Ingredients Your Acne Cream Must Have—and the Ones It Shouldn’t

Natasha Burton
Girl applying face cream

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There are so many products and choices for battling acne, but most of them are geared toward teenage skin—meaning that they can be drying and irritating for those of us who are (thankfully) well past puberty.

The best way to choose the right blemish-fighter for you is to read the label—and fully understand what you’re putting on your face. “Acne can be both frustrating and difficult to deal with, so it’s always important to know both the products you’re using and how to use them in order to achieve fresh, vibrant and healthy-looking skin,” says board certified dermatologist Dr. Jill Waibel, M.D.

Keep an eye out for these four key ingredients that will blast those zits into oblivion and be sure to avoid some that experts say may actually make your skin worse.

Ingredients You Want:

1. Retinoids

Retinol, Retin-A and retinoids are “a holy grail” for acne as they exfoliate skin, decrease inflammation and prevent future breakouts, Waibel says, adding that she recommends using products with these ingredients nightly for best results.

Rachel Nazarian, M.D. at Schweiger Dermatology Group agrees, noting that tretinoin (a retinoid) helps to regulate the skin cells, decrease oil production, and even help with the dark stains that acne can cause.

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2. Low-dose benzoyl peroxide

This one is an oldie but goodie, Nazarian says because, “it helps kill bacteria on the skin that is related to acne formation.” However, be sure to check the dosage before buying says Andy Bosselman, founder of Arithmetic, a line of acne products geared specifically for mature skin. “Most acne products are too strong for the dryer, more sensitive skin of adults,” he says, adding that you should choose a benzoyl peroxide product that has no more than 3 percent.

3. Tea Tree Oil

According to Bosselman, studies have shown that tea tree oil is almost as effective as benzoyl peroxide at clearing skin. “It takes a little longer to work but it’s generally better tolerated,” he explains.

4. Natural skin soothers

When adults get pimples and blemishes, they tend to last longer, Bosselman says, meaning that you’ll likely need to use acne products longer… meaning that your skin is more likely to dry out from using said products. To protect your skin, he recommends looking for products that include witch hazel and natural moisturizers, like shea butter, which can prevent peeling and irritation.

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And The Ones You Don’t:

1. Irritating additives

Nazarian warns against buying acne products containing parabens, which can trigger an allergic reaction in susceptible people, and cause an irritating, itchy rash. Bosselman says you should also steer clear of sulfates, triclosan, antibiotics, and phthalates, which can be irritating as well.

 2. Alcohol

Using alcohol-free acne products will be a little more comfortable for people with sensitive skin, Nazarian says. “Alcohol is drying to skin and since the other active ingredients are already somewhat drying, the combination of those ingredients and alcohol can be doubly-tough for skin,” she explains. “Dry skin becomes inflamed and can crack, making the use of these topicals difficult.”

3. Oils

Other than tea tree oil, it may be safer to avoid trendy oils (like argan) if your breakout level is more severe, Waibel says. “There is not a lot of reliable clinical data regarding the use of argan oil for acne,” she explains. “Oils can aid in improving some skin conditions, but if the intended result is to rid your skin of acne, piling oil on top of acne only clogs pores more.”