Blemish-Banishing Ingredients to Know If You’re Dealing With Acne

A couple looking in the mirror practicing good skincare

Dealing with breakouts that just won’t go away? These are the ingredients you need to know about. |  iStock.com

Dealing with acne-prone skin is a challenge. Sometimes, breakouts are caused by the cosmetics you’re using. Other times, they’re caused by irritants in your environment. Even your diet may be to be blame. If you’re lucky, you can figure out what’s causing your breakouts. And if you’re fortunate enough to be able to see a dermatologist, they may be able to figure it out for you.

But it’s not always that easy. And that’s when you find yourself standing in the skin care aisle of your local Target or Sephora, wondering what you should buy to calm your breakouts. There’s an endless array of skin care products to choose from, but there are also numerous active ingredients that are used in those products — ones that determine whether they’ll be effective.

Some acne-fighting ingredients work by killing bacteria. Others exfoliate the dead skin that can clog pores. Still more work to combat excess oil. All of those are valid approaches, though some will work better than others to combat the kind of acne you have. Read on to check out 10 of the most potent acne-fighting ingredients to figure out which one is best for you.

1. Antibiotics

Glass prescription bottle with pills

Antibiotics can play an important part in clearing your acne. | iStock.com/Jeng_Niamwhan

Let’s start with the big guns. Prescription antibiotics can kill the bacteria that cause breakouts. They’re offered in both oral and topical form, and your dermatologist will prescribe the antibiotic most likely to be effective for you. And often, the dermatologist will prescribe antibiotics to be used alongside other forms of treatment. You don’t have to have the most severe acne to make it to the dermatologist, either. Even if your acne is relatively mild, the dermatologist will be able to objectively evaluate your skin and prescribe products that you wouldn’t be able to access on your own. 

2. Accutane

pills in person's hand

Accutane, or more properly, Isotretinoin, is a powerful treatment for the most severe forms of acne. |  iStock.com

Accutane, commonly sold as Claravis, Sotret, Myorisan, Amnesteem, and Absorica, is a potent vitamin A derivative your doctor may prescribe if you’re dealing with severe acne. It’s commonly referred to as Accutane, though its proper name is Isotretinoin (and the drug that actually carried the brand name Accutane has been discontinued). Isotretinoin is an oral retinoid, the American Academy of Dermatology explains, and is usually prescribed for severe cystic acne or for acne that hasn’t responded to other treatments.

Oral retinoids can permanently clear acne by dramatically decreasing the production of oil. They also have some pretty scary-sounding side effects, so they’re usually used for severe cystic acne — and always under the strict supervision of your doctor.

3. Azelaic acid

Man moisturizing in the mirror

Azelaic acid can be a powerful way to treat your acne. | iStock.com

Azelaic acid is a topical antiseptic that’s sometimes sold in prescription products — like Finacea and Azelex — and also available in lower concentrations in skin care products you can buy without a prescription. Azelaic acid kills the bacteria that causes acne, and also works to exfoliate the dead skin cells that can clog your pores and lead to pimples. Off-the-shelf products with azelaic acid may not be quite as common as products that include other acids (more on those in the coming pages), but a well-formulated option can be worth the search.

4. Benzoyl peroxide

woman applying moisturizer on face

Benzoyl peroxide is a perennial favorite in pimple-clearing treatments. | iStock.com/gpointstudio

Benzoyl peroxide shows up in many anti-acne products because it can not only kill acne-causing bacteria, but can also combat excess oil and exfoliate dead skin cells. It’s incorporated into skin care products at concentrations ranging from 2.5% to 10%, according to Livestrong.com. A higher concentration isn’t always better than a lower one, though. And that’s especially true if you have sensitive skin prone to irritation or dryness. If you’re looking at off-the-shelf options, it’s a good idea to start with a lower percentage. Benzoyl peroxide is particularly effective for raised, red, inflammatory acne.

5. Clay

young women appliying face masks in front of mirrors

Clay is a surprisingly helpful ingredient to look for in your skin care products. | iStock.com

You might be confused to see clay included as an ingredient in acne-fighting products, but it actually packs some serious anti-inflammatory capabilities and can temporarily reduce your skin’s oil production. Clay is a calming ingredient when it’s incorporated into treatments and lotions. Or, you can tap into its ability to absorb oil and draw out excess dirt by choosing a clay-based mask.

6. Glycolic acid

Man caring for his skin

Glycolic acid not only fights acne, but also treats and prevents acne scars. | iStock.com

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that exfoliates the dead skin that can clog pores and cause pimples. AHAs are synthetic versions of acids originally derived from sugar-containing fruits. They’re able to treat acne by exfoliating the skin and reducing inflammation at the same time (InStyle says glycolic acid is particularly good for combatting blackheads). Plus, they’re useful for getting new skin to look smoother and more even. Which means they’re able to fight both acne and acne scars simultaneously.

7. Lactic acid

Woman applying moisturizer cream in front of mirror

Lactic acid is a gentle AHA that treats clogged pores extremely effectively. | iStock.com

Lactic acid is another AHA you can use to exfoliate dead skin cells. Lactic acid is often featured in relatively mild concentrations, so it’s a great way to try an AHA for treating clogged pores. Even the most sensitive skin can typically tolerate AHAs like lactic acid in low concentrations, and you’ll be able to easily find a variety of options if you want to try out this approach. If you’re worried about irritating your skin, start out slow, and use the product just once a day or a few times a week until your skin becomes accustomed to it.

8. Retinoids

Man treating his skin

Topical retinoids exfoliate dead skin cells and smooth fine lines. |  iStock.com

Oral retinoids (like Accutane and other brands of Isotretinoin) are often treated as a last resort. But topical retinoids have fewer side effects. In fact, many dermatologists start treating acne with prescription-grade topical retinoids, such as tretinoin, adapalene, and tazarotene.

Topical retinoids exfoliate the dead skin cells that can clog pores and lead to acne. Plus, they’re able to smooth fine lines and wrinkles — which means they’re a great choice if you’re dealing with acne and aging at the same time.

9. Salicylic acid

young woman with clear complexion in the bathroom

Salicylic acid is extremely effective at exfoliating skin and imparting an anti-inflammatory effect. | iStock.com

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that’s an extremely effective exfoliant for people with acne or clogged pores. It can actually exfoliate inside the hair follicle. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, which means it may be less irritating than AHAs like glycolic acid. And if you have truly oily or breakout-prone skin, salicylic acid is probably a better bet than an AHA since it can actually penetrate oil glands (which AHAs can’t do).

Fortunately, salicylic acid is a pretty popular ingredient in many off-the-shelf treatments. This means that you’ll have lots of options to choose from, at concentrations ranging from 0.5% to 5%. Salicylic acid is a great option for blackheads and whiteheads, which form thanks to clogged pores.

10. Sulfur

man putting a sulfur treatment on his face

Sulfur is a potent acne treatment that can fight inflammation and reduce oil production. | iStock.com

Sulfur may not be your first choice of acne-fighting ingredients, especially because of its less-than-pleasant smell, but it’s effective at fighting inflammation and decreasing oil production. And it can even help exfoliate dead skin cells.

Sulfur has been used in skin care treatments for centuries. And while “old-fashioned” isn’t typically a quality we prize in our skin care regimens, sulfur is definitely a treatment that has stood the test of time. It’s often available in spot treatments, which means it’s the perfect thing to dot onto a pimple when you’re hanging out at home, chilling with a glass of wine and your favorite Netflix show.

11. Tea tree oil

girl checking her face for pimple in mirror

Tea tree oil is an effective, but natural treatment for acne. | iStock.com

Tea tree oil is the preferred acne treatment of natural-ingredient devotees. It has natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, plus it can even achieve results on par with what you can get with benzoyl peroxide — though it may take longer to give you the same results. Nonetheless, it’s a great option if you want to keep things natural.

12. Vitamin C

young woman applying face cream

Vitamin C may not be at the top of the list when it comes to fighting pimples, but it can reduce redness. | iStock.com/LuminaStock

Though vitamin C may not be on your radar when you’re looking for acne-fighting ingredients, it’s an active ingredient you need to know if you’re hoping to knock out the kind of post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation that inevitably follows a breakout. Vitamin C also counters free radicals, which means that it can help reduce redness. Plus, it promotes the production of collagen and elastin, which help heal existing acne scars and keep new ones from forming.