The 4 Best Spot Treatments for Acne Available at Drugstores

Look for these active ingredients that fight breakouts

If you have mild to moderate acne, your first line of treatment is an over-the-counter (OTC) spot treatment applied directly to pimples and blemishes. There are several active ingredients found in these products that are able to treat acne in slightly different ways.

Benzoyl peroxide is generally considered the best spot treatment for acne, but there are others that may be just as effective and less likely to cause side effects like redness or peeling. In the end, the "best" spot treatment is the one that works for you.

This article explains how spot treatments for acne work and covers four medications commonly used in drugstore acne creams, gels, and lotions.

Close-up of teenage girl with acne cream on her face, against white background
Supharb Sangkla / EyeEm / Getty Images

How Acne Spot Treatments Work

OTC spot treatments work by delivering acne-fighting agents directly to a blemish.

They only work for minor, surface-level papules (solid, inflamed bumps) and pustules (pus-filled bumps). They won't treat severe blemishes like acne nodules or acne cysts, which form deeper within the skin where the spot treatments can't reach.

Spot treatments can help:

  • Reduce the redness, swelling, and pain of inflamed pimples
  • Loosen or dissolve blockages within pores that create blemishes in the first place
  • Treat acne in a targeted way, protecting unblemished skin from the side effects of some of these treatments (e.g., drying and redness)

Some spot treatments are left on overnight; others dry clear so that you can wear them throughout the day. Others still are tinted to help camouflage red, inflamed pimples.

OTC spot treatments are typically dabbed on a pimple once or twice daily. To ensure the best results, always follow the manufacturer's instructions on the product label.

There are many different acne spot treatments available, ranging from bargain drugstore finds to expensive "prestige" brands. It really doesn’t matter which you choose as long as it contains one of the four proven acne-fighting active ingredients: benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, sulfur, or adapalene.

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is the most effective OTC acne treatment around. It helps treat acne in three ways:

  • It is sebostatic, meaning that it reduces the production of an oily skin substance called sebum that contributes to pore blockage.
  • It is comedolytic, meaning that it prevents or reduces the formation of comedones like blackheads or whiteheads.
  • It is antimicrobial, able to inhibit the growth of Cutibacterium acnes, the main bacteria associated with acne.

Even so, benzoyl peroxide can cause side effects, particularly in people with sensitive skin. These include:

Benzoyl peroxide effects tend to be dose-dependent. To be safe, start by applying just a little dab once a day, gradually increasing to twice a day if your skin can tolerate it.

Benzoyl peroxide can also bleach fabrics, so take care when applying the lotion or cream around colored towels, sheets, or clothing.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a type of acid that works best on open comedones (blackheads), closed comedones (whiteheads), and mild acne. It functions as an exfoliant, meaning that it helps clear dead skin cells from the surface of the skin that contribute to pore blockage. It can also help dry pimples.

Depending on the formulation and the concentration of salicylic acid (ranging from 0.5% to 3.0%), you may need to apply the spot remedy one to three times daily. As with benzoyl peroxide, it is best to start slowly and increase gradually as tolerated.

Side effects of salicylic acid include:

  • Skin tingling or stinging
  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Peeling

Sulfur

Sulfur is another ingredient that works best on mild acne, blackheads, and whiteheads. It fights acne by creating a hostile environment for Cutibacterium acnes and other bacteria associated with acne.

Its antimicrobial effects, while robust, are not as effective for moderate to severe forms of inflammatory acne.

Sulfur tends to be gentler on the skin and may be the ideal choice for people with sensitive skin. You can usually apply a sulfur-based spot treatment two to three times daily.

Although they are gentler, sulfur-based spot treatments can cause side effects like:

  • Skin dryness
  • Irritation

Differin (Adapalene)

Adapalene is the active ingredient of the brand name acne product called Differin. Differin is the only topical retinoid acne treatment available over the counter.

Like other topical retinoids, adapalene works by causing surface skin cells to turn over and die rapidly, making way for new skin cell growth. By doing so, pores are less likely to become blocked by dead skin cell debris.

Differin comes in a gel formulation and contains 0.3% adapalene. It is approved for use in people over 12 years of age and is applied once daily before bedtime.

Side effects of adapalene tend to be mild and may include:

  • Skin redness
  • Burning and irritation
  • Drying
  • Itching
  • Photosensitivity (meaning your skin can turn red when exposed to the sun)

Common Acne Spot Treatment Mistakes

Spot treatments can be a helpful addition to your acne treatment routine. But you may be using them incorrectly and not even know it.

Here are three common mistakes that people make when using OTC acne spot treatments:

  • Overdosing: Using any spot treatment product too often will dry out the skin and can cause irritation, redness, and peeling.
  • Combining treatments: You may think that hitting acne with more than one OTC remedy will improve the results, but all it may do is increase the risk or severity of side effects.
  • Irregular use: Medications like salicylic acid and adapalene take time for their exfoliating effects to work. To get the best results, you need to use OTC spot treatments daily and as directed.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

OTC spot treatments are most useful for occasional, localized outbreaks. If you have frequent, widespread, or severe outbreaks, these products may not only underperform but increase skin redness and irritation.

If OTC treatments aren’t doing enough to keep you acne-free, it may be time to see a skin specialist known as a dermatologist who can prescribe topical and oral treatments to better resolve hard-to-treat acne.

Generally speaking, it is time to see a dermatologist when:

  • You have been treating acne for 10 weeks with OTC treatments but have not been able to control outbreaks.
  • You have severe acne, including cystic acne or nodular acne.
  • OTC remedies are causing severe irritation, pain, or peeling.

Depending on the type and severity of acne you have, your dermatologist may recommend effective prescription treatments like BenzaClin, Retin-A, or isotretinoin.

Summary

There are numerous over-the-counter (OTC) spot treatments available to help clear or prevent acne. These are applied daily and are best suited to treat blackheads, whiteheads, and mild acne.

OTC spot treatments typically contain one of four active ingredients: benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, sulfur, or adapalene. These products work best when used consistently and as prescribed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the best spot treatment you can get at the drugstore?

    Studies suggest that 2.5% benzoyl peroxide gel (found in brand-name products like Paula's Choice, Essential Derm, and others) is effective in clearing mild acne, but with less skin irritation than some lower-dose topical creams. But what is "best" differs from person to person.

  • Can you prevent acne?

    Not always, but there are ways to reduce the risk or severity of acne even if you are prone to outbreak. Amongst them:

    • Gently wash your face up to twice daily and after sweating.
    • Apply a lightweight, oil-free moisturizer after cleansing.
    • Use make-up sparingly to avoid clogged pores.
    • Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
    • Keep your hands off your face to avoid bacterial contamination.


8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to treat different types of acne.

  2. KidsHealth from Nemours. Acne.

  3. Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter acne treatments: A review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012;5(5):32-40. 

  4. Hauk L. Acne vulgaris: Treatment guidelines from the AAD. Am Fam Physician. 2017;95(11):740-741.

  5. Merck Manual Professional Version. Acne vulgaris.

  6. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. FDA approves Differin Gel 0.1% for over-the-counter use to treat acne.

  7. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health. Acne.

  8. Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter acne treatments: a review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012 May;5(5):32–40.

Additional Reading

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.