I love my dermatologist. Really. But, put acne and a trustworthy doctor together and you'll find yourself with a long list of potential remedies to rid yourself of the accursed. Since I was 11, I've used what feels like everything: Vitamin E pills, Accutane, extractions, Differin, rolling cotton swabs dipped in liquid nitrogen over my face (seriously, an amazing chill), Tazorac, and my two current mainstays, Clindagel, and Retin-A.
All of which is to say, my skincare regimen has always been straightforward, clinical, and largely medically prescribed. Maybe indicating why, as of late, I've felt the need to not only take better care of my skin, but also a more independent approach. Slightly more luxurious purchases feel like the difference between the sheets of my childhood bed and the ones I bought for my first mattress: a matter of liberating adult decision-making where frivolity and quality can be combined.
But wading into the waters of independent acne prevention requires a brief course of study. Mainly, learning the difference between two of the most common active ingredients available over the counter: benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Though both affordable, they are not interchangeable! Jordana Mattioli, licensed medical esthetician at CompleteSkinMD in New York City, explains each in depth below.
What is it? Salicylic Acid is considered a BHA (beta hydroxy acid) — a great ingredient to treat acne or the occasional blemish. It exfoliates to remove dead skin cells inside the pore and also on the surface of the skin. Best of all, it's an anti-inflammatory (derived from aspirin) so it reduces redness.
What's it good for? It is best for black heads and large inflamed spots on all skin types, especially those prone to oil and redness.
What percentage should I use? The percentage can range from .05 to 2 percent in over-the-counter products—for mild acne .05 to 1 percent is fine, but for stubborn acne look for 2 percent. But don't stop there—the pH is just as important. The optimal pH should be around 3 to 4.
Also, this ingredient works best in a leave on product like a toner, gel, or lotion. When found in cleansers, it just isn't left on the skin long enough to be effective.
What is it? Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial ingredient that gets inside the pore and kills the bacteria causing acne and inflammation. It works best on whiteheads. But use with caution: it can bleach clothing and other fabrics on contact.
Who's it best for?
It's safe for all skin, but people who are sensitive should only use it as a spot treatment.
What percentage should I use? The percentage of benzoyl peroxide ranges from 2.5 to 10 percent. Always start with lowest concentration, and work your way up if your skin doesn't respond. Starting higher percentages right away can result in irritation and flaky, dry skin.
Some recommended products:
- Clinique Acne Solutions Emergency Gel-Lotion
- La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Action Acne Treatment
- Paula's Choice Regular Srength Daily Skin Clearing Treatment with 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide
- Neutrogena Clear Pore Skin Cleanser/Mask
Of course, no product has ever kept me from checking in with my derm every now and again..they work, but I find, when dealing with acne, it's best to stay humble and always revert to the professionals.
Photographed by Tom Newton.
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