How do I treat mild acne?

If you have mild acne, good skin care and use of over the counter acne treatment products will usually help keep acne under control. Give these 6 – 8 weeks to work.

*Be aware: Some with mild acne or mild to moderate acne may need medical help to get this condition under control and to prevent scarring. (See Checklist – When to see a doctor)

shutterstock_116292913Over the counter acne treatments: These readily available treatments, which include cleansers and spot treatments for acne, often contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, non-prescription strength active ingredients that can help improve mild acne.

Another ingredient used less often 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.

Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide work by targeting one or more of the problems associated with acne spots:

  1. Remove dead skin cells and excess oil to help unclog the pores
  2. Kill bacteria in blocked, oily pores
  3. Reduce inflammation (redness, swelling)

Quick guide:shutterstock_1939688 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.

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 guide: 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. Benzoyl peroxide works in a different way to antibiotics. It also some ability to help exfoliate the skin, helping to unplug 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.

4 Tips – How to use over-the-counter treatmentsshutterstock_91522949-150x150

  1. To avoid irritation, don’t use too much of the product or apply too often.
  2. Introduce these treatments gradually to lessen irritation. For leave-on products, start with leaving the treatment on your skin for 30 minutes to an hour a day for 1 week, then double the time every week until you can leave it on all day or all night, or can use it more often such as twice a day.
  3. 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.
  4. You may need to continue treatment to maintain improvement.