There are a ton of topical formulas out there for treating acne. You could break out from stress just thinking about it. Before you find yourself frozen in the zit-cream aisle, take a minute to master the basics with our handy-dandy pimple-potion-preparedness guide.
Here’s the 411 on eight of the ingredients you’re likely to encounter on your quest for clear skin.
Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA)
The small molecules of alpha hydroxies, such as glycolic and lactic acids, chemically exfoliate to clear out dead skin cells that block pores.
Good to know: Because of their skin-brightening and line-smoothing ability, AHAs are often found in anti-aging products, making these a good choice for people dealing with acne and aging at the same time.
Look for it in: Cane + Austin Retexturizing Cream, $80
Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)
Beta hydroxy acid penetrates more deeply into pores to break the bonds keeping dead skin cells glued within. It’s lipophilic, which means it can get through acne-producing oil build-up.
Good to know: If you’ve ever tried to treat pimples before, you’ve probably used a BHA: salicylic acid.
Look for it in: Skinceuticals LHA Cleansing Gel, $36
A newcomer to skincare, carbon can be a great weapon in your anti-acne arsenal. Activated charcoal is highly absorptive, so it sucks dirt and oil out of your pores to reduce clogging that causes breakouts.
Look for it in: Bayberry Naturals Breakout Banisher Facial Cleanser, $17.
Acne is often caused by the bacterium P. acnes that lives inside your pores—and hates oxygen. When applied to the skin, benzoyl peroxide converts to benzoic acid and oxygen, which kills the bacteria. The medication works well in combination with exfoliants, but shouldn’t be used in conjunction with retinoids, as it can inactivate them.
Good to know: Benzoyl peroxide can bleach the color out of your towels and sheets, so you might want to switch to all white.
Look for it in: Clearasil Daily Clear Acne Treatment Cream, $6
These vitamin-A derivatives go by the name retinol when purchased over the counter and are available in stronger strengths by prescription (such as Retin-A, Differen, Renova). Retinoids exfoliate to diminish pores and blemishes, while stimulating collagen production to help skin look rejuvenated.
Good to know: Retinoids can be extremely irritating, so start using them only once per week and gradually work your way up to more days.
Look for it in: Replenix Retinol Smoothing Serum, $66
One of the most familiar acne-fighters, salicylic acid is one type of beta hydroxy. It is both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, hitting zits on multiple fronts, as well we preventing future breakouts if used regularly.
Look for it in: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash, $7
Sulfur is often overlooked in skincare, but it starting to appear in more products. Its antibacterial properties target P. acnes while it draws accumulated sebum out of clogged pores.
Look for it in: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clarifying Sulfur Mask, $42
Tea Tree Oil
Many swear by the bacteria-fighting, anti-acne action of this natural solution. If the pure oil irritates your skin, try diluting it with a bit of water.
Look for it in: The Body Shop Tea Tree Oil, $9
This antibacterial agent is part of a class of chemicals called chlorophenols, which are not water-soluble. That means they have a longer lifespan—and can increase the time that other ingredients remain active on your skin.
Good to know: Antimicrobial triclosan is often found in soaps, toothpaste and deodorants, but there is concern over animal studies that found it can alter hormone regulation and might even impair muscle function, so we don't recommend you use products that contain it.
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