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Do Acne-Fighting Ingredients Really Work?

Smiling woman touching her face in front of bathroom mirror

Acne is a condition that many of us will deal with at some point in our lives.

Luckily, there is no shortage of options for treating acne. From gels and wipes to creams and masks, there is a never-ending list of products that claim to “fight acne.”

But deciphering these ingredients can be tricky. There is a lot of information out there, and what works for one person’s acne may not do much for another’s.

So if you’re trying to get down to the nitty-gritty of what will actually work for your breakouts, keep reading. Let’s find out what the most common ingredients can offer in the battle against pimples.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Alpha hydroxy acids are a type of powerful chemical exfoliant that has many benefits in skin care, including acne. These acids are manmade chemicals like those derived from fruit. Alpha hydroxy acids come in many forms, but when it comes to treating acne glycolic acid and lactic acid are two of the more popular choices.

A chemical exfoliant like alpha hydroxy acid doesn’t help your skin produce less oil but instead works to remove the dead skin cells that can pile up and mix with oil to clog your pores.

In fact, alpha hydroxy acid is often used in chemical peels, in order to remove the topmost layer of dead, old skin cells. Once these are cleared away, younger and smoother skin is revealed. So not only can alpha hydroxy acid prevent the acne by keeping pores free from clogs, but it may also help renew skin that has been left with acne scarring.

On top of this, alpha hydroxy acids have the ability to reduce inflammation in the skin. This can help minimize any redness from inflamed pimples.

The downside to alpha hydroxy acids is that they can be highly irritating to the skin. Your skin may not be able to tolerate them every day, and if you get excessive redness or dryness you will have to stop using them for a while so that your skin can heal. Alpha hydroxy acids also do not address excess oil production, so if this is an issue for your skin, an AHA may not be enough.

So, while alpha hydroxy acids can be effective in fighting acne, they often need to be used in conjunction with other ingredients in order to consistently improve acne. One of the recommended products to use alongside AHAs is benzoyl peroxide. Read more about this ingredient, below.

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide may be the most common ingredient in acne products. You can find it in cleansers, moisturizers, and spot treatments, to name a few.

The reason benzoyl peroxide is so often used to treat acne is that it is an excellent antiseptic. It mainly works by killing the bacteria on the skin that cause acne to develop in the first place. But it doesn’t stop there. Benzoyl peroxide helps to lift away the dead skin and other debris that clogs pores and is also an anti-inflammatory agent.  So if your acne appears in swollen, painful red pimples, benzoyl peroxide can ease some of that discomfort.

Benzoyl peroxide certainly works to treat acne in all forms, from blackheads to whiteheads (open and closed comedones). 

Infographic on open versus closed comedo

It does, however, come with some side effects. Usually, these negative effects subside after a few days of continued use, but they can include stinging, burning, and dryness.

For benzoyl peroxide to work optimally on your acne, it’s important to choose a formula that matches the location and type of acne you have. A concentrated treatment would work well if you have just a few small areas of acne to treat. But if you have pimples all over, you will want to work with something more easily spread across the skin, such as a face wash or lotion.


If you’re into natural skincare, you may be wondering about clay.

What—if any—benefits can you see in your acne from incorporating clay into your skincare?

Well, as it turns out, clay can actually be quite useful in treating acne. This is because clay tends to act as a sponge, soaking up oils from your skin. This is great for those whose acne is caused by too much oil production.

As clay draws up excess oil, it can also pull other gunk from your pores, leaving your skin clearer and less shiny. In addition to cleaning out pores, some types of clay also provide minerals that nourish your skin.

Its ability to dry up oil can also mean that clay could dry out your skin, so this isn’t always the best ingredient if your acne is not due to oily skin. But even if you do have oily skin, you will want to use a moisturizer along with clay products in order to keep skin hydrated and balanced.

Clay is most often found in mask treatments, which can be both a pro and a con. Masks can be messy and inconvenient to use regularly. But they also could be a great option for combination skin, allowing you to apply the mask in just your most oily areas.

Overall, clay can be an effective ingredient to include in your acne-fighting regimen.


An ingredient that continues to grow in popularity for the way it transforms skin is retinoids. Retinoids are a group of ingredients that are derived from vitamin A. They are often added to anti-aging treatments because of their ability to speed up the production of new skin cells.

For those who are concerned with the effects of aging, this increase in new skin cells means wrinkles become less visible and skin looks younger. But this also has wonderful effects for those with acne.

As new skin cells to push to the surface, dead skin and sebum are also sloughed away. This results in unclogged pores and prevents them from becoming clogged again! For this reason, retinoids are particularly useful for those whose acne is in the form of stubborn blackheads and whiteheads.

While you can find retinol in some over-the-counter products, usually the retinoids formulated to address acne are only available by prescription. Retinoids are a powerful ingredient, and thus can be hard for your skin to adjust to. You will need the guidance of a doctor or dermatologist to know if retinoids will be effective for your particular acne and what concentration is appropriate. Those with sensitive skin may not be able to use retinoids daily, and everyone who uses a retinoid has to take extra precautions to avoid sun damage.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is similar to alpha hydroxy acid, in that both are quality chemical exfoliants. In fact, salicylic acid is actually a beta hydroxy acid. While both fall into the category of hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids such as salicylic acid are often easier on the skin than their alpha counterparts.

One of the main reasons that salicylic acid is less harsh is that it is actually chemically similar to aspirin. Both aspirin and salicylic acid boast an anti-inflammatory nature. So if your skin is more sensitive to the exfoliation effects that acids produce, salicylic acid is able to simultaneously counteract any inflammation that may occur.

Salicylic acid fights acne by dissolving the glue that keeps dead skin cells stuck deep in pores. In fact, salicylic acid is adept at getting past an oily surface to do just that, making it a top choice for the oiliest skin types.

With this ability to penetrate oily pores, salicylic acid is one of the best ingredients for dissolving blackheads. While it can help cystic acne as well, it won’t be as effective on this type of condition.

So if your goal is to unplug blocked pores and clean beneath an oily surface, salicylic acid just may be the perfect acne-fighting ingredient for your skin.


Sulfur may sound like the last thing you want to put on your face, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

This antimicrobial ingredient can both remove dead skin trapped in your pores and sop up any excess oil contributing to acne. While other ingredients can also provide these benefits, sulfur is preferable for those whose skin is too sensitive for some other acne-fighters.

Because the action of sulfur is gentler than other types, it is usually only effective on mild forms of acne. More inflamed varieties that include hard pustules and pimples may not get much relief from sulfur alone.

But if your skin is easily irritated, dry, or prone to just whiteheads and blackheads, sulfur is one of the safest acne ingredients you can use.

So what’s the downside?

As you may have guessed, sulfur can have a rather unpleasant smell.

But luckily, when sulfur is added to products like lotions and leave-on treatments, other ingredients are usually added that result in no odor.

But if it works on your acne, tolerating the less-than-great smell can be worth it.

Tea Tree Oil

Another potent all-natural acne-fighting ingredient is tea tree oil. You may already be familiar with this essential oil for its invigorating scent.

But what you may not know is that tea tree oil is a natural anti-fungal and antibacterial ingredient. So if your breakouts are caused by bacteria on the skin, tea tree oil can effectively kill this bacteria.

Although it is natural, it’s not exactly gentle. Tea tree oil can be very drying, and some people find it too harsh to use directly on their skin. If you want to incorporate this powerful botanical into your skincare routine yourself, it’s usually a good idea to dilute pure tea tree oil with a carrier oil (argan oil is a good choice).

It’s even easier to purchase products that contain tea tree oil as one of the active ingredients but balanced with other calming and hydrating ingredients to help prevent irritation. Even still, tea tree oil often makes a good spot treatment. You can apply a small concentrated amount just to a pimple or two to dry them out fast.

Just be careful if you know your skin tends to be sensitive and reactive. Test any tea tree oil treatment you want to use on a small area of skin to check for problems before you dive in.


So far, all the ingredients we’ve discussed are widely available over-the-counter. And while all of them work, if you’ve tried them but are still struggling to see results, it may simply be that your acne is in need of something stronger than what you can get in the skincare aisle.

In addition to a variety of prescription strength versions of many of the common acne-fighting ingredients we’ve mentioned, there are some acne medicines that only a doctor can prescribe.

That’s why it’s important to see a dermatologist if your acne doesn’t respond to non-prescription options, or even if you are having too many side effects from what you have already tried.

For tough cases of acne, a doctor may determine that oral medication is necessary to add alongside topical washes and creams. Some common drugs that are prescribed for treating acne are antibiotics and birth-control pills.

Antibiotics for acne come in both topicals and oral pills. These can be effective for killing off the stubborn P. acne bacteria that is often responsible for pimples.

Birth-control pills may be an option for women who suffer from hormonal types of acne. Taking an oral contraceptive will help even out hormones that may be causing excessive oil production and triggering breakouts. Usually, oral birth control and a targeted acne cleanser and topical treatment can go a long way toward keeping blemishes at a minimum.

There are even some oral versions of retinoids that can be a treatment for the most severe cases of acne. These can have powerful results but are not without some health risks and significant side effects. Therefore, doctors avoid turning to these medications unless all other options haven’t worked.

So when it comes to treating your acne, know that there quite a few ingredients you can choose from that truly work.

  • The key is to find the ingredients that address both the kind of acne you have and your skin type.
  • Use the products according to the label directions, and be patient as you wait to see results. Keep in mind that it often can take more than a couple of months of consistent use for a product to work.
  • Never hesitate to visit a dermatologist when acne is becoming a problem. If things aren’t getting better, a dermatologist can help you determine the right steps for your unique situation.

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