The Best Acne Treatment

Hit your zits with a one-two punch

The 30-Second Review

Treating acne can be a months-long exercise in patience finding the right set of products for your skin. We read the double-blind studies, then talked to dermatologists and aestheticians to see which kits have the right combination of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to really work — and not make your acne worse.

Great Kits
Best Overall

This twice-daily three-step kit includes a cleanser, an anti-redness exfoliant, and a leave-on treatment. It is lightweight, fragrance-free, and treats your breakouts with TLC.


Nobody thinks popping pimples is a good idea. But it’s just so satisfying — mostly because you can actually see something happening. Contrary to the marketing promises of “blemish banishers” and “zit zappers,” immediate results are not the trademark of acne treatments, a frustrating truth to anyone suffering through a breakout. And while pimples are personal (your stress-induced spots will look and act differently than your best friend’s breakout), the best acne treatments will include a regimen of products to hit all of acne’s root causes. Our top pick, Paula’s Choice Regular Strength Clear Acne Kit, is a three-part system designed to unclog pores, heal breakouts, and soothe redness.

Acne vulgaris is the catch-all term for everything from angry red lesions to tiny white bumps, which are the results of hair follicles and their sebaceous glands becoming blocked and inflamed — how vulgar indeed. Genetics plays a big part in who gets acne and how severely, but each blemish can be blamed on some combination of sebum production, a bacteria called Propionibecterium acnes (P. acnes), plugged follicles, and inflammation. Finding a good treatment is really about finding the right combination of ingredients to troubleshoot each of those issues.

Our Picks for the Best Acne Treatment

Best Overall

Paula’s Choice Clear Regular Strength System This twice-daily kit achieves a solid balance between fighting acne while also preserving and protecting your skin.

This system might not have the most products. And its percentage of active ingredients may not be the highest. But this twice-daily three-step kit — which includes a cleanser, an anti-redness exfoliant, and a leave-on treatment — is concise without cutting corners.

Don’t let the lack of any active ingredients in the Pore Normalizing Cleanser throw you off. This gentle gel is designed just to cleanse, not treat, which is a good thing: The Nurse Practitioner study emphasizes the importance of washing with mild cleansers in conjunction with topical acne medications to combat or avoid excessive skin irritation. This one is water-based and fragrance-free, and uses sodium laureth sulfate (as opposed to its harsh cousin sodium lauryl sulfate) to eliminate any chance for irritation.

This three-piece set may not be the most comprehensive acne solution available, but we liked the balanced approach to fighting acne while also protecting skin.

The Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution is mostly water, but its 2 percent salicylic acid is enough to eat through oil and slough off the dead skin cells clogging your pores — and it boasts a higher concentration than nearly every other kit we looked at. It sloshes out quickly (so have your cotton balls at the ready), but stroking it over your face and neck per the instructions is pure heaven. It’s cooling on the skin and leaves a lingering tingle that never turns into a burn. Sodium hyaluronate, the super-moisturizing humectant we fell in love with in our review on the best face moisturizer, also caught our eye sitting smack dab in the middle of the ingredients list.

Rounding out the Clear Acne kit is the Daily Skin Clearing Treatment, an all-over 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide cream that also touts calming bisabolol and allantoin to alleviate the dryness and irritation that can crop up mid-treatment. Anyone frustrated with oil-slick skin will also love this part of the regimen — it creates a satin mattifying effect, instantly transforming shininess into a glow.

The three-piece set doesn’t come with an SPF, but Paula’s Choice has one in the line, the Clear Ultra-Light Daily Fluid SPF 30+. “Sun protection is really important, especially with acneic skin,” says Townsend. “In many cases, stronger acne products can make the skin photosensitive to the sun.” This isn’t your normal gloppy white sunscreen. Its fluid formula slips over tender skin, doesn’t need a ton of rubbing in, and also leaves a mattifying finish.

If you give the Regular Strength kit a try and don’t see the results you want, Paula’s Choice also has an Extra Strength Clear Acne Kit that boosts the Daily Skin Clearing Treatment up to 5 percent benzoyl peroxide (and replaces the sodium hyaluronate in the exfoliant with green tea extract) to give your acne a real kick. But we recommend starting with the regular strength version. “When it comes to strong products, less is more,” Townsend says.


Proactiv+ 3-Step System Proactiv offers a number of kits, but this is the one to get — the combo of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid will provide a solid one-two punch.

All of Proactiv’s regimens are heavy on the benzoyl peroxide, and the Proactiv+ three-step kit is no different: a 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide wash, a 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide gel, and a 0.5 percent salicylic acid moisturizer.

The Pore Targeting Treatment gel and Complexion Perfecting Hydrator moisturizer slip on nicely, with the former powered by skin-loving glycerin and the latter by a whole slew of delicious ingredients, including licorice root extract, sodium hyaluronate, bisabolol, and allantoin. We are iffy on the Skin Smoothing Exfoliator face wash, though, and not only because the microbead granules can be harsh on active breakouts. “Acne products that are washes will tend not to work as well as leave-on or rub-in products,” explains Dr. Green. “Think about it. How well can a product work when rinsed off a few seconds after you put it on?”

Proactiv offers a number of acne kits, but Proactiv+ is the one to get thanks to better ingredients and a lack of unnecessary steps.

The other downside to Proactiv+ is that the bottles are small. Like, half the size of Paula’s Choice small. Combine that with its recommended two- or three-times daily application and you’re going to be going through a lot of kits.

If you do pick Proactiv, this is the kit to get — both teen kits have unnecessary spot treatments and classic Proactiv (without the plus) doesn’t have the one-two punch of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.

Other Acne Treatments to Consider

Dermalogica Clear Start Kit This five-piecer was sitting pretty in our number one spot until we realized that only the teeny travel-size option was sold as a set.

Dermalogica sells its full-size Clear Start products a la carte (all at around $20 — this line is definitely not made for the thrifty) and there are even more options than the five in the travel kit. The products themselves are gorgeous, with a mix of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, plus all-natural heavy hitters like tea tree oil and witch hazel. Even better: In addition to the wash, toner, moisturizer, and treatments, the kit includes an acne-safe (read: oil-free) sunscreen in its lineup.

Dermalogica’s five-piece set definitely impresses, but the only kit option available features tiny travel-size products.

Neutrogena Complete Acne Therapy System A long-time drugstore favorite that includes a sunscreen.

This three-piece set scores points for including sunscreen, but misses the mark with its Skin Polishing Acne Cleanser. It’s the only product in the kit with salicylic acid, and you end up washing it all off anyway. A recent “formula improvement” in the acne control lotion has left customers leaving less-than-pleased comments on the Neutrogena website too.

While the inclusion of sunscreen is appreciated, Neutrogena’s three-piece set didn’t quite stack up to our top picks.

Did You Know?

The intensity of the active ingredients matters, but you can’t compare acne treatments on that alone.

“You unfortunately cannot determine the strength of a product strictly by the percentage of its active ingredients because how well a product works depends on how well its inactive ingredients help it penetrate the skin,” explains Dr. Green. “In other words, a 2 percent benzoyl peroxide may be more effective than another brand’s 5 percent benzoyl peroxide because there are other ingredients helping out.”

When we asked what those types of other ingredients are, Dr. Green said there were no clear answers there either — skin is too subjective. “I think the best answer is to use one that feels good and rubs into your skin well without over-drying it,” he says. When trying new acne products, start with small percentages (especially of benzoyl peroxide), and pay close attention to the whole experience. The more comfortable it is to apply, the more likely you are to keep up the regimen.

Because getting into a routine is key: You’re in this for the long haul.

Every expert we spoke with said the most critical part of combatting acne is combatting it every day. “The only way to make any medication work is to use it on a daily basis,” says Dr. Green. Jessica Fitz Patrick emphasizes that it really comes down to what you can maintain for the long term: “Kits are great because they take out all the guess work — you just follow the instructions. But if four steps is going to be too many for you to keep up week after week, you’ll be better off finding one that has fewer treatments.”

That’s right. Any acne treatment is a weeks-long experiment that you’re conducting with your skin. Acne is slow to heal, and in some cases, it can get worse before it gets better (nearly every benzoyl peroxide product we looked at emphasized the likeliness of irritating acne further, and starting off with a lighter application). April W. Armstrong, a doctor at the University of California Davis Health System, recommends waiting at least one month before you deem a product ineffective, and Townsend agrees.

In most cases, acne products need to be used for at least 30 days before you can begin to ascertain its efficacy. Some skin and acne types may see noticeable results in a few days and end up totally clear in just a few weeks. Others may take several weeks to see the slightest change, or need to have their regimen adjusted as their skin adapts. Treating acne can often be a months-long process.

More isn’t better.

Impatience for acne to be better right now usually results in less-than-healthy habits. Your pimples need TLC too. That 2013 study on acne vulgaris found that, in an attempt to dry out acne lesions, patients often use too many products or apply excessive amounts to problem areas, resulting in further irritation and overdrying the skin. Vigorous scrubbing and using harsh exfoliants (remember that St. Ives Apricot Scrub we were all crazy about in the early 2000s?) can make acne worse by rupturing whiteheads and blackheads, and turning them into painful red ones. And remember: No matter how satisfying it is, picking and popping your zits will also increase their inflammation and opportunity for infection. Resist!

The Bottom Line

We love Paula’s Choice Regular Strength Clear Acne Kit for its balance of active and inactive ingredients — plus the option to upgrade to an Extra Strength version — but you may have to experiment to find out what works best for your breakouts. We recommend trying something new if you don’t see improvement after six weeks.

Take Action

Best Overall

Paula’s Choice Clear Regular Strength System This twice-daily kit is concise without cutting corners.

Take stock of your spots. Are your blemishes a majority of red pimples or white bumps? For the former, tailor your regimen to a benzoyl peroxide-heavy ingredients list, like Proactiv+ 3-Step System. For the latter, Paula’s Choice will be a better place to start.
Check the labels on your makeup. Acne treatments can be made moot if you pile on pore-clogging cosmetics. Look for labels that state non-comedogenic — or get started with our review on the best foundation.
Talk to a skincare pro. If your acne is severe, painful, or refusing to get lost, you may just be beyond what an over-the-counter treatment can do. Not only can a professional set you up with the really powerful stuff, but also Fitz Patrick explains that “working closely with an aesthetician or dermatologist means you can keep tweaking a routine to make it work best for you.”