Which Acne-Fighting Ingredient Is Right For You?

Whether you’re a longtime cystic-acne sufferer or just the victim of an occasional pimple, it seems like an innocent-enough solution to rush out to the drugstore and pick up any old breakout fighter you can get your hands on. After all, you want to get rid of that thing, fast.
Turns out, banishing blemishes isn’t so clear-cut. Using the wrong active ingredient can actually exacerbate breakouts, as well as add a host of new issues: irritation, sensitivity, rashes, and allergic reactions. Fortunately, it’s easy to choose the ingredient you should be using — once you properly identify the type of acne currently bombarding your visage. Two experts, New York City dermatologists Eric Schweiger, MD and Jennifer MacGregor, MD, weigh in on which acne-repelling ingredients you should toss into your shopping cart. Click through to find the most effective skin saver for you.

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Salicylic Acid
Use if: You see small blackheads and whiteheads on the surface of your skin. These breakouts are called comedonal acne, which forms when oil and old skin cells clog your pores. “This is the type of acne common in teenagers,” says Dr. MacGregor. “It responds best to exfoliation — like with salicylic acid — and if the pimples are small or fine, they can typically clear without scarring.”
Benzoyl Peroxide
Use if: Your blemishes are red, raised, and painful to the touch. Dr. Schweiger routinely prescribes benzoyl peroxide to patients who have this type of acne. “It’s inflammatory acne, or what is traditionally thought of as pimples and cysts,” he says. Make sure you treat these pesky blemishes quickly to avoid scarring.
Topical Retinoids
Use if: You have pimples, and you also want to receive anti-aging benefits. “When blocked pores get inflamed under the skin, and the [bumps become] red and painful, they respond well to topical retinoids,” says Dr. MacGregor. Both prescription retinoids, like Retin-A, and over-the-counter options speed up cell turnover and promote collagen creation to reduce wrinkles.
Oral Antibiotics
Use if: Instead of responding to other methods, your acne is worsening. “I will often add an oral antibiotic if acne is moderate or severe” on top of a benzoyl-peroxide treatment, says Dr. Schweiger. Ask your dermatologist about drugs like tetracycline, erythromycin, or minocycline.
Use if: You have severe, cystic acne. “Cystic acne is characterized by deeper, painful bumps, and can lead to severe scarring,” says Dr. MacGregor. “Oral Accutane may be necessary if this type does not respond to other therapies.” Accutane has worked for millions of people, but proceed with caution: It has some serious potential side effects, and you'd have to jump through a few hoops to get a prescription.
Tea Tree Oil
Use if: Benzoyl peroxide has worked for you, or you’re looking for a natural option. Dr. Schweiger is a big believer in tea tree oil. “Clinical studies show tea tree oil to be as effective as benzoyl peroxide, but with fewer side effects,” he says. “It is a natural anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial ingredient, and has become a favorite of natural skin care followers.” Plus, blemish-ridden skin can be incredibly sensitive, often as a result of chemical treatments. Tea tree oil is far less irritating.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Use if: Your T-zone is suffering from clogged pores, or you have sensitive skin. “AHAs are gentle chemical exfoliants that can help treat or prevent blocked pores,” says Dr. MacGregor. Even sensitive skin can tolerate low concentrations of them, she points out. They include glycolic and citric acids, among others, and are available over-the-counter.

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