Pimples and acne blemishes are caused by oil, dead skin cells and bacteria trapped in the pores. Although most acne products are targeted at teenagers, they work regardless of age. They contain astringents such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide in varying concentrations, some of which can irritate sensitive skin. Experts say you should use the mildest formula that works for you.
Benzoyl peroxide serves as a topical disinfectant, effectively killing acne-causing bacteria in the pores. Salicylic acid works as an exfoliant to remove dead skin cells that can clog pores. Unlike other exfoliants, salicylic acid can penetrate the pores to exfoliate the pore lining. There's a wealth of research proving both of these treatments to be effective on their own and that they're even more effective when used simultaneously. Other over-the-counter treatments include tea tree oil and sulfur, but neither of these has proven to be as effective.
Experts say that if your skin doesn't respond to over-the-counter treatments, you should consult with a dermatologist who can prescribe something stronger. Those with severe acne -- which consists of inflamed cysts and painful nodules that extend into the deeper layers of skin -- should seek professional treatment from the onset. Cystic blemishes are more resistant to treatment and are more likely to result in scarring.
Acne treatments are sold by virtually every skin-care company; however, not all are equal. In fact a lot of acne products are needlessly harsh and overly drying. This is because many over-the-counter acne treatments contain potentially irritating ingredients like alcohol and menthol that might make the skin tingle but don't help clear up acne.
Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Stress Control Triple Action Toner (Est. $7 for 8 oz) , for example, lists alcohol as its second ingredient. According to Paula Begoun, skin-care expert and author of "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me," alcohol can harm skin by overdrying it. Overly dry skin tends to overcompensate by producing yet more oil, which can cause even more blemishes.
Despite this, people seem to prefer these products to their gentler counterparts. "Companies make tingly washes and grainy scrubs because research shows that people associate certain sensations with cleanliness," say the editors of "Ask CosmoGirl! About Beauty."
There is no shortage of information on effective acne treatments, but we found the most credible advice from sources that test a variety of products and compare them to one another. Begoun reviews more acne products than any other single source at her website PaulasChoice.com. ConsumerReports.org also tests a handful of popular products as do editors at numerous beauty magazines.
There are several websites that claim to review acne products, but upon deeper investigation, we found that many of them are sponsored by the brands they recommend. We kept this in mind when picking our Best Reviewed products. Lastly, we used user reviews, which provide in-depth information on long-term and short-term use of these products.