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Some bad news: there’s no quick fix or miracle salve when it comes to treating acne. And with a seemingly endless list of potential causes—genetics, hormones, environmental factors, dietary choices, and stress, to name just a few — and the potential for it to pop up pretty much anywhere on your body, the odds of developing acne at some point in your life are incredibly high. And if you thought acne sucked in middle school, just wait until you get your first adulthood zit.
That’s not to say all is hopeless. With some great skincare and a trusted dermatologist, acne can be totally manageable. But where to start? We enlisted Dr. Ranella Hirsch, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Atolla Skin Lab, and Dr. Marnie Nussbaum, board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, to share their top picks for treating adult acne.
An original version of this story was published in March 2022.
Serums & Treatments
Gladskin Blemish Gel with Micreobalance®
Gladskin’s Blemish Gel is a game-changing product when it comes to acne treatments. It uses its patented Micreobalance® protein to gently restore a clearer complexion to acne-prone skin rather than the typical agents like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or antibiotics. And the best part? The innovative formula can be overused, applied anywhere, and even used after the acne disappears without ever damaging your skin.
SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense
This hard-working serum targets both hormonal acne and signs of aging, thanks to a cocktail of salicylic, glycolic, dioic, and citric acids. The oil-free formula sloughs off dead skin and grime to fight acne, while increasing cell turnover to reduce fine lines and signs of aging. While it’s best to use this serum all over daily to get the full anti-aging effects, it’s equally as effective on the acne-front when used as a spot treatment.
Differin Adapalene Gel
You’d be hard-pressed to find a derm who doesn’t recommend Differin — so much so that every dermatologist we spoke to recommends it. It features adapalene, a formerly prescription retinoid that is now available over-the-counter. It’s a great starter product for folks who want to incorporate retinoids into their routine or while waiting to see a derm. Keep in mind that Differin can be fairly drying—start by using it two to three times a week, slowly building up frequency over time.
PanOxyl Antimicrobial Acne Creamy Wash
Benzoyl peroxide is an acne-fighting star ingredient thanks to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as its ability to gently exfoliate the skin. Dr. Hirsch, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Atolla Skin Lab, swears by this cleanser — so much so that she’s deemed it her favorite over-the-counter acne product. For those on the oiler side, this is a great everyday cleanser, but I like to use it most as a wash-off spot treatment — I keep it in my shower, apply to any problem areas when I get in, and rinse before I towel off. It’s a true miracle worker, and it’s on sale now!
CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser
There’s a reason CeraVe is one of the most popular over-the-counter brands at the pharmacy: the products simply work. This no-nonsense facial cleanser is fragrance-free and non-comedogenic, making it a great choice for anyone, especially those with sensitive, acne-prone skin.
Kate Somerville ERADIKATE DAILY FOAMING CLEANSER
While the scent certainly leaves something to be desired, sulfur is another powerhouse when it comes to fighting acne. Dr. Hirsch says the ingredient is effective for many, especially those who cannot tolerate other, harsher ingredients. This cleanser features 3% sulfur to not only clear existing pimples but also prevent future breakouts.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Clarifying Solution Acne Toner
Not everyone necessarily needs a toner in their routine. The step helps remove extra oil and impurities from the skin, as well as rebalance skin pH (which can be slightly affected by some cleansers). But some toners can be quite drying, especially ones that target acne, so those with drier skin types may not want (or need) to use one. If you do choose to use a toner, this one from La Roche-Posay gently exfoliates skin and unclogs pores thanks to a healthy dose of salicylic acid and glycolic acid. Just be careful not to use any other exfoliating products during the same routine — or you might end up with a compromised skin barrier.
Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Another great toner is Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, which unclogs pores and fades the appearance of dark spots without causing irritation. With a cult-like following, the toner features beta hydroxy acids to effectively remove impurities and congestion as well as green tea leaf extract to soothe and hydrate.
La Roche-Posay TOLERIANE Moisturizer
Formulated with dermatologist-recommended, skin-loving ingredients, this lightweight moisturizer helps repair the skin’s natural protective barrier. It’s suitable for all skin types, even sensitive—it’s oil-free, non-comedogenic, fragrance-free, paraben-free, and allergy-tested, making it a great pick for even the most temperamental skin types. Packed with prebiotic thermal water, ceramides, niacinamide, and glycerin, the moisturizer easily absorbs into skin to provide immediate comfort and hydration that lasts up to 48 hours.
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel Moisturizer
Another dermatologist pick, this lightweight gel moisturizer simultaneously hydrates and moisturizes the skin from the inside out thanks to a hefty dose of hyaluronic acid. Its water-like texture and oil-free formulation make it ideal for normal to oily skin types—those on the drier side should consider the gel-cream iteration for an added boost of moisture.
Spot Treatments and Patches
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Acne Spot Treatment
With 5.5% benzoyl peroxide and micro-exfoliating lipo-hydroxy acid, this spot treatment provides fast and visible results. It’s especially effective when used on inflammatory acne and red, angry zits that don’t come to a head. An important note: Because this product is so effective, it can be seriously drying. Make sure to pair it with products that will hydrate and moisturize the skin.
Peace Out Acne Dots
Confession: I have showed up to work with the previous night’s pimple patches unknowingly tangled in my hair several times. Hydrocolloid acne patches are my go-to when it comes to white, angry pimples, but some simply don’t have the stickiness to stay put after a night of tossing and turning. These acne dots from Peace Out Skincare have never failed me. Not only do they stay in place until removed, but they also minimize breakouts faster and more effectively than any other pimple patch I’ve tried.
EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46
Often forgotten, SPF is really the most important step in any skincare routine — especially for those inclined to develop dark spots and acne scars. While many sunscreens get a bad rep for potentially causing breakouts, this formula helps calm and protect sensitive skin prone to discoloration and breakouts. A blend of niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and lactic acid promote healthy skin, while zinc oxide reflects and scatters UVA and UVB rays.
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