As a former acne sufferer, I know the devastating effects of breakouts. It’s not just the unattractive spots and the physical scars they leave behind—acne is also associated with low self esteem and a feeling of helplessness. The good news is your acne can be treated and managed, and in some cases even cured.
In case you don’t know, acne occurs when your pores become clogged and inflamed. Pimple formation depends on the presence of oil and dead skin cells (to clog) and bacteria (to infect and inflame). Therefore, acne fighting ingredients generally work by combating oil, encouraging skin cell turnover (in other words, promoting exfoliation), or killing bacteria. There are a lot of anti-acne products out there, so let’s clear up any confusion about acne-fighting ingredients, and help you on your way to clear skin.
Salicylic Acid and Glycolic Acid
Skin care novices might wince at the thought of applying acid to the skin, but these compounds are a mainstay in acne treatments. Salicylic acid, a type of beta hydroxy acid, fights acne by encouraging skin cells to shed. It also has anti-inflammatory properties. Salicylic acid is commonly found in over-the-counter products in concentrations as high as 2%. Clinique Acne Solutions Spot Healing Gel ($16) has earned a permanent place in my medicine cabinet. A friend swore to me that dabbing on this salicylic acid solution minimizes zits in hours, and after trying this product for myself, I can confirm that’s true. If you’re lucky enough to suffer only the occasional spot, this miracle worker from Clinique may be the only acne fighter you need.
I’ve always considered glycolic acid to be salicylic acid’s grown-up sister, perhaps because it’s more commonly found in prestige brand formulas, or maybe because it is a beloved wrinkle fighter. Glycolic, a type of alpha hydroxy acid, promotes exfoliation and is great for oily skin. It also has a rejuvenating effect, and is used at higher concentrations in line-smoothing chemical peels. If you’d like to incorporate glycolic acid into your regimen, start with a low concentration product like Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid 3% Facial Wash ($32). You can enhance the effects of this clarifying cleanser by using it with a skin brush for added mechanical exfoliation.
Benzoyl Peroxide and Clindamycin
Since bacteria are culprits in the formation of acne, many products include germ-killing benzoyl peroxide or clindamycin. Benzoyl peroxide introduces oxygen into the pores, creating a hostile environment for the bacteria responsible for pimples. This ingredient also causes the skin to peel, which is another approach to fighting acne. Benzoyl peroxide is a popular ingredient in over-the-counter as well as prescription products, and is heavily marketed to teens. While some products boast 10% benzoyl peroxide, this high concentration is a surefire way to bring about dryness and irritation. Meanwhile, studies show that lower concentrations of this active ingredient minimize uncomfortable side effects but are just as effective, so I recommend looking for a product with 2.5-5% benzoyl peroxide. I’m a fan of Acne.org Treatment ($17) with 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, which is a quality product at a budget-friendly price.
Clindamycin, a topical antibiotic that is available by prescription, also has anti-inflammatory properties to reduce redness and swelling. This active ingredient is delivered in foam, gel or liquid solutions to help it penetrate the top layer of the skin so it can work beneath the surface to combat acne. If over the counter options have failed to treat your acne, your doctor may prescribe a treatment with clindamycin, such as Clindagel by Galderma. Talk with your dermatologist to find out if clindamycin is right for you.
Retinoids, including retinol, retinyl palmitate and tretinoin, are vitamin A derivatives that have been used in skincare for more than 40 years. These ingredients work by speeding cell turnover, which reduces clogged pores and fights the signs of skin aging. As dermatologist Jennifer Linder, M.D., told Vogue, “Retinoids trigger change in the skin to make it look clearer and more youthful; they actually help skin get back to a healthier place.” Sounds brilliant, right? The downside is that retinoids can cause irritation, redness and excessive peeling. To prevent unpleasant side effects, acclimate your skin to retinoids with a mild product such as SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.5 ($54). Build up your tolerance by applying twice weekly, then every other night, then nightly.
A high-profile player in the world of acne-fighting retinoids is isotretinoin, a powerful drug that is taken orally. Popularly known as Accutane or Claravis (the former of which is actually no longer on the U.S. market), isotretinoin has been referred to as controlled vitamin A poisoning. If it sounds unpleasant, that’s because it is. Since it disrupts sebum (skin oil) production, isotretinoin can cause such uncomfortable side effects as peeling skin, dry eyes, cracked lips, nosebleeds and slow wound healing. The drug has also been linked to depression and irritable bowel syndrome, and causes very serious birth defects when taken by pregnant women. An isotretinoin prescription mandates that patients submit to regular blood tests, and women must pledge not to become pregnant while taking the medication. Still, isotretinoin has been an effective last resort for millions of people, and it is the drug that cured my acne after years of breakouts. Your dermatologist can help you determine whether you are a candidate for isotretinoin.
Even intelligent women make the mistake of mixing-and-matching skincare ingredients, in the hopes of gleaning a-la-carte benefits. From personal experience, I can say that this is a huge mistake that will likely leave you with irritated, inflamed skin. Unless you are a cosmetic chemist, you probably don’t have the necessary knowledge to combine ingredients correctly, so leave it to the pros. My advice is to purchase an expertly matched skin clearing system, like BeyondClear ($29.95 for a 30 day supply). When using this three step kit, you’ll get salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and retinol on a daily basis. My favorite product in this kit is the Pure Purifying Cleanser, which has the most luxurious lather of any face wash I have ever used (and I’ve tried hundreds). The system as a whole is wonderful, too, and it’s obvious that its makers focused not only on combating acne, but also on improving overall skin tone and creating a pleasant user experience. Thanks to BeyondClear’s patent-pending Clarifoam Technology™ Foam Delivery System your skin won’t become irritated when using this regimen.
It can’t be stressed enough that whatever acne-fighting products you choose, you must also include sunscreen in your regimen. Sun protection will shield your delicate skin to prevent irritation while acne is active, and also inhibits the dark marks that inflammatory pimples can leave behind. My daily go-to is Supergoop! City Sunscreen Serum SPF 30+ ($42), which wears nicely alone and under makeup. It’s a product you can use whether you’re dealing with blemishes or happily in the clear.