Everything You Need to Know About Common Acne Product Ingredients

Kristen Bousquet
altrendo images / Getty Images

altrendo images / Getty Images

For those of you who have struggled in the past or are currently struggling with acne—whether it’s a pimple here and there or a face full of them—you’re probably already frustrated because you have to leave the house with pesky little zits on your face, but you may also find that you’re frustrated about the fact you don’t even know how to treat them.

Since the world of beauty product ingredients is confusing in general, the amount of acne-clearing ingredients that are in products is even more confusing. Benzoyl Peroxide, Salicylic Acid, AHAs, Sulfur. You probably see these ingredients and wonder, first of all, what the heck are they, but also which one is best for treating your acne?

Luckily, we’ve created this guide to the most common acne product ingredients and hopefully this will help you find the perfect product to be the solution to your acne issues.

Salicylic Acid
What is it: 
This multifunctional ingredient can work wonders for acne. It addresses many of the systemic causes of blemishes since it’s an effective exfoliant, anti-irritant and anti-inflammatory (since it’s derived from aspirin).

Is it good for my acne? This BHA can penetrate into your pores – which means that it can exfoliate inside your pores as well as on the surface, making it a great ingredient to use when you’re looking to reduce blemishes that you already have – even blackheads and whiteheads. For those with blackheads, you may really benefit from using salicylic acid since it will exfoliate and peel away layers of dead skin cells to help unclog to get rid of blackheads.

Benzoyl Peroxide
What is it: This common acne ingredient works by reducing the amount of acne-causing bacteria by getting inside the pore and killing the bacteria.

Is it good for my acne?
This ingredient will seriously benefit those with whiteheads. If your skin is more sensitive, it’s best to use benzoyl peroxide as a spot treatment instead of on your entire face. Just know that this ingredient does cause dryness initially and some people may experience some irritation but your skin should develop tolerance after a week or so.

MORE: The A to Z Guide to Beauty Oils

What is it: Sulfur is probably one of the oldest acne-fighters around. This gentle ingredient acts like a sponge to suck up oil from your blocked pores. As it dries out pimples it also keeps sebum production in check to make sure that future breakouts won’t be much of an issue.

Is it good for my acne?
This ingredient is great for those with more sensitive skin because of how gentle it is. Also, sulfur has a very, uh, interesting smell that most people compare to rotten eggs. To be safe, you may want to use this ingredient in only nighttime products. Your skin tone may also effect how sulfur works: Those with light skin may have their pimples come to the surface and become a whitehead quickly so they can be drained, and those with darker skin will most likely experience shrunken pimples and blackheads that fall out on their own.

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
What is it: Glycolic Acid is probably the AHA that you’ll see most commonly.  AHAs are exfoliants that work above the surface (while BHAs exfoliate below the surface). You can use AHAs for reducing hyperpigmentation, acne marks, light wrinkles, smooth out skin texture and improve acne while giving a nice glow. Exfoliating increases skin cell turnover which will help prevent your pores from getting clogged (then causing breakouts).

Is it good for my acne? Those who already have a lot of acne may like AHAs to exfoliate because it’s less physically abrasive than using a manual exfoliant since manual exfoliants can break open acne and spread bacteria. For those with more sensitive skin, an AHA cleanser may be more ideal since the ingredient will be washed off your skin quicker than using an AHA in something that stays on longer, like a toner.

MORE: Dull Skin? Fix It Instantly

Tea-Tree Oil
What is it: Tea tree oil is an essential oil obtained by steam distillation of the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia, a plant that is native to Australia. It contains a constituent called terpinen-4-ol that is said to be responsible for most of tea tree oil’s antimicrobial activity. Because this essential oil can kill bacteria, it’s recommended to apply it to acne lesions since it can destroy the bacteria that causes the acne.

Is it good for my acne? Tea tree oil can penetrate the blockage between your skin and your sebaceous glands making it great to disinfect pores and dry out whiteheads and blackheads. Those who may be sensitive to redness or dryness may take interest in using tea tree oil since when it was tested against benzoyl peroxide it was shown to be equally as effective over time without the annoying side effects of dryness or redness.