10 Best Ingredients for Acne, According to Dermatologists

The most powerful ingredients for the most stubborn breakouts.


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If there's one thing we can say about acne, it's a skin condition that seems to have a mind of its own. Breakouts can persist despite how well and often you wash your face (hopefully not too often!). The truth is that treating acne is two fold: You want to tackle existing breakouts while preventing new breakouts from occurring. A skincare routine that takes advantage of the best acne-busting ingredients can help. If you're not sure where to start with the science of it all, we asked dermatologists to recommend the best acne-fighting ingredients you can use on a regular basis.

01 of 10

Salicylic Acid (BHA)

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid, and arguably one of the most effective ingredients for treating acne. “It helps by unclogging pores and controlling oil, and is ideal for people with oily skin and comedonal—AKA non-inflammatory—acne,” says Caroline Robinson, MD, board-certified dermatologist. 

  • Product Pick: Neutrogena's classic Oil-Free Acne Fighting Face Wash ($10.99, Target) is one of Dr. Robinson’s favorite products for acne-prone skin. It's formulated with 2% salicylic acid to deeply cleanse, treat existing acne, and prevent future breakouts. 
02 of 10

Willow Bark

A mild sister to salicylic acid, willow bark is a natural ingredient that’s been scientifically shown to improve current breakouts while preventing future bouts of acne. “The polyphenols in willow bark tackle free radicals on the skin’s surface and the salicin fights inflammation,” says Michelle Henry, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. She adds that some studies have even shown improvements of wrinkles and texture when applied topically. 

  • Product Pick: “Paula's Choice’s Oil-Absorbing Mask ($26, Paula’s Choice) is a great option for oily and acne-prone skin types, as it’s formulated with willow bark extract and colloidal oatmeal and it aims to soothe and soften the skin,” Dr. Henry says.
03 of 10

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is an antiseptic and considered one of the most effective ingredients for treating mild to severe acne. “It works by killing and preventing the growth of bacteria that causes acne,” explains Hannah Lea Anderson, an esthetician for SkinSpirit. “It also helps to reduce inflammation and is one of my favorite ingredients for patients with rosacea.” 

  • Product Pick: Dr. Robinson recommends Neutrogena’s Stubborn Acne AM Treatment ($10, Amazon), which contains 2.5% micronized benzoyl peroxide in a lightweight lotion. “It has the ability to target and eliminate acne-causing bacteria.” 
04 of 10


Hydrocolloid bandages were originally intended to heal mild wounds, like burns or bed sores. However, people discovered that they worked wonders on acne by bringing pimples to a head and flattening them quickly. These waterproof seals essentially work by drawing out infection and pus, and they also create a moisture-rich environment that’s beneficial to healing. Today, you’ll find small sized hydrocolloid bandages for pimples, and they’re incredibly effective.  

  • Product Pick: Hero Cosmetics Mighty Patch ($12.99, Amazon) is a simple hydrocolloid sticker that can improve your pimple in as little as six to eight hours.
05 of 10


You’ve probably heard of retinoids being touted as an anti-aging hero, but did you know this ingredient got its start as an acne treatment? “As the mainstay therapy for acne, retinoids and retinol have incredible track records in treating common skin concerns,” notes Dr. Henry. “Retinol helps unclog pores, exfoliate the skin, and increase collagen deposition.” It’s kind of a two-birds-one-stone situation where you’re treating acne and also enjoying some anti-aging benefits. 

  • Product Pick: “A great beginner retinol product that addresses active breakouts is Kiehl’s Retinol Skin-Renewing Daily Microdose Serum ($67, Amazon),” says Dr. Henry. “It also contains peptides and ceramides that bypass the common side effects of skin irritation and dryness.” 
06 of 10


Some skin types don’t tolerate retinoids very well since this ingredient can be a bit drying and irritating. That’s where adapalene comes in, an acne ingredient with over three decades of research showcasing its efficacy. Anderson says, “Adapalene is a gentle, well tolerated and effective derivative of a retinoid that treats acne. It’s a go-to for acne patients who are intolerant to tretinoin and other prescription strength retinoids.”

  • Product Pick: Differin Gel ($14.99, Target) is an over-the-counter product approved by the FDA for patients 12 and older. Anderson says she also recommends this ingredient for clients with keratosis pilaris.
07 of 10

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

AHAs—which include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid, among others—are powerful peeling agents that exfoliate the top layer of skin. This nixes dead skin cells, brightens the skin, and helps unclog pores. “AHAs are effective in clearing acne by weakening cellular adhesions and removing medium-depth acne scars or hyperpigmentation, ultimately leading to even skin tone and complexity,” explains Dr. Henry.

  • Product Pick: “The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution ($9.50, Ulta) is an impressive product that is both affordable and practical in exfoliating the skin and clearing deep blemishes,” Dr. Henry says. 
08 of 10

Tea Tree Oil

If you prefer natural ingredients to treat acne, tea tree oil is a top contender. It's a powerful antibacterial and anti-inflammatory ingredient that can help minimize breakouts and keep skin clear. One thing to note is that it’s very strong, so the pure essential oil should be diluted instead of applied directly to your skin. To be safe, use a pre-formulated product. 

  • Product Pick: The Body Shop Tea Tree Oil ($12, Ulta) is a spot treatment that targets pimples head-on. You can also apply a few drops to your cleanser or bathtub.
09 of 10


Niacinamide is an excellent skincare ingredient for minimizing hyperpigmentation caused by acne, explains Dr. Robinson. It can also help with skin hydration, which is super important for skin repair. She says, “By hydrating and strengthening the skin's moisture barrier niacinamide can help improve acne and post-acne marks over the long term.” 

  • Product Pick: Neutrogena Hydro Boost+ Niacinamide Serum ($16.99, Target) contains both niacinamide and hyaluronic acid to plump and strengthen your skin’s moisture barrier. 
10 of 10


It may be a bit on the smelly side, but sulfur is a known effective acne ingredient that can help clear up your skin. “Sulfur helps absorb excess oil from the skin's oil glands, allowing congestion to be minimized,” Anderson explains. “Specifically, it is an antibacterial ingredient that helps to fight acne bacteria (P. acnes) to reduce inflammation and prevent future breakouts.”

  • Product Pick: Sulfur Spot Treatment with Tea Tree Oil ($14.95, Ulta) combines sulfur with tea tree oil to tackle pimples and minimize redness. 
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  1. Cosmeceutical botanicals. In: Draelos ZD, ed. Cosmeceuticals E-Book: Procedures in Cosmetic Dermatology Series. Elsevier Health Sciences; 2014. Accessed March 31, 2023.

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