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.