Do over-the-counter products work for acne?

To make your next shopping trip a little easier, we've put together a guide to some product ingredients.

Written by
Kate Iselin
Medically reviewed by
min read
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Walk into any chemist, supermarket, or department store and you’ll see it: row after row of skincare products that promise to banish acne, prevent pimples, and keep your skin clean and fresh forever.

If you find yourself spending up big in the quest for acne-free skin, you’re not alone: over 70 per cent of Australians purchase skincare products, with a combined spend over $2.9 billion annually [1].

Some of us are even spending up to $1,000 a year on our skin! This is a lot of money to be laying out, especially when we don’t always know if the product we pick up off the shelf is actually going to work.

A little-known fact about the skincare products you see in stores is that they’re ‘cosmeceuticals’ — cosmetic pharmaceuticals that have been tested for safety, but not always for efficacy [10].

This basically means that the latest ‘anti-acne’ product doesn’t actually have to be proven to treat acne to be advertised as such. There are a lot of empty promises and false advertising slogans in the skincare industry.

So to make your next shopping trip a little easier, we’ve put together a guide to some product ingredients that have been scientifically proven to work against acne.

(And we’ll also tell you what to do if you feel like you’ve tried every over-the-counter product and none have worked.)

Look for: Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a really common ingredient in anti-acne products.

It works by softening the keratin in our skin, which makes dry, scaly, and dead skin cells easier to remove from our face [1]. It’s also effective at breaking down comedones, which makes it an ideal ingredient for anyone with recurring whiteheads and blackheads.

In studies, salicylic acid has been shown to reduce skin bacteriaand significantly reduce acne lesions [2][3].

Software's Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash does all of the above — it's a powerhouse wash that exfoliates and sloughs away dead skin cells, unclogs pores and clears away trapped oils and acne-causing bacteria, while also reducing the formation of blackheads and whiteheads.

It's a must-have in your acne-fighting skincare routine and can be used two to three times per week in acne-prone areas like the face, chest and back to both treat existing acne and prevent from further breakouts from popping up.

Look for: Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is stronger than salicylic acid, which means that chances of skin irritation are higher. However, benzoyl peroxide is among the more effective anti-acne treatments available over the counter.

It works by killing the p. acnes bacteria that breeds in our skin to cause pimples and acne lesions One study even showed a 93.5 per cent reduction in p. acnes bacteria after only five days using a benzoyl peroxide cleanser [6].

Benzoyl peroxide is commonly found in cleansers, washes, and spot treatments.

It’s suitable for stronger cases of acne: meaning that if you just get one or two pimples now and again, a milder ingredient like salicylic acid might be more suitable for your skin.

You should always apply a moisturiser after use, as benzoyl peroxide can have a drying effect — and it can also strip the colour from towels, clothing, and even hair.

Look for: Azelaic acid

It seems like there are dozens of acids in skin products these days. Salicylic acid is one of the most common, but you should also look for azelaic acid — one of our favourite skin treatments for acne.

One study showed that azelaic acid was as effective against acne as benzoyl peroxide but less irritating, meaning it’s a good option for those with sensitive skin [7].

It can reduce the inflammation and redness that often appear alongside acne outbreaks, and help loosen dead skin cells, making it easier to get a complexion that looks fresh and glowing.

Azelaic acid can reduce hyperpigmentation and rosacea as well We are huge fans of this ingredient! Some other acids to keep an eye out for are glycolic acid and lactic acid.

They’re both AHAs: alpha-hydroxy acids, and are often derived from natural sources like fruit. While these acids don’t specifically target acne, they can clear up skin tone and texture, and help improve the overall look of skin [9].

Look for: Niacinamide

Niacinamide is another ingredient that we love.

Have a read of our Guide to Niacinamide to get the full run-down on all the benefits of this ingredient — but in short, it reduces inflammation, keeps skin hydrated while banishing excess sebum, and fades redness and blotchiness [11].

For those with acne, this can mean a big reduction in inflamed, oily, and dry skin, and a smoother, brighter skin tone. Niacinamide’s antioxidant capabilities also mean it can protect skin from oxidative stress caused by damaging free radicals [12].

As a bonus, it’s also very gentle, which makes it a great option for anyone whose skin is too sensitive for benzoyl peroxide or retinoids. Niacinamide is available as a medical treatment, but it’s available over-the-counter in weaker concentrations as well.

It works well with many other ingredients, like azelaic acid, and is often found in serums and moisturisers.

Look for: Retinoids

Retinoids are derived from vitamin A, and are one of the most powerful anti-acne ingredients on the market today. They increase blood flow to the skin, increase collagen production, and increase cell differentiation to essentially re-build the top layer of skin.

Retinoids are a bit of a wonder ingredient because they don’t only work to fight acne: they can also reduce signs of ageing and fade scarring

Medical-grade retinoids are stronger than over-the-counter treatments and are therefore considered more effective [10].

Software's custom formulas harness the power of clinical strength retinoids to target acne while also reducing the production of sebum (the oil on your skin) as well as reducing keratinization (the production of excess skin cells) which both lead to the formation of comedones (blackheads).

Medical-grade retinoids also have anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce redness and swelling of inflamed acne (papules and pustules). However, it is possible to dip your toe into the world of vitamin A with an over-the-counter product like retinol.

When using any kind of retinoid, make sure to use an SPF 50+ sunscreen afterwards, as retinoids can increase skin’s photosensitivity(many retinoid users like to apply them at night for this reason).

Retinoids can also cause mild irritation to the skin in the form of redness and dryness, but this can be managed by using a light moisturiser before application.

...and what if none of these work?

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to treat more severe cases of acne using only over-the-counter treatments.

All the ingredients we’ve listed here are scientifically proven to work against acne, but will be more effective on the skin when used at higher quantities in clinical strength products.

That’s why Software’s custom treatments include pharmaceutical-grade ingredients.

These higher concentrations, recommended by our expert team of licensed practitioners, are more effective at tackling acne and breakouts than over-the-counter products.

Cosmeceuticals are fine for very mild cases of acne, but if your acne is more severe — or if it’s starting to affect your self-esteem and everyday life — we recommend speaking to a doctor or dermatologist.

A medical professional can find out exactly what’s causing your acne, and provide you effective, targeted products to treat it.

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* Software lifestyle survey of 116 patients who were using
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