How to Look for Ingredients that Treat Mild Acne | Dr. Lin Explains!

Working in dermatology, there are common questions that I get asked from my patients and friends. One frequently asked question I hear is, “What ingredients should I look for to treat mild acne?”

benzoyl peroxide for skincare

The majority of people who get acne will develop mild acne that can be treated with over the counter (OTC) solutions. Most people are used to seeing the same 5 acne-fighting ingredients on labels, but figuring out which one is the best for them can be very confusing. Acne products work in different ways, depending on their active ingredient. Before you grab whatever package is closest, learn how OTC acne products work and what ingredients to look for. Then, develop a gentle skin care regimen to treat and prevent acne breakouts.

Here are 5 common acne-fighting ingredients and how they work:

  • Benzoyl Peroxide – kills bacteria, helps remove excess oils from the skin, and removes dead skin cells that clog pores.  Benzoyl peroxide is a white crystalline peroxide used in bleaching (flour or oils or fats) and is available in strengths from 2.5 to 10 percent. It works as a peeling agent, accelerating skin turnover and clearing pores, which in turn reduces the bacterial count in the affected area. Benzoyl peroxide can cause excessive dryness, scaling, redness, burning and stinging, especially if you have sensitive skin. My Acne Spot Corrector is formulated with 5% Benzoyl peroxide and works on old and new acne marks to fade discoloration on all skin types! Be sure to check it out! Also, when applying benzoyl peroxide, be careful as it can bleach hair and clothing.
  • Salicylic Acid – breaks down blackheads and whiteheads, also reduces shedding of cells which prevents the pores from clogging. It can be effective in treating inflammation and swelling. Salicylic acid is a white crystalline substance which is also used as a fungicide, or in making aspirin or dyes or perfumes. It causes the epidermis to shed skin more easily, prevents pores from becoming blocked while at the same time allowing room for new cells to grow. It can cause mild stinging and skin irritation. OTC acne products are available with 0.5 to 2 percent salicylic acid. My Daily Cleanser contains salicylic acid and is a customer favorite!
  • Retin-A – unplugs blocked pores. Retin-A contains Tretinoin, an acid from of vitamin A, also known as all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA). Retin-A has been used widely to combat aging of the skin, and it can also act as a chemical peel.  It may help decrease the number and severity of acne pimples and promote quick healing of pimples that do develop.
  • Sulfur – helps break down blackheads and whiteheads. Sulfur, in its native form, is a yellow crystalline solid. Sulfur has been used for centuries for treating acne, psoriasis and eczema. Often combined with other ingredients, such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, sulfur removes dead skin cells that clog pores and helps remove excess oil. Products containing sulfur may cause dry skin, and some products have an unpleasant odor.
  • Alpha hydroxy acids – treats acne by removing dead skin cells and reducing inflammation. Glycolic acid and lactic acid are two types of alpha hydroxy acids that are used in OTC acne products. They’re synthetic versions of acids derived from sugar-containing fruits. Alpha hydroxy acids also stimulate the growth of new, smoother skin, which helps reduce the appearance of acne scars.

You can buy acne medications in the forms of gels, soaps, pads, creams and lotions. If your skin is sensitive you may prefer a cream or lotion. Gels, which are usually water-based and tend to absorb oil, making them best for people with oily skin. OTC medications will have these ingredients in different concentrations. It is advisable to start with the lowest strength to prevent irritation. It’s recommended to consult your dermatologist before starting a new acne regimen.

What are some other ingredients you have questions about? Ask me in the comments below!

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