The Best Topical Acne Treatments You Don’t Need a Prescription For

In a perfect world, you’d be able to summon your dermatologist at a moment’s notice, getting an instant prescription or professional treatment upon first sight of a pimple. Nay, in a perfect world, you wouldn’t get the pimples in the first place. But life isn’t perfect, and blemishes happen unpredictably, and seemingly always at the most unfortunate moment. That’s why you have to rely on over-the-counter and on-the shelves remedies to neutralize volcanic pimples and blitzkrieg breakouts. These topical acne products use hard-nosed ingredients that help clear pores, calm irritation, and prevent further acne and agony.

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Since we’re all in the market, here are our favorite topical acne treatments—including cleansers, spot treatments, and serums—that work quickly against acne. Stock up now, to ready yourself for the unpredictable and untimely breakout.

1. ZitSticka KILLA Kit

As soon as you feel that impending pimple building under your skin, act fast. Cleanse the area with one of ZitSticka’s cleansing wipes—packed with salicylic acid to dissolve dead skin cells, tea tree oil to clarify the skin, vitamin E to restore, and a touch of alcohol to disinfect and dry out excess oil. Then, apply a ZitSticka KILLA patch, which sends a bunch of skin-saving ingredients to neutralize the pimple before it gets out of control. (Salicylic acid again, to keep skin clear, hyaluronic acid to preserve moisture, peptides to calm the buildup, and a vitamin B3 derivative, niacinamide, to minimize redness and irritation.) The ingredients dissolve into the skin over two hours, and save face for the next couple weeks.

[$ 29;]

You can also try Patchology’s Breakout Box 3-In-1 Acne Treatment Kit for a trio of blemish-fighting patches and strips. Theirs includes 24 salicylic acid dots to shrink pimples; 24 hydrocolloid dots to treat whiteheads; and three nose strips to clear blackheads.

[$ 20;]


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2. Skin Regimen 1.0 Tea Tree Booster

There are multiple ways to use Skin Regimen’s complexion-clearing tea tree booster. Oily skin types can apply it to their entire face in the evening (after cleansing). Once it absorbs, go to sleep: You’ll wake to smaller pores come morning. If you’re breaking out en masse—or experiencing one-off zits—cleanse the skin, then apply this booster to each individual spot for targeted healing. Regardless of use, follow with a heavy-duty night cream to lock in moisture and expedite overnight healing. The booster itself combines tea tree oil to neutralize and calm blemishes while mandelic acid dissolves dead skin cells and smooths complexion.

[$ 115;]

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3. Votary Blemish Oil

One drop does the trick: Votary’s plant-based blemish oil targets pimples and dark spots with salicylic acid (again, to dissolve dead cells and unclog pores), plus an oil blend of tamanu, white rice, and oat (to calm irritation and promote cellular turnover). First, cleanse your skin, then apply a single drop to a fingertip, massaging it into the blemish with circular motions. Do this twice daily to speed healing.

[$ 52;]

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4. SLMD Salicylic Acid Body Spray

Clearly salicylic acid is the ingredient to check when neutralizing breakouts. It’s packed into this body spray for bacne breakouts from SLMD (the skincare brand from Dr. Sandra Lee, a.k.a. Dr. Pimple Popper). Just give your back an even coat—or ask a very loyal friend/roommate/partner to do the task—and it’ll work to minimize all kinds of pimples, from whiteheads to blackheads to inflammation, and even dark spots leftover from past breakouts. This is a perfect post-gym companion, too, to prevent clogged pores. (Apply it after your shower.) Better yet, the spray is packed with olive leaf, rosemary leaf, and papaya extracts, as well as allantoin and probiotics, all to hydrate, soothe, balance, and protect your skin.

[$ 38;]

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5. CVS Health Acne Treatment Gel

If you have persistent acne (moderate, but not necessarily chronic), one of the things your dermatologist might prescribe is a benzoyl peroxide gel. These come in various grades, which is why it’s good to talk to your doc, but they’re also available over the counter for milder cases. Apply this gel to the targeted areas; it fights acne-causing bacteria. Benzoyl also dries the area to prevent oil buildup. Monitor results closely, and be warned that it also stains towels and pillow cases. But, most importantly, it works, and at a low cost.  

[$ 6.29;


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6. Peter Thomas Roth AHA/BHA Acne Clearing Gel

BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid, and it’s often used as a placeholder name for—you guessed it—salicylic acid. As far as things are concerned in Peter Thomas Roth’s excellent skin-clearing product, AHAs and BHAs both work to dissolve dead skin and promote healthy cellular turnover. Apply this gel across affected areas after you cleanse your skin, 1-3 times daily as needed—but always before bed, since you’ll maximize its benefits while you sleep. It also deploys aloe vera and vitamin A to soothe skin and fight signs of aging (like fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots leftover from blemishes). 

[$ 54;

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7. Renée Rouleau Anti Bump Solution

Oh, the misery of cystic acne. Those deep, underground bumps that throb and linger for weeks at a time can often require weeks to heal (and, in some cases, cortisone shots). But with this powerful serum, your face has a fighting chance to clear the blemish up to 50% faster. The clear serum is made from ethyl lactate to get deep into the pore to start calming the cyst, while methyl gluceth 20 eases inflammation and redness, and citric acid exfoliates dead skin, helping to avoid any scars.

[$ 47.50;]

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8. Epionce Purifying Wash

This invigorating cleanser harnesses the power of spearmint oil (to diminish acne while keeping skin hydrated with antioxidants), menthol (to calm and cool skin), willow bark extract (a botanical source of salicylic acid), and, of course, salicylic acid (to cleanse pores and diminish dark spots). Use it in the morning to help keep skin clear, and pair it with Epionce’s Purifying Spot Gel at night to target stubborn acne.

[$ 42;]

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The Best Ways to Heal Acne Scars, According to Dermatologists

When a pimple goes away and leaves a permanent scar in its place—one that appears as an imperfection in the skin—it can be devastating to imagine yourself dealing with it indefinitely. When it comes to healing acne scars, it’s important to get a few opinions—and know what you’re dealing with.



Ultimately, there are two categories. First up: textural irregularities. These are permanent divots that can take various forms on the surface of your skin.

Acne causes inflammation, which destroys the collagen in your skin, says Benjamin Garden, M.D., of Chicago Laser Dermatology. “These irregularities can be very difficult to treat, and there’s nothing that’ll make them fully disappear.” But they can be minimized.

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The second type of scarring is “residual hyperpigmentation,” or dark spots (brown or red) that embed themselves in the skin and take months or even years to heal. They can go away on their own, though the process can be expedited with the right regimen or additional treatment.

Regardless of which type of scarring you’re looking to heal, “the first step is to stop all active acne breakouts,” says Gabriel Martínez-Díaz, M.D., of M.D. Aesthetics & Dermatology. “I try to maximize the combination of medical therapies, such as Accutane (aka isotretinoin, an oral retinol treatment), with numerous minimally invasive procedures. (Read on for examples of some, and visit your dermatologist for the best treatment plan for you, as some drugs like isotretinoins may have adverse side effects.)

Once your existing acne is gone—or if you’re just targeting individual scars with otherwise clear skin— it’s time to address how to minimize the appearance of dark spots and divots. We spoke with numerous board-certified dermatologists for the methods they most often prescribe to their patients.

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Retinol: “My first line of defense is topical retinoids,” says Susan Bard, M.D., of Vive Dermatology. “In addition to combating active acne, it also helps fade any dark marks left behind by the acne and also stimulates collagen production to help fill in some of the depressed scars.” Apply a prescription-strength topical retinoid to your face every night. This should be part of the skincare regimen you use for the rest of your life.

Chemical Peels: “Chemical peels help control acne and help fade dark marks as well as stimulate collagen deposition,” says Bard. Sometimes, the fastest way to a smoother complexion is to “resurface” your face altogether. Chemical peels help “shed” the older surface layer of the skin with a chemical agent. The younger skin underneath is brighter, more youthful, and often smoother in complexion. In theory, you’re getting rid of that dark spot by surfacing healthier cells.

SPF + Patience: While it’s not helpful to hear, your dark spots just need time to heal. However, Sara Moghaddam, M.D., of Vive Dermatology Surgery & Aesthetics, stresses the importance of using SPFs daily, in order to shield the dark spots from the sun. While it may seem like a nice tan will “mask” the dark spot, it’ll only worsen the discoloration. By shielding the skin from UV rays, you’ll heal faster.

Lasers: “For those patients who don’t wish to wait the months (or even years) for the color to fade, there are a variety of laser systems that can help diminish the color quicker,” says Benjamin Garden, M.D., of Physicians Laser and Dermatology Institute. “These lasers target the blood vessels that leave a red spot, or target the pigment in the skin that makes a dark mark. These laser systems are very powerful and should only be performed by a doctor who has the proper training.”

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Sunscreen + Retinol: “Sunscreen and retinols are baseline,” reminds Avnee Shah, M.D., of The Dermatology Group in New Jersey. Add these habits into your daily regimen, and never abandon them. They work to thwart further damage from the sun, and smooth and firm the skin over time by stimulating collagen (while preventing additional acne, too).

Microneedling With or Without Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP): “Microneedling works by creating micro-injuries a few millimeters into the skin,” says Shah. “This promotes collagen remodeling, which allows scarring to improve.” (More on this in a bit.)

“I love microneedling for acne scars,” adds Lilly-Rose Paraskevas, M.D., of Rose Dermatology. “With every treatment, the scars are shallower and less noticeable. Even the redness within the scars can be improved. Unlike some laser treatments, there’s no risk of burns or discoloration from microneedling.”

Many doctors will combine this with platelet-rich plasma (PRP), which involves the extraction of your own plasma (by first drawing the blood and separating the plasma in one session), and injecting it into the area to stimulate healing. (PRP can be paired with laser therapy, too.)

“Lately I’ve been stunned by the combination of microneedling with radiofrequency, when used alone or in conjunction with PRP,” says Martinez-Diaz. “I’ve been using the device Secret RF by Cutera with outstanding results. The device enables me to treat a wide variety of acne scars in different depths.” Just note you’ll need a series of treatments, so it can get a bit pricy, but it’s worth it.

“PRP heals the acne scars even faster and leads to reduced inflammation and overall improvement of skin tone,” adds Matthew Elias, D.O., of Elias Dermatology. “It’s by far one of the most popular treatments in our office.”

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Lasers: Lasers are another frequently used solution for permanent scars, and they penetrate the skin much like a microneedle to stimulate collagen production and smoothness. “When looking at lasers, I like either a Fraxel or something like an Erbium for deeper scars (Sciton Joule is the class leader here),” says Dhaval Bhanusali, M.D. Ask your own dermatologist about these options for his or her feedback on your specific condition. “Fraxel has a 3-4 day downtime and patients usually need 3-5 treatments, whereas the Erbium laser has more like a 7-10 day downtime and patients see significant improvement in 1-2 sessions,” Bhanusali says.

Certain fractional lasers, such as the Erbium, can often target just the damaged skin, while leaving healthy cells intact. The CO2 laser is another option: “If you have ‘ice pick’ scars, as in the deep, narrow kind, then Fractionated CO2 laser treatments are best,” says Anne Marie McNeill, M.D., of Newport Beach Dermatology & Plastic Surgery. “It gives a permanent improvement in scars and also in general skin texture.”

Fillers: You can inject collagen into the skin, and these fillers will “lift” certain areas so the skin appears more smooth, plumping up some of those indentations. This works best for wider scars, called “rolling” scars, says McNeill. For this, she says to ask your dermatologist about fillers, such as Bellafill. In many cases, Bellafill treatments can last 5-10 years.

“Bellafill affords a long-term solution to acne scars by adding volume to the scar and keeping it at the same level as the surrounding tissue,” adds Elias.

Speak to your dermatologist about the type of scarring you have, and the best type of treatment available.

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This Is the Skincare Regimen You Need to Clear and Prevent Acne

We’ve all had a pimple—or a colony of them—every one as unwelcome as the last. Sometimes they’re fleeting, a result of poor post-gym hygiene, while other breakouts are chronic, a result of genetics or stress.

Regardless of the origins, or if you’re already panicking about the appearance of the next ones, you can make an effort to maximize your skin health. But, with so many mixed messages it’s hard to know what works and doesn’t, including the most effective products for warding off breakouts.

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That’s why we sourced unbiased experts—a pool of board-certified dermatologist, actually—and asked them for the best products that round out an anti-acne regimen, be they preventative, reactive, or both. Here’s the regimen you should put into practice immediately. You’ll notice long-standing, skin-clearing effects some 2-3 months down the line—as well as far fewer breakouts and remnants along the way.

Start with the right cleanser—and cleanse 2x per day

Salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and benzoyl peroxide: These are three ingredients you should memorize. Each one is effective at preventing and minimizing breakouts.

“An effective salicylic acid wash (such as CLn Acne Wash) is a great way to start the day,” says Rhonda Klein, M.D.

Salicylic acid and glycolic acid work to dissolve dead cells that might clog pores.

“And a benzoyl peroxide 2-5% wash is a great anti-acne evening cleanser (such as PanOxyl),” she adds, since it fights the bacteria that take residence in your pores during the day.

The lower grades, around 2%, are good for your face, and the higher grades, nearing 5%, are good for your body.

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Kassie Gaitz, M.D., suggests benzoyl-peroxide cleansers in particular to her patients who suffer from acne breakouts on the back, chest, and shoulders.

You might hear about benzoyl peroxide topical creams that can be worn overnight. Speak with your dermatologist about whether or not this is a good route for you. They tend to be high grades that can dry out your skin, plus they bleach your towels and pillowcases, which can make it an expensive habit.

There’s another overnight solution anyway, one that nearly every single dermatologist recommends; we’ll get to that later down the list.

Only use scrubs preventatively

Marisa Garshick, M.D., warns that scrubs will only aggravate acne. They should instead be used cautiously on skin that’s already clear—preventatively, that is—and you should rely on the other products on this list to minimize existing breakouts.

Use a non-comedogenic moisturizer

If you are prone to acne, then you might want to avoid oil-based moisturizers, says Jennifer S. Kitchin, M.D. They are comedogenic, meaning they clog your pores and lead to one-off pimples or bigger breakouts. Instead, stick with oil-free, non-comedogenic products (look for that term), like Olay Complete Lotion All Day Moisturizer With SPF 15.

Use retinol products overnight

Retinol is the miracle cream. It’s universally accepted as the best defense against signs of aging, and an essential pillar of a minimalist skincare regimen. It’s also going to be your key defense against acne, since it minimizes pores, balances the skin, and even reduces deep acne scars that otherwise take months to get rid of. It’s important to use them overnight for a couple reasons: 1.) They work with the body’s regenerative cycle to expedite healing and improve your skin. 2.) They make you sensitive to light and are deactivated by UV exposure. (So you need to cleanse thoroughly and use an SPF–packed product the next morning.

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Kimberly Jerden, M.D., recommends speaking with your dermatologist first and foremost, to decide if a prescription-grade retinoid is best for you. That being said, “aside from my favorite prescription retinoids, I am picky about buying over the counter retinoids because many aren’t strong enough or not proven to convert,” she says.

But there is one she endorses wholeheartedly: PCA Intensive Clarity Treatment 0.5% Pure Retinol.

Do a mask once per week

An at-home face mask feels incredible, and that’s because it’s doing good to your skin: It absorbs all the grease and gunk that accumulates in your pores—deep from within the pores, that is—and gives you a very clean canvas from which to start your week. Dhaval Bhanusali, M.D., warns against doing masks too often though.

“Masks are strong. They often have salicylic acid, which, given the occlusion of the mask, really helps get the acid into the oil glands of the skin,” he says. “This then decreases oil production.”

In a bad way, since your skin’s oil is what keeps it hydrated. It’s merely the excess oil you want to eradicate. So, limit yourself to once a week on deep-cleaning masks in order to avoid excessive drying.

However, you can’t really overdo the ultra-hydrating masks, since they have a different and pro-nourishment objective.) Precede a cleansing mask with an actual cleanse, follow it with a rinse, then a moisturizer (or a retinol if it’s the end of the day). Have a look at our favorite masks, as well as the favorites of our dermatologists.

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Back Acne: What You Need To Know To Prevent And Treat Breakouts

Let’s talk about back acne. You know, those breakouts (consisting of pink pimples and clogged pores) that you know are there but can’t see?

Addressing bacne starts with treating the skin on the neck, shoulders and back with the same caution and concern as the skin on the face, according to board-certified dermatologist Jessica Weiser.

A gentle, well-balanced regimen will yield better results and avoid damaging the skin in the process,” says Weiser. Simple steps such as bathing after working out and avoiding skincare products with harsh irritants and fragrances are key.

To feel super confident when baring our backs this summer, Weiser told us everything we need to know to beat bacne. Here’s what to do and what to avoid.

Shower immediately after exercising. “Never leave sweat-soaked clothing on the skin surface,” says Weiser. Sweat, exercise, tight-fitting clothing, non-breathable fabrics and other forms of surface occlusion (like a backpack) are some of the main causes of bacne. Use a pH balancing body wash, salicylic acid/benzoyl peroxide cleanser or a sulfur-based soap to remove excess oils, debris and bacteria from the skin surface before they clog pores and cause acne breakouts.

Don’t forget to exfoliate. “Unlike the face, the pores on the back are much larger and significantly more prone to congestion so they can tolerate an exfoliating cleanser two to three times a week to improve cell turnover and keep pores free of dead skin cells and debris,” says Weiser. Just be sure to avoid scrubbing the skin too vigorously, as the dermatologist says it can damage or scar the skin and over-dry the skin surface, which stimulates oil production that triggers further acne flares.

Reconsider using scented laundry products. According to Weiser, fragrance detergents can cause increased irritation and dryness on the skin surface, which triggers inflammation. “Waxy coating on dryer sheets and fabric softener can also cause clogged pores and acne flares,” she says.

Choose your beauty products cautiously. “Shampoo, hair conditioner and styling products contain a variety of comedogenic ingredients including sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate,” says Weiser. These ingredients along with sunscreens and skin care products containing lanolin, petroleum/petrolatum and silicone derivatives may also cause breakouts and skin irritation.

If acne is unresponsive to at-home treatment and over-the-counter medications, visit a doctor. Early intervention is the best form of prevention against scarring. “The same in-office procedures that apply to the face can also be successfully applied to that back — try microdermabrasion, antimicrobial glycolic acid chemical peels, blue light or red light treatments,” she adds.

Do you struggle with back acne? Have you found successful ways to clear up and prevent breakouts? Tell us in the comments section.

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