The Best & Most Common Acne Medications

Common Acne Medications

You have probably come across a list of active ingredients that are common to many acne treatments. Most of us are used to seeing Clearasil and Proactiv ads on TV but it is important to know what they contain so we are better informed before buying them.

Used to treat mild and moderate acne, the effectiveness of over-the-counter medications lies in the products’ active ingredients. If you will look closely enough, OTC acne products, even the most common ones, pick one or two from a just a handful of the usual active ingredients. For example, benzoyl peroxide reduces acne whereas salicylic acid helps correct abnormal skin shedding.

Most big-name acne systems use just one or the other but do combine them with other ingredients like moisturizers and skin toners. To choose what to use, look at what the ingredient is expected to fix. Note that you will not find the popular acne drug tretinoin (brand name Retin-A) as an ingredient in these OTC products simply because it is obtained by prescription only.

Alcohol and acetone

Found together in some over-the-counter medications used to treat acne, acetone works as a degreasing agent whereas alcohol contains mild antimicrobial properties. When used alone, acetone tends to have no effect.


Sulfur has been used for more than 50 years in combination with other agents, such as alcohol, salicylic acid, and resorcinol and is found in many over-the-counter acne medications. While long used to treat acne, it is not exactly known how sulfur works to clear acne, although it is believed to be due to its drying and skin shedding properties. Because of its unpleasant odor, sulfur is not frequently used alone as an acne treatment.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is effective in treating non-inflammatory acne lesions. It helps to correct the abnormal shedding of skin cells and unclogs pores to resolve and prevent lesions. Salicylic acid does not have any effect on sebum production or the p. acnes bacteria. Like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid must be used continuously. Once stopped, pores clog again and acne returns. Salicylic acid is found in many over-the-counter acne products, including lotions, creams and pads. It may be irritating to the skin.

Benzoyl peroxide

The mainstay of over-the-counter acne treatment, benzoyl peroxide works to clear up acne by removing dead cells from the skin to prevent comedones (white heads and black heads). It was one of the first agents found to be effective in treating mild acne and has been used in acne treatment for decades. Again, use of benzoyl peroxide should be continued after acne clears to prevent new lesions from forming.

Its principal side effect is excessive dryness of the skin, so be sure to follow directions and not use more than stated unless otherwise instructed by a physician. Care should also be taken when applying it to avoid its bleaching effect. Benzoyl peroxide has been known to bleach hair, sheets, towels, and clothing. For this reason an old shirt should be worn after applying benzoyl peroxide to acne on the back or chest. Benzoyl peroxide is available over-the-counter as a lotion or gel.

Herbal, organic, and natural products

Over-the-counter products labeled “herbal,” “organic,” or “natural” are marketed as acne treatments but their effectiveness has rarely been tested in clinical trials. The value of such treatments is generally unknown.


A popular ingredient in over-the-counter acne medications, resorcinol controls small acne lesions and is frequently combined with sulfur in products at the drugstore.


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