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What Are Over-The-Counter Acne Treatments?

Dr. Nancy Shannon

Medically reviewed by Dr. Nancy Shannon, MD, PhD on June 9, 2021

For the vast majority of people who experience acne, over-the-counter treatments will be the ideal route for clearing up your skin. While natural and at-home remedies are great for relieving minor breakouts and improving your skin’s health, they might not always be fully effective against more serious instances of acne. On the other hand, some prescription acne treatments are intended for particularly severe cases of acne and aren’t entirely necessary for milder breakouts. 

Over-the-counter treatments occupy a happy middle space between the two, making effective solutions for your acne affordable and easily accessible. Even so, the sheer abundance of over-the-counter treatments available can make it difficult to know which ones will work best for you. While everyone’s skin is different, here are the ones that tend to be most effective. Note:  These treatments can be used in combination and are designed for use across an entire region that is acne-prone rather than as spot treatments. 

  1. Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is the leading antibacterial treatment for acne. When the skin’s pores become clogged, the bacteria contained within the clogged pores begins to feed on the excess oil being produced and flourishes, leading to the inflammatory papules that characterize breakouts. Benzoyl peroxide works by flooding the pores with oxygen, creating an environment in which acne bacteria cannot survive. 

Benzoyl peroxide also encourages high rates of skin cell turnover, making it less likely that dead skin cells will collect and clog your pores in the future. Whether it’s used as a cleanser, lotion, or spot treatment, benzoyl peroxide maintains high levels of efficacy in fighting acne. 

  1. Salicylic Acid

Whereas benzoyl peroxide is highly effective at combating inflammatory acne, salicylic acid works best against non-inflammatory types such as whiteheads or blackheads, which represent clogged pores. While it does maintain anti-inflammatory properties and is effective against pustules, salicylic acid’s defining trait is its ability to unclog pores by exfoliating dead skin cells. 

Salicylic acid is oil-soluble, which means that it can penetrate quite deeply into the skin in order to remove pore blockages. This also means that overuse of the formula may remove too much oil from the skin, causing dryness and irritation. Be sure to start with low-percentage salicylic acid products before using ones with increased potency. 

  1. Adapalene 

Adapalene, commonly known by the brand name Differin, is a topical retinoid that can help alleviate acne over the long term. Retinoids are compounds that are very commonly prescribed to treat acne, but adapalene is one of the first and most popular retinoids to be available over the counter. Adapalene encourages the quick turnover of skin cells which prevent pores from getting clogged and can also reduce inflammation. Studies have shown that adapalene can clear up breakouts more quickly and with less irritation than other common acne products. Because its primary purpose is to prevent pores from clogging, adapalene is best used as a regular topical treatment to lessen the impact of typical acne breakouts.

  1. Sulfur 

Sulfur — yes, that sulfur — is highly effective at soaking up any excess oil that pools on your skin. This oil, known as sebum, can contribute to clogged pores and is also the favorite food of acne-causing bacteria. By removing this oil directly from the skin, sulfur significantly reduces the impact that it has on acne development. 

Sulfur is also antibacterial (like benzoyl peroxide) and can help exfoliate the top layers of the skin (like salicylic acid and adapalene). Unlike salicylic acid, sulfur will generally not cause the skin to become excessively dry among those who already have dry skin. While some irritation is possible, even those with sensitive skin are unlikely to be irritated by topical sulfur products. And don’t worry: most sulfur-containing acne products don’t actually contain enough of the element to smell like rotten eggs. 

  1. Sunscreen 

It may sound strange, but skin-protecting sunscreen is a crucial weapon in the fight against acne. Sunburn damages the skin and the irritation that comes along with it can prime your skin for acne breakouts. Applying a thin layer of noncomedogenic sunscreen (SPF 30+) before you go out every day will ensure that your skin stays protected from harmful UV rays. 

It’s not easy sorting through all of the treatment options at your disposal. If you’re feeling a bit lost, reach out to a member of our medical team today to learn more about what the right treatments for you might be.

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