5 Products That Shrink Breakouts — Without Drying Out Your Skin

I won't put moisturizer on my face without reading the finely printed ingredient list. The more I can pronounce, the better; the ones I can't, I google. But when it comes to acne treatments, I've never paid much attention. (Probably because my infrequent breakouts always feel like desperate 911 situations.) The package usually broadcasts a percentage for the star ingredient — benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid — and I figure that's all I really need to know.

But recently, I brought home Nerd Skincare's Acne Treatment and was surprised that the bottle said it was free of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. How will it work, I wondered, slightly embarrassed that as a beauty editor, I didn't know there was another OTC acne-fighting ingredient regulated by the FDA: sulfur. I've used sulfur in clay masks before, but never thought it was effective enough for a spot treatment. Had I been missing out? Should I quit benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid for good? I reached out to dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, for answers.

"Both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are great acne fighters," says Dr. Zeichner, but "both can be potentially irritating to sensitive skin, and benzoyl peroxide can bleach your fabrics, shirt collars, sheets, and pillowcases."

He recommends a 2.5% concentration of benzoyl peroxide (10% is the maximum). However, the FDA warns against using benzoyl peroxide if you have very sensitive skin or frequent sun exposure — which I do.

My breakouts have never been severe enough to warrant the strong ingredients, yet I keep using them — often at the highest concentrations — despite the fact that they leave my face dry and red. Sulfur, says Dr. Zeichner, is a great alternative for people like me, who experience mild acne or the occasional breakout, but can't tolerate benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Just don't expect it to work miracles.

"Sulfur can certainly calm down acne, but for moderate-to-severe cases, you will likely need a harder hitter that contains benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, or even a prescription product like Aczone or Epiduo Forte," he says.

Ahead, check out my five favorites for fighting acne the tender, loving way.

The acne fighter that started it all, this lotion promises that "it won't burn your face or stain your pillow."

It lives up to the claim, but the gentle formula (which uses sulfur to kill bad bacteria) requires a couple extra days to clear up a zit. Dab it on before bed and in the morning under your makeup — it's got the consistency of a light serum, so it'll never cake or pill.

Nerd Acne Treatment, $85, available at Nerd Skincare.
After washing your face, pour a little of this toner into clean hands and pat it on your skin. It starts as a gel, then turns into a liquid. The silky formula is chock-full of clarifying bentonite clay, witch hazel, and manuka extract to fight zits while green tea and cucumber soothe irritated skin.

Sunday Riley Martian Mattifying Melting Water-Gel Toner, $55, available at Sephora.
This exfoliating cleanser heats up as you slowly massage it into your skin, giving the deep-cleaning effect of a steam session without the risk of redness, burning, or dryness. It's got grainy brown sugar particles to slough off dead skin and sulfur to fight acne, so it does a whole lot more than just wipe off foundation.

Caolion Pore Blackhead Steam Foam Cleanser, $23, available at Sephora.
You won't find a higher concentration of sulfur in any other OTC acne treatments, so it's safe to say this mask packs a punch. If you have oily skin, you can get away with using it all-over twice weekly, but those with combination or dry skin will have better luck using it as a spot treatment.

Peter Thomas Roth Therapeutic Sulfur Masque, $47, available at Ulta Beauty.
This lotion employs a smaller concentration of sulfur (3%) to fight mild acne, making it a great fit for those with sensitive skin. Smooth it on after cleansing day and night — just remember to add SPF in the morning.

Clearogen Sulfur Acne Lotion, $32, available at Sephora.
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