Oh, hello old friend. Salicylic acid is the go-to fix for pimply preteens. And cruising through the aisles at the drugstore, you’ll find it as the active ingredient on the majority of products labeled “acne wash” or “spot treatment.” Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that works by dissolving excess oil and gently exfoliating away dead skin cells. Salicylic also has anti-inflammatory properties to help with inflamed cystic breakouts that can occur when blockages deep in the hair follicles rupture beneath the skin. It’s best to apply this ingredient as a toner, moisturizer, or leave-on spot treatment instead of a face wash to give it time to do its work. And keep in mind, salicylic acid can dry out the skin if over-applied, so maybe choose only one product with the ingredient to use every day.
Contrary to the marketing promises of “blemish banishers” and “zit zappers,” immediate results are not the trademark of acne treatments — a frustrating truth to anyone suffering through a breakout. And while pimples are personal (your stress-induced spots will look and act differently than your best friend’s breakout), the best acne treatments will include a regimen of products to hit all of acne’s root causes. We tested 43 kits to find the most well-rounded breakout-fighting solutions on the market.
The costs and social impact of acne are substantial. In the United States, acne vulgaris is responsible for more than 5 million doctor visits and costs over US$2.5 billion each year in direct costs. Similarly, acne vulgaris is responsible for 3.5 million doctor visits each year in the United Kingdom. Sales for the top ten leading acne treatment brands in the US in 2015, have been reported as amounting to $352 million.
This article was medically reviewed by Hilary Baldwin, MD. Baldwin, medical director of the Acne Treatment Research Center, is a board-certified dermatologist with nearly 25 years of experience. Her area of expertise and interest are acne, rosacea and keloid scars. Baldwin received her BA and MA in biology from Boston University. She became a research assistant at Harvard University before attending Boston University School of Medicine. She then completed a medical internship at Yale New Haven Hospital before becoming a resident and chief resident in dermatology at New York University Medical Center.
Frequently used topical retinoids include adapalene, isotretinoin, retinol, tazarotene, and tretinoin. They often cause an initial flare-up of acne and facial flushing, and can cause significant skin irritation. Generally speaking, retinoids increase the skin's sensitivity to sunlight and are therefore recommended for use at night. Tretinoin is the least expensive of the topical retinoids and is the most irritating to the skin, whereas adapalene is the least irritating to the skin but costs significantly more. Most formulations of tretinoin cannot be applied at the same time as benzoyl peroxide. Tazarotene is the most effective and expensive topical retinoid, but is not as well-tolerated. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that has similar but milder effects, and is used in many over-the-counter moisturizers and other topical products.
Acne is different for everyone, but there may be some simple solutions to having clear skin. From the foods you eat to the stress in your life and the products you use, it may take a little time to find what works for you, but positive changes can greatly affect your life and the life of your children that may be affected by acne. If using essential oils, make sure to use pure oils and take it slow. Check with your doctor before using anything new.
Acne that’s more inflammatory is denoted as moderate acne. This happens when there are occasional nodules and possibly mild scarring. Severe acne occurs when there are a lot of inflammatory lesions, nodules and possibly scarring. It’s also considered severe if the acne is still present after six months of treatment or if it causes serious psychological issues.
Genetics play a big part in who gets acne and how severely, but each blemish can be blamed on some combination of sebum production, a bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), plugged follicles, and inflammation. Finding a good treatment is really about finding the right combination of ingredients to troubleshoot each of those issues. Some factors that might worsen acne include hormones, certain medications, diet and stress.
Retinoids and retinoid-like drugs. These come as creams, gels and lotions. Retinoid drugs are derived from vitamin A and include tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A, others), adapalene (Differin) and tazarotene (Tazorac, Avage). You apply this medication in the evening, beginning with three times a week, then daily as your skin becomes used to it. It works by preventing plugging of the hair follicles.