• February 27, 2018 - We've touched up this page again, adding additional clarity around different types of acne and updating our table to make it easier to identify what kind of acne you have, what's causing it, and how you can treat it.
  • January 24, 2018 - In an effort to keep our reviews useful and trustworthy, we’ve updated this page to be more transparent about price in our top picks and provide more honest information about their benefits and drawbacks, making it easier for readers to find the products that work best for them.
  • March 28, 2017 - Paula’s Choice confirmed that starting mid-May, triclosan will no longer be included in the cleanser of our top pick, Paula’s Choice Clear Regular Strength System.
  • February 3, 2017 - In September 2016, the FDA released a studystating that triclosan, an antibacterial agent, is no longer recognized as safe or effective. Triclosan shows up in the cleanser of our top pick, Paula’s Choice Clear Regular Strength System. We’ve reached out to inquire if Paula’s Choice will be updating its cleanser formula. In the meantime, if you’re worried, go for our runner-up, Proactiv+ 3-Step System.

The Best Acne Treatment

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 Clear Regular Strength System, is a three-part system designed to unclog pores, heal breakouts, and soothe redness. We liked the dual approach of fighting acne and protecting your skin, making this kit a great starting point for your acne treatments. ($46)

If the ingredients in Paula’s Choice aren’t enough to clear up your acne, consider one of the other treatment kits we liked. The Proactiv+ 3-Step System goes heavier on active ingredients, but will cost you more — even though it’s only $30 for a 30-day supply, you’ll have to use the products two or three times a day to see the best results, which means you’ll run through your supply faster than other treatments.

We also like the Dermalogica Clear Start Kit — in fact, we liked it so much, it almost made our top pick until we realized that the company only sells kits with travel-sized products. At $42, it’s not the cheapest of our recommendations, and if you buy the five products separately (so you have more than a few days’ supply), you’ll be paying closer to $100. But if you’re able to spend more on your skin care, we loved the combination of active and natural ingredients. For a less expensive option, there’s also the Neutrogena Complete Acne Therapy System, which contains a cleanser, control lotion, and sunscreen for just $24.

Our Picks for the Best Acne Treatment

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

If you’re used to seeing advertisements for acne treatments using five or six different products to clear up blemishes, you might be surprised that a simple three-step kit is our top pick. In fact, we favored Paula’s Choice for its simplicity. 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.

Paula's Choice Regular Strength for Acne

We liked the minimalist, 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.

Runner-Up
Proactiv+ 3-Step System
Proactiv
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 Plus Product Shots

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, which ultimately means spending more money on your treatment. If Proactiv is the only thing that works for you, it may very well be worth that price, but re’d recommending starting with Paula’s choice to see if you can get the same results at a cheaper price.

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 crucial combination of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.

Others to Consider
Dermalogica Clear Start Kit
Dermalogica
This five-piece set has everything we want in an acne kit, but only the teeny travel-size option is 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. We were surprised how much the products appealed to us: We didn’t pay attention to the aesthetics of most acne treatments, but the Clear Start caught our eye in a god way. More importantly, we loved the mix of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, plus all-natural heavy hitters like tea tree oil and witch hazel. And in addition to the wash, toner, moisturizer, and treatments, the kit includes an acne-safe (read: oil-free) sunscreen in its lineup.

Dermalogica Product Shot

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

Others to Consider
Neutrogena Complete Acne Therapy System
Neutrogena
A cheaper drugstore favorite that includes a sunscreen.

Most of our other recommendations will cost you more than the average acne treatment. If you’re looking for something that can treat your breakouts without breaking your budget, try the Neutrogena Complete Acne Therapy System. This three-piece set scores points for including sunscreen, which will help protect your skin while it’s sensitive from treatment.

But know that the cheaper price point isn’t free of drawbacks. The Neutrogena kit 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.

Neutrogena Product Shot

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

Steps to Success

Know what you're dealing with.

Hormonal acne
  • Inflammation (most commonly along the chin and jawline), appears cyclically with menstrual cycles for women
  • Can be treated with antibiotics or birth control pills
Subclinical acne
  • A small number of blackheads and whiteheads that are barely visible
  • The first signs of a blemish
Comedonal acne
  • Blackheads and whiteheads that might be a little red
  • Visible blemishes
Mild acne
  • Several inflamed (read: red) pimples
  • Fewer than 20 whiteheads or blackheads
  • Fewer than 15 inflamed pimples
  • Fewer than 30 pimples that aren’t all inflamed
Moderate acne
  • Many inflamed pimples and pustules
  • 20-100 whiteheads or blackheads
  • 15-50 inflamed pimples
  • 20-125 pimples that aren’t all inflamed
Severe nodular acne
  • Inflamed pimples and pustules plus a few deep nodules (those solid suckers you can feel under your skin)
  • More than 5 cysts (hard knots of skin)
  • More than 100 whiteheads or blackheads
  • More than 50 inflamed pimples
  • More than 125 pimples that aren’t all inflamed
Severe cystic acne
  • Many nodular cystic pimples with signs of scarring

When trying new acne products, start with small percentages (especially of benzoyl peroxide).

“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. The more comfortable it is to apply, the more likely you are to keep up the regimen.

Get into a routine: 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.

Handle products with care.

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!

Choose your makeup carefully too, especially if used to cover up pimples. 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.

If you’ve found that your skin is too raw and sensitive to handle any treatment at all, don’t despair: there’s still hope. Thi Nguyen, program development specialist in dermatology at pharmaceutical research organization Biorasi, told us: “Patients with sensitive skin are not obligated to use topical products. Modifications like limiting dairy consumption and eating foods that are low on the glycemic index scale can be helpful.” Because skin issues tend to be a combination of genetic, dietary, and external factors, finding a solution to your acne requires more astute sleuthing than brute-force doses of chemicals.

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.”

The Best Acne Treatment: Summed Up