Benzoyl peroxide attacks the P. acnes bacteria. However, one of its main side effects is dryness: If you’re going to use anything with benzoyl peroxide, make sure to moisturize afterwards. Sulfur and azelaic acid are less common and less severe alternatives to benzoyl peroxide. Dr. Peter Lio, assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University, says sulfur-based treatments are “a good fit for patients who can’t tolerate the side effects of benzoyl peroxide.”
All the dermatologists we talked to agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to acne. Every patient responds to treatments differently, and sometimes it can get worse before it gets better. But with the help of your dermatologist, you can find an acne treatment regimen that works for you. And, yes, we do stress how helpful it is to work with a derm to get it right.
Simple alcohols like isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and denatured alcohol are everywhere in acne treatment because they trick you into thinking they’re working: Splash some on and any oil on your face instantly vaporizes. However, these ingredients destroy the skin’s barrier, called the acid mantle. When your acid mantle is damaged, you’re actually more susceptible to breakouts, enlarged pores, and inflammation. To make matters worse, evaporating all the oil on your face can actually set your sebaceous glands into overdrive, leaving your skin oilier than ever. If any product included a simple alcohol high up in its ingredients list, we nixed its whole kit.

A good way to lessen constant acne is to improve your lifestyle choices. Try to maintain a fresh and healthy diet, incorporating a lot of fresh fruits and nuts. Try your best to avoid dairy products and any packaged foods. The more fresh the food is, the better it is for your skin. Exercise is also a vital component in the maintenance of healthy skin. Try to complete some form of cardio for at least 30 minutes a day, 3-4 times a week. If none of this is successful, consider consulting a dermatologist.
Oral isotretinoin is very effective. But because of its potential side effects, doctors need to closely monitor anyone they treat with this drug. Potential side effects include ulcerative colitis, an increased risk of depression and suicide, and severe birth defects. In fact, isotretinoin carries such serious risk of side effects that all people receiving isotretinoin must participate in a Food and Drug Administration-approved risk management program.
Topical therapy is acne medication that is applied directly to the skin, like gels or creams. Over-the-counter topical products can often help mild acne. They may contain ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, or sulfur. Prescription products such as antimicrobial or retinoid creams can treat mild to moderately severe acne. These can be prescribed alone or in combination with other ingredients.
The other downside to Proactiv+ is that the bottles are small — like, half the size of Paula’s Choice small. Combine that with its recommended two or three-times daily application, and you’re going to be going through a lot of kits, which ultimately means spending more money on your treatment. If Proactiv is the only thing that works for you, it may very well be worth the investment, but we recommend starting with Paula’s Choice to see if you can get the same results at a cheaper price.
Warning: Sulfur smells like rotten eggs. But it is an effective ingredient at drying up pus-filled pimples and whiteheads (you’ve gotta take the good with the bad). It works by sucking up the oil. Sulfur is typically mixed with other active ingredients to get the most efficacy and fragrances to mask the strong scent. You can often find it in masks and spot treatments.
Baby acne generally goes away on its own after a month or so. As far as actual baby acne treatment, your pediatrician may suggest that you wash your baby’s face with warm water and a gentle soap, says Dr. Kahn. (There is no proof that breast milk, which some moms swear by as a homeopathic remedy, actually works.) Don’t pick at your baby’s acne; you’ll cause scarring, she warns.

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But the side effects of targeted breakout cream treatments aren’t always worth it. “So many products instruct consumers to use benzoyl peroxide spot treat red bumps and pustules. I don’t recommend it,” says Dr. Lawrence Green, board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at George Washington University. Such high concentrations of benzoyl peroxide cause added irritation and inflammation to already sensitive skin, so with this in mind, we cut kits that included spot treatments.
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Some people swear by the disinfecting power of tea tree oil for acne treatment. It can be applied either full strength or slightly diluted with water directly onto pimples. Use a small amount on a clean cotton swab or cotton pad and dab on the affected areas immediately after cleansing. Because tea tree oil can be drying, you might choose to use both tea tree oil and coconut oil for acne as part of your clear skin regimen.


Retinoids and retinoid-like drugs. These come as creams, gels and lotions. Retinoid drugs are derived from vitamin A and include tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A, others), adapalene (Differin) and tazarotene (Tazorac, Avage). You apply this medication in the evening, beginning with three times a week, then daily as your skin becomes used to it. It works by preventing plugging of the hair follicles.
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