Best Drugstore Acne Products

(Last Updated On: August 15, 2018)

Today there are a bewildering array of anti-acne products lining drugstore shelves, all claiming to be the miracle cure for spotty, inflamed, oozing skin, but as you might have discovered by now, many don’t live up to the claims they make.

Does that mean that you should write off all of the over-the-counter acne products and head to your dermatologist for a prescription strength treatment?

No, not at all!

Some of the most effective acne treatments are easily purchased over-the-counter (and they’re easy on your pocket too). In this article, we’ll save you from time consuming trial and error and highlight what we think are the best drugstore acne products that will help you in your quest for healthy, clear, comfortable skin.

Acne 101


Acne is a skin problem with deep roots.

Skin troubled with acne is affected by unruly hormones which trigger significant changes in sebum production & quality, and ineffective antioxidant protection which means that your skin can’t withstand those changes.

Studies have quantified that lack of antioxidants, showing that acne prone skin contains 40% less vitamin C, 33% less vitamin A, 45% less vitamin E, and 65% less beta-carotene than normal skin.

Hormones, namely testosterone, cause overproduction of sebum and lack of sufficient antioxidants result in oxidized (damaged) sebum. Healthy sebum does not cause acne!

According to research, acne sufferers produce 59% more sebum than those with normal skin.

Damaged sebum contains damaged squalene. Squalene is an essential component of sebum, but once it’s oxidized, it stimulates overproduction of keratin, a protein that glues skin cells together.

In the presence of too much keratin, dead skin cells clump together and block pores instead of being eliminated in a steady progression by the skin’s natural exfoliation mechanism.

Too much keratin also makes the walls of pores rigid when they should be flexible.

Clumps of skin cells and lots of sticky sebum plug up pores and provide a breeding ground for bacteria.

The p.acnes bacteria found in acne is a normally harmless bacteria that live in pores, but once it has an abundant food supply (the oil and dead skin cells) it multiplies out of control. The toxins produced by the bacteria accumulate in the pore causing a great deal of irritation and inflammation.

Once the mass inside the pore becomes too great, the rigid pore walls can’t hold back the tide, and the contents burst out into the surrounding area resulting in even greater inflammation, unsightly blemishes, and eruptions.

An acne treatment protocol needs to replenish the body’s antioxidant reserves; deep clean pores to prevent bacteria proliferation; combat inflammation; and hydrate and protect the skin to prevent further damage.

Vitamin C Powder (Ascorbic Acid)

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Vitamin C is hugely important for your skin. Without sufficient vitamin C, your body can’t make healthy collagen, and collagen is the main structural protein in your skin.

When you have acne, your skin has an enormous repair job to do and it can’t do that job without vitamin C.

Vitamin C isn’t just a one-trick collagen boosting pony however, it’s also a critical antioxidant, and if you take enough vitamin C, it fights bacteria too.

The secret to using vitamin C is to make sure that you take enough. The RDA for vitamin C is based on the amount needed to prevent scurvy and stop your body from literally falling apart. It’s the bare minimum amount you need, not the optimum amount that will help to fix health problems.

So how much vitamin C should you take?

As much as you can tolerate. The body doesn’t store vitamin C; it uses what it needs and usually excretes the rest in urine, but if you have too much unused vitamin C in your system, it will have a laxative effect and cause diarrhea.

The most common way to make sure that your body is getting all of the vitamin C it needs is to titrate to bowel tolerance. This means that you increase the amount gradually until you begin to feel the tell tale rumblings in your belly, then you cut the dose back to the amount that didn’t cause any problems.

For example, if you took 2 grams, 4 times a day, without problems, but found that increasing to 3 grams led to diarrhea, then you would go back down to the 2 gram dose.

Vitamin C powder is by the far the most economical way to use vitamin C, and by using pure ascorbic acid, you also avoid the fillers added to pills and capsules which can cause their own problems.

With the powder, you can also make your own low cost vitamin C skin serum by dissolving 1 teaspoon of powder in 4 teaspoons of water.

vitamin C for Acne

Avène Cleanance Moisturizer for Oily & Blemish Prone Skin

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When you have acne your skin is crying out for moisture because your protective acid mantle is damaged and therefore ineffective, causing your skin to lose water and become dehydrated.

Finding an effective moisturizer is essential.

Avène Cleanance Moisturizer is an oil-free moisturizer which hydrates, protects, reduces excess sebum production, and calms redness and inflammation.

Clinical studies show that after 6 weeks, users saw a 64% reduction in their acne without suffering from irritation or dryness.

All Avène skincare products contain Avène Thermal Spring Water. This unique water contains 15 minerals which are proven to soften and calm irritated skin.

In addition to the mineral rich thermal spring water, Cleanance moisturizer contains:

  • Monolaurin to reduce excess oil production.
  • X-Pressin, a gentle exfoliant which is more effective than glycolic acid.
  • Diolényl, a proprietary ingredient which targets bacteria, reduces redness and improves the appearance of blemishes.
  • Shea butter to soften and nourish the skin.

Most acne treatments focus on 3 areas, excess oil production, pore cleansing, and bacteria elimination. Avène focuses on these areas too, but as you might expect from such an advanced skincare brand, they do it in a very different way.

Here’s how Avène works its magic.

Other products rely on miniscule sponge like particles to mop up excess oil, Avène uses these too, but it goes further still by targeting the enzyme that causes the excess oil secretion in the first place, stopping its production.

Most skin care products made for acne clear out clogged pores using an exfoliant called salicylic acid. The problem with salicylic acid is that it’s an irritant, and that’s the last thing you want to put on the already inflamed skin. Salicylic acid is also drying. Avène uses a different exfoliant – X-Pressin.

This patented exfoliant is made from papaya enzyme and it’s able to do the job of your skin’s natural exfoliant enzyme and remove dead skin cells without causing inflammation or stripping away much needed moisture.

To zap bacteria, Avène has done something really clever. Instead of adding the usual antibacterial substances which can be irritating and which bacteria can develop resistance to, Avène uses Diolényl.

Bacteria eat the triglycerides found in sebum. Diolényl mimics those triglycerides so well that the bacteria are fooled into eating it. But crucially, when the bacteria gobble down Diolényl, they die.

Avène’s entire product line is tailor made for sensitive skin, so when you use this moisturizer you don’t have to worry about further irritation, breakouts, or soreness.

Keeva Tea Tree Oil Acne Treatment Cream

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This acne treatment cream contains two potent acne fighting ingredients, tea tree essential oil and salicylic acid. Salicylic acid though effective can be extremely drying and somewhat irritating, but Keeva has added so many nourishing and moisturizing ingredients to this rich cream that you won’t have to worry about dry, irritated skin.

Salicylic acid removes the dead skin cell clogging your pores and tea tree essential oil penetrates deeply to kill bacteria on contact.

Added squalene stands in for your skins own damaged, ineffective squalene while shea butter, argan oil, rosehip oil, sesame seed oil and olive oil calm inflammation and provide rich nourishing moisture.

Your skin will also benefit from burdock root and sophora root extracts. Burdock root contains polyacetylenes which are both antibacterial and antifungal as well as anti-inflammatory. Sophora root is an ancient Chinese remedy with strong antioxidant properties.

Suitable for use on bacterial, hormonal or cystic acne, Keeva’s organic formula is free from harsh chemicals. Simple and economical to use, one 2 ounce pot of cream will last you for 3 months, and Keeva stands behind their product with a 100 day money-back guarantee, so you can try it out absolutely risk free.

mud mask for acne

Dead Sea Mud Mask For Acne, Oily Skin & Blackheads

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When you use the Dead Sea Mud Mask from Aria-Starr you get to use a spa quality product without the hassle and expense of actually going to a spa, and since you’re using it at home, you can use it several times a week.

Loaded with skin essential minerals, natural cleansers, exfoliators and moisturizers, using this mask will deep clean your pores, reduce inflammation, tackle spots and blemishes, and leave your skin smooth and supple.

Unlike some clays which can be quite drying, this mask uses white kaolin clay which cleanses without stripping moisture away.

Made with added aloe vera, shea butter, calendula oil, vitamin E, and jojoba oil, Dead Sea Mud Mask:

  • Absorbs excess oil.
  • Removes dead skin cells, toxins and impurities from deep within pores.
  • Uses natural minerals including magnesium, sulfur, calcium, zinc, iodine, potassium and bromide, to detoxify, and cleanse the skin, combating acne, spots and blackheads.
  • Stimulates circulation, improving blood flow to carry nutrients to skin cells and clear away toxins.

After cleansing your skin to remove makeup and surface dirt, apply a thin layer of clay to your skin (avoiding eyes and lips). Leave to dry for 20 minutes then rinse with warm water.

Nexcare Acne Absorbing Cover Patches

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These skin patches stick to the skin and absorb the excess oil and exudate from blemishes that have come to a head while protecting the skin from bacteria, environmental pollution and moisture loss. They’ll also stop you picking at your spots helping to reduce the likelihood of scarring.

As oil and pus are drawn out of the spot into the patch, the spot reduces in size and appearance so your breakout is less noticeable.

After cleansing and toning your skin, peel off as many covers as you need and press over any blemishes that have come to a head (these are no use on spots that are still under the skin). As the patch absorbs the gunk, it will turn white so you know it’s working.

These are advertised as being suitable for use under makeup, and while you can put makeup over them, the patch will still be visible. However, using a patch will prevent your makeup from getting inside the spot and causing even more trouble.

Don’t apply any of your acne treatments to the area that will be covered by the patch. You also need to avoid moisturizer on the spot too or the patch won’t stick.

A good way to get the most benefit from these patches is to wear them overnight to clear out debris from a pimple, then use your regular acne products during the day.

The patches don’t contain any acne treatment ingredients, so these little stickers aren’t designed to be used alone, but they do form a useful part of a treatment protocol.

Plant Therapy Tea Tree Essential Oil

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Skin care products that contain tea tree essential oil are great, but you can’t go wrong with your own bottle of 100% pure tea tree oil.

Even the best tea tree acne creams may not contain enough tea tree essential oil to have a positive effect on your skin. By diluting tea tree oil with jojoba oil or another non-greasy oil, you can apply the right amount of essential oil for your skin’s particular needs.

Plant Therapy is one of the best essential oil brands on the market today and you can trust that their products are pure and potent. It’s so important to only use authentic essential oils from reputable brands because adulterated and spoiled (oxidized) oils won’t do your skin any good at all.

Tea tree oil kills bacteria and combats inflammation, and because the essential oil molecules are so tiny, they have no problem penetrating your skin to wipe out the colony of bacteria lurking deep within your pores.

Studies have shown that tea tree essential oil, depending on the amount used reduces acne by between 23% and 62%. This range of efficacy puts tea tree oils acne fighting effects on par with antibiotics and benzoyl peroxide.

Use tea tree oil after a deep cleansing mask has drawn out oil and exfoliated skin cells.

Before use on the skin, essential oils must be diluted. Neat oils can cause severe irritation and allergic reaction, so please don’t be tempted to smear on undiluted oil!

How much tea tree oil do you need to use?

tree tea oil for acne

You’ll have to experiment to find the optimal dilution for your skin, and this dilution must be within the known safe range.

According to essential oil authorities Robert Tisserand & Rodney Young in their book Essential Oil Safety – A Guide For Healthcare Professionals, tea tree essential oil should be used at a maximum 15% dilution.

This doesn’t mean that you should start out with 15%! Begin with lower amounts and see how your skin responds before increasing the concentration of essential oil.

Research into tea tree essential oil and acne have found that a 5% concentration of the essential oil should be enough to produce good results if applied twice a day.

For small areas of application like the face, it’s best to make up small quantities of diluted essential oil. Two teaspoons is a nice amount.

  • For a 5% dilution mix 10 drops of essential oil with 2 teaspoons of carrier oil.
  • For a 10% dilution mix 20 drops of essential oil with 2 teaspoons of carrier oil.
  • For a 15% dilution (the safe maximum for tea tree oil) mix 30 drops of essential oil with 2 teaspoons of carrier oil.

AcneFree Sulfur Mask

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This purifying mask is a great way to make use of acne fighting sulfur. For years acne sufferers have found relief from acne by using sulfur soap which is both inexpensive and effective, but soap bars can be too harsh and drying for sensitive, damaged skin.

AcneFree Sulfur Mask offers a gentler way to benefit from sulfur. When used 2 to 3 times each week, the mask clears the dead skin from pores, removes excess oil, and minimizes spots and blemishes. AcneFree is even effective for cystic acne which is harder to get under control with over-the-counter-products.

Fortified with antioxidant & collagen boosting vitamin C, along with copper and zinc, two essential minerals for skin health and strength, this refining mask will improve your skin’s appearance and texture and reduce outbreaks.

The only downside with this mask is the smell which is pretty much unavoidable with products containing sulfur, although the odor level with this mask is fairly low.

Massage onto clean, wet skin. After a few minutes, the mask will change color signaling optimum absorption. Wait for another 10 minutes while the mask does its work, then rinse well with clean water. Don’t forget to follow up with an acne friendly moisturizer, or your skin will feel dry and tight.

Thayers Alcohol-free Rose Petal Witch Hazel

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Witch hazel is an old, old remedy for all manner of skin ailments. It’s natural, safe and effective but only if you use the right kind of witch hazel!

Too often witch hazel is added to an alcohol base, and alcohol is terrible for skin, causing dryness and irritation.

Thayers Witch Hazel is alcohol-free, using a skin soothing aloe vera and rose water base instead of alcohol.

Witch hazel is made from the bark, twigs and leaves of Hamamelis virginiana, a species of flowering shrub. Rich in natural antioxidants, witch hazel is also a powerful astringent capable of reducing inflammation and removing excess oil – properties which have made witch hazel one of the most popular natural acne treatments out there.

Other skin friendly ingredients in Thayers Witch Hazel are rose water and aloe vera.

Rose water is another natural skin care gem with a long history of use, and today it’s added to many skin care products.

Rose water:

  • Balances skin pH
  • Provides antioxidant protection
  • Calms inflammation
  • Softens skin
  • Combats bacteria
  • Reduces oil
  • Adds hydration

Aloe vera soothes inflammation and acts as an oil-free moisturizer making it ideal for the greasy skin. Two hormones found in aloe vera provide some potent benefits for your skin. Auxin acts as an anti-inflammatory while Gibberellins, a growth hormone, stimulates skin cell production and speeds up healing.

Use Thayers Witch Hazel as a toner after cleansing morning and night, or simply dab it onto your skin whenever it’s feeling aggravated for instant cooling and calming.

Building Your Own Anti Acne Skin Care Protocol

Ultimately no single product will combat acne all by itself, but if you select a number of complementary products and incorporate them into your skin care routine, you should see a marked improvement.

Our preference for mild to moderate acne is:

  • A daily dose of vitamin C for antioxidant protection and healthy collagen production.
  • Regular use of both the Dead Sea Mud Mask and the AcneFree Sulfur Mask.
  • Daily use of Thayers Witch Hazel to tone and smooth skin.
  • Avène Cleanance Moisturizer for daytime use.
  • Keeva Tea Tree Oil Acne Treatment Cream for overnight use.

If acne is severe or not responding to a moderate regimen, then additional tea tree oil should help get things under control.


“This article is due to be re-visited, proofread and updated a maximum of 3 years from its original upload date by Dr. Kimberly Langdon, M.D. All the content and media has been uploaded by Lily Greene our webmaster, who is also is in charge of page design.”

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.