Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments


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When you’re battling acne breakouts, the first line of defense is usually found at the drugstore or department store. The shelves are lined with products promising to banish blemishes (in some drugstores, there are entire aisles dedicated to anti-acne products). But which ones truly work?

No doubt you’ve tried a few (perhaps a lot) that haven’t made any difference, or that even made things worse. So, how do you know, before you’ve spent time and money on a product, if it’s going to be effective? Will anything work to keep your breakouts away?

The key is to look for ingredients that are proven to combat acne effectively, yet gently. In that regard, there are two “superstar” ingredients  that stand out above the rest: beta hydroxyl acid (BHA) and benzoyl peroxide. Below we describe them and their effects so you’re armed with the knowledge you need to make the best choice for your skin.

Over-the-Counter Acne-Fighting-Superstars

Now that we’ve introduced the two proven acne-buster ingredients that you’ll find in over-the-counter products, here’s how each one treats acne.

Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA): Also known as salicylic acid, BHA is an amazing multifunctional ingredient that treats acne in several ways. It not only has potent anti-inflammatory properties, but also exfoliates to remove built-up dead skin cells on the surface of the skin as well as inside the pore. Salicylic acid also has mild antibacterial properties.

Because salicylic acid is a derivative of aspirin (both are salicylates; aspirin's technical name is acetylsalicylic acid), it also has some of aspirin's anti-inflammatory properties. That means it reduces inflammation, redness, and swelling, helping the skin heal. This in turn helps prevent scarring, while also decreasing the chance of further breakouts.

Salicylic acid's antimicrobial properties help kill the bacteria that cause acne. Together, all of these properties make salicylic acid an MVP in the game of you versus your acne.

For salicylic acid formulas to be effective, it must have a concentration of at least 0.5%, although 1% to 2% is far more effective; plus, the formula's pH is a critical factor, with a pH of 3 to 4 being optimal. Surprisingly, many salicylic acid products don’t meet these requirements, so they don’t work well, if at all, on acne.

In addition, the product must not contain any irritating ingredients, because such ingredients cause inflammation, which delays the healing of acne and can increase oil production deep within the pore. Fortunately, well-formulated salicylic acid products do exist, and you'll find them from Paula's Choice and from other brands reviewed on Beautypedia.

Benzoyl peroxide: Considered the most effective over-the-counter choice for a topical antibacterial agent in the treatment of blemishes, benzoyl peroxide penetrates into the pore and kills acne-causing bacteria, preventing inflammation. It also has a low risk of irritation and unlike antibiotics used to treat acne, it does not have the potential to create bacterial resistance.

The concentration of benzoyl peroxide in products usually ranges from 2.5% to 10%. A 2.5% benzoyl peroxide concentration is far less irritating than a 10% concentration (not irritating the skin is always a goal), and it can be just as effective. If your skin doesn't respond to the 2.5% concentration, then try a 5% concentration. Generally speaking, if your acne doesn't respond to a 5% concentration of benzoyl peroxide, it may be best to consider topical prescription options (such as a topical antibiotic mixed with benzoyl peroxide) before using a product with 10% benzoyl peroxide. Higher concentrations of benzoyl peroxide can cause irritation that results in dry, flaky skin, so start with lower concentrations first.

Note: Research shows that combining benzoyl peroxide with topical antibiotics reduces the risk of bacteria developing resistance to the antibiotic, so the antibiotic will be effective longer!

What You Don't Want In Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments

So, now you know the two ingredients in over-the-counter treatments that can help fight your acne breakouts. Almost as important, though, is what’s not included in the over-the-counter products you choose. Avoid any formula that contains alcohol because it can lead to dryness, which can actually cause your oil glands to produce more oil - the last thing you want! Also steer clear of any ingredients that cause irritation, as irritation leads to inflammation, and inflammation makes acne worse.

The best anti-acne medications are built on a foundation of salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide and a blend of gentle, skin-soothing ingredients in a fragrance-free formula that helps calm your skin while healing acne.

The Bottom Line

We admit that it might be tricky at first to find a good over-the-counter acne product that meets all the criteria to effectively treat your acne without irritating your skin. Hopefully, you’ll feel more at ease knowing we’ve done some of the work for you already! Just go to, where you’ll find a list of the best anti-acne treatments - all of them loaded with the ingredients that acne- or clog-prone skin needs to become clear, even, and smooth.

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! See Paula's Choice Products for Acne Breakouts.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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