The Best Ingredients to Treat Acne

We’ve discussed the difference between pimples and acne, how they form, and what causes them. Now, let’s cover how to treat acne and random breakouts with some tried and true ingredients. Then, we’ll take you through a full skincare routine (AM and PM) for acne or breakout prone skin.

The Best Ingredients to Treat Acne

There isn’t one magic ingredient to wipe out all pimples and acne - sorry, we REALLY wish there was! Because blemishes are formed when dead skin cells, excess oil, and bacteria accumulate, there are multiple ingredients needed to fight off a breakout and/or a pimple. Below are some classics that always show up, and in many expert’s opinions, get the job done (please note that if acne and breakouts are consistent and frequent, we always recommend seeing a dermatologist).


1. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA’s)

AHA’s are typically derived from natural substances like citrus (citric), milk (lactic), apples (malic), grapes (tartaric), and sugarcane (glycolic). These ingredients are all water-soluble acids which support the skin’s moisture levels. They work by melting the intercellular glue that holds skin cells together and this helps the skin’s natural exfoliation. AHA’s can be better for sun-damaged, sensitive, and dry skin types because they exfoliate the skin’s surface gently and don’t penetrate as deep as a BHA.

AHA’s work well for acneic skin because they gently remove the dead skin cells that have accumulated on the surface of the skin which can lead to clogged pores. Look for gentle cleansers that contain ingredients like glycolic acid to help slough off dead skin cells on a daily basis. For more intensive treatments, upping the percentage of glycolic to 10% can help boost the exfoliation process, if desired.

2. Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA’s)

BHA’s are naturally derived from willow bark and are also known as salicylic acid. This is an oil-soluble acid and can be preferred by people with oilier skin, because they help thin and strip oil from the skin. They penetrate deeper into the pores and help thin the oil and draw out  the excess (think of it like a Roto-Rooter for the pores).

Spot treatments and face washes typically contain salicylic acid because it can be a drying ingredient; sometimes, it doesn’t help to have too much of a good thing. A spot treatment will work to draw out the excess oil at a targeted location. A face wash with BHA’s will strip oil on the face, but it is quickly washed off so as not to be too over-drying.

3. Retinols

Retinol is a form of Vitamin A that helps speed up the skin’s cell turnover process. As a result, newer skin cells rise to the surface of the skin quicker, preventing dead skin cells from getting trapped in pores, clogging them, and causing more breakouts. If skin is oily, and less debris is getting caught in pores and stretching them out, pores appear smaller, and skin looks smoother.

Using a retinol serum overnight will help speed up the skin’s cell turnover. If skin is drier, pairing it with a retinol night cream will add additional hydration and active ingredients to the skin.

Learn more about retinol products here.

4. Sulfur & Charcoal

Sulfur and charcoal work like magnets to draw out impurities from the skin. Beyond just thinning and removing oil (like BHA’s) these ingredients help absorb excess oil, and in the case of sulfur, even act as a gentle exfoliant. Combined with other ingredients (like clay) they add a gentle exfoliation effect that removes excess oil, toxins, and dead skin cells for a softer feel and radiant glow. They help reduce pore size and reveal brighter even tone and texture.

Because sulfur and charcoal need to sit on the skin and dry down to be truly effective, they’re typically found in spot treatments and masks. These ingredients can be drying and it’s typically recommended they’re used a few times a week, and not daily. Another option is a face wash with charcoal which is more gentle to drier or sensitive skin types. 

5. Benzoyl Peroxide

The ingredients mentioned above help treat dead skin cells, clogged pores, and trapped oil, but, there is still one thing that needs to be eliminated to remove a blemish: P. Acnes bacteria. This is the bacteria that grows within a clogged pore and results in inflamed skin and white pus. A great ingredient to kill P. Acnes Bacteria is benzoyl peroxide. Think of this ingredient like a big bacteria killing bomb - once it comes in contact with P. Acnes Bacteria, the bacteria is destroyed.

Typically, benzoyl peroxide is found in face washes, treatment products, and creams. It can be very drying, cause the skin to peel and crack, but can also work very quickly. Due to the active nature of this ingredient, making sure skin has proper hydration is key. Even if the skin is oily, using a hydrator like hyaluronic acid helps protect the skin’s moisture barrier and adds needed protection and moisture. Learn more about the why everyone needs to hydrate their skin here.

Full Skincare Routine for Acne, and Breakout-Prone Skin

Typically, skin that is prone to breakouts is more oily, so we’re recommending products that treat breakouts as well as help control oil. If you’re looking for a straight acne treatment line, we recommend this.

If you’re experiencing breakouts, and your skin is more dry, there are other options. Learn more about a routine for dry skin here, and mix and match textures and consistencies that feel right for your skin and contain the ingredients listed below.

Morning Skincare Routine

  1. Start with a cleanser that is foamy or gel-like in texture to help control oil. Avoid creamy cleansers as they are typically formulated to help retain oil on the skin. Typically, oilier skins like to cleanse in the morning, as they wake up with noticeably oily skin in the morning.
  2. Use a toner with witch hazel that further helps control oil production and shine. This will also help balance the pH levels of the skin and allow the skin to better soak up serums and treatment products.
  3. Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum is perfect for oily and acneic skin. Apply one to two drops onto the palms of the hands and press into the face, neck, and chest. This adds hydration without feeling greasy or oily. Feel free to layer another serum with salicylic acid to help control oil in the pores.
  4. A lightweight eye cream is recommended to smooth fine lines around the eyes, add moisture, and allow eye makeup to be applied more evenly.
  5. Follow with a lightweight moisturizer or just use the Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum mentioned in point #3 if skin is especially oily.
  6. Always, always follow with a broad spectrum sunscreen. We recommend an SPF of 30 or higher and applying about 1 tablespoon to the face, neck and chest. Make sure to find a lightweight/non greasy formulation (think gel or spray on) that won’t trigger more breakouts.

Evening Skincare Routine

  1. Thoroughly remove your makeup with makeup removing wipes or micellar water. The easiest way to get more breakouts is to not remove a day’s worth of dirt, oil, and debris from the face. Follow with a cleanser to further remove residual makeup as well as dirt and pollutants. Skin that is oiler would probably enjoy an Activated Charcoal cleanser to help control oil and remove impurities.
  2. Skin with blemishes needs gentle exfoliation (try to avoid gritty textures that can tear the skin and cause more bacteria and oil to spread). Two to three times a week, use a Mineral Enzyme Exfoliant to gently remove dead, dry skin cells.
  3. Use a charcoal mask a few times a week all over the face or as a spot treatment to help draw out impurities from the skin and control oil.
  4. Follow with a serum. Use hyaluronic acid to further bind water to the skin while sleeping. The more hydration skin has, the less it will need to produce more oil. Feel free to mix in a retinol serum to aid in cell turnover.
  5. Don’t forget to apply your eye cream at night. The skin around the eyes is the thinnest on the face and should be treated with care.
  6. Use either a hydrating night cream or a retinol cream. At night, it’s best to use the heaviest textures as the skin is working on repairing and regenerating cells and the additional moisture helps lock in all of the active ingredients just applied. If this feels too heavy, stick with the Pure Hyaluronic Acid as your moisturizer.
  7. Sweet dreams!

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