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Cheap Acne Treatments: Do They Really Work?

By Megan Griffith

Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Jaggi Rao,
MD, FRCPC Double board-certified dermatologist

Can you fight acne for 10 bucks a week? Yes, you can! It is easy to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on acne products1 that don’t work or even make your skin worse, but for a small investment you can get rid of  blemishes for good without having to take out a loan. Here’s how you would find the products you need.

Acne treatments break the bank
Just because acne products are more expensive, doesn’t mean they are better!


  • Many cheap acne products actually work better than their more expensive counterparts, but you have to avoid certain ingredients that can actually make your skin worse (and make sure that you have to keep buying products).
  • Don’t cleanse your skin with anything that tingles. Tingling is a sign your skin is irritated, and your skin heals irritation by producing more sebum.
  • Use cleanser, not soap. It costs about US $2 more, but it is a lot easier on your skin.
  • Use disinfectants without alcohol or fragrances to stop the formation of new blemishes. This can cost as little as US $1 or $2 a week.
  • Cover up pimples with the help of MOM.
  • Moisturize to keep pores open.
  • Don’t forget your sunscreen—which can double as your moisturizer.

1. Start with a good acne cleanser.

Lots of cheap acne cleansers contains ingredients your skin doesn’t need. One of the ingredients you need to avoid is alcohol, more specifically isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol.

Isopropyl alcohol evaporates off your skin and makes it tingle. But tingling is a sign that it is damaging the skin. In fact, when anything makes your skin tingle, whether it’s alcohol, your acne treatment gel, a foaming face gel, menthol, herbal essences, or some product like Icy Heat (a really bad idea for acne care), what is really happening is that your skin has been damaged. Your skin will repair itself by making more sebum and clogging even more pores.

You need a product that clean your skin without irritating your skin2. The safest cleanser for all skin types is Cetaphil. It will open up pores and keep your skin from turning darker as it heals. Cetaphil skin cleanser will cost you about US $12 a bottle plus tax, but it will last about six weeks. And it won’t stimulate oil production while it removes oil from your pores. Other good choices include Neutrogena Deep Clean Gentle Scrub, which will cost you about US $6.49 plus tax for a bottle that will last two weeks, and Alpha Hydrox Foaming Face Wash, which will cost you about US $7.49 for a bottle that will last you about two weeks. Be careful to get these exact products, however, because there are other Neutrogena and Alpha Hydrox acne skin care products that cost more but have side effects for your skin.

Why not just use soap?3 You don’t want to rub your face with a bar of soap or scrub your face with a soapy washcloth. The soap film also clogs pores, and anything that makes soap smell good can irritate your pores. And just to review, what happens when you irritate your pores? They make more oil!

2. Follow up with a good moisturizer.

Even if you have lots of shiny oil on your skin, you need to have moisture in your skin. Moisture in your skin keeps it flexible and gives it stretch4. This allows it to open up around pores to let them drain.

There really is not a better moisturizer for your skin than water, and if you don’t wear makeup, you can splash water in your face a few times a day to keep it moist. Blot it dry, but don’t dry to soak up every drop. (Always use a clean towel so you don’t transfer dirt and germs back to your skin.) The cost of this acne treatment? Zero! But there are also some products you can put on your face after cleansing and before you use makeup.

One of the best moisturizers5 for oily skin is Boots Expert Sensitive Light Moisturizing Lotion, which costs just US $5.99 for a bottle that you can make to last a whole month. Even if you have oily skin, you don’t want it to dry out around your eyes and on your nose, where you are most likely to get zits. If you have dry or normal skin, try Boots Expert Sensitive Hydrating Moisturizer, which won’t cost you but $4.99 a bottle.  You can buy moisturizers for hundreds of dollars for a tiny 1 oz/28 g jar, but chances are these products will work well for you.

If you want to buy something else even cheaper, fine—but don’t buy a moisturizer that contains oil if you have oily skin and don’t buy a moisturizer that contains alcohol for any kind of skin. They can make acne problems worse.

3. Have emergency zit treatment on hand.

If a pimple pops out, it is going to take about a week to heal it. The absolutely least expensive pimple concealer is MOM, milk of magnesia6. A dot of milk of magnesia applied to a pimple with a clean finger (you don’t want to reinfect it, and you want to be sure to wash your hands before and after you touch your face) will both relieve inflammation and conceal redness. Or if you want something a little fancier, try yellow concealer applied with a feather brush—but that’s probably out of the extreme budget range of acne treatments.

4. Disinfect skin to prevent new blemishes.

Several products will help prevent new blemishes7. They each cost about US $6 to $7 for a bottle that will last you about a month:

  • Clean & Clear Persa-Gel 10, Maximum Strength, or
  • Clearasil Clear Tinted Acne Cream, or
  • Oxy Spot Treatment, or
  • Stridex Power Pads

5. Protect your skin from the sun.

Sunscreen gets a little pricey, but you need it when you go out8 in summer sun. Especially if you are taking antibiotics, on the contraceptive Pill, using Accutane or Retin-A, or zapping zits with benzoyl peroxide, you need sunscreen to prevent the formation of brown spots when acne heals. The darker the skin, the greater your risk of brown spotting on your face.

If you have dry to normal skin, try Neutrogena Healthy Skin Visibly Even Daily SPF 15 Moisturizer, which retails for US $13.09. (If you buy this product, you can use it instead of your other moisturizer9) If you have combination or oily skin, try Banana Boat Kids Tear-Free SPF 30 Continuous Lotion, which also costs about US $13. You don’t have to be a kid to use Banana Boat sunscreen. If sunscreen makes you break out, try Physicians Formulas Sunscreen for Faces Extra Sensitive Skin SPF 25, which will cost you about US $8.95. If you don’t need a combination of moisturizer and sunscreen, the Physicians Formula product is good for all but very dark skin, on which it will leave a light white cast.

You can get all of these products for about $10 a week. But for the same price you can also get a complete acne treatment system with a money-back guarantee, Exposed Skin Care.


  1. Tan AU, Schlosser BJ, Paller AS. A review of diagnosis and treatment of acne in adult female patients. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2017 Dec 23;4(2):56-71.
  2. Stringer T, Nagler A, Orlow SJ, Oza VS. Clinical evidence for washing and cleansers in acne vulgaris: a systematic review. J Dermatolog Treat. 2018 Nov;29(7):688-693.
  3. Solomon BA, Shalita AR. Effects of detergents on acne. Clin Dermatol. 1996 Jan-Feb;14(1):95-9.
  4. Sethi A, Kaur T, Malhotra SK, Gambhir ML. Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian J Dermatol. 2016 May-Jun;61(3):279-87.
  5. Chularojanamontri L, Tuchinda P, Kulthanan K, Pongparit K. Sethi A, Kaur T, Malhotra SK, Gambhir ML. Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian J Dermatol. 2016 May-Jun;61(3):279-87.
  6. Sigal R. Letter: Milk of magnesia treatment for acne. Arch Dermatol. 1975 Jan;111(1):132.
  7. 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.
  8. George RM, Sridharan R. Factors Aggravating or Precipitating Acne in Indian Adults: A Hospital-Based Study of 110 Cases. Indian J Dermatol. 2018 Jul-Aug;63(4):328-331.
  9. Baldwin H, Santoro F, Lachmann N, Teissedre S. A novel moisturizer with high sun protection factor improves cutaneous barrier function and the visible appearance of rosacea-prone skin. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2019 Feb 25. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2019 Feb 25.
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