To help you save time, money, and frustration, we combed through the archives to round up the best over-the-counter acne treatments that dermatologists say actually work to kick zits—surprise or otherwise—to the curb. Keep scrolling for the ones worth investing in right now so that you have exactly what you need on hand the next time an unexpected pimple rears its ugly (red, painful, inflamed) head—no overnight shipping costs required.
Best for doing it all
This serum combines two of the most derm-recommended acne-fighting ingredients—retinol and AHAs—to exfoliate skin and stimulate cellular turnover. The duo works together to fight off current breakouts and prevent future ones from popping up, making it well worth the $140 splurge.
Best for breakouts that just won't quit
Of all the acne treatments out there, none is quite as beloved as Differin Gel… so much so that board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, has said a retinol is the one product she’d save from her house in a fire. Differin Gel has 0.1 percent adapalene—the strongest over-the-counter retinoid money can buy—and works by stimulating cell turnover in order to replace the dead, pore-clogging cells on the surface of your skin with healthy ones. In addition to being great for facial acne, it can also be repurposed for use on your back, shoulders, and butt, which means that a single $13 bottle might just be all you need in your acne-fighting routine.
Best for sensitive skin
Because many acne-fighting ingredients tend to be drying and irritating, treating acne on sensitive skin can be a delicate balance—which is why derms recommend sulfur to get the job done. “Sulfur calms inflammation and lowers levels of acne-causing bacteria without causing inflammation, so it’s useful if you have sensitive skin,” Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in NYC, said in a recent Instagram video about the best acne ingredients for different skin types. The “triple threat” ingredient improves redness, diminishes acne-causing bacteria, and helps to shed dead skin cells, which means it can do away with all kinds of zits without causing dryness or irritation in the meantime.
Best for body acne
The best place to start your body acne treatment? In the shower. This double-duty scrub combines skin-sloughing beads with chemically exfoliating salicylic acid, which work together to melt off and clear away dead skin cells. Aside from the fact that it’s only $10, derms love it because it really, really works.
Best for blackheads and whiteheads
There’s a good reason why this OG acne-fighter has stood the test of time. Its star ingredient is salicylic acid, which Dr. Pimple Popper herself (aka board-certified dermatologist Sandra Lee, MD) has said “can do wonders as a spot treatment.” The beta-hydroxy acid is small enough to get deep down into your pores, effectively clearing away all of the dead skin cells, debris, and oil that tend to accumulate within them (and ultimately cause acne). Because salicylic acid has chemically exfoliating properties, in addition to quashing zits, this treatment can also help speed up the fading of dark spots.
Best for inflammatory acne
If you’re dealing with inflammatory acne—aka those big, angry, red pimples that seem to have minds of their own—you need an ingredient that will help kill the acne-causing bacteria beneath the skin’s surface. Enter: benzoyl peroxide, which this cream offers in spades. It combines the powerhouse antibacterial with lipo-hydroxy acid, which aids in exfoliation and helps to clear away dirt, dead skin cells, and oil.
Best tech-y treatment
There are few things the ZIIP device can’t do. Though it’s primarily known for its sculpting abilities, it also happens to be great for clearing up acne. It uses microcurrent technology to zap zits before they even begin… and can help diminish their appearance after they’ve popped up. According to derms and estheticians alike, if you’re going to invest in a single at-home skin-care device, you’re going to want to make it this one.
Best for acne scarring
Dr. Gohara calls this drugstore cream the “Olympic all-star” of acne treatments, thanks to the fact that it promotes wound healing in four different (and effective) ways. It starts working its magic before a scar starts to form, and includes ingredients like silicone, cicalfate, and hyaluronic acid to prevent your pimples from leaving permanent marks.
Best for preventing acne
When dead skin cells pile up on the surface of your skin, there’s a higher risk of acne-causing bacteria getting trapped beneath the surface, which is why derms recommend regular exfoliation as an important part of a pimple-prevention routine. “Treating the full face means that you can prevent acne rather than just treating pimples that you already have,” says Dr. Zeichner. These peel pads—which are among Well+Good editors’ favorite products of all time—combine alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids to melt away dead skin cells, leaving your complexion clear and bright.
For more intel on how to deal with adult acne and the best acne treatments out there, check out the video, below.
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