Over the Counter Acne Medications

Acne Can Be Treated With Over the Counter Products

Acne is the bane of many a teenager’s existence and the most common skin condition worldwide. Maybe you never had more than a pimple or two at a time, but chances are you found even the smallest acne lesion distressing and a cause for concern. Personally, I was always a picker. Any bump, pimple, or blackhead was immediately a target that my hands just couldn’t stay away from. Lucky for me I never got more than a few pimples at a time, but many teenagers and adults struggle with this condition. Most people will try several different over the counter acne miracle cures. But sufferes of acne know that acne lowers self-esteem and makes you self-conscious in a time when everything already embarrasses you.

Some kids were lucky because their parents took them to the dermatologist, and they could benefit from professional advice and prescription treatments. Some kids were left to fend for themselves with home remedies like putting toothpaste on a zit (I’ve done it) or avoiding pizza for fear of “transferring” the grease to their face. Most of us tried several over the counter acne products at some point or another in the hopes of finally obtaining those results we dreamed of. Unfortunately, the drug store acne treatment aisle is replete with choices, which makes it hard to select the right product with the right ingredients. Worry no more! Keep reading to learn more about the top over the counter acne products that actually work.

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide, the same active ingredient found in the ever popular Proactiv system, is a chemical that can kill the bacteria that cause acne (P. Acnes). This helps to treat the acne lesions you have right now and prevent more from appearing in the future. You can find anything from 2% to 10% available over the counter. The optimal concentration is 2.5%, anything higher than that increases the chances you’ll have skin irritation. (1) A higher concentration doesn’t increase the effectiveness in killing the bacteria, but it does equal more unwanted effects (i.e. irritation and peeling). Benzoyl peroxide comes in pre-moistened wipes, creams, gels, and foamy washes. It’s going to be harder than you think to find a brand that doesn’t automatically include the maximum 10% benzoyl peroxide. Some brands I found online include Proactiv and Paula’s choice daily skin clearing treatment.

over the counter acne benzoyl peroxide


If you are using a topical antibiotic as prescribed by your dermatologist then you also have to use a benzoyl peroxide wash/scrub/wipe in order to make sure you’re not breeding resistant bacteria on your face. Over time the topical antibiotic is able to kill all the bacteria that are susceptible to that antibiotic, but there may be some mutant resistant bacteria present that are able to live on your skin even with the topical antibiotic. Using benzoyl peroxide adds the extra punch the topical antibiotic needs to make sure there aren’t resistant bacteria left. This is the same reason behind why you always have to finish your course of antibiotics as prescribed instead of stopping the antibiotics once you feel better.

Salicylic and Glycolic Acid

Both of these ingredients work by exfoliating the dead layer of skin cells that sits on the surface. When these dead cells build up you can have clogged pores. These exfoliating acids can be used in conjunction with benzoyl peroxide, but user beware that you will have more peeling and irritation than you’re used to. You should try incorporating one product into your skin care regimen at a time and seeing how your skin reacts. Either acid is equally effective but you may note less irritation with salicylic acid.

neutrogena oil free salicylic over the counter acne


Salicylic and glycolic acid also come in wipes, creams, cloths, pads, washes, you name it. The most common brands sell only salicylic acid in the range of 0.5 to 2%. Most brands I found online have 2% salicylic acid.

Be gentle with your skin. Over eager scrubbing can make your acne much worse. Gentle exfoliation done routinely will work better than aggressively scrubbing every once in a while.


Sulfur is used in skin care products due to its anti fungal and antibacterial properties. Like benzoyl peroxide, it will also kill the bacteria that cause acne and help unclog pores. These come as spot treatments and masks that can be used on one or a few pimples at a time. It’s important to use sulfur with other treatments like the benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid to see results. However, sulfur containing products tend to smell bad (think rotten eggs) so they’re not as popular as other topical treatments. Options include: Clearasil’s adult tinted acne treatment cream and the Murad line’s Pore Perfection.


I’m sure you’ve heard me tout the miracles of tretinoin (Retin-A) for anti-aging and acne, but tretinoin is a prescription product. You can pick up its weaker cousin in the drug store aisle without a prescription. Vitamin A derivatives, like tretinoin and retinol, work by increasing the turnover of skin cells. This means you shed your old dead cells faster and pores are thus less likely to become clogged.

over the counter acne skinceuticals retinol 0.5


Retinol isn’t as effective as tretinoin because it needs to be converted to tretinoin (aka retinoic acid) in order for it to work on the skin. Tretinoin delivers the active ingredient straight to where it’s needed. Retinol is a precursor that relies on your body’s enzymes to convert it to the active form, and that can take a while. Retinol is unstable and easily degraded when exposed to air so it may not be available long enough for your body to get to work in converting it. Sunlight makes retinol compounds inactive so apply at night. Although it’s much weaker than its prescription cousin, retinol can still dry your skin out as it promotes cell turnover. You should definitely use a moisturizer if that’s the case.

Shop around for the retinol product with the highest concentration because this definitely varies by brand. Some brands to look into are: Roc’s deep wrinkle night cream and Skinceutical’s retinol 0.5.

Over The Counter Acne Medications Take Time

Not seeing results right away? I’m sorry to say that this stuff doesn’t work overnight. You need to be religious about a skin care routine for at least four weeks before you can decide something isn’t working. It may take even eight weeks in order to see maximum results. And once your acne finally clears does that mean you can take a holiday from using all of these products? The answer is no. You must continue with your steadfast regimen if you want to keep your clear skin. You may notice over time that you get less flare-ups and your skin is too dry from your original acne treatment. Only then can you consider cutting back on a few products.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Neutrogena, Clean & Clear, Proactiv, or CVS brand. You need to turn the bottle over and read the ingredients list in order to make a good choice.

What’s your regimen for treating acne? Do you use both prescription and over the counter products?


  1. Decker, Ashley, and Emmy M. Graber. “Over-the-counter acne treatments: a review.” The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology 5.5 (2012): 32.