Over-the-Counter Treatments for Acne

Acne is characterized by the presence of pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads on the skin. It usually affects the face, neck, chest, back, and/or upper arms of sufferers. Acne varies in development from very mild to extremely severe.

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Over-The-Counter Acne Treatments for Mild Acne

Mild acne can be treated at home with over-the-counter acne treatment products. If possible, it's best to begin treatment during this stage. Mild acne means you'll see blackheads, whiteheads, or milia. You may also have some papules and pustules, but they won't be too serious. Mild acne can be greatly improved when you start using the right OTC treatments. Here are a few options for treating mild acne.

Benzoyl Peroxide

One of the most common acne treatments available, benzoyl peroxide is found in cleansers, lotions, and creams. It works by killing Propionibacteria acnes, the bacteria responsible for acne breakouts. Benzoyl peroxide also helps unclog pores and reduces inflammation of the skin. Benzoyl peroxide is sold over the counter in strengths from 2.5% to 10%.

Some common over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide products include: Proactiv, Benzaderm Gel, Neutrogena, Panoxyl, and various generic or store brand benzoyl peroxide creams

Sulfur and Resorcinol

Sulfur and resorcinol are usually found together in acne products. Resorcinol helps prevent comedones by removing the buildup of dead skin cells. Sulfur has been used for more than half a century to treat acne, although exactly how it works is still unclear. Together, these ingredients also reduce excess oil. Resorcinol and sulfur are typically used in strengths of 2% and 5%-8%, respectively.

Some common acne treatment products containing resorcinol and sulfur are Clearasil Medicated Blemish Cream, Clearasil Medicated Blemish Stick, and Rezamid Lotion.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid works by correcting the abnormal shedding of skin cells, helping the skin to shed dead cells more effectively. In this way, salicylic acid helps reduce the number of pore blockages, preventing breakouts. Salicylic acid works especially well for those with blackheads and whiteheads. It is found in over-the-counter cleansers, lotions, and treatment pads. The usual strength is .5 to 2%.

Products containing salicylic acid include Oxy products, Neutrogena, Anti-Acne Gel, Noxzema Anti-Acne Pads, Stridex pads, and Dermalogica Medicated Clearing Gel

Alcohol and Acetone

Alcohol and acetone are also used in combination with many products for oily skin types. Alcohol is antimicrobial and may work to reduce acne-causing bacteria. Acetone removes excess oil from the skin. Together they help cleanse excess oil from the skin, reducing the amount of pore blockages. Alcohol and acetone are found mainly in toners, astringents, and cleansers.

Other OTC treatments include Differin (adapalene), a retinoid, and glycolic acid, which is available in certain cleansers and pads.

Using Your Over-The-Counter Treatments

While it's tempting to treat breakouts with many treatment products at once, doing so could cause irritation of the skin. Most acne treatments dry the skin to some extent, so overuse of these products could cause excessive dryness, peeling, and redness. You may wish to start with a single acne treatment product, and slowly add more if needed. This is especially true if your skin tends to be sensitive or easily irritated.

Non-Inflamed Acne

To achieve the best results possible, you must first understand your skin. Non-inflamed acne, which is characterized by blackheads and milia (whiteheads), often responds well to salicylic acid products. Start with a wash or cleansing pad. If after several weeks of treatment you aren't seeing a noticeable improvement you may add a salicylic acid lotion, provided you aren't experiencing excessive dryness or irritation.

Inflamed Acne

For those who tend to get inflamed pimples, benzoyl peroxide is a good treatment to start with. Benzoyl peroxide creams and lotions can be found at nearly every drug store. Apply the lotion as directed for several weeks, and then add a benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid wash if needed. Again, additional products should be added only if you are not experiencing excessive dryness or irritation.

Finding What's Right for You

There are also complete acne regimens or "kits" available over-the-counter that contain a cleanser, toner, and lotion. The products in these kits usually contain a combination of acne-fighting ingredients and can help take the guesswork out of building a daily skincare routine. These regimen programs don't necessarily work better than products you purchase separately, but some people prefer them because of their ease of use.

Part of the battle in treating acne is finding products that work for you. You may need to experiment with several treatment products before finding one that improves your acne, so try not to get discouraged.

If, after several weeks of treating your acne with over-the-counter products you aren't seeing improvement, don't hesitate to contact your healthcare provider. 

3 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.
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  2. Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter Acne Treatments: A Review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012;5(5):32-40.

  3. Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74(5):945-73.e33. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2015.12.037

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