Treating acne is a journey (and a lifelong one for most people!). Not only can it crop up in different shapes and sizes, but a plethora of triggers can spawn a sudden breakout. Plus, the inordinate amount of products out there meant to defeat, fight, attack (insert other combative word here) your pimples can make your head spin.
While we recommend you see a derm to target your specific breakouts, we can certainly help you wade the overwhelming market. Here, find the best acne treatments for every kind of spot, with expert-approved ingredients that actually put in the work.
Each zit is technically born the same way: Dead skin, oil, and bacteria stick together and block the pores. Specifically, an overgrowth of the bacteria Cutibacterium acnes can cause the release of inflammatory cytokines and messengers to create clinical inflammation, which results in a breakout.
From there, the spots can develop into various types of blemishes. Some are more red and painful (like papules, pustules, cysts, and nodules), while others are much subtler mounds (like blackheads, whiteheads, and subclinical breakouts). The conversation can get pretty technical—and it helps to have some sort of visual guide—so you can read all about the different types of acne here.
In terms of what causes acne, some common culprits are stress, seasonal changes, diet, hormonal fluctuations, and reactions to certain skin care or makeup products. Everyone’s skin is different, though, so it’s important to discover your personal triggers.
On that note: There are so, so many ways to reach your skin goals, and topical treatments only scratch the surface in terms of remedies. Let’s not forget that treating acne requires a much more holistic view, as diet, stress, and sleep can all affect the complex condition. However, selecting an acne treatment that best suits your skin type and concerns is a solid first step, since they can also help prevent pesky breakouts in the first place.
When it comes to treating acne, a few anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial actives and potent exfoliators receive a ton of hype. Find some of the most well-known players below:
At mbg, high standards are earned—and there are no shortcuts. Our beauty editors stay up to date on the latest ingredient research and innovation. It’s a dynamic, continuously evolving space, and it’s important we look into the science so we can make informed choices about which formulas earn our stamp of approval (figuratively speaking).
Our high standards also come from testing products—many, many products. Our editors and writers rigorously test and research the products featured in our roundups to offer you the best, most informed recommendations. When we write reviews, you can trust we spend quality time with the formulas: We don’t simply rave about products we’ve slathered on the back of our hand. We endorse products we’ve tried and loved.
Learn more about our testing process and clean beauty standards here.
Ultimately, treating acne takes time, so it’s best to stick to a regimen and be patient with results. If you can see a dermatologist to craft your own specific plan, that’s a great move, but these picks above can help you get started on your acne-clearing journey. Just know that these remedies won’t work for those dealing with persistent cystic or nodular acne—those breakouts form deep within the skin and are very prone to scarring, so they require a trip to the derm.