Over-the-counter acne products: What works and why

Find out how acne products differ, what main ingredients to look for and how to use them for best results.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Many over-the-counter (OTC) acne products are available to treat mild to moderate acne or periodic breakouts. They include cleansing lotions, gels, foams and towelettes, leave-on products, and treatments or kits. How do you know which one is best for you?

Before you decide, learn how OTC acne products work and what ingredients to look for. Then develop a gentle skin care regimen to treat and prevent acne.

The Food and Drug Administration warns that some popular OTC acne products can cause a serious reaction, including throat tightness and swelling of the face, lips or tongue. This type of reaction is quite rare, so don't confuse it with the redness, irritation or itchiness that may occur where you've applied such products.

Active ingredients in acne products

Acne products work in different ways, depending on their active ingredients. Some OTC acne products work by killing the bacteria that cause acne inflammation. Others remove excess oil from the skin or speed up the growth of new skin cells and the removal of dead skin cells. Some acne products do a combination of these things.

Here are common active ingredients found in OTC acne products and how they work to treat acne.

  • Benzoyl peroxide. This ingredient kills the bacteria that cause acne, helps remove excess oil from the skin and removes dead skin cells, which can clog pores. OTC benzoyl peroxide products are available in strengths from 2.5 to 10 percent. Possible side effects include dry skin, scaling, redness, burning and stinging, especially if you have sensitive skin. Be careful when applying benzoyl peroxide, as it can bleach hair and clothing.
  • Salicylic acid. This ingredient helps prevent pores from becoming plugged. OTC salicylic acid products are available in strengths from 0.5 to 5 percent. Possible side effects include mild stinging and skin irritation.
  • Alpha hydroxy acids. Two types of alpha hydroxy acids that are used in nonprescription acne products are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Alpha hydroxy acids are synthetic versions of acids derived from sugar-containing fruits. They treat acne by helping to remove dead skin cells and reduce inflammation. Alpha hydroxy acids also stimulate the growth of new, smoother skin. This helps improve the appearance of acne scars and gives the impression of smaller pores.
  • Sulfur. Sulfur removes dead skin cells that clog pores and helps remove excess oil. It's often combined with other ingredients, such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or resorcinol. Products containing sulfur may cause dry skin. And some products have an unpleasant odor.
July 09, 2015 See more In-depth