Whether you are 15, 25, 35, or older, acne can be a (literal) pain in your butt (and face, and back, and chest…) that makes you look bad and feel even worse.
Chances are that you have been looking for a solution or an effective acne treatment for quite some time, but just haven’t been able to get one.
Well then – you may have just found the right corner of the Internet.
As beauty addicst at myawesomebeauty.com, we have been testing a bunch of products to find the best acne treatment that could help us and you get rid of your acne.
Below, you will find some of our top choices for over the counter acne treatments today with a detailed review for each one of them! And further below a super detailed guide about what to check to choose the perfect fit.
What is the Best Acne Treatment ?
Out of 10 brands, here are our Top 3 acne treatments that we tested for about 4 weeks in order to check if they are worth it.
Check below the comparison table that will help you narrow your choices and decide which one is the best OTC acne treatment for you.
- Skin types
- Main acne actives
- Formulation quality
- Average kit Price
- Money's worth
- Side effects
- Money back guarantee
- Combination skins
- $78 (no autoship)
no autoshipment option
1 kit of 4 products:
- cleanser 180ml
- toner 120ml
- serum/gel 60ml
- 60 days
- The safest and most natural approach with no irritation issues and no skin rebounding issues from peroxyde benzoyle
- Oily skins
- $69 (no autoship)
$59 (with autoship)
1 kit of 6 products:
- cleanser 120ml
- toner 120ml
- serum/gel 50ml
with another serum and a cloth
- Irritation / Dryness
- 1 full year
- The most cost effective acne treatment for more severe acne cases and impressive full year money back guarantee.
- PROACTIV plus
- Oily skins
- $59 (no autoship)
$39 (with autoship)
1 kit of 3 products:
- cleanser 60ml
- toner not included 30ml
- serum/gel 30ml
sizes of products are way smaller
- Irritation / Dryness
- 60 days
- The most marketed acne treatment with many celebrities "hired" to endorse the products
- oily skins
- $64.95 (no autoship)
No autoshipment option
1 kit of 3 products:
- cleanser 170ml
- NO toner
- NO serum/gel
- moisturizer 118ml
with supplement 30 days
- Dryness, new breakouts
- 90 days
- To avoid, not a complete treatment, it is not effective and too drying with alcohol.
- oily skins
- $40 (no autoship)
No autoshipment option
1 kit of 2 products:
- NO cleanser
- NO toner
- NO serum/gel
- moisturizer 118ml
with supplement 30 days
- Irritation, dryness
- To avoid as no cleanser, no serum.. too basic to be effective
If you have sensitive skin: we recommend you to pick Zenmed
If you have a more severe acne issue: we recommend you to try Exposed skincare
The forms of acne
The best way to know how to treat your acne is to first learn a little bit about it in the first place – it’s always good to know your enemies, right?
Knowing about what type of acne you have will allow you to pick battle times, locations, and even your weapons.
So what type is plaguing you?
These are the acne symptoms that we see most often, but instead of comedones, we call them whiteheads and blackheads.
Comedones usually occur when the natural oil (sebum) produced by the skin or more precisely by the oil glands, combines with dead skin cells to form those plugs in the pores.
- When the plug is deeper beneath the skin in the pore that is closed, you will call it a whitehead
- When the same plug is near the surface of the skin in the pore that is open, it is exposed to air and oxidises: it becomes brown – black and you are the “happy” owner of a blackhead 😉
This is not often seen, but for those who have it, it is not quickly forgotten. Usually this type of acne affects people who have severe cases. You will see that they have red, scaly skin, typically on their faces. That usually requires you to consult a dermatologist.
Pimples are the old standby when it comes to skin for any age. Pimples form when your dead skin is stuck together by the sebum produced in your skin. This is the same cause as comedones. This can then go on to block your pores and allow sebum to build up. This matter can’t escape once a pore is clogged, so then inflammation and a pimple forms. This is the blockage that comes out when a pimple forms. In a nutshell, pimples are the inflammed stage of comedones.
You also got many terms that describe more or less the same issues: papules, pustules, nodules etc… They are all pretty annoying and are mainly due to the big 4 below.
The BIG 4
Those pesky forms of acne share more or less the same causes such as :
- Too many dead skin cells in the problem areas that tend to prevent clog your pores
- Too much sebum or natural oil produced which can lead to comedones and pimples
- Acne bacteria proliferation
So anything that will improve those issues will help heal acne quicker.
The 8 criteria to choose the best acne treatment for you
Here are 8 criteria that you need to know in order to compare the different skincare brands of acne treatment and choose the right fit for you.
Total or partial shine
It is pretty common sense, but in order to pick the right products for you, you obviously need to know first your skin type because that alone will be a key point to keep in mind when checking some other criteria below.
Acne prone skins usually are either oily or a combination of oily and dry. (It is rare to have very dry skin and acne at the same time)
What is it?
You have a shiny complexion with large pores, blackheads and whiteheads. In this type of skin, you are the lucky owner of overactive sebaceous glands all over the face that produce more oil (called sebum) than needed, which leads to the greasy look.
Who are concerned?
Oily skin is usually the skin type that is associated with the teenage years due to the hormonal shifts. It can also appear during periods, pregnancy and menopause, which are also associated with hormonal shifts.
What to do?
When you have oily skin, the most important step /product is by far the cleansing part, because you need to prevent your pores from being clogged by the excessive oil production.
You need to clean your face with well-formulated products that will clean but not strip your skin of all oils, that means you need to make sure you don’t use any cleansers or lotions with alcohol.
Using alcohol-based product may give you some short-term benefit but will eventually lead to a reaction called reactive seborrhoea.
It basically means that everytime you use harsh products (soaps or alcohol based products) to get rid of your skin oil, you make your oil glands work even more to compensate for the loss of natural oils. It is like a catch 22 situation. The key word here is balance.
So, stick with mild cleansers that will gently clean your face while still being gentle enough to prevent any more oil production. (and don’t wash your face too frequently, twice a day is perfectly fine. Overdoing it will stimulate your skin to produce more oil)
The other important weapon to deal with that oil overproduction is to use facial mask (usually made of clay, mud etc), it will gently help absorb the oil excess without being too harsh for the skin. You won’t have to apply a mask every day. It will mostly depend on your oiliness level, but as a rule of thumb, clarifying maks are to be done once or twice a week.
After cleansing, apply a light serum and a natural oil-free moisturizer to keep the skin supple and help maintain a shine free complexion.
What is it?
Well it is pretty simple. You have combination skin when you have two or more different skin types on your face at the same time. The most typical case is the center part of you face, the famous T zone with forehead, nose, and chin, being oily and the other parts (cheeks) being dry or flaky.
In a nutshell, this skin type occurs when the oil glands located in the center part of your face (forehead, nose chin) are too active and producing too much oil, while those glands are way lazier than normal in the cheeks.
Who are concerned?
While oily skin is typically associated with the teenage years, we could say combination skin is usually the next stage of oily skin as time passes by. So this skin type is often associated with early twenties to mid thirties. (Of course those are only trends)
Remember that oil production is also more important whith heat and humidty, that is why your T zone usually becomes even more oily during summer while your cheeks become normal, so the cheeks dryness goes away during summer.
What to do?
Well basically all that was said for the oily skin type does applly to the T zone from the cleaning to the light moisturizer.
But because you have combincation skin it also means that you may have to use different products on different parts of your face or simply that you may have to avoid using some products on certain parts of your face.
Ok what do we mean?
- It is simple, you may need lighter gels, or oil absorbing products for your T zone and lotions or creams for the dry parts of your face.
- If you have an exfoliating serum to unclog pores, you will use it on your T zone, but probably not on your cheeks.
The key word is still: balance
You use richer, more emollient products for the dry areas and ligther or oil control products for the T zone. That is like bringing every player to the middle zone, which is the normal skin type.
Some of our reviewers who has very oily t zone, simply used a serum on the T zone and used the lotion on the cheeks.
As for most cases, listen to your skin and don’t be afraid to experiment to find the perfect routine for your skin.
All the brands in our Top 3 don’t use any alcohol in their products but depending on your skin type, some brands are more suited than others.
- Zenmed: have a specific kit for oily skin and a specific kit for combination skin
- Exposed: propose 3 differents kits for both oily skin and combination skin, you will simply need to adapt the use of some products depending on your skin type
- Proactiv plus: in our opinion, should only be used by oily skin.
The right main acne active ingredients
Next thing you must check when finding a good acne product is making sure they contain the right active ingredients. Any effective acne treatment must include one or both of the main following actives:
First, you have benzoyle peroxide which is the first treatment available over the counter.
It works basically by bringing oxygen to your skin and the oxygen kills the P. bacteria acnes that is responsible for acne. It is called Proprioni Bacterium acnes.
This bacterium lives in an environment without oxygen (the scientific term is anaerobic), it means an environment that doesn’t allow oxygen.
So, if you add oxygen to the skin, it kills the bacteria.
It also works by getting rid of the dead skin cells and those dead skin cells help those bacteria live. So if you desquamate the dead skin cells, and get them off the surface that improves your acne because it prevents your pores from clogging.
You will usually hear dermatologists or skin experts say: Benzoyl peroxide has anti-bacterial and keratolytic properties (keratolytic: it removes the outer layer of skin, the dead part)
However, keep in mind that this active can be very irritating and drying. It can also cause peeling and dryness. You will hear many people complaining about the annoying side effects of such acne treatments.
It may even bleach towels, sheets and clothing that come into contact with it. So you’d better make sure you apply the benzoyl peroxyde after pulling your favorite black t-shirt….
There may be even some patient being allergic to benzoyl peroxide, who will turn bright red with swelling within minutes of application. So be careful.
With all these drawbacks, one active is often used as an effective substitute for benzoyl peroxide: salicylic acid.
The beta hydroxy acid: salicylic acid
The other main active that is typically used for acne treatement is the famous salicylic acid.
It is a beta–hydroxy acid (different from alpha hydroxy acids), which is extracted from willow bark. So when checking the ingredient list, check either salicylic acid or willow bark extract.
It has more or less the same properties as benzoyle peroxide.
It is bacteriostatic, which means it limits the growth of bacteria by preventing bacterial protein production and other aspects of bacterial cellular metabolism.
It also works by exfoliating and getting rid of dead skin cells on the surface, so it makes your skin much smoother and helps with unclogging the pores. This will indeed help open pores but will also increase cell turnover. You skin grows faster, will renew faster and help remove acne scars, acne lesions and discoloration from the skin.
So which is the best ingredient to help with acne – benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid ?
Well, both are pretty effective and some brands either use either one or both in their acne treatment skincare but with the results we got from our testing, if we were to choose one, we would definitely pick salicilyc acid.
- Salicylic acid is definitely less irritating and won’t bleach your clothes. (Ok, I would fefinitely freak out if my favorites clothes had bleaching stains :))
- Salicylic acid is related to aspirin, its chemical cousin (acetyl salicylic acid). So like aspirin, it can really reduce inflammation and redness, which is often associated with acne and really improve the overal “look” of your skin
- It also has nice antiaging properties such as increasing skin cell turnover, reducing fine lines and fading dark spots.
Ok so these 2 are the main actives that are used in OTC acne treatment, there will be other actives that might be conbined to get additional properties (we will talk about them in the following paragraphs)
So to help you pick the right treatment:
- If you happen to have sensible skin: avoid benzoyle peroxide, picking salicylic acid is the route to go to get results safely
- If you have tough skin that you think can handle a more aggressive approach: you would probably look for a treatement that uses benzoyle peroxide or both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.
Other secondary acne actives
Besides those 2 main acne fighters that probably stand for 90% of the acne market, there are other actives that are also often included to help treat acne:
- Alpha hydroxyacids (glycolic acid, multifruits acids): help with exfoliation and unplugging oil glands (but less effective than salicylic acid)
- Tea tree oil, thyme: natural antibacterial properties (good alternatives to topical antibiotics)
- Peppermint, rose extract: oil regulating properties
- Witch hazel: astringent, regulates oil production to get shine free complexion
- Sulfur: helps reduce skin oiliness (usually included in facial mask with clay)
- Clay: natutral mineral that absorbs excess oil and helps to draw out pore clogging impurities.
- Antibiotics and vitamin A acid (retin A, tretinoin, or retinoic acid) are mainly reserved to prescription products for severe acne.
Percentage of the main active ingredients
Ok, you have made sure the acne treatment you intend to use has the relevant active ingredients but that is far from being enough. You also need to check their percentage in the formulation.
- If the percentage is too low, then don’t bother buying or using it as it won’t really help. The only thing it will do? Waste your time and money.
- If the percentage is too high, then you ‘d better be sure about what you are doing as you can seriously damage your skin. At high concentrations, you can absolutely overdry, irritate and get some flaking and some “burning” sensations on the skin. Usually high percentage is restricted to very specific and serious cases that need to be monitored by dermatologists.
Most benzoyl peroxide acne treatments offer a concentration ranging from 2.5% to 10%.
If you are just like me, your first idea would have been to pick the highest concentration because you would think it is more effective.
Many generations of acne sufferers have used benzoyle peroxide treatment and what we know now is that lower concentration of benzoyl peroxide are siply as effective as higher concentrations.
Simply because once you killed the bacteria, whether you increase the dose or not, it won’t change a thing. Yet, by increasing the dosage, you cause more skin irritation and that can slow down your skin healing process.
So you will often hear that 2.5% is as effective as 10%. We certainly think it is almost true, to be more precise, we would inlude a wider range, 2.5 – 4% is as effective as 10%
So what percentage to look for?
Stick with concentration between 2.5% to 4%. (Benzoyl peroxide)
From our experience, that is more than enough for most people, as you will get really noticeable ressults without too much skin irritation issues.
We have more or less the same rule (more is not necessarily better) as for benzoyle peroxide, with a slight difference: Salicylic acid is much more gentle while being pretty much as effective.
Most over the counter salicylic acid products are availble in strengths ranging from 0.5% to 3 %.
Even if you use a product with a higher concentration, the side effects won’t be as bothersome as for benzoyle peroxide.
What percentage to look for?
Stick with concentrations between 0.5% – 1% (salicylic acid)
That is definitely enough to get results. No need to buy too concentrated products as the more active, the more expensive it is. With those concentrations, you are good to go.
Avoid those ingredients
What we don’t like about some brands is the fact that a lot of them don’t seem to put enough thinking into their formulation.
You end up with products that contain ingredients that should be avoided simply because it either can clog pores or can worsen your acne.
So what should you pay attention to?
1)Make sure the acne products don’t contain too many ingredients that can clog pores such as mineral oil (paraffine), silicones that kinda seal off the skin, which prevents the acne actives from penetrating the pores.
That also can lead to more breakouts. But of course, nothing is white or black.
Those cosmetic ingredients can be pretty useful for dry skin who need to lock in mositure for instance, but for acne prone skins, you ‘d better avoid them. Even if you find some in your current products, don’t throw them away, simply check if they are listed at the top or the bottom of the ingredient list.
If it is among the first ingredients, that is not good. If it is more in the middle or at the end, this is fine.
As a reminder, the cosmetic ingredients are listed in descending order.
Why do brands use them?
There are many reasons possible but the main reason is that those ingredients give the product a smooth and pleasant feel or touch, which is a pretty important criterion for some of us when choosing our cream.
As we told you, as long as the amount of those ingredients is low, it is fine.
That becomes an issue when brands use too much of them.
The other possible reason behind their use is a more unethical one. Our cosmetic formulator friend told us some brands do use those oils, and silicones to “slightly” decrease the efficacy of their acne products so its slows down the healing process and you end up buying more products.
It is like optimising the amount of money they can get from each customer.
Why would they make a product that would help your get rid of your acne in 2-3 months when they can do it in 4-6 months…. ? Yeah, I know it is borderline but in this beauty industry, there are lots of uglyness in the backstage. That’s why if you see mineral oil or paraffine, or silicone listed as the first or second ingredient: run….
2) Avoid by any means alcohol in your acne product. It is often used in many acne products. And each time I see that, it makes me cringe.. yeah sorry.
Why do brands use them?
For 2 main reasons, it enables a formulator to give a thick and heavy skincare product a lighter and more pleasant feel (yeah I know again – cosmetics, that is a lot about sensory feel).
The other reason is that alcohol almost instantly degreases skin, which gives a nice feeling to people with oily skin.
But the thing is, alcohol can damage your skin in the long run. The instant gratification comes with a price to pay. Your skin will produce even more oil to compensate this degreasing effect. The other thing is that combined with benzoyle peroxyde or salicylic acid, alcohol wil even increase irritation and dryness. You skin is absolutely lost.
So an acne product with alcohol in it is the best way to mess up your skin.
Additional actives to compensate the side effects
You know by now that the main ingredients in acne treatments can be very drying and irritating.
So good acne skin care lines will definitely also include well chosen ingredients that will compensate and prevent those issues or at least add what it takes to decrease the risk of drying.
What does it mean?
Make sure the products include cosmetic ingredients that have soothing and moisturising properties such as:
- Aloe vera
- Vitamin B5 (panthenol)
- Passion flower extract
- And a lot of other actives
A good product will combine different actives that will work as a team to better reach your ultimate goal: get rid of acne and get back clear skin without damaging your skin in the process.
If you already have bought some acne products, and you find that they are too drying, you still have some tips to try.
- An easy way is to add some aloe vera gel to your acne product (mix a small amount of aloe vera gel to a small amount of your acne treatment product. To make sure you don’t reduce the effectiveness of your product, the amount of aloe vera should be twice or 3 times as low as the amount of acne product, for example: mix 1ml of aloe vera gel with 2 or 3 ml of acne product)
- If you don’t feel comfortable with the DIY mixing tip, simply scale back use to every other day, so you let your skin have some time to get used to it.
Be faithful and don’t mess around
What am I talking about?
What do I mean?
Well, each brand has its own acne skincare line and within each line, you have products that have been formulated on purpose to work together.
Some are stronger with higher concentrations of the active acne fighting ingredients and others are meant to soothe, reduce skin irritation and dryness by containing more hydrating and moisturizing actives.
In most cases, we are the first to recommend you not to stick with one brand but to mix different products, by combining the best ones for your own routine such as the cleanser of brand A, the toner of brand B etc, the moisturiser of brand C (a bit like what we do in fashion)
But here, when it comes to this annoying acne, we prefer to keep things simple and stick with one line.
If you don’t, then you might end up with too much of the active ingredients and definitely get dryness and irritation issues, which would slow down your healing process and make your acne battle journey even longer….
If you really want to add products from other lines, just make sure they don’t contain any irritant actives and that they will not increase your skin sensitivity.
Check what guarantee you get
If you follow the previous checkpoints, you will probably pick some solid acne products that should really be effective without damaging your skin.
Yet, let’s remind you that we all have different skin, so even if the products should do wonders for your skin, your results may be different from those of our reviewers.
That is why it is important to pick brands that offer reliable money back guarantee. Notice the word RELIABLE.
Among the brands we tested, we found that some of them were not really playing the fair game, they were either ignoring refund related emails or simply made it very difficult to get the details on how to get the money back, so you know you don’t want to buy from them. Each time we came across such brands, we simply removed them from our final list.
Also make sure you have enough time to test the products, you can still find brands that offer a 15-day guarantee, which is a joke. You can’t possibly test an acne product in such a short timeframe.
The 3 acne treatments brands that got the highest ranks, all offer a nice money back guarantee with at least 60 days. (Exposed brand kind of surprised us with their solid one-year guarantee.)
|Money Back Guarantee
|1 Full Year
|Proactiv plus skincare
Price : 2 tricks to avoid
Ok let’s talk a little about the price part and help you avoid the marketing tricks that some brands can use to make their offer look better on the paper.
When checking the prices, you definitely need to check the real sizes of the products you buy and if the given prices imply autoshipment…
In other words, you need to dig a little deeper to properly compare products and be critical.
Autoshipment: Usually keep in mind you will get better deals when you select the autoshipment option.Most people don’t like them because they prefer to choose when and what to renew. It is like being told what to do. Ok am exagerrating a little bit haha. If you do pick this option, keep in mind to cancel it if you no longer want to use them. Many people forget to do it and waste a month worth of product.
Sizes: this is by far one of the most important criteria you should check, as you obviously cannot compare the price of a 30ml product with a 180 ml product. Some websites don’t indicate clearly the sizes of the products they sell, which is pretty annoying and borderline in my opinion. That is something that I don’t like about proactiv plus, I had to request those details to get them. Other brands clearly show them on their website.
You also need to check what is included in the kit.
So let’s compare the prices of our top 3 brands
Zenmed: (proposes 2 kits: one for combination skin, and one for oily skin)
$78 with a kit of 4 products (no autoship option available)
- The cleanser size is 180 ml,
- The toner size is 120 ml,
- The moisturizer size is 70 ml
- The serum/gel is 60 ml
This kit will last about 2 months.
Exposed: (proposes a 3 product kit, a 6 product kit or a 9 product kit)
$69 with a kit of 6 products (without autoship) / (with autoship called membership: $59)
- The cleanser size is 120 ml,
- The toner size is 120 ml
- The moisturizer size is 50 ml
- The serum/gel is 50 ml
- With another serum and a cloth
This kit will last about 1.5 months to 2 months
Proactiv plus: (proposes a 30 day or 90 day kit) (they also propose the old proactiv version which is even more drying)
$59 with a kit of 3 products without autoship (with autoship, it is $39) BUT
- The cleanser size is 2fl oz, 60 ml (zenmed: 180ml, Exposed: 120ml)
- The toner is not included (unless you pick autoship) size is 30ml (zenmed and Exposed: 120ml)
- The mosturiser size is 30ml (zenmed: 70 ml / Exposed: 50ml)
- The serum/ gel size is 30 ml (zenmed: 60 ml / exposed 50 ml)
This kit will last 3 weeks to one month.
If we had not listed and compared product by prodyct, we would have thought proactiv is the cheapest one.
In fact Exposed is the cheapest, then Zenmed is second and Proactiv is third…
Proactiv plus is not as cost effective as the other two for one simple reason: marketing. Proactiv uses many celebrities to endorse their products and this comes with a price: you need to pay those VIPs for using their image.
We also got better results and better formulations with the other 2, that is why proactiv is 3rd in our final list.
Of course, each year, we will update our results and comparison chart with any new information from any of the brands or new brands with awesome products.
Our Final Note
You should know by now what you want to look for to get rid of your acne without being tricked or ending up with a scam.
If you go into your local beauty store or big box superstore, simply use our checklist to make sure you have a solid product. The process might be overwhelming; it will take some time but is really worth it.
However, we wish every case of acne could be treated with over the counter products. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, especially with severe acne.
If you are not seeing any results after 3 or 4 months, then we definitely recommend you to consult a dermatologist. He or she will probably need to bring out the big guns at least to get back your skin on track before maintaining it with milder products.
As usual, we would love to hear about you; feel free to keep us posted about your journey and your awesome results.
Further Reading you might like: