How to Choose an OTC Acne Treatment Product

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There are more over-the-counter (OTC) acne treatment products on the market now than at any other time in history. This is good news if you have acne, but leads to the question: How do you choose one?

Understand Your Options

It's normal to feel confused when trying to wade through the ever-growing mountain of acne products. But you can learn how to narrow your choices and pick the most effective OTC acne treatment product based on your needs and skin type.

  • Cleansers: Unlike typical cleansers, acne-specific cleansers contain medications that help stop acne.
  • Toners and astringents: These are applied to acne-affected areas with a cotton ball. Pads, like Stridex, are similar, except the liquid solution is "pre-measured" for you on a pledget.
  • Medicated lotions, creams, gels, and ointments: Considered leave-on treatments, these remain on your skin for longer periods of time and are typically the most effective forms of acne treatments. That said, they can be more irritating to the skin as well.

Pick a Form

The type of product you need depends on your skin type.

  • Oily skin: astringents, pads, foaming cleansers, gels, and lotions
  • Normal to dry skin: non-foaming cream cleansers, alcohol-free toners, lotions, creams, and (possibly) ointments

You don't have to stick with just one treatment product. Using several products can be more effective (provided your skin can handle it, of course).

Create your own three-step treatment routine à la carte—like a medicated cleanser, astringent, and leave-on acne treatment. Pick products with different active ingredients for even better results.

Check the Active Ingredients

Narrow down your choices by taking a look at the active ingredients. The most effective OTC acne treatment products will contain benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. The former tackles mild to moderate acne, while the latter treats mild breakouts and blackheads. When used together, these ingredients deliver an effective "one-two punch."

Other helpful additions to look for on ingredient labels include:

Choose a Strength

To make matters more confusing, the active ingredients in OTC acne treatments come in different strengths.

Salicylic acid comes in strengths from 0.5 to 2%. The most effective products will contain 2% salicylic acid. Lower concentrations are good for those whose skin is easily irritated but won't be as effective.

Benzoyl peroxide comes in strengths from 2.5 up to 10%. But stronger isn't always better. A 2.5% benzoyl peroxide can be just as effective as a 10% version, but with fewer of the side effects, which include mild dryness, erythema, and scaling.

Start with a 2.5% strength product first. You may see improvements in your skin. If not, try a slightly stronger strength and slowly work your way up, if needed.

Don't Worry About Price

How effective an acne treatment is has less to do with cost than it does the ingredients. If you really love the smell and feel of a boutique brand acne product, it might be worth trying.

But if price is a concern, rest assured you can get effective results with a generic product from a discount store. Ultimately it comes down to the active ingredients.

When to See a Doctor For Your Acne

If you aren't seeing results after three or four months of using your OTC product, contact your doctor. Many pediatricians and family doctors have experience treating acne and can be your first stop. They can treat your acne or refer you on to a dermatologist if needed. A medical professional can offer a prescription medication to get your skin back on track.

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Article Sources

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

  2. Matin T, Goodman MB. Benzoyl peroxide. StatPearls Publishing; 2019.