A Guide To Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments
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A Guide To Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments

With so many over-the-counter acne treatments available today, it is hard to choose which ones work and which might not be right for you. This guide lists the most popular over-the-counter acne treatments today and groups them according to their mode of action, active ingredients, and efficacy.

Acne is a very common skin condition. So common in fact, that at least 8 in 10 people has had acne at least once in their lives. With so many people affected by acne, it comes as no surprise that a vast variety of over-the-counter acne treatments can be easily bought in pharmacies and drugstores. How will you know which non-prescription acne treatments are more effective against others? A quick way to compare over-the-counter acne products is to look at their active ingredients. These active ingredients work in a specific manner to treat acne and also have their own pros and cons. Generally, acne products use six main ingredients: benzoyl peroxide, salicyclic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, sulfur, resorcinol, and tea tree oil.

Benzoyl Peroxide

panoxylproactiv  (photo credits 1, 2, 3)

Found as a main ingredient in products like: Benzaderm Gel, Clean & Clear Persa-Gel, Clearasil, DDF Benzoyl Peroxide Gel, Fostex, Glytone Acne Gel, Neutrogena On-The-Spot, Oxy-10, Oxy Lotion Vanishing Acne Medication, PanOxyl, ProActiv, SoluGel 4, Zapzyt Acne Treatment Gel, ZoDerm.

How it works: Benzoyl peroxide is a very common ingredient in over-the-counter acne treatments. Why? It is very effective in killing the Propionibacterium acnes bacteria that causes the redness and swelling in acne while removing the dead skin cells and excess oil that clogs the pores. Studies have shown that 5% benzoyl peroxide gel is just as effective as 1% clindamycin solution or 1.5% erythromycin lotion in killing acne-causing bacteria. The downside to this product, though, is that it can be too harsh or drying especially for those with sensitive or dry skin types. It can also cause redness, flaking, and peeling. You can find over-the-counter acne gels, lotions, creams, soaps, and cleansers with 2.5% to 10% benzoyl peroxide.

Salicyclic Acid

lean & clear advantage acne spot treatmentnoxzema anti-blemish padsl'oreal acne response (photo credits 1, 2, 3)

Found as a main ingredient in products like: Ambi Even & Clear Exfoliating Wash, Clean & Clear Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment, Credentials Blemish Fix, Effaclar K Acne Treatment Fluid, L'Oreal Acne Response, Mary Kay Blemish Control Toner, Murad Exfoliating Acne Treatment Gel, MyChelle Clear Skin Serum, Neutrogena Multi-Vitamin Acne Treatment Lotion, Neutrogena Rapid Clear Acne Eliminating Spot Gel, Nocxema Anti-Blemish Gel/Pads, Oxy Night Watch, Philosophy On a Clear Day, Stridex.

How it works: Like benzoyl peroxide, salicyclic acid is another major ingredient in anti-acne products. It works by deeply exfoliating the pores and getting rid of dead skin cells to effectively unclog it. It also helps reduce pore size and helps prevent acne from forming again. Salicylic acid is less irritating than benzoyl peroxide and particularly effective against whiteheads and blackheads. You can find over-the-counter salicylic acid acne treatments ranging from 0.5% to 2% in concentration.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

bliss-change-your-spots-acne-gelNeutrogena Advanced Solutions Complete Acne Therapy Systemmurad post-acne spot lightening gel (photo credits 1, 2, 3)

Found as a main ingredient in products like: Alpha Beta Acne Gel, Anthony Logistics Anti Acne Spot Therapy, Bliss Change Your Spots Acne Gel, Murad Post Acne Spot Lightening Gel, MD Skincare Alpha Beta Daily Face Peel, Neutrogena Advanced Solutions Complete Acne Therapy System, Physicians Complex Acne Toner, Pronexin.

How it works: Alpha hyrdroxy acids or AHAs are common ingredients in beauty products. You may see these listed in acne products as AHA, glycolic acid, or lactic acid. These work similar to salicylic acid by unclogging the pores and ridding it of dead skin cells. At the same time AHAs are also effective in reducing redness and scarring in pimples as they help repair skin damage and regulate the synthesis of the pigment melanin. 

Sulfur and Resorcinol

adult acnomelglytone adult tinted lotionclearasil stayclear  (photo credits 1, 2, 3)

Found as a main ingredient in products like: Adult Acnomel Tinted Cream, B. Kamins Clear Control Purifying Masque, Clearasil Adult Care, Clearasil StayClear Adult Tinted Cream, Clearasil Medicated Blemish Cream/Sitck, DDF Therapeutic Blemish Cover-Up, Glytone Flesh Tinted Acne Treatment Lotion, Joesoef Skin Care Anti-Acne Facial Treatment Kit, Rezamid Acne Treatment Lotion

How it works: Sulfur and resorcinol are usually used in combination to peel away dead skin cell buildup which clogs pores and causes acne. Like salycylic acid, these are particularly effective in breaking down whiteheads and blackheads. It can also be used in combination with benzoyl peroxide to make it easier for the medication to penetrate skin and kill bacteria. Resorcinol can be irritating to the skin and cause redness and peeling, while in some products sulfur may have an unpleasant smell.

Tea Tree Oil

GlyMed Plus – Serious Action Skin Gel with Tea Tree Oilbody shop tea tree oil blemish stickarcona acne lotion   (photo credits 1, 2, 3)

Found as a main ingredient in products like: Arcona AM Acne Lotion, The Body Shop Tea Tree Oil, Camella Acne Facial Foam Blemish Treatment Tea Tree Oil, Celazome O-Plex Acne Treatment System, Desert Essence 100% Pure Tea Tree Oil, DDF Benzoyl Peroxide Gel 5% with Tea Tree Oil, GlyMed Plus – Serious Action Skin Gel with Tea Tree Oil, SkinMedica Purifying Toner

How it works: For those who prefer a milder, more natural alternative to other over-the-counter acne products, tea tree oil is a good alternative. This extract comes from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia, a plant renowned for its strong anti-bacterial properties. In fact, an Australian study has shown that 5% tea tree oil gel is just as effective as 5% benzoyl peroxide lotion in treating mild to moderate acne. While tea tree oil takes a bit longer than benzoyl peroxide to take effect, users report less irritation and dryness. Over-the-counter acne treatments with tea tree oil include soaps, cleansers, and gels. 

As a final note, over-the-counter acne treatments are effective against mild to moderate acne at best. For moderate to severe types of acne, it is still best to consult a dermatologist who will guide you with a more appropriate acne treatment. 


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Wonderful article.