Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/12/2021
It’s a frustrating situation: after finally getting rid of one acne breakout, another one pops up in its place, giving you a fresh set of whiteheads, blackheads and -- if you’re especially unlucky, cystic acne -- to deal with.
Dealing with acne can be challenging, especially if you’re genetically prone to persistent acne outbreaks.
Add a confusing, often misleading skincare industry into the equation, bad recommendations from mass media, and fighting back against acne can be a difficult, expensive and tiring process.
The reality of acne treatments is that while many brands claim to have the answer, only a few products are scientifically proven to remove and prevent acne.
Luckily for your wallet, most of these products aren’t the ultra-pricey skin creams you can spot on department store shelves.
From topical skin creams to hormonal birth control, we’ve listed all of the best science-backed acne treatment options below, along with detailed information on how each option can help to treat, improve and prevent your acne for good.
Retinoids are some of the most popular medications available for treating acne. They work by speeding up your body’s skin cell turnover process, helping your body get rid of dead skin and replace it with new skin cells faster.
This prevents acne by stopping dead skin cells from getting caught inside your pores. When old, dead skin cells get trapped inside a pore, they can mix with excess sebum to create a blockage, leading to the development of a whitehead or blackhead.
When bacteria mixes with a blockage, it can result in infected, inflamed acne. Blockages deep beneath the skin can even cause cystic acne -- the most painful, serious form of acne that can potentially cause long-term scarring.
Speeding up your skin cell turnover process doesn’t completely eliminate dead skin, but it does make it far less likely for blockages to develop.
There are numerous retinoids available, all of which are derivatives of vitamin A. The two most commonly used retinoids for acne are tretinoin (a topical retinoid that’s sold as “Retin-A”) and isotretinoin.
Both of these retinoids are backed up by a lot of scientific evidence. One study from 2009 shows that tretinoin significantly outperforms a control as a facial acne treatment.
A 2015 study of topical acne treatments showed that tretinoin, combined with clindamycin 1% gel, reduced acne lesions from 13.70 ± 4.80 to 1.30 ± 2.95 in 12 weeks.
In short, tretinoin isn’t just effective anecdotally -- it’s also backed by science. Although tretinoin has some side effects, it’s well tolerated by the vast majority of people that use it for acne, with a good safety record and few interactions.
Tretinoin acne cream comes in a variety of strengths, making it easy to adjust your dosage to target your acne. It’s one of three main active ingredients in our acne cream, alongside other acne-fighting substances such as clindamycin and niacinamide.
While tretinoin is the most effective topical retinoid, it’s not the only retinoid that’s used to treat and prevent acne.
For severe cases of acne, many dermatologists will prescribe isotretinoin -- an oral retinoid that also speeds up the skin cell turnover cycle and targets acne lesions.
Studies show that isotretinoin is highly effective at treating acne and keeping it away for good. In a 1984 study, researchers found that isotretinoin caused a significant clinical response in people with severe, nodulocystic acne.
Other studies of isotretinoin have produced similar findings. Dermatology Times has described isotretinoin as the “best drug for acne,” noting the huge number of scientific studies in its favor, its track record and its high first-treatment success rate.
Despite its effectiveness, isotretinoin does have some downsides. First, its side effect profile is significantly larger than topical tretinoin.
Second, because it’s an oral medication, it can affect the liver and is only recommended for use without alcohol.
This means that you might have to make some changes to your social life while you use an oral retinoid if you usually drink alcohol.
Additional potential side effects include:
Joint pain and muscle aches
Also, women who are pregnant should not take isotretinoin.
Side effect risk aside, isotretinoin works, almost always extremely well.
Because of its strength and efficacy, dermatologists usually prescribe isotretinoin for more severe cases of acne, such as cystic acne or recurring hormonal acne that other medications fail to treat.
Beyond tretinoin and isotretinoin, there are several other retinoids that are marketed as acne treatments.
The most common of these is Vitamin A1 -- a retinoid that’s usually included as a dietary supplement ingredient.
While there’s some scientific evidence that these vitamin A tablets can help to treat acne and improve your general skin health, it’s not as solid as the evidence for tretinoin and isotretinoin.
Severe acne occurs when there is blockage and bacteria, so antibacterial medication can be highly effective at reducing the severity of a breakout.
Because of this, oral and topical antibiotics are often used to treat acne. Most dermatologists will prescribe antibiotics in combination with other acne medication, such as a retinoid or hormonal birth control (something we’ve covered in more detail below).
Antibiotics fight back against acne by targeting the bacteria present inside cystic acne nodules, inflamed pimples and other forms of acne. Some antibiotics also have anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce the inflammation and redness associated with some acne lesions.
Since antibiotics don’t affect sebum buildup or your body’s skin cell turnover cycle, they won’t prevent acne from developing.
However, they can and usually do make your acne outbreaks less severe, especially if you’re prone to painful outbreaks of cystic acne.
So, which antibiotics are the best for acne? For severe acne, dermatologists usually prescribe tetracycline, doxycycline, erythromycin or minocycline.
The scientific evidence for these antibiotics varies from one drug to another. Medical studies of topical tetracycline show a reduction in comedones of as much as 55.4%, with studies of other antibiotics such as doxycycline also showing positive results for treating acne.
For lighter acne, clindamycin gel (one of several active ingredients in Hers Acne) is a common treatment. Clindamycin is linked to an improvement in acne over the course of eight to twelve weeks, making it a powerful and convenient tool in acne treatment.
Like retinoids, antibiotics can range from over-the-counter topical treatments to prescription-only oral antibiotics.
There’s no one “best” antibiotic for treating and preventing acne, meaning you’ll usually be prescribed the best option for your specific symptoms, needs and medical history.
Hormonal birth control medication (also known as combined oral contraceptives, or COCP) such as YAZ, Estrostep and Ortho Tri-Cyclen can be highly effective in treating acne, especially acne that’s caused by hormonal fluctuations.
As we mentioned earlier, problematic acne is equal parts blockage and bacteria. One key part of the blockage aspect of acne is your production of sebum -- a natural oil that’s used for hydration and skin protection.
While sebum is essential for healthy skin, too much sebum can contribute to blocked pores and an increase in acne.
Culprit number one for excessive sebum production? Androgen hormones such as testosterone, which can often fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle.
Yes, even as a woman, your body produces small amounts of testosterone and other male sex hormones.
Your body’s production of androgens usually peaks in the days before your period. Because of this, it’s common to experience an increase in acne during your period, as well as during the week before your period.
Birth control medication can treat and prevent acne by lowering your body’s production of male hormones like testosterone. As your testosterone level decreases, so does your production of sebum, helping to minimize blocked pores and keep your facial skin smooth and acne-free.
The FDA has only approved three birth control medications for treating acne: YAZ, Estrostep and Ortho Tri-Cyclen. These pills all use a combination of estrogen and a progestin to lower your body’s androgen levels.
It’s worth noting that other birth control pills, such as progestin-only birth control, might not be effective and shouldn’t be viewed as acne treatments.
Just like with other acne treatments, there’s no “best” acne prevention birth control pill for every situation.
If you’re interested in using birth control to treat your acne, your healthcare provider will choose the best medication for your needs based on your symptoms and health history.
Want to learn more about using birth control as an acne treatment? Our guide to birth control and acne goes into more detail on how combined oral contraceptive pills can lower androgen levels and improve your skin.
Benzoyl peroxide is a topical medication that kills bacteria, lowering your risk of dealing with infected, inflamed acne lesions.
Although benzoyl peroxide is antibacterial, most healthcare providers don’t place it in the same category as topical antibiotics such as clindamycin.
This is because benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria without inducing antibiotic resistance -- a common side effect of long-term antibiotic treatment.
Benzoyl peroxide is found in a diverse range of over-the-counter acne products, from creams, balms and lotions to facial masks.
It’s also often formulated in combination with other acne prevention medications. Two common acne prevention formulas are benzoyl peroxide/clindamycin and adapalene/benzoyl peroxide, both of which are widely used in topical prescription acne treatments.
Dermatologists usually recommend benzoyl peroxide for mild to moderate acne, usually as an alternative to conventional antibiotics.
Like the other treatments featured above, benzoyl peroxide is well established as a scientifically proven treatment for acne.
It’s listed as a common acne treatment in countless reviews, has an excellent safety record and a usage record, making it one of the oldest and most thoroughly studied acne treatments still in use today.
Topical benzoyl peroxide comes in several strengths and formulas. For mild acne, the 2.5% formula is usually your best, since it has similar effects to stronger formulas with fewer potential side effects.
Like all acne treatments, it pays to be patient with benzoyl peroxide -- on average, it takes about eight to 10 weeks to produce a noticeable improvement in your acne symptoms.
Another over-the-counter acne treatment, salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that can help your skin more effectively strip away dead skin cells, preventing the blocked pores that can contribute to acne outbreaks.
Salicylic acid is neither a retinoid nor an antibiotic. It doesn’t affect sebum production or kill any of the bacteria that can cause blocked pores to become infected.
However, there’s some limited scientific evidence that it can help with exfoliation and keep your pores clean and clear.
This includes a 1992 study of salicylic acid pads, which showed that salicylic acid outperformed benzoyl peroxide as an acne prevention agent.
Other studies show that salicylic acid performs significantly better than a placebo in the treatment and prevention of acne.
Like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid is something you’ll need to take continuously if your goal is to combat acne breakouts.
Once you stop using salicylic acid, your skin’s exfoliation process will go back to normal, meaning it’s possible for acne breakouts to occur again.
Salicylic acid is easy to find -- it’s used as an active ingredient in hundreds of over-the-counter acne products, including facial washes and cleansers.
Is salicylic acid enough for moderate to severe acne? Possibly, but likely not. However, if you’ve got mild to moderate acne and want a treatment that’s less intense than retinoids and hormonal medication, salicylic acid is certainly worth considering.
Like beta-hydroxy acids, alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) work on acne by exfoliating the top layer of skin to get rid of dead skin cells and prevent clogged pores. AHAs are also often marketed for anti-aging purposes, such as smoothing wrinkles.
Glycolic acid and lactic acid are among the most common AHA products available over-the-counter. Similar to beta-hydroxy acids, glycolic acid and lactic acid don’t kill bacteria or affect skin oil production, so their primary value lies in exfoliating the skin.
There is some data supporting the efficacy of AHAs, at least for more mild forms of acne. A clinical study published in 2010 found that alpha-hydroxy acids were an effective therapy for treating mild to moderate acne in participants.
If you do use an AHA treatment or toner, you will likely need to continuously use the product for maximum effect. You should also be sure to invest in good sunscreen for your face because the FDA recommends sun protection for anyone using AHAs.
If you have sensitive skin, certain acne treatments might actually worsen your acne. Using too many acne products at the same time or exfoliating too often can cause skin dryness. While it may seem counterintuitive if you already have oily skin, irritated dry skin can actually cause excess oil production, which can clog pores and increase the presence of blemishes.
If you find that your acne gets worse when you try acne treatments, you have a couple of options. One is to switch to a gentle facial cleanser and moisturizer, try that for a month or so, and see if your acne improves.
You may be able to get away with just using acne spot treatments as needed. Alternatively, you can visit a dermatologist for medical advice. A health care provider may be able to prescribe or recommend an acne treatment that will not irritate your skin.
Ultimately, the best acne treatment depends on the root cause of your acne. If your acne only shows up around your period, you may be battling hormonal acne that can be treated with birth control.
If you have deep, painful cysts, you may need a prescription retinoid, like tretinoin or isotretinoin. For occasional anti-inflammatory acne, a drugstore salicylic acid product or acne spot treatment might do the trick.
You may need to consult a healthcare professional who can identify the cause of your acne and help you find the best possible treatment.
Whatever acne treatment you choose, finding a skin care routine that promotes your overall skin wellness is important. Overusing acne products without a good cleanser and moisturizer may leave you with irritated, dry skin and actually cause more breakouts.
Try to find a gentle face wash, or a face wash recommended for people with acne-prone skin. Complete your skin care routine for acne with a hydrating moisturizer with hyaluronic acid and sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher). Protecting your skin from the elements and the sun with a good moisturizer can promote skin health.
You can also learn more about using birth control medication to treat acne in our guide to birth control and acne breakouts.