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When to Recommend Over-the-Counter Acne Products

Posted: February 4, 2014

Acne can come and go throughout one’s life—from the teen years all the way through middle age. The quest to find the best treatment to keep persistent acne at bay is top of mind for many patients. When acne flares, patients often turn to over-the-counter (OTC) products as they are convenient to purchase and inexpensive. Since there are so many OTC products to choose from, dermatologists can help patients navigate the drugstore shelves and select the products with the most effective ingredients for their specific acne symptoms.

American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) expert

Information provided by Emmy M. Graber, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology and director of the Cosmetic and Laser Center at Boston University School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts.

OTC acne ingredients that work

There are many types of OTC ingredients that treat at least one of the underlying factors that cause acne. Dermatologists often say the key is to find the OTC ingredients best suited to treat acne in a product form that you like and use the product as directed. Graber also noted that many dermatologists recommend OTCs in conjunction with prescription acne therapies. Here are the most common OTC active ingredients and their benefits and limitations.

Benzoyl peroxide

Salicylic acid (also known as beta hydroxy acid)


OTC ingredients that help acne fighters work better

There are a number of supporting ingredients that can work in conjunction with OTC acne fighting ingredients. While these inactive ingredients may not attack the root causes of acne, they can provide extra benefits to the skin that allow active ingredients to work more effectively.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)


Natural ingredients not as successful in clearing acne

Some patients prefer “natural” products to fight acne, but Graber doesn’t recommend them as a first line treatment as they have not been proven to be as effective as other OTC ingredients.

Mechanical devices gaining popularity

Designed to clean the skin and exfoliate dead skin cells, mechanical acne treatments—brushes, scrubs, and cleansing cloths—can be used in conjunction with OTC products as well as medications. A dermatologist can advise patients on how to select the best device for their skin and type of acne.



Cleansing cloths

AAD expert advice

“If an individual tries OTC products to fight acne and improvement isn’t seen within four to eight weeks, then it is time to contact a dermatologist to determine the most appropriate treatment – which may include both OTCs and prescription medications,” said Graber. “OTCs can be effective for some patients with mild acne, but they must be used continuously to clear acne and prevent flares.”

Acne Blunders: Common Mistakes to Avoid When Working With Acne

Face & Body Midwest, Saturday, March 22, McCormick Place West, Chicago, IL

Join us at the Advanced Education Conference Program during Face & Body Midwest for a special session with Mark Lees, PhD! Do you see a lot of clients with chronic breakouts and acne-prone skin? Do you ever have difficulty getting their skin clear and keeping it clear? In this special class Mark Lees, PhD, will share frequent oversights in acne treatment that can make or break clearance success. See actual case studies and learn the important factors to constantly keep in mind when treating acne and problem skin.