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Every Ingredient That Can Help Fight Acne


Pimples—got ‘em? If you don’t have them now, at some point in your life you did. Or maybe you will soon! Anything can happen. Anyway, think back to what you did when you discovered that first pimple on your face. Chances are you looked for something to get rid of your zit... But what? There’s the stuff in the orange tube, the blue tub, the stinky mask, the pads that burn your face, and the expensive clay that dries out your skin. So many options. All different, all a jumble of different ingredients. You're forgiven for being confused and a tiny bit superstitious when it comes to choosing just one. Because what you really need more than a good product is a product breakdown. So why don’t you let ITG help you out with that? With this pimple ingredient guide? Where each ingredient is grouped by the exact kind of pimple it treats? And examples of where you can find those ingredients in real products. Doesn’t that sound helpful? Let’s scroll together.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

As seen in: Pixi Glow Tonic
Best for: Whiteheads
AHAs are a class of acids that duh, exfoliate skin. Glycolic, lactic, malic, and mandelic acids are the most popular examples of AHAs. You know how pimples are caused by blocked pores? Old dead skin cells can block those pores, and AHAs work to loosen and remove those dead cells with very little effort. They also lighten post-acne scars—a twofer! They’re water-soluble, not oil-soluble, so they're best applied to a clean face. One other thing to note, however—AHAs can be irritating to sensitive skin, but lactic acid, a gentler AHA, is a safe bet.

Azelaic Acid

A seen in: Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster
Best for: Whiteheads
Oh look! Another acid. This one, as they say, is different. There’s plenty of research to demonstrate what azelaic acid can do, but the how is still a mystery. Let’s stick to what we know: It makes pimples smaller, less red, and it evens skin tone. That means that after it’s squashed your zit, you won’t have to worry about post-acne scarring. Good for rosacea, too!

Benzoyl Peroxide

As seen in: Neutrogena On-the-Spot
Best for: Whiteheads
Benzoyl peroxide has a very specific set of skills. Skills it has acquired over a very long career. Skills that will make it a nightmare for acne. It’s antibacterial—with a particular focus on killing the bacteria that leads to zits. Some might find it drying and a source of redness. The standard low concentration is 2.5% and is less irritating (and less effective) than 5% and 10% formulations. But you don’t need to go for the 10% guy—studies show that it works just as well as the 5%. And yet buyer, beware! Benzoyl peroxide is known to bleach, including your bedsheets and brows.


As seen in: Omorovicza Deep Cleansing Mask
Best for: Blackheads
Clay, mud, dirt. It’s all more or less the same. Think of these earth ingredients as magnets—and the thing they’re drawn to is the dirt and oil in your pores. So, give them what they want! Masks work best when it comes to clay ingredients because it gives the clay more time to lock onto pore-sludge, but if you have dry skin and you’re scared that a mask will make it dryer, clay cleansers are an OK alternative. Or, you can use any clay mask as a spot treatment—up to you.


As seen in: Claravis
Best for: Severe cystic acne
A specific derivative of vitamin A (its isomer is tretinoin, meaning they share the same set of atoms, but are arranged differently, see below)—and a whole lot more controversial. You can apply it topically, but it’s more commonly dispensed as an oral medicine and only available via prescription. Known mostly by its former brand name, Accutane, the prescription is now distributed under several different other names (Accutane was taken off the market). It clears up acne extremely well—but at great cost. Users often describe the medication’s tendency to dry out their skin, lips, and inner mouth. Other potential side effects include rash, headache, photosensitivity, nosebleeds, achy muscles, and stomach issues. Read a much more extensive list here. You cannot take isotretinoin if you are pregnant.


As seen in: The Ordinary Niacinamide
Best for: Whiteheads, blackheads
Niacinamide—a derivative of vitamin B—is still a relatively new ingredient. The known scope of what it can do is somewhat limited. Here’s what’s on the list right now: It’s anti-inflammatory, which means it makes zits look smaller. A 2006 study concluded that niacinamide helps skin produce less oil—good news for folks prone to oil-induced zits. And here’s a nice little bonus—your pores will look smaller, too.


As seen in: Differin
Best for: Whiteheads, blackheads, cystic acne
Like isotretinoin, retinoids are also derived from vitamin A, but they're linked to fewer side effects. The three retinoids you need to know about are tretinoin, tazarotene, and adapalene. All three require a prescription, with the exception of the smaller, .1% dose of adapalene (brand name Differin), which is available over the counter. These guys are more than pimple problem-solvers: They also prevent them from forming at all. They work like most other skin acids—they speed up cell turnover to keep pores gunk-free and your skin clear. You’ll just have to wait a bit to notice real results—at least six weeks, but usually closer to 12. Another thing to consider is that you must apply retinoids every day. It's the new brushing your teeth. Or birth control.

Salicylic Acid

As seen in: Glossier Solution
Best for: Whiteheads, blackheads
It’s your old friend, Sal! This acid has been around for a while, and it’s a common ingredient in acne products—from spot treatments to all-over liquid formulas. It’s oil-soluble, so it glides past any oil on your skin and dives straight into your pores. There, it clears out pimple-causing clogs, like dirt and more oil. If your skin is pretty sensitive, there’s also capryloyl salicylic acid, which is an even gentler iteration of the original sal.


As seen in: De La Cruz Sulfur Ointment
Best for: Whiteheads, blackheads
Anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and smells like rotten eggs. But it works...really well. It's a keratolytic agent, meaning that along with killing acne bacteria, it also exfoliates—sweeping away oil and pore-clogging skin cells after each use. It absorbs oil quite well, but maybe a little too well if your skin falls on the dry side.

Tea Tree Oil

As seen in: Burt’s Bees Herbal Blemish Stick
Best for: Whiteheads
Did somebody ask for a natural solution? Here’s your best bet. Tea tree oil is antimicrobial, killing and stopping the growth of acne bacteria. It’s also anti-inflammatory, so it makes your big zits look smaller. Before you poo-poo tea tree because it wasn’t born in a lab, consider this: In scientific studies that compared tea tree with benzoyl peroxide, researchers concluded that it works just as well as BP, although it is not as fast-acting. Decisions, decisions.

Witch Hazel

As seen in: Thayers Witch Hazel Toner
Best for: Very mild acne
Witch Hazel is not your big gun against acne, but it does help to a certain degree. By now you can probably guess why—it’s anti-inflammatory. The plant is also naturally replete with tannins—you know, that red wine ingredient. Tannins contain “astringent properties,” so they’re good at getting rid of oil and zit-triggering dirt. Not much more happens with witch hazel though. At least it has a cool name.

Photo via ITG.