The 12 Best (& We Mean Best!) Acne Treatments To Clear Every Kind Of Spot
Treating acne is a journey (and a lifelong one for most people!). Not only can it crop up in different shapes and sizes, but a plethora of triggers can spawn a sudden breakout. Plus, the inordinate number of products out there meant to defeat, fight, attack (insert other combative word here) your pimples can make your head spin.
While we recommend you see a derm to target your specific breakouts, we can certainly help you wade into the overwhelming market. Here, find the best acne treatments for every kind of spot, with expert-approved ingredients that actually put in the work.
What causes acne?
Each zit is technically born the same way: Dead skin, oil, and bacteria stick together and block the pores. Specifically, an overgrowth of the bacteria Cutibacterium acnes1 can cause the release of inflammatory cytokines and messengers to create clinical inflammation, which results in a breakout.
From there, the spots can develop into various types of blemishes. Some are more red and painful (like papules, pustules, cysts, and nodules), while others are much subtler mounds (like blackheads, whiteheads, and subclinical breakouts). The conversation can get pretty technical—and it helps to have some sort of visual guide—so you can read all about the different types of acne here.
In terms of what causes acne, some common culprits are stress, seasonal changes, diet, hormonal fluctuations, and reactions to certain skin care or makeup products. Everyone's skin is different, though, so it's important to discover your personal triggers.
On that note: There are so, so many ways to reach your skin goals, and topical treatments only scratch the surface in terms of remedies. Let's not forget that treating acne requires a much more holistic view, as diet, stress, and sleep can all affect the complex condition. However, selecting an acne treatment that best suits your skin type and concerns is a solid first step since it can also help prevent pesky breakouts in the first place.
How we picked
Acne-fighting & hydrating ingredients
Treating acne requires a blend of antimicrobial, exfoliating actives and soothing, hydrating players. Completely stripping the skin is a recipe for increased oil production (and often more acne!), so we made sure each product listed is equally purifying and moisturizing.
Different skin types require different approaches: For example, those with sensitive skin might want to choose a milder AHA for their acne treatment. Below, you’ll find options that suit each specific skin type.
Some prefer to fold in acne-fighting actives during the cleansing step, while others are more partial to a mask, serum, or spot treatment. We included a variety of products so you can fold them into your routine wherever you please.
Consulting a dermatologist is the best way to determine the best acne treatments for your skin. If you'd like to do some of your own research before heading to the derm, know that these ingredients and products listed have been backed by experts.
mbg's picks for the best acne treatments of 2023:
Best toner: Perricone MD No:Rinse Intensive Pore Minimizing Toner
- Has an immediate mattifying effect
- Some reviewers report an unpleasant smell
Active ingredients:Salicylic acid
This toner delivers a glorious tingly feeling without stripping your skin barrier. It's formulated with salicylic acid to penetrate deep into pores and break up oil and gunk, as well as a copper complex to enhance firmness, which can help those pores appear smaller (since sagging skin can lead to large pores). If you're looking for a lightweight, leave-on tonic to immediately reduce excess shine, you'll love this gently purifying number.
Best serum: Alpha-H Liquid Gold Midnight Reboot Serum with 14% Glycolic Acid and Tripeptide-5
- Fights fine lines, acne, and dark spots
- Oily skin might want BHAs
Active ingredients:Glycolic acidRetinol
This potent serum includes 14% glycolic acid, an AHA that does its work on the surface of the skin rather than penetrating into the pores (like BHAs). That means it's great for post-breakout concerns like hyperpigmentation, as it easily sloughs off pigmented skin and encourages cell turnover. You'll also find 1% granactive retinoid, a highly advanced retinoid that is easily recognized by your skin cells (meaning less irritation), as well as peptides to smooth and plump skin. It's the ultimate serum for aging and acne-prone skin.
Best for dry skin: Biossance Squalane + 10% Lactic Acid Resurfacing Night Serum
- Gentle enough for easily irritated skin
- Not the best for deep, inflammatory acne
Active ingredients:Lactic acid
Lactic acid is an A+ exfoliator for those with dry skin, as the AHA has a larger molecular size, meaning it doesn't penetrate the skin as quickly (resulting in less irritation). Then to make sure the formula stays extra hydrating, Biossance folds in sugar-derived squalane to protect the skin's moisture barrier. Just know that because lactic acid is a larger molecule, it does most of its work up top rather than deep in the skin; that's why board-certified dermatologist Ellen Marmur, M.D., once told mbg that she commonly recommends lactic acid to clients who want to treat comedonal acne like blackheads, as they are more surface level.
Best for oily skin: Versed Just Breathe Clarifying Serum
- Helps with active acne and dark spots
- Not the best for sensitive skin
Active ingredients:NiacinamideWillow bark extract
This clarifying serum features willow bark extract (a naturally occurring BHA) to break down sebum in your pores, niacinamide to balance oil production and help fade lingering dark spots, and a zinc blend to calm inflammation. The key to keeping oil-prone skin supple and healthy is to balance sebum without stripping the skin (which only leads to more oiliness), and this serum toes the line just beautifully.
Best for body acne: Soft Services Smoothing Solution
- Provides quick results
- Might irritate sensitive skin
Active ingredients:Lactic acid
Treatments for body acne haven't always been as sophisticated as their facial counterparts—until this potent serum came along. Similar to the serums you may apply to your face, this lactic-acid- and urea-infused solution penetrates deep into pores to address textural concerns on your body. Plus, it contains aloe, centella asiatica, and hyaluronic acid to help hydrate and soothe.
Best for sensitive skin: Youth To The People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant
- Exfoliates without irritation
- Formula can separate in the bottle
Active ingredients:Salicylic acidMandelic acid
Mandelic acid has the largest molecular size (even larger than lactic acid!), which may make it more tolerable for sensitive skin types. Plus: "Mandelic acid has a unique affinity for oil compared to other AHAs," board-certified dermatologist Cynthia Bailey, M.D., founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care, tells mbg about the ingredient. "It can penetrate deeper into oily pores and has even been shown to reduce [excess] sebum production and oily shine." This toner also includes 2% salicylic acid and 1% gluconolactone, a polyhydroxy acid (PHA) that is known for being a really gentle exfoliator. And of course, it comes buffered with plenty of antioxidant-rich hydrators, like sunflower seed oil, panthenol, aloe, and green tea extract.
Dermatologist recommended: Glytone Acne BPO Clearing Cleanser
- Kills acne-causing bacteria
- Can be drying
Active ingredients:Benzoyl peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide is a standout ingredient that can treat angry pustules and comedonal acne (your blackheads and whiteheads). "It kills the acne-causing bacteria, P. acnes, that lives within our hair follicles, and it also helps to break up and remove dead skin cells that clog our pores," board-certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, M.D., FAAD, founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics, previously shared with mbg. However, benzoyl peroxide can also be drying, which is why derms recommend you opt for a BPO cleanser, since wash-off products tend to be gentler on the skin. You might want to stick to a benzoyl peroxide face wash in the morning, Rodney explains, especially if you want to apply a retinol at night—that way, the two won't interact.
Best spot treatment: Dr. Barbara Sturm The Ultimate Stinky Pimple Treatment
- Delivers quick results
- Mattifies the zit upon application
- Strong odor
No lie, when I first tried this spot treatment, my pimple practically vanished overnight. That's because the formula includes a blend of pre- and probiotics to nurture the skin microbiome (which is crucial when addressing inflammatory conditions like acne), panthenol and allantoin to help calm irritation and redness, and shale oil, which has been found to enhance wound healing and provide antimicrobial properties. The shale oil is what gives the treatment its funky, sulfur-like odor, but rest assured, the scent quickly dissipates once the formula dries down. (And in my humble opinion, the product's zit-shrinking abilities are well worth the pungent odor.)
Best cleanser: Skinfix Acne+ 2% BHA + Azelaic Acid + Niacinamide + AHA Cleanser
- Gentle enough to use frequently
- Some reviewers report a goopy texture
Active ingredients:Salicylic acidNiacinamideAzelaic acid
This foamy yet hydrating cleanser includes 2% salicylic acid to unclog pores, 2% niacinamide to balance oil production, and 1% azelaic acid to simultaneously brighten dark spots. Plus, azelaic acid also has anti-keratinizing effects, meaning it "breaks up dead cell plugs that cause clogged pores, blackheads, and whiteheads," Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., FAAD, tells mbg about the ingredient. Glycerin and camellia leaf extract also make an appearance to soothe and hydrate, so it won't leave your skin feeling raw or tight post-cleanse.
Best for teenage acne: Kinship Insta Swipe Lemon Honey AHA Exfoliating Pads
- Provides a fresh, clean feeling
- Can leave a sticky residue
Active ingredients:Glycolic acidWillow bark extract
Long gone are the days of alcohol-soaked, skin-stripping peel pads. Now, you can find tons of options that feature gentle exfoliators, soothing buffers, and elevated complexion-brightening actives. This Kinship option comes with glycolic acid, willow bark extract, aloe, Manuka honey, and the brand's signature probiotic blend—it's perfect for teens who crave that tingly feeling without wrecking their moisture barriers.
Best for blackheads: Boscia Luminizing Black Charcoal Mask
- Immediately gratifying
- Peel-off masks can be harsh on the skin
Active ingredients:Activated charcoal
Blackheads can be quite stubborn—it can be helpful to snag a product specifically geared toward unclogging those pesky spots. This blackhead peel-off mask includes activated charcoal, which can draw in and hold oil, dead skin cells, and dirt in its pores (thereby removing it from yours); calcium montmorillonite clay, which gently physically exfoliates the skin; and a signature blend of jojoba and willowherb to nourish and provide moisture.
Best for adults: JORI Skincare Daily Leave-On Acne Treatment Mask
- Easily absorbs and layers with moisturizer
- Benzoyl peroxide can bleach non-white fabrics
Active ingredients:Benzoyl peroxide
Joshua Zeichner, M.D., is the dermatologist behind this clean collection, which is formulated specifically with adult acne in mind. In this weightless, water-gel mask, you'll find micronized 2.5% benzoyl peroxide (micronization allows the benzoyl peroxide to penetrate deeper into the pores), alpha-linoleic acid for oil control, and saw palmetto for balance. "There's data showing that it can help control oil, so it can be beneficial in someone who has acne," Zeichner told mbg about the smart botanical.
What to look for.
When it comes to treating acne, a few anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial actives and potent exfoliators receive a ton of hype. Find some of the most well-known players below:
- Salicylic acid: Salicylic acid is one of the most popular BHAs, as the chemical exfoliant can gently dissolve dead skin cells by breaking apart the bonds that hold them together, penetrating deep into your pores and unclogging them at the source.
- Benzoyl peroxide: Benzoyl peroxide is antimicrobial—meaning it can kill acne-causing bacteria. There's tons of research2 touting it as an effective acne treatment, although it can be irritating for some skin types.
- Niacinamide: One study showed that applying a topical formula of 4% niacinamide treated moderate acne just as well as 1% of a topical antibiotic. Plus, niacinamide can help reduce oil production, which can help balance acne-prone skin.
- Azelaic acid: Azelaic acid can neutralize Cutibacterium acnes (formerly Propionibacterium acnes)3, the bacteria that infects pores and causes acne. Another small study4 found that azelaic acid can help regulate the sebaceous glands in women with acne-prone skin.
- AHAs: AHAs (like glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acids) are great for those who have more sensitive or aging skin or wish to fade hyperpigmentation on the top layer of skin. They can also help with comedonal acne (blackheads and whiteheads), which are more surface-level breakouts.
- Retinoids: Retinoids encourage cell turnover and also exfoliate within the pores, "where slowed dead cell shedding leads to enlarged pore appearance and breakouts," Ciraldo once shared with mbg.
mbg review process.
At mbg, high standards are earned—and there are no shortcuts. Our beauty editors stay up to date on the latest ingredient research and innovation. It's a dynamic, continuously evolving space, and it's important we look into the science so we can make informed choices about which formulas earn our stamp of approval (figuratively speaking).
Our high standards also come from testing products—many, many products. Our editors and writers rigorously test and research the products featured in our roundups to offer you the best, most informed recommendations. When we write reviews, you can trust we spend quality time with the formulas: We don't simply rave about products we've slathered on the back of our hand. We endorse products we've tried and loved.
Learn more about our testing process and clean beauty standards here.
Ultimately, treating acne takes time, so it's best to stick to a regimen and be patient with results. If you can see a dermatologist to craft your own specific plan, that's a great move, but these picks above can help you get started on your acne-clearing journey. Just know that these remedies won't work for those dealing with persistent cystic or nodular acne—those breakouts form deep within the skin and are very prone to scarring, so they require a trip to the derm.