Acne is one of the most common skin conditions, affecting around 50 million Americans annually. It can affect people of all ages, races, and ethnicities. Acne presents as whiteheads, blackheads, pimples, cysts, and nodules on the face, chest, back, and shoulders. While genetics and hormones play a role, acne is also influenced by diet, stress, and skincare habits.
The good news is that acne can be effectively treated and managed with the proper treating acne skincare routine. While seeing a dermatologist provides access to prescription medications, many over-the-counter acne solutions can also deliver excellent results. With strategic product selection, you can build an affordable skincare routine to fight acne without breaking the bank.
This article will review the acne skincare recommendations from board-certified dermatologists and aestheticians. We’ll also provide budget-friendly treating acne product suggestions to create a complete morning and evening anti-acne regimen.
Understanding the Causes of Acne
Treating acne properly, you must understand what’s happening beneath the surface of your skin that causes those unsightly bumps and breakouts. Four main factors contribute to acne:
1: Excess oil production
Overactive oil glands mark acne-prone skin. This excess oil, known as sebum, can clog pores and provide a breeding ground for acne-causing bacteria. Areas with the highest concentration of oil glands, like the T-zone, are most susceptible.
2: Follicular hyperkeratinization
This is the abnormal buildup of dead skin cells within the hair follicles. These clumps of cells plug up follicles and further promote acne lesions.
A type of bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) lives on everyone’s skin. In acne-prone skin, the bacteria rapidly multiply within clogged follicles and cause inflammation.
The interplay between oil, dead cells, and bacteria triggers the immune system to respond. This breeds red, painful bumps that can damage skin tissues.
By using ingredients that target each of these four factors, you can treat acne at its root causes.
Key Ingredients to Look For
When selecting over-the-counter acne products, there are four powerhouse ingredients to look for, according to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss:
1: Benzoyl Peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide is highly effective at killing acne-causing bacteria on contact. It also exerts mild comedolytic effects to help unclog pores by loosening dead skin cell buildup. In addition, benzoyl peroxide displays anti-inflammatory properties to reduce red, swollen breakouts.
Acne treatment guidelines endorse benzoyl peroxide as a first-line topical acne medication. Benzoyl Peroxide is found in cleansers, creams, and spot treatments, typically at 2.5% to 10% strength. Start with lower concentrations and gradually increase if tolerated.
2: Salicylic Acid
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid chemical exfoliant that dissolves the “glue” between dead skin cells to prevent clogged pores. It also displays anti-inflammatory, oil-reducing, and skin-calming properties.
Salicylic acid causes less irritation for acne than alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid. Look for leave-on gels, toners, pads, and creams with 0.5% to 2% salicylic acid to spot treat pimples or use across acne-prone areas.
Retinoids such as adapalene and tretinoin work by normalizing abnormal follicular keratinization to prevent blockages. This over-the-counter and prescription ingredient also minimizes acne-causing bacteria and inflammation.
Non-prescription retinol (0.1% – 0.3%) and retinaldehyde (0.01% – 0.1%) convert to retinoic acid mildly and are good starter options before moving up to stronger prescription retinoids.
Sulfur destroys P. acnes bacteria as an antimicrobial agent. When combined with its mild keratolytic effects, sulfur acts as a powerful acne-fighting ingredient. Cleansers, masks, and spot treatments contain these sulfur properties.
In addition to these four mainstay options, niacinamide and tea tree oil demonstrate acne-fighting abilities. Avoid known acne triggers like coconut oil, fragrance, and harsh surfactants.
Building an AM Acne Skincare Routine
An effective acne skincare routine consists of three core steps – cleansing, treatment, and moisturizing. Here’s how to structure your morning regimen:
Cleanse: Start by washing away overnight bacteria, excess oil, and dead cells. Use a gentle face wash with acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. Opt for a cream, gel, or foaming wash without sulfates, alcohol, or fragrance.
Treat: – After cleansing, apply lighter leave-on acne treatments before heavier creams. Good morning options include vitamin C, niacinamide, azelaic acid, sulfur, low-dose retinol, or salicylic/glycolic acid pads.
Moisturize: Follow treatments with an oil-free, non-comedogenic moisturizer and broad spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen. Look for hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid.
Optional: use a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment on any emerging pimples after moisturizer.
Here’s an example routine with budget-buy product suggestions:
- CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser with 4% Benzoyl Peroxide: $14.97
- The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%: $5.90
- Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer with SPF 50+: $14.97
- Differin Adapalene Gel Acne Spot Treatment: $11.97
Evening Acne Skincare Routine
At night, your focus shifts to applying leave-on acne medications evenly across the skin.
Follow these core steps for treating acne:
Double Cleanse: Always double cleanse in the PM to fully dissolve sunscreen, makeup, and debris from the day. Start with an oil or balm cleanser before following up with a water-based face wash.
Treat – After cleansing, layer on prescription or over-the-counter retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, salicylic acid, etc. Focus on even application across acne-prone areas. Let dry before moving on.
Moisturize – Finish by hydrating skin to counter dryness from acne medications. A gel, lotion, or ointment works well. Slug with an occlusive like Vaseline if flaking occurs.
Here’s a sample evening acne routine on a budget:
- Garnier SkinActive Micellar Makeup Remover: around $8.99
- La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser: around $16.99
- Differin Adapalene Gel: around $14.97
- CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion: around $14.99
Tips for an Acne Skincare Routine
When starting an acne skincare routine for treating acne, keep these tips from dermatologists in mind:
- Introduce new treating acne products slowly and one at a time to test for sensitivities.
- Use acne treatments consistently – it can take 4-6 weeks to see improvements.
- Start with lower strengths and work up to avoid irritation.
- Apply benzoyl peroxide and retinoids thinly across entire acne-prone areas, not just active breakouts.
- Monitor for dryness and irritation. Adjust the regimen accordingly.
- Always apply non-comedogenic oil-free moisturizer and SPF in the AM.
- Consider seeing a dermatologist for prescription medications if OTC options don’t clear acne after two months.
- Resist popping and picking – this can worsen acne and lead to scarring.
Additional Tips for Treating Acne
Besides finding the right skincare routine, there are other ways to keep acne under control:
- Wash bedding weekly in hot water to kill acne bacteria and prevent reinfection.
- Avoid oil-based makeup and hair products that can clog pores. Look for non-comedogenic, non-acnegenic formulas.
- Shampoo regularly, especially if you have oily hair. Let conditioner rinse off your face instead of letting it sit.
- Don’t pick at or pop pimples. Picking and popping pushes bacteria deeper and can cause scarring.
- Manage stress levels, which can worsen acne. Make time for relaxing activities.
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Shoot for 7-9 hours per night.
- Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water daily.
- Monitor diet. While studies are limited, dairy and high glycemic foods may exacerbate acne in some people.
When to See a Dermatologist
Make an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist for moderate to severe acne cases unresponsive to over-the-counter care. They can examine your acne and determine if prescription medications are needed, such as:
- Oral or topical antibiotics – clindamycin, erythromycin, minocycline, doxycycline
- Prescription retinoids – tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene
- Anti-androgen agents – spironolactone, birth control pills
- Isotretinoin (Accutane) – for severe, scarring acne
Treating acne procedures like photodynamic therapy, chemical peels, and steroid injections may also help treat stubborn acne lesions.
While a dermatologist can provide access to prescription-strength treating acne medications, you’ll still need to maintain a diligent at-home skincare regimen for the best results. Following an treating acne skincare routine using ingredients recommended by dermatologists offers the best chance of clearing up breakouts and preventing their return.
You can clear up acne without breaking the bank by strategically using over-the-counter products. A complete treating acne skincare regimen consists of properly chosen cleansers, treating acne treatments, and moisturizers used consistently morning and night. Key ingredients to look for include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, retinoids, and sulfur. Start with lower strengths and slowly introduce new products. Always moisturize after using drying acne treatments. See a dermatologist for prescription medications if moderate-severe acne persists after two months of OTC care. But for many cases of mild-moderate acne, an affordable drugstore treating acne routine with ingredients recommended by dermatologists provides an accessible way to achieve clear, healthy skin.