Acne Fighting Ingredients

With all the different acne treatments on the market, it can be hard to decide which one to use. Rather than simply listening to the marketing hype, you should check out the active ingredients. The active ingredients can vary in strength and effectiveness, but they all work to help get rid of acne. Many ingredients can cause adverse reactions, especially to those with sensitive skin issues or allergies, so make sure to do your research. Here are some of the most common ingredients found in acne treatments:

Alpha Hydroxy Acid

Alpha hydroxy acid works by exfoliating the skin to eliminate the dead skin cells that clog pores and cause acne blemishes. The most common alpha hydroxy acid in over-the-counter acne treatments is glycolic acid. Glycolic acid is used in higher concentrations for chemical peels. This chemical compound causes increased sensitivity to sunlight, and can also irritate skin. If you use an acne treatment containing alpha hydroxy acid or glycolic acid, it is recommended that you wear a broad spectrum sunscreen and limit sun exposure.

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide works by clearing out pores and eliminating acne-causing bacteria. Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most common acne-fighting ingredients, and it can be found in the majority of products on the market. This ingredient has been used to treat acne for more than 80 years. Concentrations of benzoyl peroxide vary from 2.5% to 10%, depending on the product and the type of acne being treated. Many people starting a benzoyl peroxide treatment report experience a drying effect, which goes away once their skin has acclimated.

Beta Hydroxy Acid

Beta hydroxy acid is another name for salicylic acid. Beta hydroxy acid is gentler than alpha hydroxy acid, and is less likely to cause inflammation. For more information, please see Salicylic Acid.


Isotretinoin is a prescription-strength acne treatment which is only prescribed for moderate to severe acne that cannot be treated with other acne treatments. Isotretinoin reduces sebum (oil) production and eliminates dead skin cells to prevent pores from clogging. Isotretinoin must be taken over the course of several months under a doctor’s supervision. Women taking isotretinoin are required to take prescription birth control as part of their treatment, since isotretinoin causes severe birth defects. In addition to causing birth defects, isotretinoin can cause other adverse reactions. NOTE: Do not confuse isotretinoin and tretinoin. For more information, please see Tretinoin below.


Retinol works by stimulating cellular regeneration to eliminate dead skin cells that can clog pores and cause acne blemishes. It can also be used to treat wrinkles and age spots. Retinol can cause increased sensitivity to sunlight, so individuals using a retinol-based acne treatment should use sunscreen and avoid excess sun exposure.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is another name for beta hydroxy acid. Salicylic acid works by softening keratin and helping the skin to shed damaged cells before they accumulate and clog pores. It is effective on whiteheads, blackheads, and inflamed blemishes. Most products require only a 1% concentration to be effective, although more stubborn acne outbreaks may require a 2% concentration. Salicylic acid is gentler than glycolic acid and is less likely to cause irritation.

Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil functions as an antiseptic that kills off acne-causing bacteria and unclogs pores, much like benzoyl peroxide. In addition to eliminating any bacteria that is currently present, tea tree oil can also prevent the growth of new bacteria. Most products contain a 5% concentration of tea tree oil, as higher concentrations can cause irritation and redness.


Tretinoin works by increasing cell turnover to both unclog pores and eliminate dead skin cells to prevent future acne blemishes. This ingredient can irritate skin and increase sensitivity to sunlight. If you use an acne treatment that contains tretinoin, it is recommended that you use a moisturizer that contains sunscreen and limit sun exposure. NOTE: Do not confuse tretinoin and isotretinoin. Isotretinoin is available by prescription only.


Triclosan works by eliminating the bacteria that causes acne. This anti-bacterial ingredient continues to work even after the rest of the product has been rinsed away. Most products contain a concentration of 0.5% triclosan. This ingredient is frequently used alongside benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid to provide a more complete acne treatment.

* For more information on products that include these ingredients, see our anti-acne product comparisons.

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