layer of your skin is lightly removed so that new skin cells can replace the damaged areas.
LLLT¹² can inhibit the growth of acne-causing bacteria and promote skin healing. The procedure involves different wavelengths or colors of light being emitted over your skin to induce these effects. LLLT is considered very safe and does not require the use of any chemicals.
If you consult a dermatologist¹ or skincare professional, they may provide you with a treatment plan for your acne.
10. Combining treatments
As different treatments target different aspects of acne, using more than one treatment simultaneously¹ may produce better effects than using a single treatment.
If you have tried one type of treatment and seen improvement in your acne, you may not need to use another treatment. However, if you are using one treatment and are not fully satisfied with the results, using an additional treatment could help.
When combining treatments¹, make sure to use two products that are not likely to react with each other or cause skin irritation, as this can result in a much longer healing process.
You may be able to find products that already combine¹ two or more treatments. For instance, salicylic acid is often combined with adapalene.
Some of the treatments outlined above will help to improve the appearance of acne by reducing redness and inflammation.
It is important to understand that treatments will take a while to work¹. However, if you keep using them, you are likely to notice a significant difference in your acne condition after a few weeks. If you stop using a treatment before it starts showing results, and switch to another type of treatment instead, you could end up waiting longer to see the results you are looking for.
A good cleansing routine¹ will also help to prevent further acne from developing while you are recovering from a flare-up.
There is a lot of advice online about the best ways to eliminate acne. However, it can be tricky to know which advice to follow, and some advice may not help at all. When deciding on an acne treatment, consider whether:
The treatment contains oily or sticky substances² — This could clog your pores and cause further acne to develop.
There are any ingredients that are likely to cause skin irritation² — These could make your acne redder and more inflamed, worsening the condition.
You can use the treatment long-term — As most treatments can take a few weeks to work, you should use a treatment that is not a hassle to use consistently.
It is also important not to pop or squeeze pimples¹. While it may be tempting, it can damage your skin and delay the healing process.
Covering acne² in thick layers of foundation, concealer, or other cosmetics to hide it will also slow down your recovery. These products could make your acne worse by blocking your pores. If you cannot go without wearing cosmetics, then you should at least limit the amount you apply to your acne.
If you are not seeing the results you want after using over-the-counter treatments, you should seek advice from your doctor² about the options that are available to you. This is especially the case if you have moderate or severe acne, or you experience severe pain, redness, or swelling² caused by your acne. Sometimes, acne can become infected, which requires immediate treatment.
There is a wide range of effective acne treatments, most of which take at least a few weeks to see results. These treatments include over-the-counter products, home remedies, and dermatologist procedures. Treatments can be used on their own or in combination with one another for more effective results. If you have acne and are looking for the right treatment, you should carefully consider your options and discuss them with your doctor or dermatologist before using them.
9 Things to try when acne won't clear | American Academy of Dermatology Association
Acne vulgaris: management (2021)
Benzoyl peroxide (2021)
10 Natural solutions for acne | Nicole Panethere