The range of acne spot treatments is huge, encompassing many prescription and over-the-counter options. The right choice depends on the type, severity, and cause of a person’s acne.

Quick links

This article discusses six of the best acne spot treatments, looking at the most effective ingredients and how they work. It also covers the top frequently asked questions about acne spot treatments.

Benefits of acne treatment

Around 85% of all teenagers and up to 15% of adult females have acne. The condition affects approximately 50 million people in the United States and can have a significant impact on mental health.

People with acne may experience anxietydepression, and a negative self-image. They may also develop scarring as the acne heals. Overall, effective acne treatments can make a big difference to a person’s quality of life and self-esteem.

However, finding a treatment that works can be difficult. A number of factors can contribute to the development of acne, including:

  • the presence of acne-causing bacteria on the skin
  • how much oil, or sebum, the skin produces
  • hormone imbalances
  • disorders such as polycystic ovary syndrome
  • inflammation
  • genetic factors
  • the person’s diet

Due to this wide range of causes, a treatment that works for one person may not work for another. Often, people need to try a combination of approaches to see lasting improvement.

Please note that the writer of this article has not tried these products. All information presented is purely research-based and correct at the time of publication.

Medical News Today follows a strict product selection and vetting process. Learn more here.

The following sections look at some of the best acne spot treatments and how they work. Some are available without a prescription, while others require a professional diagnosis.

It is important to note that several acne treatments increase sensitivity to sunlight. A person should always wear non-irritating sunscreen while using acne treatment.

Benzoyl peroxide

This helps kill Propionibacterium acnes, a species of bacteria associated with acne. It is available in over-the-counter creams and other products, but a doctor may prescribe a stronger version.

A product may contain 2.5–10% benzoyl peroxide. People with sensitive skin should start with a lower concentration or use wash-off products to avoid irritation and dryness.

People with mild, moderate, or severe acne who use benzoyl peroxide continuously may notice an improvement after just 5 days.

A doctor may recommend using it in combination with other topical acne treatments, such as retinoids, to increase its impact.

Best benzoyl peroxide treatment: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Acne Spot Treatment

Price $20.99 and $30.99
Skin type acne-prone, oily
Strength 5.5% benzoyl peroxide

The company claims this product can reduce the number and severity of a person’s acne blemishes, including blackheads and whiteheads.

It uses 5.5% micronized benzoyl peroxide and micro-exfoliating lipo-hydroxy acid.

According to La Roche-Posay, a person may be able to see visible results in 3 days.

The pros and cons of this product may include:

Pros:

  • potential for fast results
  • suitable for sensitive skin
  • non-comedogenic
  • reportedly recommended by dermatologists
  • affordable

Cons:

  • may dry skin
  • not approved for use in those younger than 13

A 0.7 fluid ounce (fl oz) and 1.4 fl oz tube of the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Acne Spot Treatment costs $20.99 and $30.99, respectively.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid exfoliates, removing dead cells and smoothing the surface of the skin. It may also help treat mild-to-moderate outbreaks.

In a 2018 study, researchers found that a 2% salicylic acid product was just as effective at reducing acne as more traditional benzoyl peroxide and adapalene treatment over 28 days. However, as this was a pilot study, researchers need to carry out larger trials to verify the results.

A key advantage of salicylic acid is that people usually tolerate it well, even if they have sensitive skin.

Salicylic acid products for acne typically have a concentration of 0.5–2.0%, with many strengths and formulations available over the counter.

Price $18.78
Skin type normal, oily, and combination
Strength 2% salicylic acid

This salicylic acid treatment aims to reduce the size and redness of pimples. The company writes that it dissolves oil on the skin and its 2% salicylic acid content penetrates the pores. It also contains witch hazel to soothe the skin.

A person can use this treatment up to three times per day if needed.

This product may be best suited to people with oily or combination skin and those who need to manage their skin during the day.

A person can consider the following pros and cons:

Pros:

  • affordable
  • dissolves surface oil
  • oil-free formula
  • contains witch hazel to soothe the skin
  • formulated for most skin types

Cons:

  • may not be suitable for dry or sensitive skin
  • witch hazel can cause contact dermatitis in some people

A pack of two 0.75 fl oz tubes of Clean & Clear Advantage Spot Treatment costs $18.78.

Retinoids

Retinoids are a group of substances derived from vitamin A. For acne, they work by reducing inflammation and preventing the formation of pimples.

Topical retinoids include ingredients such as retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, and tazarotene.

While a number of high-quality studies have found that retinoids are effective against all types of acne, they can cause side effects, such as dryness, peeling, and irritation. In this case, reducing the strength and frequency of the application can help.

It is crucial to note that retinoids and other forms of vitamin A can cause birth abnormalities — anyone who is pregnant or trying for a baby should speak with a doctor before using retinoid products.

Price $15.40
Skin type acne-prone, sensitive
Strength 0.1% adapalene

This retinoid acne treatment works by reducing cell turnover, clogged pores, and inflammation.

The company writes that the retinoid in this water-based formula — Adapalene — is better tolerated by users, and can be used once a day as part of a person’s morning or evening skincare routine.

According to Differin, this gel can reduce the risk of scarring and hyperpigmentation. It can also stop new acne lesions from forming by acting deep within the pores.

This product may be best for people who have frequent breakouts that they wish to manage and reduce.

A person can consider the following pros and cons of this retinoid product:

Pros:

  • approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • developed by dermatologists
  • oil-free
  • alcohol-free
  • fragrance-free
  • non-comedogenic

Cons:

  • can make acne worse at the beginning of treatment
  • can take up to 3 months to produce results
  • not suitable for pregnant or breastfeeding people
  • users must limit sun exposure while using the product

A 0.5 oz bottle of Differin Gel Retinoid Treatment costs $15.40.

Azelaic acid

Azelaic acid is mildly antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, and it may help treat acne. However, doctors are not quite sure how it has this effect. As a result, they may only recommend it as an add-on or extra treatment.

This acid is available in concentrations of up to 20%. It may also lighten darker marks left by acne as it heals.

Price $11 or $38
Skin type oily, combination, dry, and normal
Strength 10% azelaic acid

This acne treatment aims to reduce the appearance of blemishes and fade dark spots and marks caused by previous acne breakouts.

Along with 10% azelaic acid, this product also contains a salicylic acid exfoliator.

According to the company, a person can use this product on its own or mix it with other acne treatments, including benzoyl peroxide. A person can also add this product to moisturizer and use it twice per day as part of their morning and evening skincare routine.

This product may suit people who wish to combine azelaic acid products with treatments they already use.

The pros and cons a person may wish to consider include:

Pros:

  • can be mixed with other products
  • contains both azelaic and salicylic acid
  • may soothe irritation
  • may fade dark spots
  • lightweight formula
  • oil-free
  • fragrance-free
  • paraben-free

Cons:

  • azelaic acid content is not as high as prescription products

A 0.17 fl oz bottle of the Paula’s Choice BOOST Azelaic Acid Cream Gel costs $11 and a 1 fl oz bottle costs $38.Acne treatments from a dermatologist

A person will only be able to access certain treatments through a doctor. These can include antibiotic medication or the removal of acne lesions.

Topical antibiotics

Doctors prescribe topical antibiotics for mild, moderate, or severe acne, and they work by killing bacteria and reducing inflammation.

Usually, doctors prescribe topical antibiotics in combination with other treatments, reducing the chances of the bacteria becoming resistant to the medication.

A doctor may recommend clindamycin or erythromycin, both of which are effective against P. acnes and Staphylococci bacteria.

Comedo removal

Comedo removal, or extraction, involves a dermatologist removing blackheads or whiteheads.

There is limited evidence of its effectiveness, but some researchers believe that it can help manage acne that does not respond to other treatments.

A person should not attempt to remove comedones at home, as this can cause scarring and infection.

Comparison

The table below provides a comparison between each of the acne treatments discussed in this article.

Best for Pros Cons Skin type Price
La Roche-Posey Effaclar Duo Acne Spot Treatment benzoyl peroxide treatment can produce results in 3 days may dry the skin acne-prone, oily $20.99 and $30.99
Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment salicylic acid treatment dissolves excess oil maybe unsuitable for dry or sensitive skin normal, oily, and combination $18.78
Differin Gel Retinoid Treatment retinoid treatment FDA-approved can worsen acne at first acne-prone, sensitive $15.40
Paula’s Choice BOOST azelaic treatment can be added to other treatments lower azelaic acid content than prescription products oily, combination, dry, and normal $11 and $38
Topical antibiotics persistent acne long-lasting results may cause dryness, irritation, or contact dermatitis mild, moderate, and severe acne-prone variable
Comedo removal comedonal acne fast results limited evidence of effectiveness mild, moderate, and severe acne-prone variable
What to look for in an acne spot treatment

When choosing an acne spot treatment for reducing the development and appearance of acne, people can consider the following:

  • Acne severity: A person should consider the severity of their acne when researching new acne treatments. Some products are suitable for severe acne, such as topical antibiotics or retinoids, whereas others are better suited to managing mild acne.
  • Skin type: Some acne treatments may not be suitable for those with sensitive skin due to potent active ingredients. Others may dry the skin. A person should consider their skin type and allergies before using a new acne treatment, and perform a patch test to check for adverse reactions.
  • Strength: How potent the active ingredients in acne treatment are can affect how well it works. A person with sensitive skin may wish to avoid treatments containing high-strength ingredients to reduce their risk of skin irritation. Some products state that they should only be used once per day and applying the product more often can cause skin reactions.
  • Price: Some acne products come in small sizes and can be expensive. A person may wish to consider how often they will need to use the treatment, how severe their acne is, and how much of their body it affects before choosing an acne treatment.

Home remedies

Some companies sell herbal remedies for acne. However, for the most part, there is no strong evidence that these ingredients work, according to a 2016 review trusted Source.

For example, scientists have assessed the potential of the following to treat acne:

Some of these ingredients are antibacterial, while others reduce general skin inflammation. However, researchers need to carry out more studies to better understand how they work and how effective they are.

Speak to a doctor before using natural acne treatments. This is especially important for people who have preexisting conditions or are pregnant.

A person should dilute essential oils in a carrier oil, such as jojoba, at a concentration of 1.5% or less before applying it to the face.

If a person experiences any adverse reactions to natural acne treatments, they should stop using the product and speak to a doctor.

Although research suggests that essential oils may have some health benefits, it is important to remember that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor or regulate the purity or quality of these. A person should talk with a healthcare professional before using essential oils, and they should be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. A person should always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

When to see a dermatologist about breakouts

Those who have severe or persistent acne should speak with a dermatologist to discuss the cause of their acne and the best treatments for them. If a person finds that their acne does not respond to over-the-counter treatments, a doctor can advise them on the best prescription acne treatments available.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) recommends that a person sees a dermatologist if they develop cysts or nodules.

If a person experiences an allergic reaction or skin irritation after using an acne treatment, they should stop using the product and speak to a doctor.

A doctor can also help people who feel that their acne is affecting their mental health.

Frequently asked questions

Below are some of the top frequently asked questions about acne spot treatments.

How long does it take acne spot treatments to work?

Some acne products claim to produce results within a few days. However, acne products can take 3 months to work. How quickly a person can see results with an acne treatment depends on how often they use it, how potent the active ingredients are, and how severe their acne is.

What’s the fastest-working acne spot treatment?

Many manufacturers make claims that state their products can improve acne in a very short space of time.

The AAD writes that a person should give a new acne treatment at least 4 weeks to work. Some treatments can take up to 3 months to clear a person’s acne.

Can you get rid of a pimple overnight?

It is not possible to remove a pimple overnight. However, a person can reduce the appearance of pimples by lowering inflammation in the area with ice wrapped in a cloth and applying a 2% benzoyl peroxide product to the pimple. For whiteheads, a person can apply a warm compress to the area for 10 minutes a few times a day.

A person should not pop, squeeze, or pick at pimples to get rid of them, as this can cause bleeding, scarring, and increase a person’s chance of infections.

Summary

A range of ingredients can treat acne, including benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinoids. Many products containing these are available without a prescription.

However, acne treatments — even herbal ones — can cause side effects, and adverse reactions, and make acne worse, so a person should contact a doctor before trying a new acne treatment.