Over-the-counter acne treatments, including cleansers and spot treatments, often contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, non-prescription strength active ingredients that can help improve mild acne.
Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide work by targeting one or more of the problems associated with acne spots:
- Remove dead skin cells and excess oil to help unclog the pores
- Kill bacteria in blocked, oily pores
- Reduce inflammation (redness, swelling)
Quick run down on salicylic acid: a common ingredient in acne preparations, used in low concentrations from 0.5 % to 2 %.
How it works: Main benefit is in breaking down surface skin cells which helps to mildly exfoliate the skin and unplug the skin pores.
Side effects: Usually mild in nature, visible peeling, irritation. Can cause rare but serious allergic reaction.
Dos and Don’ts: Use sunscreen and other sun protection as your skin can be more sun sensitive.
Expect results: In 6 – 8 weeks. There may be modest improvement due to the low concentrations used.
Quick run down on benzoyl peroxide: an antimicrobial used in over the counter acne treatments for many decades and developed in Canada. Used in low concentrations of 2.5% to 5%.
How it works: Kills bacteria that thrive in blocked, oily skin pores and pimples and helps to reduce inflammation (redness, swelling). Benzoyl peroxide works against bacteria in a different way to antibiotics and does not induce antibiotic resistance. It also has some ability to help exfoliate the skin and unclog the pores.
Side effects: Mild irritation, dryness, redness, fine scaling. Can cause rare but serious allergic reaction.
Dos & Don’ts: Start with a low concentration of 2.5% as this has been shown to be just as effective on acne but less irritating to the skin than higher concentrations. Wait 10 – 15 minutes after washing your face before applying a leave-on product in order to lessen irritation. Use a moisturizer daily. Can bleach or lighten clothing and pillowcases etc, so sleep on white bedding while using.
Expect results: In 6 – 8 weeks.
Another ingredient used less often in over-the-counter acne treatments is sulphur. It is thought to help exfoliate and mildly dry out the skin as well as act as an antibacterial agent. Sulphur has an unpleasant odour that manufacturers try to mask.
4 Tips – How to use over-the-counter treatments
- To avoid irritation, don’t use too much of the product or apply too often.
- Introduce these treatments gradually to lessen irritation.
- Don’t spot treat. Applying treatment to all areas where you get acne spots is key to preventing new spots from developing. Early acne spots are not visible. These take around 1-2 weeks to develop.
- You may need to continue treatment to maintain improvement.
Wondering what mild acne looks like?