8 Best Ingredients for Acne-Prone Skin

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 11, 2021
3 min read

Acne is a cause of agony for many people. It affects not just teenagers but also adults. With so many skin care products available that treat acne, it’s important to know what ingredients to look for and to avoid.

Benzoyl peroxide is a widely used acne treatment. It can be found as over-the-counter or prescription medicine, in the form of a gel, cream, lotion, face wash, and soap.

Benzoyl peroxide works by killing the bacteria on your skin. It also helps to unclog pores by removing dead skin.

Doctors often recommend starting with skin care products that have benzoyl peroxide. It’s usually well-tolerated by most people.

But one disadvantage of benzoyl peroxide is that it causes bleaching. This can lead to bleaching of hair and discoloration of fabrics like bed linens and clothes.

Many over-the-counter and prescription skin care products for acne-prone skin contain salicylic acid. It’s a beta hydroxy acid, which is an exfoliant and removes dead skin. This helps prevent your pores from becoming clogged. 

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) treat acne by removing dead skin cells and reducing inflammation. They also improve the appearance of acne scars by stimulating the growth of new skin. Two types of alpha hydroxy acids found in acne products are glycolic acid and lactic acid.

Sulfur is often combined with other ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. It removes dead skin cells that clog your pores. It also helps remove excess oil (sebum) that may cause breakouts.

Sulfur traditionally has a rotten egg smell, so you may want to test sulfur products to make sure they don’t smell unpleasant.

Adapalene is a topical retinoid used to treat acne. Retinoids are Vitamin A-based products that are best known for treating aging skin. 

Adapalene can help prevent new breakouts and unclog pores. It’s available in different forms and strengths. A 0.1% gel can be found as an over-the-counter treatment. You can get a prescription for a 0.1% lotion, cream, and 0.3% gel. 

A naturally occurring compound, azelaic acid has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It also helps prevent buildup of keratin, a protein that can clog pores.

Officially known as ascorbic acid, Vitamin C is an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties. It can help decrease redness and swelling in acne-prone skin. 

This is an essential oil made from the leaves of the tea tree. A gel with 5% tea tree oil may be as effective on acne as one containing 5% benzoyl peroxide. But tea tree oil may not work as fast as other ingredients. 

Side effects. Some of these ingredients, like salicylic acid, adapalene, and azelaic acid, have common side effects, including: 

  • Dry skin
  • Skin irritation like scaling and redness

To avoid these side effects, try a product with lower strength ingredients. In some rare cases, there may be allergic reactions to these ingredients. Seek immediate medical help if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Swelling of face, lips, or tongue
  • Hives or itching
  • Skin rash
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling faint

Be patient. Give any acne treatment at least four weeks to work. It can sometimes take a few months or longer before your skin begins to clear.

Sun protection. Many of these ingredients may make your skin sensitive to the sun. Try to stay out of the sunlight. If you can’t, wear sunscreen and protective clothing. 

If your skin is prone to acne, be careful with products that contain occlusive agents. These are ingredients that form a film on your skin surface that helps to seal in moisture. They can be found in many moisturizers and can be greasy.

These occlusive agents include: 

When buying skin products, sunscreens, and cosmetics, look for those that say “non-comedogenic” or are water-based, as it won’t clog your pores and make your acne worse.

Be careful with hair products too. If you use hair care products that contain oil, the oil can make its way to your skin. This can lead to clogged pores and acne.