Ten Products that Kill Acne Bacteria

Background with bacteria

Acne bacteria can actually help control excess sebum, but can cause skin problems when they multiply out of control.


Many acne care products can kill acne bacteria. The problem with some of these products is that they can also kill the skin. This article reviews the 10 most commonly used products for getting rid of acne infections, their pros and their cons. But first let’s take a closer look at how acne bacteria cause, or don’t cause, blemished skin.


  • Problems with acne bacteria only occur when they multiply out of control. In small numbers, they actually help the skin by feeding on excess sebum.
  • Any product you put on your skin to kill bacteria should be spot-tested first.
  • Place a small dot of any new product on the skin of your inside forearm. Wait 8 to 12 hours to make sure you are not allergic before putting the product on your face.
  • Benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria, but won’t work unless you also have an acne treatment system to keep the skin clean.
  • Tea tree oil and Manuka honey both help relieve inflammation. They get the red out of pimples as well as killing bacteria.
  • Retin-A, Accutane, and Differin are not primarily anti-bacterial, but they can deprive acne bacteria of their food.
  • Oral antibiotics for acne sometimes stain the teeth—in persons up to 22 years of age.

Acne Bacteria Don’t Cause Acne

Most of the time the acne bacterium Propionibacterium acnes is a natural fixture on human skin. The skin makes an oil called sebum to keep it flexible and lubricated. The skin produces extra sebum when the skin is stressed. This production of extra oil can be part of a generalized reaction of the entire body to stress, or it can part of a specialized reaction with the skin to stressors that only affect the skin itself, such as allergens, irritant chemicals, rubbing, or heat.

Acne bacteria feed on sebum, but they are only naturally active when there is too much sebum on the skin. When “fresh” sebum is overabundant, acne bacteria have an abundance of food. As sebum production declines, “stale” sebum begins to release essential fatty acids. These are useful for the skin’s health, but toxic to acne bacteria. Most of the time acne infections are self-limiting. They are only a problem when the passage of oil and bacteria to the surface of the skin, where they can both be washed away, is blocked by tightening of the skin or hardening of sebum.

When pores are clogged, acne bacteria have a way of “breaking out” of the pore so their descendants can go to live in another pore. They release chemicals that sensitize skin cells to the immune system. When the immune system attacks the bacteria, it also kills healthy skin cells. This reddens and inflames the skin, and at some point, some bacteria will escape when the pimple bursts open. That is, they will escape if the pimple bursts open. Mashing or squeezing pimples presses bacteria into the skin so that healthy skin traps them inside the skin for good. The result is replacing pimples with nodules and cysts.

Killing Acne Without Killing the Skin

Many products prevent the formation of nodules and cysts by killing the skin. This works, but it leaves scars, and it’s not very pleasant for the user of the product! Some acne products, however, control acne infections without causing irritation or inflammation or damaging the skin. Let’s take a closer look.

1. Benzoyl peroxide.

Benzoyl peroxide, also known as BP, or, since the BP oil spill, as BPO, is the active ingredient in the majority of acne products you can buy over the counter or get by prescription. Benzoyl peroxide breaks down into two compounds that both kill bacteria and reduce the sensitivity to the skin to the immune system. Almost all the bacteria in a pore will die within 48 hours of exposure to BP.

The downside to benzoyl peroxide is that it only stops the new inflammation. It does nothing to remove existing inflammation, and it also can dry out the skin. Drying out the skin tightens it and creates new clogged pores elsewhere. If benzoyl peroxide is all you do for you skin, that is, you do not have an effective blemish treatment program, you’ll just get rid of pimples in one place and create whiteheads and blackheads in another. Still, used with the right cleanser and moisturizer, BP can do most acne sufferers a lot of good, especially in treating acne on the back and chest.

2. Tea tree oil.

Tea tree oil is the leading herbal remedy for acne breakouts. Like benzoyl peroxide, it kills acne bacteria in pores, although it takes about 72 hours instead of only 48. Unlike benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil also is anti-inflammatory. It “gets the red out.” Tea tree oil also does not dry out the skin and does not cause new blemishes.

The downside of some tea tree oil products is that they contain enough tea tree oil to smell good but not enough tea tree oil to fight acne bacteria. Usually a product has to be at least 5% tea tree oil to do any good. There is a single report in the medical literature about tea tree oil possibly interfering with the way hormones work in boys who have not entered puberty, so just to be on the safe side, don’t use this product for acne in babies or in children under 12. Always test a dab of tea tree oil on the forearm and wait 12 hours to make sure there are no allergic reactions.

3. Calendula.

Calendula is the botanical name of chrysanthemum petals. This natural ingredient is used in skin care soaps and washes for eczema and insect bites as well as acne.

Calendula contains natural anti-inflammatory compounds related to aspirin. It also contains compounds that kill both acne bacteria and staph bacteria. Staph infections create bumps that look like especially nasty pimples, with circles of yellow pus visible in the center. You will get better results from a gel left on your skin than from an acne wash. Always test for possible allergic reactions before you use the product for the first time.

4. Triclosan.

Triclosan in higher concentrations can kill both bacteria and skin cells by breaking down their outer membranes. In lower concentrations it kills bacteria by shutting down their ability to use fatty acids. Since acne bacteria feed on fatty acids, triclosan causes them to starve.

The issue with using products that contain triclosan, such as Body Shop Tea Tree Clearing Lotion, is that using it at high concentrations damages the skin, and using it at low concentrations kills acne bacteria but has no effect on staph bacteria. Triclosan just removes the bacteria that compete with staph bacteria for moisture and food, so instead of pimples, you may wind up with boils caused by staph infection. Don’t rely on products based on triclosan to get rid of acne on your skin. They may just cause you even worse problems.

5. Topical tretinoin (Retin-A and Avita creams applied directly to the skin).

Tretinoin, the active ingredient in topical Retin-A and Avita, does not actually kill acne bacteria. This potent acne treatment works primarily by stimulating the growth of the skin so that pores open and their contents can drain. It also counteracts the effects of stress on the skin, and desensitizes skin cells to the immune system, reversing their sensitivity caused by bacteria. There are many potential side effects of tretinoin treatment and it must always be used under medical supervision.

6. Isotretinoin (Accutane, taken as a pill).

Isotretinoin, also known as Accutane, is another potent acne-fighting drug that stimulates growth of the skin. By shrinking sebum-producing glands, however, it slowly starves acne bacteria as it helps open pores. Like Retin-A, Accutane has many potential side effects, and should only be used under medical supervision.

7. Adapalene (Differin)

Sold under the trade name Differin and available as a cream, gel, or pledget (small compress), adapalene opens pore and counteracts the inflammation caused by acne bacteria. The bacteria are removed, however, as pores open and they can drain to the surface. Adapalene has little or no direct antibacterial action.

8. Minocycline.

This antibiotic is commonly prescribed for acne in teens in the United States, but usually not prescribed for acne in teens in Europe. It fights both acne and other common skin infections, but it has the side effect of staining the teeth brown, gray, black, or blue, especially along the gum line. American doctors typically don’t give the drug to young acne patients who still have their “baby teeth,” but European doctors seldom give it to anyone under the age of 22.

9. Tetracycline.

This antibiotic used to be very popular for treating acne. The problem with tetracycline and many related antibiotics is that they have potential for kidney damage. If you use any antibiotic for acne you should also use benzoyl peroxide or tea tree oil to kill the especially resistant bacteria they may leave behind.

10. Medicinal honey.

Medicinal honey, especially Manuka honey, is available in sanitary skin preparations—you don’t have to dip your fingers in the jar. It fights a wide range of bacteria, yeasts, and molds that can contaminate the skin. Manuka honey, in particular, is collected from hives of bees that feed on the plants used to make tea tree oil, and offers all the benefits of tea tree oil plus the power to kill a broader range of infections.

{ 15 comments... read them below or add one }

    pls I have a very serious acne problem … I have tried the bp lotions and tea tree soaps yet my acne returns thereafter… its troublesome annoying and more like a pest to me… pls I need your assistance because all other products mentioned above are no where to be found in my country(Nigeria)..

    I think its the food u are eating. ur outside tells u whats going on from the inside

    I am a professional aesthetician why have you not mentioned seeking the help of a professional aesthetician to help remove the acne bacteria?

    How does a aesthetician remove the bacteria?

    I went to a dermatologist for help and as soon as i started talking a medicine ( pill) the acne started spreading more ! Is that a part of the treatment or is it something serious ? Cz what i have been thinking is that it could be the body releasing the bacteria or whatever happens

    Hi Phillip. I think this article is very good but it doesn’t focus on nutrition or foods that could cause acne. I have deep scars from acne mostly in my teens and 20’s. I did accutane at 28 and loved the success of it BUT it has side effects. Into my 30’s I still broke out. My cholesterol was high so at 35 so I started to avoid all foods with cholesterol and have been pimple free (except for a few). I ate a lot of dairy products and I mean yogurt and put cheese on everything. By stopping dairy which is loaded with lots of chemicals, my skin is clearer. I also had dark patches and now they are gone. I hope you find a path that works for you. Try a meat free, dairy free and beer free diet for at least 30 days and see if it helps. Try not to over wash your face and keep hands off of breakouts. I have scars but my skin is clear. I feel your pain. On a side note a think a prof aesthetician who has been in business a long time and knows what they are doing could help you also. I truly believe we are what we eat. My niece won’t listen to me so hopefully I helped.

    Hi. My name is jose lopez. Im 15 years old and im always getting pinples on my face and yall know when your my age the only inportant think are looks so if yall can help ill be sp happy. Please let me know of something that really works and that i can in nashville TN. Please im trying to get a GF but this stupid acne gets in my way im so mad

    Hey everyone. I’m 41 years old. I had face ,neck, shoulder and back acne when I was a teenager.. When I got to my early 20s it all went away. I of course was very active through middle and high school playing sports. I was raised on green beans and corn and hamburger steaks. Lol.. Anyway, I think the sports and sweating was my teenage problem. After I stopped the sports and just worked out and showered twice a day it went away. Well, here’s the reality that I’m just know figuring out. I had never did drugs or drank until I was 23. I started smoking weed which led to a Whopper and fries from BK everyday for almost 3 4 years.. I think back and remember that was the time I started having skin issues again. The only difference was it wasn’t acne..? It was very strange bumps on the sides of butt, rib cage area and side of my upper legs,backs of arms, back, behind ears,scalp really almost every where except below my knees.. It was very disturbing. This started in early 20s and was still going on until a couple of months sgo. Note: All of this time from then to now I went to derms, family docs,emergency rooms exc.. I just wanted it to go away because Honestly,it was embarrassing. All of the doctors failed!! Steroids, anti bacterial soaps ,acne meds pretty much anything they threw at me did not help. Guess what finally worked? Before I tell you this I want to say ,I’m not a doctor! If you are allergic easily to things or foods you might not be able to try this.. Three things have cured my skin problem. . This problem I was told it was Scabies, Acne, stress, lol ,pretty much doctors with degrees were guessing. Taking my money and guessing.. pretty beat up.. Anyway,3 things…
    # 1- Water! Lots of water .. I started drinking around 40 once a day .5 ,8 ounce bottles a day.
    #2- Detx my system with Pure Unrefined Virgin coconut oil.. That’s right .A teaspoon orally in the mornings and evenings For a month./ Then after a month I uped it to a tablespoon. .
    #3- This I believe was the knock out punch!!” Hollywood Beauty ” Tea Tree Oil.. I get it at walmart. It comes in 2 fl ounce bottles..
    one bottle will last me one week.. After I shower every night making sure to always use a clean rag and clean towel every time I shower because when dealing with bacteria once you rub the infected skin it’s on your rag ,towe and hands and fingernails as you pick at it! Any way,I rub it all over my skin,scalp and thoroughly keep everything clean. Bed so reads ,pillow cases and your CLITHES! Do not wear the same shirt 2 days in a row or blue jeans,socks,undies, lol.. I know right.. Shut up ,propel do it because we are stupid at times.. All I’m saying is If you will not scratch or pick at your bumps you are already starting the process of healing. So ,it’s very simple..Oh yea,Make sure to exercise everyday.. Not bench pressing or hitting weights.. Just get off your ass and go walk a mile or two a day…then
    #1- Water
    #2 unrefined Virgin coconut oil 2 teaspoons a day for colon and Body clense.
    #3- Good Hot showers to open pores and wash with anti bacterial soaps and Then immediately rinse your body with the Coldest water you can stand. This will shrink the pores and hold in the bacterial soap/med.. Then immediately rub the HOLLYWOOD BEAUTY TEA TREE OIL ALL OVER ! Do not be cheap with it.. Put it on like tanning lotion! IT WILL DRY UP VERY QUICK WITH IN 30 MINUTES TO A HOUR! Get in bed with it on and always keep your linings clean.. If you do this you will get clear skin.. If your allergic to coconut you can try without . I’m pretty sure it will still work. Let me know how it works.. it’s almost been 20 years of doctors trying to fix me but they gave up. I started thinking for myself and cleared it up in 2 to 3 months.. Go figure.. Doctors aren’t always right. That’s why it’s called PRACTICING MEDICINE! IF they can “PRACTICE” So can you. It’s your body.. Right?

    Perfect. Ayurveda has from 1000s of years stated that Water is the best medicine for most problems.
    3-4 litres of water, regular detox, regular exercise & proper diet (home cooked, low oil, low cheese, medium spicy & with loads of healthy spices like ginger, garlic, turmeric, cumin, fennel,etc) is the key to great health which translates to beautiful skin too.

    Why did you say that Body Shop’s Tea Tree Clearing Lotion has triclosan? It does NOT.

    My son is a teen and we tried a lot of stuff (including dermatologist) but what made a difference was facials at Ulta. The aesthetician picked out products for his skin type and his skin issues and gave us directions on how to use them. Be consistent. I noticed a big improvement after 1 week. Still working on it but so much better 3 weeks in.

    Azaelic Acid. Brand name Finacea or cheaper alternative Azclear. Sold in Australia without prescription. If you are overseas I think you can order from Chemist Warehouse (au). Use twice a day after washing skin (must use twice, once will not give proper results. ) It is much less harsh than Bp. It works by increasing cell regeneration ( please research) and also works as a spot treatment. Skin may purge, get worse for first Cpl of weeks, but heals quickly.
    Fish oil capsules. Take the max. Recommended dose daily.
    I Within 2 weeks, skin should start to improve, and continue to clear.

    This is a good article but I agree nutrition plays a big factor. When I was in my teens two Detroit based dermatologists both prescribed antibiotics for my bad skin and it worked at first but then got worse! I eventually went on Accutane which too worked for many years and then in my 30’s narrowed two trigger ingredients (High Fructose Corn Syrup and Corn Syrup) to creating cystic acne. By eliminating these and avoiding sugar products, this has helped tremendously! A low glycemic diet is best!

    I just got rid of the worst acne I have ever had. Huge disgusting, sore and itchy on my back. I was using a proven acne soap but it did nothing. I always had 2-3 sores on my back. It seemed when one would go away another would come up someplace else. It was a never ending cycle. I was reading on another website and someone said try Dial the gold bar. I was ready to try anything so I bought it and “poof” within a week they stopped popping up. This is the second week of using that soap but wow what a difference. Not another one has come up.

    help. i am suffering from horrible acne. it only seems to be getting stronger, no matter what i do. help me!!! i have tried many topical acne treatments, nothing seems to work

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