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?

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 for you.

Understand Your Options

  • Cleansers are self-explanatory. But acne-fighting cleansers differ from typical cleansers in that they contain medications that help stop acne.
  • Toners and astringents are in liquid form. They're applied to acne-affected areas with a cotton ball. Pads (Stridex and the like) are similar, except the liquid solution is "pre-measured" for you on a pledget.
  • Medicated lotions, creams, gels and ointments are leave-on treatments. Since they are on the skin for longer periods of time, these types of treatments are often most effective. But they can be more irritating to the skin as well.

Pick a Form

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

Super-oily skin? Think astringents, pads, foaming cleansers, gels, and lotions.

If your skin tends to be normal to dry, non-foaming cream cleansers, alcohol-free toners, lotions, creams, and (possibly) ointments are good choices.

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 a la carte—pair 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.

  • Benzoyl peroxide is the queen bee of OTC acne treatments. OTC benzoyl peroxide products can work well for mild to moderate acne.
  • Salicylic acid is useful for treating very 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 percent to 2 percent. The most effective products will contain 2 percent 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 percent up to 10 percent. Here stronger isn't always better. A 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide can be just as effective as a 10 percent, but with fewer side effects.

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

Don't Worry About Price

Will that super expensive acne treatment product work better than the drugstore brand? Not necessarily.

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-y brand acne product, go for it.

But if price is a concern, rest assured you can get good results with a generic product from a discount store. Remember, it's all about the active ingredients!

Know When It's Time to Bring in the Big Guns

It would be great if every case of acne could be cleared up easily with a drugstore lotion. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.

Know when it's time to give up on the OTC products. If you aren't seeing results after three or four months, put in a call to your doctor.

Pediatricians and family doctors usually have lots of experience treating acne and can be your first stop. They can treat your acne or refer you on to a dermatologist if needed.

Even if OTC products don't work for you, a prescription medication may be just what you need to get your skin back on track.

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