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Acne Skin Treatment that Really Works

Updated on July 12, 2011

I’ve been suffering from acne for more than 16 years. I had my first breakout when I was 10; I’m now 26 and have tried every over the counter acne skin treatment, from cheap drugstore products to expensive department store ones.

I worked with a dermatologist for years and tried every cream and pill short of Accutane. I used to watch those Proactive infomercials in the middle of the night, dreaming that I could be one of those “after” pictures. (Check out my Proactive review for the full story.)

A few years ago, I picked up a book that changed my skin: Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me by Paula Begoun. I wasn’t even looking for acne advice, but I found it anyway and I finally understood why all the over the counter acne products I had tried didn’t work.

The first thing that I learned in reading the book was that most acne products are too harsh and end up making your skin worse. I was using a medicate cleanser twice a day, usually followed by an alcohol-based astringent, then a salicylic acid lotion in the morning, and a thick layer of benzoyl-peroxide at night. Combine that with weekly face scrubs, masks, or acid-based peels, and it’s no wonder my skin was rebelling!

Using milder products less often had never occurred to me. I figured, my pores were full of oil and dirt and who knows what else. They needed to be thoroughly cleansed, scrubbed, and medicated or else my acne would explode into full-blown pizza face.

But a funny thing happened one summer. I went on a 4-month backpacking trip and, in the interest of packing light, I pared my skin care routine down to the basics. Plus, I got a little lazy and didn’t use all my creams and potions every day. Instead of freaking out, my skin actually calmed down. I noticed fewer breakouts and much less redness. This Paula person seemed to be on to something...

After doing some more research, trying out some new products, and throwing out some old products, I finally settled on a routine that has kept my acne under control for almost 2 years. So, without further ado, here is the acne skin treatment that finally worked for me. 

Photo by sunshinecity
Photo by sunshinecity

Acne Skin Treatment

1. A gentle, soap-free, non-medicated cleanser

My absolute favorite cleanser is the Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser. Cetaphil is famous for its purity -- this cleanser has no soaps or dyes, it doesn’t clog pores, and it doesn’t irritate skin. It’s a gel that foams nicely and removes make-up well. I use it twice a day: morning and evening.

2. An acid-based exfoliant

The most effective way to exfoliate skin is with a chemical acid: usually either salicylic acid (BHA) or alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). Salicylic acid is usually better for acne-prone skin because it cuts through the oil that often clogs pores.

Salicylic acid is widely available in many over the counter acne products but -- and this is the key -- most of these products have the wrong pH level to actually make the salicylic acid work. (This is something I learned from Begoun's book.) There’s a very short list of products that have the right pH level and let the salicylic acid do its job correctly. The one I use is the Neutrogena Acne Stress Control 3-in-1 Hydrating Acne Treatment. It has 2% salicylic acid. Begoun also sells her own line of BHA creams, gels, and lotions at Paula's Choice. My favorite there is the 2% BHA Gel.

With my skin, I’ve realized that it’s actually really sensitive and prone to redness if I exfoliate too often. So I only use the salicylic acne at night, every other day. I alternate with...

3. An oil-free moisturizer at night

A lot of people with oily skin are afraid to use moisturizers. They figure that since their skin is oily already they don’t need one or that it would make them break out. But not moisturizing can actually make your skin more oily! When your skin gets dry, it produces oils to relieve the dryness. I’ve found that, as long as the moisturizer is oil-free and not too rich, it actually makes my skin less oily to moisturize on a daily basis.

My go-to nighttime moisturizer is the Cetaphil Fragrance Free Moisturizing Lotion. It goes on light but provides all the moisture my skin needs.

4. An oil-free moisturizer with SPF during the day

In the morning, I use an SPF moisturizer every day, after washing with the Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser. I really love the Olay Complete Defense Daily UV Moisturizer. It’s non-greasy and it wears well under make-up. But my favorite thing about this moisturizer is that it has green tea extract, which is a great ingredient for acne-prone skin because it reduces redness.

The Secret Ingredient for Clear Skin

There’s a fifth secret ingredient I haven’t mentioned, but it’s absolutely essential for making this over the counter acne treatment work: consistency. I follow my skin care routine every day, no exceptions. It’s the daily cleaning and exfoliating that keeps skin clear in the long run.

I do get random breakouts sometimes and I find that a dab of benzoyl peroxide cream on the spot clears it up pretty quickly (no picking!). Benzoyl peroxide is a disinfectant, so it kills the bacteria that are causing a pimple to get red and inflamed. Again, I don’t use anything too harsh here -- just 2.5% percent benzoyl peroxide will do the trick. I recommend the Neutrogena On-the-Spot Acne Treatment.

More Acne Skin Treatments

You can read about my ongoing adventures finding acne skin treatments that work on my blog.


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    • profile image

      gypsyeyes 5 years ago from Tucson, AZ

      I signed up just leave this comment! Thank you so much for posting this information! I was trying Proactive and my face was burning and peeling and breaking out. I read this hub and returned my Proactive and went to the store and bought all of your suggestions. My skin looks and feels amazing! I got the Citaphil gentle cleanser that is soap free, so I use a Nutrasonic, (comparible to Clarisonic), to remove my makeup. I couldn't find Neutragena on the spot treatment with Benzoyl Peroxide so I bought Acne Free Terminator-10. I wish I would have known this info when I was a teen. Again, thank you for helping me make my skin beautiful!

    • melodyandes profile image

      melodyandes 6 years ago

      This hub is very useful, I really love it.

    • profile image

      hmm 7 years ago

      Im my opinion, Paula's book is all about marketing HER products. She pretty much b*tched about every product she has come across.. By the time I reached the end, I was probably the most pessimistic person, lost in the beauty industry and then TA DA she has THE answer.. HER products. suprise suprise.

      I honestly don't think she stands in the right place to be talking about products she probably has not tried. I mean, how could she have possibly tested all those products in good time to make a real judgement. Just my opinion that's all. She makes some valid points fair enough, but her bagging out all the other products, not a good game.

    • Runway profile image

      Runway 7 years ago from New York

      oh wow, interesting!

    • PerfumeFan profile image

      PerfumeFan 7 years ago from New Jersey

      I'm allergic to benzoyl-peroxide based products. My skin flares up overnight. I switched to salicylic based creams instead. This one worked well and no swelling whatsoever.

    • kenneth godin profile image

      kenneth godin 7 years ago from canada

      cetephil I think ive heard of it maybe my sister has had it before, Ive been using bacon soda it works ,and also potatoe believe it or not:P

    • profile image

      Haley 7 years ago

      There's a lot of great advice here about skin preparation, obvioulsy coming from a veteran, but I wondered if you had considered the deeper causes (and treatment/prevention) of acne. FOr me, in the end the creams, no matter which one was just a temporary fix, the only thing that changed it for me, permanently, was a diet and lifestyle change.

    • profile image

      mzoghori 8 years ago

      Acne medical treatments are widely available, although unfortunately it can't be said that there's any one single treatment to cure acne. Rather than having a single treatment for acne, try different products before finding treatment or a combination of treatments that will clear up the problem.

      You can go for a cream that will get off the marks or to heal the acne itself.

    • profile image

      myislam 8 years ago

      ok i am going to try that cream lets see the result.

    • sunstreeks profile image

      sunstreeks 8 years ago from Western Washington

      I forgot all about cetaphil. Used to use it all the time in my late teens.