Acne is supposed to go away once you leave your teens, but for many of us, it simply doesn’t. What worked as a kid won’t cut it now so we need acne treatment for adults.
I’ve been dealing with acne since the fifth grade. It did not go away when I hit my twenties and, left to its own devices, I’m fairly certain it would never go away. Which is why I am not leaving it to its own devices.
What is acne?
Your skin is covered millions of tiny pores. On your face alone, there are around 20,000 pores and below each one is a follicle and a sebaceous gland.
The follicle’s job is the grow hair. The sebaceous gland is there to produce sebum, which is the natural oil our body makes to ensure our skin is healthy and doesn’t dry out. Sebum travels up the pore and spreads onto your skin, carrying shed dead skin cells with it.
Or that’s what it’s supposed to do, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Sometimes the sebum and skin cell mixture gets stuck in the pore. Voila, we have acne.
So now the opening to the pore is blocked but the sebaceous gland is all, “That’s none of my business,” and keeps doing its job to secrete more oil. You’ve got a pore that is clogged but continues to fill up with more and more sebum and shed skin cells.
This is around that time you go, “Oh crap. There’s definitely going to be a zit here.”
The pressure keeps building as the pore swells. At this point, the rogue pore has a few options.
If the sebum blockage is open to the air, it’s called an open comedo. You know it as a blackhead because the sebum plug darkens when exposed to air.
If the blockage is covered by skin, often from built up dead skin at the surface, it’s a closed comedo or whitehead.
Plus, a clogged pore is about the coziest environment for bacteria to settle in and multiply. So if bacteria find the clogged pore and infect it, we now have a pustule or pimple. This causes inflammation and your body reacts by sending in its best bacteria fighters: white blood cells which creates pus.
If a pustule forms and the pressure in the follicle becomes too great, remember that idiot sebaceous gland is obliviously hard at work, the walls of the follicle can actually burst. This can allow sebum, bacteria, pus, or all of the above to spread into other pockets deep under the skin that don’t have a pore as an outlet to the surface. We now have cystic acne. Ouch.
What causes acne?
Okay, so what sets this off in the first place? Most of the time, it’s testosterone which is a hormone that does a lot of different things in your body but also tells your sebaceous glands to work overtime.
When you have spikes of testosterone in your system, you’re more likely to get slammed with acne. Puberty and people who need testosterone injections are great examples.
Even the breakouts people get around their menstrual cycles are caused by a rise in testosterone levels.
We can’t 100 percent blame testosterone though. A build up of dry skin, genetics, adding excessive oil to your face through makeup or otherwise, and even some medications can cause acne to crop up too.
But one of the biggest cause of acne is stress. So if you’re taking care of your skin, but your overwhelm is turned up to 11, take a breath and try adding some self care into your skin routine.
There’s some possible data that dairy and large intakes of simple sugars can increase the acne levels, but it’s not definitive. If you’re desperate, it’s something you can try cutting out.
What doesn’t cause acne?
Pizza. People love to blame greasy foods for acne and for years pizza was the target culprit. Modern studies show the only way greasy foods will cause acne is if you actively rub them on your face.
So wash your hands after eating those cheese fries and you’re good. Pizza is good and pure and nothing can stop me.
Common Acne Treatments.
Benzoyl peroxide. This is probably the most effective treatment we’ve got. It kills acne-causing bacteria and helps clear the excess oil out of your pores while reducing inflammation.
But too much of a good thing and it can dry your skin out. You always want to start slow and see how your skin responds. It will also bleach your fabrics so keep it off the towels and pillowcases you like.
Salicylic acid. This is a beta hydroxy acid that comes from willow and birch trees. Salicylic acid is absorbed deep into your pores and clears out oils and built up dead skin, while creating an inhospitable environment for future zits. It can cause stinging to those with sensitive skin.
Sulfur. Sounds weird but it works. Sulfur kills bacteria and cleans out oil and dead skin. It can be drying and isn’t usually used alone.
Just be aware that it isn’t always easy to hide the sulfur smell (think boiled eggs) though some products do better than others.
What if your acne gets worse?
Don’t panic. With some treatments, particularly rentinol, your acne can get worse before it gets better. Stick it out as long as you can.
How long do treatments take to work?
I wish any treatment system was an overnight fix, but that’s not possible. You may begin to see some improvement within a week of starting the treatment but it’s recommended that you give a system six weeks to decide if it’s really not working.
It takes time for your skin to adjust and for the blemishes that already existed when you started to resolve and heal. Does that sound like forever when you’ve got painful zits? Yes.
To get you though, unless otherwise advised by your system, double down on your acne spot treatments. See my guide to the Best Acne Spot Treatments for suggestions and more zit prevention tips.
Which acne treatment system is right for me?
Everyone’s skin and biology is different. Some systems will work great for some and do nothing for others.
That’s why I’m making this list. I’m going to go over the best on the market today and outline who these systems might be great for and who might want to avoid others.
1. Glytone Acne Clearing System
This four piece acne treatment system by Glytone is great for oily skin, combination skin, and especially if built up dry skin is one of your trouble areas. This kit contains a foam cleanser, a toner, and two spot treatments–a lotion and a gel.
The foam cleanser and toner both use salicylic acid as their active ingredient to dry up oils, kill bacteria, and as a gentle acid peel. The salicylic acid removes the top layer of dry, dead skin cells, preventing dead skin from blocking pores.
There are two spot treatments with different active ingredients because it seems like some people react better to one than the other and this gives you options. The lotion uses concentrated salicylic acid to treat problem spots and the gel uses benzoyl peroxide which his generally considered stronger than salicylic acid.
Each of these products is to be used one to three times a day as your skin tolerates it. As impatient as you might be, start with once a day and see how it goes.
These treatment can dry your skin out if you overuse them. You can even drop back to every other day if you need to.
Drying is good–we just need to find the right balance. If your skin can handle an aggressive and highly effective treatment, this is great.
If you have very dry or sensitive skin, you might want to skip this one. Be aware that benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics so if you go to bed with it on, use a pillowcase you’re not attached to.
I really like that you can buy the cleanser, toner, lotion, and gel separately because, inevitably, you end up going through one product way faster than the others and this way you don’t have to buy a whole new kit.
- Uses salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide
- You can buy the products separately
- Oil free and non-comedogenic
- Aggressively treats even deep acne
- Spot treatments go on clear
- Contains parabens and silicones
- Not for sensitive skin
- Can be too harsh for some
2. La Roche-Posay Effaclar Dermatological Acne Treatment System
The Effaclar Acne Treatment System by La Roche-Posay has been called the Proactiv+ for adults. It’s a three step system with a similar list of active ingredients and a drastically lower price tag.
One ingredient that is unique to this system is beta-lipohydroxy acid which is a derivitive of salicylic acid. It’s gentler on skin and soaks in slower, delivering its exfoliating goodness evenly without missing anything.
According to the NIH, beta-lipohydroxy acid also stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, two things we lose as we age which causes fine lines. I love that this acne treatment doubles as an anti-aging treatment.
Like many systems there is a cleanser and toner that you use twice daily as your skin tolerates it and an acne treatment lotion you can use up to three times a day. The Dual Action Acne Treatment contains 5.5 percent benzoyl peroxide which can be drying and stain fabrics.
Some people get positive results with this system within a week, and for others it can take more like six weeks.
- Uses salicylic acid, glycolic acid, beta-lipohydroxy acid, 5.5 percent benzoyl peroxide, and botanical extracts
- Great for even deep, hormonal acne
- Paraben free
- Doubles as anti-aging
- Can be too drying for some
- Benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics
Find more La Roche-Posay Effaclar Dermatological Acne Treatment System information and reviews here.
3. Mario Badescu Acne Control Kit
The Mario Badescu Acne Control Kit comes with five products that form a daily skincare routine that can zap zits from your life.
Some systems are targeted using only one active ingredient to treat your acne. This system uses around seven. This is throwing the kitchen sink at your acne, which, when you’re not sure what is going to work for you is, frankly, fantastic.
The Acne Facial Cleanser exfoliates with salicylic acid and soothes your skin with aloe vera and chamomile while the Special Cucumber Lotion works as an astringent to dry up acne and reduce the size of your pores.
And the well-known Drying Lotion is a super strong spot treatment that I featured in my spot treatments guide.
This wide range of active ingredients works fast and works with a wide range of skin types. I like that you can buy each product separately and that the zinc oxide helps make oily skin less oily overall.
- Uses salicylic acid, sulfur, botanical extracts, calamine, Kaolin clay, camphor, and zinc oxide
- Helps reduce oiliness
- Products available seperately
- Works fast
- Made in America
- Cruelty free
- Contains parabens, sulfates, and silicones
- Spot treatment isn’t clear
4. Aleavia Prebiotic Acne Repair Kit
Aleavia Prebiotic Acne Repair Kit is a unique take on treating acne through science. Overall, most acne treatments work by killing bacteria and drying up oils, which does work don’t get me wrong.
But that process can be very harsh on your skin and cause drying, redness, and peeling. Aleavia decided to try a different approach.
There are good and bad bacteria in and on our bodies, including our faces. Instead of mos acne treatments which kill everything, the goal of Aleavia is create an environment where good bacteria on our faces can flourish.
This system feeds the good bacteria with vegan prebiotics so their population can grow and eventually crowd out the bad, acne-causing bacteria leaving you with a balanced and healthy face ecosystem.
Which I think is incredibly clever. Best thing about it is that means no side effects. No drying, no redness, no peeling.
It’s a two step program of cleanser and facial mist which are 100 percent organic and natural ingredients. I wish the instructions had been a little more clear, but it looks like you use the cleanser once a day and the prebiotic spray one to two times a day.
The cleanser is hydrating with aloe vera and coconut oil along with the prebiotic kelp. For some with sensitive skin adding something like coconut oil might be a little counter-intuitive, but if you’re sick of dealing with harsh products that stain and dry you out, it’s worth the shot.
Follow that up with the spray which contains similar ingredients but with Acadian Sea Kelp this time.
I’ve tried prebiotic acne systems in the past and they do take some time to kick in, but they work surprisingly well for me and are the only thing that my super sensitive skin can handle.
- No side effects
- Prebiotics instead of harsh chemicals
- Perfect for sensitive skin
- Free of parabens, sulfates, phthalates, fragrances, dyes, foaming agents, and silicones
- Cruelty-free and vegan
- Takes a while to kick in
- May not be strong enough for everyone
- Won’t make oily skin less oily
- Contains coconut oil
5. DualCare Acne Treatment System
This system is a two step process with an AM tretament and a PM treatment.
The Adjuvant Lotion used in the morning takes the place of your moisturizer following your normal cleanser. It uses tea tree and witch hazel as natural antiseptics to kill bacteria and shrink pores.
Also included in the AM treatment are aloe vera and shea butter for moisture and green tea, calendula, and willow bark extract to calm inflammation. Some may find the shea butter a little heavy for a face moisturizer but since the PM treatment can cause drying I think this makes sense.
The Acne Treatment Moisturizing Lotion used at night contains 3 percent benzoyl peroxide to prevent pimples from forming. It can be drying for some so if you have dryness or irritation, try cutting the PM treatment back to every other night. This PM treatment also contains shea butter to protect against the benzoyl peroxide drying your skin out.
It’s billed as tough enough for teen acne and adults, but at a more gentle 3 percent concentration of benzoyl peroxide, it won’t be an overnight fix.
- Uses benzoyl peroxide and tea tree
- Day and night moisturizers
- Gentle for more sensitive skin
- Soothing botanicals like calendula and green tea
- Vegan and cruelty-free
- Made in America
- Shea butter too heavy for some
- Can have drying effect
- Benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics and cause sun sensitivity
6. Proactiv+ 3 Step Acne Treatment System
Proactiv+ is pretty much required for any acne treatment system list. It’s the most well known and, for many, the most effective that people have found. Chances are, you already know Proacive+ exists and if you’re reading this guide, it’s probably not because you’ve forgotten.
But as a reminder, Proactiv+ is still around and people still swear by it. If you haven’t considered it before, here’s a quick rundown of the three steps you do twice a day.
First, the Skin Smoothing Exfoliator uses a mild exfoliator, 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide, and glycolic acid to kill bacteria, dry up oils, and remove dead skin.
Second, the Pore Targeting Treatment uses 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide to reach deep into pores.
Lastly, the Complexion Perfecting Hydrator uses salicylic acid, botanicals, moisturizing oils, and hyaluronic acid spheres which are ultra-hydrating and reduce the signs of aging. This lotion will also lighten your skin, helping to hide acne scarring.
- Uses benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and botanical extracts
- Lots of people have great success
- Years of testing and perfecting
- Lightens acne scarring
- Contains silicone
- Not oil free
- Not everyone wants skin lighteners
- Benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics
7. Clearogen Hormonal Acne Solution
The Clearogen Hormonal Acne Solution as a two-pronged approach: kill bacteria and remove dead skin and oil with salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide and prevent acne by making use of botanicals that reduce the amount of oil your pores produce.
This three part system has a foaming cleanser and toner both with salicylic acid and an acne lotion with benzoyl peroxide. That’s a lot of drying active ingredients there so go slowly and reduce how often you use it if you experience drying.
Botanicals like witch hazel, rosemary, and chamomile reduce inflammation and the size of pores. But it’s the linolenic acid and saw palmetto extract that are really exciting.
If you’re not sure this system is for you they also offer a mini travel set that you can use as a trial.
- Uses benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid
- Hormone blocking botanicals
- Soothing natural extracts and cooling aloe
- May cause sun sensitivity and drying
- Benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics
8. Eau Thermale Avène Cleanance Solutions Blemish Control Regimen
This is a three step system with the normal cleanser, toner, and treatment lotion, but that doesn’t rely on the active ingredients we’ve seen so far. Instead, Eau Thermale Avène uses patented ingredients like monolaurin, X-Pressin, and diolenyl.
Monolaurin reduces your pores’ natural sebum production by 33 percent. Finally something to tell that jerk of a sebaceous gland to give it a rest. X-Pressin is a chemical exfoliator like glycolic acid or salicylic acid but it’s much more efficient.
You get higher results at a lower concentration so it’s a great alternative for people with more sensitive skin who are easily dried out by other chemical peel agents.
Finally diolenyl appears to bacteria as the type of cells in your sebum that they would normally eat, but when they try to eat it they can pumped full of antibacterials which kill them–that’s pretty hardcore. It’s also an anti-inflammatory which is great for sore, irritated skin.
If other treatment systems haven’t worked for you in the past, this is a unique approach to throw at your face. There is an adjustment period where you may find your acne is getting worse the first couple of weeks as the system treats your active blemishes. Stick with it. It’s part of the process.
If you have very oily skin (and I’m raising my hand for this) the Cleanence line is great for you. The second step is a mattifying toner to help reduce shininess and the system will, over time, reduce your oil production.
- Uses monolaurin, X-Pressin, diolenyl, salicylic acid, and citric acid
- Unique targeted action against acne-causing bacteria
- Product of France
- Reduces oil production
- Comes with SPF 50 sample
- Contains sulfates and silicones
- Initial adjustment period
Find more Eau Thermale Avène Cleanance Solutions Blemish Control Regimen information and reviews here.
9. Pca Skin Acne Kit
This is a five step system that adds a spot treatment and non-comedogenic sun block to the standard cleanser, treatment lotion, and moisturizer regimen.
The cleanser and acne cream both contain 5 percent benzoyl peroxide and gluconolactone which is a gentle chemical peel similar to glycolic acid. These are used twice a day as your skin tolerates it and followed with the Clearskin moisturizer which contains niacinamide, an ingredient that helps reduce your skin’s production of oils.
The Intensive Clarity Treatment is only used at night because, along with salicylic acid, it contains retinol–a strong treatment which drastically unclogs pores and reduces the visibility of scarring.
There are some side effect associated with retinol though. It can cause sun sensitivity, making the included sun block even more important. It also is generally accompanied by an adjustment period.
Translation: your face could get worse before it gets better. There may be a couple of weeks that are rough, but if you can tough it out, it’s one of the most effective and dermatologist prescribed treatments for acne.
- Uses 5 percent benzoyl peroxide, niacinamide, retinol, gluconolactone, salicylic acid, and botanicals like arnica
- Reduces oil production
- Includes sun block and spot treatment
- Retinol is extremely powerful, effective stuff
- There is an adjustment period to get through
- Benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics
- Benzoyl peroxide and retinol can cause sun sensitively
- Not oil free
10. Neutralyze Moderate To Severe Acne Treatment Kit
Lastly, the Neutralyze three step system balances your face to stop the acne cycle. It starts with a non-foaming cleanser that uses mandelic acid (an alpha-hydroxy acid derived from almonds) as a mild chemical peel and exfoliant.
The Clearing Serum uses 1 percent salicylic acid and mandelic acid to clean out pores and remove dead skin. The hydrating Synergizer helps to soothe irritated, red skin and balance the pH of your skin. This system is fairly gentle and good for sensitive skin of all types.
It kicks in pretty fast but people with deep, cystic acne are probably going to need a stronger treatment regimen than this.
- Uses salicylic acid, mandelic acid, and botanicals like green tea and cucumber extract
- Free of parabens and fragrances
- Works quickly
- Won’t be strong enough for everyone
- Contains tree nut products