We’ve all had a pimple—or a colony of them—every one as unwelcome as the last. Sometimes they’re fleeting, a result of poor post-gym hygiene, while other breakouts are chronic, a result of genetics or stress.
Regardless of the origins, or if you’re already panicking about the appearance of the next ones, you can make an effort to maximize your skin health. But, with so many mixed messages it’s hard to know what works and doesn’t, including the most effective products for warding off breakouts.
That’s why we sourced unbiased experts—a pool of board-certified dermatologist, actually—and asked them for the best products that round out an anti-acne regimen, be they preventative, reactive, or both. Here’s the regimen you should put into practice immediately. You’ll notice long-standing, skin-clearing effects some 2-3 months down the line—as well as far fewer breakouts and remnants along the way.
Start with the right cleanser—and cleanse 2x per day
Salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and benzoyl peroxide: These are three ingredients you should memorize. Each one is effective at preventing and minimizing breakouts.
“An effective salicylic acid wash (such as CLn Acne Wash) is a great way to start the day,” says Rhonda Klein, M.D.
Salicylic acid and glycolic acid work to dissolve dead cells that might clog pores.
“And a benzoyl peroxide 2-5% wash is a great anti-acne evening cleanser (such as PanOxyl),” she adds, since it fights the bacteria that take residence in your pores during the day.
The lower grades, around 2%, are good for your face, and the higher grades, nearing 5%, are good for your body.
Kassie Gaitz, M.D., suggests benzoyl-peroxide cleansers in particular to her patients who suffer from acne breakouts on the back, chest, and shoulders.
You might hear about benzoyl peroxide topical creams that can be worn overnight. Speak with your dermatologist about whether or not this is a good route for you. They tend to be high grades that can dry out your skin, plus they bleach your towels and pillowcases, which can make it an expensive habit.
There’s another overnight solution anyway, one that nearly every single dermatologist recommends; we’ll get to that later down the list.
Only use scrubs preventatively
Marisa Garshick, M.D., warns that scrubs will only aggravate acne. They should instead be used cautiously on skin that’s already clear—preventatively, that is—and you should rely on the other products on this list to minimize existing breakouts.
Use a non-comedogenic moisturizer
If you are prone to acne, then you might want to avoid oil-based moisturizers, says Jennifer S. Kitchin, M.D. They are comedogenic, meaning they clog your pores and lead to one-off pimples or bigger breakouts. Instead, stick with oil-free, non-comedogenic products (look for that term), like Olay Complete Lotion All Day Moisturizer With SPF 15.
Use retinol products overnight
Retinol is the miracle cream. It’s universally accepted as the best defense against signs of aging, and an essential pillar of a minimalist skincare regimen. It’s also going to be your key defense against acne, since it minimizes pores, balances the skin, and even reduces deep acne scars that otherwise take months to get rid of. It’s important to use them overnight for a couple reasons: 1.) They work with the body’s regenerative cycle to expedite healing and improve your skin. 2.) They make you sensitive to light and are deactivated by UV exposure. (So you need to cleanse thoroughly and use an SPF–packed product the next morning.
Kimberly Jerden, M.D., recommends speaking with your dermatologist first and foremost, to decide if a prescription-grade retinoid is best for you. That being said, “aside from my favorite prescription retinoids, I am picky about buying over the counter retinoids because many aren’t strong enough or not proven to convert,” she says.
But there is one she endorses wholeheartedly: PCA Intensive Clarity Treatment 0.5% Pure Retinol.
Do a mask once per week
An at-home face mask feels incredible, and that’s because it’s doing good to your skin: It absorbs all the grease and gunk that accumulates in your pores—deep from within the pores, that is—and gives you a very clean canvas from which to start your week. Dhaval Bhanusali, M.D., warns against doing masks too often though.
“Masks are strong. They often have salicylic acid, which, given the occlusion of the mask, really helps get the acid into the oil glands of the skin,” he says. “This then decreases oil production.”
In a bad way, since your skin’s oil is what keeps it hydrated. It’s merely the excess oil you want to eradicate. So, limit yourself to once a week on deep-cleaning masks in order to avoid excessive drying.
However, you can’t really overdo the ultra-hydrating masks, since they have a different and pro-nourishment objective.) Precede a cleansing mask with an actual cleanse, follow it with a rinse, then a moisturizer (or a retinol if it’s the end of the day). Have a look at our favorite masks, as well as the favorites of our dermatologists.