Best Over the Counter Acne Treatment
No over the counter acne treatment will treat the most severe forms1 of nodular or cystic acne. Many over the counter treatments, however, are helpful for mild to moderate acne. A few don’t work at all. This article will tell you how to tell good products from bad, and which products are worth the money you pay for them.
This article identifies:
- Five over the counter acne treatments that really work.
- Five over the counter acne treatments that aren’t harmful, but that aren’t worth the money.
- Five over the counter acne treatments that can do real damage to your skin.
The famed cosmetics expert Paula Begoun has always had a love-hate relationship with her skin.
During early childhood, Ms. Begoun developed eczema. Then at puberty, she popped out with ugly acne. Her acne persisted into adulthood, and many of the products she tried actually made her acne worse.
Paula Begoun’s way of handling her situation was not only to become an expert in skin care products, but to create new skin care products that actually work for treating “untreatable” skin conditions. As she writes in her bestselling book Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me, “I knew from my own experience that there was something very wrong with the cosmetics industry, especially in the skin-care area2. My personal experience had taught me that, no matter what the advertisements said, astringents don’t close pores. Products that claimed not to cause breakouts actually made them worse, and many of the things I did to treat my acne only increased its redness and irritation.”
After years of trial and error, Paula Begoun created Paula’s Choice, a line of reliable skin care treatments for almost every skin care need. Ms. Begoun’s 1100-page book is also a great way to get insightful information about nearly every acne and skin care product sold in the Western world. But you don’t have to flex your muscles to pick up a copy of her book. You can find the most useful—and most harmful—acne care products reviewed right here with information more up to date than can be found in her authoritative book.
Five Over the Counter Acne Treatments that Really Work
Benzoyl peroxide products are best for back acne, and also for pimples that pop out3 on the chest and neck. Excellent brands are Clean & Clear Persa-Gel 10, Clearasil Stay Clear Tinted Acne Treatment Cream, Oxy Spot Treatment, and Stridex Power Pads, all available for US $5 to $6.
Olay Foaming Face Wash and Olay Gentle Foaming Face Wash are the least expensive effective skin cleansers for all types of skin except very dry. Boots Expert Sensitive Cleansing & Toning Wipes are the best buy for acne sufferers who have very dry skin.
The best skin “scrubs” don’t really scrub the skin. They combine exfoliants that lift up dead skin around pores4 and emollients5 that keep the skin soft and supple so sebum does not collect in pores. Five brands are very good for acne-affected skin: Boots, Good Skin, Marcelle, Neutrogena, and Olay. Boots and Neutrogena cost less than half as much as the other brands.
Swipes 14% AHA pads are a great way to exfoliate your skin for less than $0.75 per treatment. Simply swipe the skin with the pad as directed and dead skin cells stick to the pad. It opens clogged pores and helps smooth out fine lines and wrinkles. Don’t forget to rinse your skin in warm water and pat dry with a clean towel after you use the pad.
Five Over the Counter Acne Treatments that Aren’t Worth the Money
Antioxidants6 are great for acne-prone skin. Antioxidant cleansers are a waste of money, though. Why? Because you wash the antioxidants down the drain before they have a chance to sink into your skin.
Cooling “masques” made with medicinal clay7 will indeed relieve itchy acne. The problem is that they are usually quite expensive, and almost any “mud” product will get the same results for about 1/10 of the price.
Dead Sea salts and Dead Sea mud8 are never the cure-all for anyone’s skin. While a Dead Sea mud pack actually can soak up excess oil and tiny flakes of dead skin9 that can block pores, there are many less expensive products that work as well or better.
“Medicated” concealers typically don’t contain any medication10 that actually reduces inflammation or kills acne bacteria. They do not harm the skin, but they do not help it, either.
Proactiv11 is a good product that is heavily advertised in TV infomercials in the United States and Canada. Clearskin Professional Acne Treatment is advertised as “better than Proactiv” because it contains zinc. Actually, the much more expensive Clearskin product is not as good as Proactiv. Zinc is of limited value to skin care when it is applied to the skin. It only acts as a sunblock and oil collector, and there are many other ingredients that cost less and work as well.
Five Over the Counter Acne Treatments that Can Harm Your Skin
Any product that contains alcohol or menthol as the first, second, or third named ingredient on the label can dry out the skin, tightening the skin around clogged pores.
Clear Advantage Acne Lotion would be the perfect lotion for treating acne on oily skin, except the manufacturer unfortunately tried to make it more than perfect. This product contains just the right amount of salicylic acid at just the right pH for opening pores on oily skin12. But it also contains plant extracts that can cause allergies.
Jojoba, soybean and sunflower oils are great13 for dry skin that is not affected by acne. They can oxidize over pores that are already clogged, however, and make whiteheads and blackheads even harder to remove.
“Matte” products are desirable for oily, acne-affected skin. They form an even surface on the skin that spreads out makeup and gives an even tone to the skin. Matte products that contain corn starch, however, are not a good idea, because corn starch is a food for bacteria. Don’t buy any acne product that lists corn starch as an ingredient. It will soak up oil, but it will also feed acne bacteria. The combination of both alcohol (which dries the skin and tightens pores) and corn starch (which feeds bacteria) in products like Aveda Outer Peace Acne Relief Lotion is even worse.
Witch hazel distillates are often used in toners and astringents advertised for use on acne-prone skin. The problem is that witch hazel will irritate sensitive skin, and the alcohol used to dissolve it will dry out skin, blocking pores.
- Kraft J, Freiman A. Management of acne. 2011 Apr 19;183(7):E430-5
- Severe Acne | Paula’s Choice. Paulaschoice.com. 2019
- Kawashima M, Nagare T, Doi M. Clinical efficacy and safety of benzoyl peroxide for acne vulgaris: Comparison between Japanese and Western patients. J Dermatol. 2017 Nov;44(11):1212-1218.
- Ahn B, Lee SH, Kim JH, Goh A, Park SG, Lee CK, Kang NG. Identification and validation of amino acid-based mild exfoliating agents through a de novo screening method. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2019 Jan 29.
- org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Skin care for acne-prone skin. 2013 Jan 16.
- Addor FAS. Antioxidants in dermatology. An Bras Dermatol. 2017 May-Jun;92(3):356-362.
- Williams LB, Haydel SE. Evaluation of the medicinal use of clay minerals as antibacterial agents. Int Geol Rev. 2010 Jul 1;52(7/8):745-770.
- Ma’or Z, Henis Y, Alon Y, Orlov E, Sørensen KB, Oren A. Antimicrobial properties of Dead Sea black mineral mud. Int J Dermatol. 2006 May;45(5):504-11.
- Proksch E, Nissen HP, Bremgartner M, Urquhart C. Bathing in a magnesium-rich Dead Sea salt solution improves skin barrier function, enhances skin hydration, and reduces inflammation in atopic dry skin. Int J Dermatol. 2005 Feb;44(2):151-7.
- Draelos ZD. Cosmeceuticals: What’s Real, What’s Not. Dermatol Clin. 2019 Jan;37(1):107-115. doi: 10.1016/j.det.2018.07.001. Epub 2018 Nov 1.
- Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter Acne Treatments: A Review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012 May;5(5):32-40.
- Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015 Aug 26;8:455-61.
- Lin TK, Zhong L, Santiago JL. Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Dec 27;19(1):70.
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