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Helping People Achieve Clear Skin Since 2007

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How to Choose the Right Acne Gel for Your Skin

dr jaggi rao Reviewed by Dr. Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC, Double board-certified dermatologist

Acne gels can be great for both acne prevention and emergency spot treatment for pimples that might appear anyway. Acne gels can begin to fade the brown spots left behind when acne heals just about as soon as you notice them. All acne gels are not equally effective, however, and finding an acne gel that works takes careful reading of the product label—but we have done the work for you.

Acne Treatment Gel
Acne gels that work best usually contain the ingredient benzoyl peroxide.

Summary:

  • Acne gels are usually used for spot treatment of pimples, blemishes, or brown spots after acne fades.
  • Most acne gels contain irritant ingredients that can make pimples more noticeable, even if the product fights acne bacteria.
  • The few acne gels for fighting pimples that work typically contain benzoyl peroxide.
  • It is important not to put the benzoyl peroxide on healthy skin or to get it on clothes.
  • The acne gel for fighting brown spots on Asian skin contains the ingredient arbutin. Hydroquinone gels can trigger the formation of black and blue spots were brown spots were before.
  • It is easier to buy an acne treatment system than it is to try many different acne gels while trying to find the right one.

What Makes an Acne Gel Effective

Acne gels have a distinct advantage of over anti-acne face washes. You rinse the active ingredients in a face wash down the drain just a few seconds after you put them on your face, but the active ingredients in an acne gel can stay on your face for hours.

Of course, you have to have the right active ingredients to do your face any good! Let’s take a look at the bestselling acne gels and how they work.

Exposed Skin Care Acne Treatment Serum (US $19.95 for 1.7 oz/50 mL)

Exposed Skin Care is one of our favorite acne treatment brands because their products are strong enough to be effective against acne but gentle enough to be used on even the most sensitive skin. Their Acne Treatment Serum contains 3.5% benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil, and green tea extract, all of which can help reduce acne in their own way.

Benzoyl peroxide is a popular acne treatment ingredient because studies have shown that it can effectively kill acne-causing bacteria and significantly reduce acne. Benzoyl peroxide is available in a wide variety of concentrations, from 2.5% to 10%, but it is most effective when used in concentrations under 5%. In higher concentrations, benzoyl peroxide tends to cause burning, peeling, and redness, without any added benefit of increased acne treatment.

Tea tree oil is a natural acne treatment ingredient that effectively kills acne-causing bacteria, reduces oil production, and eases inflammation. It’s made from the leaves of the tea tree plant native to Australia and New Zealand, and it’s being included in more acne treatment products as more research comes out confirming its acne-fighting abilities.

Green tea extract is another great natural ingredient, but it doesn’t treat acne by killing bacteria. Instead, green tea extract prevents and reduces acne by reducing inflammation. Acne is first and foremost an inflammatory condition, so reducing inflammation is the best way to help prevent acne from forming in the first place.

Together, these ingredients make for an ideal acne treatment gel. We honestly don’t have anything negative to say, and in fact, we highly recommend the rest of their acne treatment kit as well.

Avon Clearskin Professional Daily Correcting Lotion (US $12.95 for 2.0 oz/60 mL)

The Avon Clearskin Professional Daily Correcting Lotion is the final step in the Clearskin Professional acne care system, and we recommend it because it’s one of the few acne gels that contains 0.5% salicylic acid as its active ingredient. Salicylic acid isn’t the best ingredient for treating pimples, but it is an excellent chemical exfoliant, meaning it can clear out the pores to treat blackheads and whiteheads. Salicylic acid is keratolytic, meaning it helps shed the excess dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, and it has mild anti-inflammatory properties. This makes salicylic acid an excellent treatment for mild to moderate acne.

The only drawback to this product is that it contains nearly 40% alcohol. That’s enough to kill acne bacteria, but it’s also enough to dry out the skin if you don’t use moisturizer. If you have sensitive skin or dry skin, we recommend staying away from this product, even if you do use a moisturizer.

Dermalogica Clear Start Breakout Clearing Booster (US $21.00 for 1.0 0z/30 mL)

If you have sensitive skin and you’re looking for a spot treatment that won’t make your skin all red and inflamed, Dermalogica’s Clear Start Breakout Clearing Booster is definitely the right choice for you. This spot treatment contains small amounts (below 0.5%) of salicylic acid, niacinamide (vitamin B3), lactic acid, and tocopherol (vitamin E), all of which help the skin in one way or another without irritating it. Niacinamide is a great ingredient to look for if you struggle with dark spots after acne heals because research shows it has lightening properties. Lactic acid is similar to salicylic acid in that it can help exfoliate the skin and reduce blackheads and whiteheads. The vitamin E is what makes this particular acne gel such a good idea for those with sensitive skin, because it protects the skin and helps reduce any potential side effects from the harsher ingredients.

DHC Skin Care Acne Spot Therapy (US $15.00 for 0.52 oz/15 mL)

This Japanese skincare brand combines scientific and natural ingredients to create unique products, like their Acne Spot Therapy, which uses 3% sulfur as its active ingredient. Sulfur is best known as one of the smelliest natural elements, but in small amounts, like a 3% concentration, it can also gently fight breakouts. Research shows that sulfur has antimicrobial properties that may help stop the growth of acne-causing bacteria, and it is a relatively gentle exfoliant. The DHC Acne Spot Therapy combines sulfur with other ideal skin care ingredients like vitamin E, licorice extract, and aloe vera extract, and the result is a spot treatment acne gel that really works.

Kiehl’s Blue Herbal Spot Treatment (US $18.00 for 0.5 oz/15 mL)

Kiehl’s is a popular skin care company, especially when it comes to moisturizing and skin protection, but they also make a few key acne treatment products, like their Kiehl’s Blue Herbal Spot Treatment. It’s meant for resistant, oily skin because it contains 1.5% salicylic acid, which is likely to be too strong for most sensitive or dry skin types. It also contains frankincense to reduce oil production and witch hazel to tone the skin and reduce the size of enlarged pores, common in oily skin.

Herbs are natural, and natural is always good, right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and it’s the one potential drawback of this product. This product contains so many great natural acne-fighting ingredients, it may actually be a problem for those with sensitive skin. This product contains so many botanicals, including camphor, menthol, ginger, frankincense, and witch hazel, that the herbs themselves can make sensitive skin break out.

MyChelle Clear Skin Spot Treatment (US $14.25 for 0.5 oz/15 mL)

MyChelle is an indie beauty company that has made a name for itself through its dedication to scientifically-sound formulas, which makes it a great option for acne treatment. You can rest assured that MyChelle has done their research and all of their products contain only ingredients that actually help your skin. If you are sensitive to lab-made chemicals like sulfates, parabens, or artificial fragrances, then MyChelle is a great brand for you. They do not include those ingredients in any of their products, and their Clear Skin Spot Treatment is no exception. It uses 6% sulfur, meaning it may not be the best option for those with extra dry skin, but if your skin is oily, this spot treatment is a great way to reduce the impact of a last-second breakout.

Differin 0.1% Adapalene Gel (US $27.58 for 1.6 oz/45 g)

If you’ve tried all the typical over-the-counter acne treatment ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and sulfur, and none of them seem to be working, consider trying Differin 0.1% Adapalene Gel. Differin is different from other over-the-counter acne gels because it contains adapalene, a mild retinoid. Retinoids are generally reserved for prescription treatments only, but adapalene is so gentle, it is allowed to be sold over-the-counter. Even though it’s gentle, it’s still very effective in acne treatment because of the unique way retinoids affect the skin. Retinoids are synthetic derivatives of vitamin A that basically function like pace cars for the skin cells, telling them when to form, grow, and die. This helps prevent clogged pores and helps treat certain types of acne scarring. Differin may be too harsh for those with especially sensitive skin, but generally, it is well-tolerated by all skin types.

Olay Luminous Tone Perfecting Cream (US $33.49 for 1.7 oz/48 g)

Preventing acne entirely is the best way to prevent hyperpigmentation, the dark spots left behind when acne heals, but we all know that sometimes acne just happens. So what do you do when a breakout leaves you with an obnoxious dark spot? We recommend trying Olay’s Luminous Tone Perfecting Cream. It contains glycerin, aloe vera extract, and green tea extract to moisturize and protect the skin from any further hyperpigmentation, plus it utilizes niacinamide to help fight any dark spots that have already formed. The only downside is that it also contains laureth-4, a polymer that is extremely pore-clogging. It doesn’t cause a problem for everyone, but if you have particularly large pores or if you know your pores are prone to clogging, we would avoid this product.

Oxy Rapid Spot Treatment (US $6.65 for 1.0 oz/28 g)

So far, we’ve mostly listed acne gels that we would actually recommend using, but it’s just as important to know which acne gels to avoid, and the Oxy Rapid Spot Treatment is one of them. We recommend staying far away from this particular product because it contains 10% benzoyl peroxide, which is way too much. At this concentration, the benzoyl peroxide is very likely to cause burning, itching, and peeling in even the oiliest of skin. If your skin is normal, dry, or sensitive, this product could cause a serious problem. We understand the appeal of this product is its price, but we promise that it isn’t worth it. If you’re looking for an inexpensive spot treatment that actually works, try Oxy’s On-the-Go Acne Stick. It isn’t an acne gel, but it uses a slightly more reasonably concentration of benzoyl peroxide, at 5%.

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