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Over-the-counter products for the treatment of acne

Most people try over-the-counter products initially when acne becomes a problem for the first time. These products do not need a prescription from a doctor, and can be bought at a pharmacy or supermarket, or from a health store.

These are mostly topical treatments, which means you put them directly onto the problem area of your skin, unlike medication, which you usually have to swallow. Medication generally comes in tablet form.

The topical treatments can consists of gels, creams, lotions or facewash, which have to be applied according to the instructions on the packaging, or according to the instructions of the pharmacist.

When you take a look at the causes of acne, namely, overproduction of sebaceous oil, clogging of pores/follicles with oil, dirt or dead skin cells, inflammation as a result of this blockage, and hormonal problems, it is safe to say that over-the-counter treatment deals with the first three of these issues: oil production, clogged pores and topical inflammation. 

Face washes remove dirt and oil from the surface of the skin, but sometimes that is not enough.

For the treatment of serious inflammatory acne, such as pustules, cysts or nodules, over-the-counter treatments are unlikely to make a difference.  These OTC treatments are aimed at someone who has the odd pimple or blackhead, and skin that is oily in patches. One sees many advertisements for these treatments, but rather speak to your pharmacist before believing all the claims advertisers make. There are strict rules enforced on the advertising of prescription medication, so these are not seen nearly as often on TV or in magazines or the internet.

Check the packaging of the products for details of what exactly each one contains, and possible side effects. Speak to your pharmacist about how to use the product correctly. By law, each product has to indicate exactly what it contains. Brand names can differ from country to country – keep this in mind when you are looking at internet sites.

OTC acne treatments

Benzoyl peroxide

What is it and how does it work? Benzoyl peroxide is a chemical compound which is applied directly to the skin in the form of a gel or a lotion. It breaks down the oil/keratin that blocks the sebaceous glands and hair follicles, and reduces the inflammation caused by acne by killing the bacteria lurking in the skin. Some sources also say that it decreases oil production, but the jury is still out on that one.

Take note of these things. It is recommended that you start with a low dose, to see if it might irritate your skin. Then, you can slowly increase the use according to the instructions on the packaging. It can take up to four weeks to work effectively. It can cause your skin to peel, and it may cause redness and a burning feeling on the skin. Peroxide is a bleaching agent, so keep it away from your clothing to prevent staining. Sometimes these lotions also contain salicylic acid. Read more about this below.

Salicylic acid

What is this and how does it work? It is a beta-hydroxy acid, which is oil-soluble and can penetrate into the pores of the skin. It loosens old, dead skin, and reveals fresher skin underneath. It exfoliates the skin, in other words, and dries it out, decreasing redness and swelling. Many people apply it in an effort to ‘dry out’ a pimple overnight. It also works on whiteheads and blackheads. It decreases the number of pimples that form on your skin, and speeds up the healing process.

Take note of these things. If your skin becomes too dry, you need to reduce usage of this product. It is important to follow instructions and not use large amounts of this product on your skin. It is often also used to treat other skin problems, such as psoriasis, calluses, corns and warts. Salicylic acid can possibly improve the appearance of acne scars, and can make the pores look smaller.


What is this and how does it work? Sulphur works pretty much like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid do, by softening and thinning the outer layer of skin, and preventing the clogging up of pores. It also peels off the outer layer of the skin. But sulphur is gentler than these two treatments mentioned above, so it is an option if your skin has reacted poorly to them. Sulphur has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, which means it can both prevent and combat inflammation in the pores.

Take note of these things. Despite what you might expect, sulphur-based products mostly do not have an awful smell, as they contain masking odours. Take note if your skin becomes excessively dry, or if you have skin irritations to begin with.

Natural skin products

Natural products have not always gone through the rigorous testing that registered medication has. Like other home remedies, much of the information about these products are based on hearsay, but unless you have an allergic reaction to them, and you follow the usage instructions, they are unlikely to do you harm. These should not be used together with the products mentioned above. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist before you start using any of these.

What are they and how do they work? 

Below is a list of the most frequently mentioned topical remedies for acne:

  • Apple cider vinegar
  • A honey and cinnamon mask
  • Tea tree oil
  • Witch hazel
  • Aloe vera

They mostly work in one of two ways: they fight bacteria/reduce inflammation in a variety of ways, or they are said to dry out the skin. They are all applied directly to the skin.

Natural supplements you can take:

  • Green tea
  • Zinc
  • Fish oil

These, when taken correctly, can all have general health benefits. The healthier you are, the better your body is able to fight off bacterial infections. But whether these supplements specifically can reduce acne, is not yet certain. Green tea is high in antioxidants, and helps the body fight inflammation. Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which could also help your body fight inflammation. There is some evidence that a zinc supplement could help to reduce severe acne. It is an essential nutrient to help your metabolism and immune system function at its best. Take note that zinc should not be applied directly to the skin, as it cannot be absorbed in this way.

General points to consider on treating acne using OTC products:

  • Be patient – some of these treatments can take weeks to work.
  • Stop using a product if you experience very dry skin, or a visible skin irritation.
  • Regular skin cleansing is essential.
  • Never use two products at the same time – it will not give you double the benefit.
  • Never apply anything to skin that is broken.
  • The doctor or pharmacist can give the best advice; there are many myths doing the rounds about treatments for acne, so take care.






National Institutes of Health


American Academy of Dermatology Association




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