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The best treatments for teen acne, according to dermatologists

These over-the-counter products can help prevent breakouts — and spot treat pimples when they pop up.

Dermatologists recommend foam-based cleansers for those with oily and acne-prone skin.Vivian Le / NBC

Teenage growing pains are wide and plenty, with one of the most annoying struggles being frequent breakouts. Acne plagues an estimated 80% of people between ages 11 and 30 at some point in their lives, according to The National Institutes for Health. And this can take a toll on teens’ self esteem: Adolescents and young adults who suffer from acne have higher rates of anxiety and depression than those who don’t, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

Fortunately, there are several options for teens to improve acne and breakouts. To help you find the right products for you, we spoke to dermatologists about teen acne treatments and ingredients to look for. Experts also note their top picks for the best acne-fighting products to shop.

SKIP AHEAD Best face cleansers for teen acne | Best spot treatments for teen acne | How to treat teen acne


How we picked the best teen acne treatments

When treating teen acne, our experts recommend looking for the following ingredients and type of products to include in your everyday skin care routine:

  • Face cleansers: Look for a face wash that’s labeled noncomedogenic, which means it won’t clog your pores or lead to more breakouts. Your daily face wash should include ingredients like glycolic acid (a type of exfoliating alpha hydroxy acid), salicylic acid (an exfoliant that removes dead skin and unclogs pores) and benzoyl peroxide (a topical antiseptic that kills acne-causing bacteria), according to our experts. However, keep in mind that these ingredients can dry out or irritate your skin, and you should use them only a couple of times a week to start and gradually increase use as your skin adjusts, according to Dr. Samer Jaber, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Washington Square Dermatology in New York City,
  • Spot treatments: These help target a specific pimple and should be applied directly on the breakout, never to your entire face, according to our experts. Similar to an acne-fighting cleanser, look for ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. For more stubborn cystic acne, you can also consider a retinoid like adapalene, which is available over-the-counter and is a form of vitamin A that helps unclog pores and regulate cell turnover, according to our dermatologists.

The best treatments for teen acne

Below, we gathered expert-recommended face washes and spot treatments that can help improve teen acne. All of the following products are noncomedogenic and include gentle or acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and adapalene.

Best face cleansers for teen acne

La Roche Posay, Effaclar Gel Facial Wash for Oily Skin

Noncomedogenic products like this La Roche-Posay face wash won’t block pores, according to Dr. Adnan Mir, assistant professor at New York Medical College and dermatopathologist at Dermpath Diagnostics in Port Chester, New York. This foaming cleanser is recommended by Dr. Mona Gohara, a dermatologist at Dermatology Physicians of Connecticut, because it’s both noncomedogenic and contains zinc pidolate, which has astringent, anti-inflammatory properties shown to improve acne.

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash

This expert-recommended acne face wash from Neutrogena has 2% salicylic acid to fight breakouts and remove dirt, oil, grime, impurities and bacteria from the skin, according to the brand. The wash is also oil-free and noncomedogenic. If you’re using a salicylic acid cleanser for the first time, try using it every other day at first and eventually apply it daily depending on how your skin reacts, according to our experts.

Avéne Milk Cleanser

Avéne’s gentle, no-rinse cleanser is formulated with vitamin E and hyaluronic acid, so it’s hydrating enough to keep the skin barrier healthy, yet won’t clog pores, says Gohara. It also works to remove makeup, dirt and oil and adds moisture back into the skin, according to the brand.

CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser for Normal to Oily Skin

“Foam-based cleansers are better for those with oily skin,” says Jaber, who recommends this one from CeraVe. The cleanser has 4% benzoyl peroxide to fight acne-causing bacteria, and it’s also formulated with hyaluronic acid to preserve the skin’s natural moisture and niacinamide, which helps to calm irritation, according to our experts. It’s fragrance-free, noncomedogenic and can remove any excess oil, dirt or makeup from the skin, according to the brand.

Best spot treatments for teen acne

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

Differin Gel is a Select staff-favorite spot treatment that won our Best of Wellness Award for best overall acne treatment. “Differin gel is the only OTC retinoid available without a prescription and was a prescription medication for years,” says Jaber. This treatment contains 0.1% adapalene, which regulates cell turnover along the pores to reduce clogging, according to our experts. “If there’s one thing to pick to do for your acne, start using Differin gel at bedtime,” says Jaber. Wash with a gentle cleanser, dry your skin fully and apply a pea size of Differin onto the entire face, according to the brand.

Neutrogena Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne Spot Treatment Gel

This spot treatment is a favorite of both Gohara and Jaber, and can reduce the size and redness of acne in just two hours, according to the brand. It contains 10% benzoyl peroxide, which inhibits the growth of the bacteria that causes acne, experts told us. 

Mario Badescu Drying Lotion, Glass Bottle Drying Lotion

This quick-drying formula may be a good option for those looking to avoid benzoyl peroxide, according to our experts. It contains salicylic acid to fight acne and calamine to calm irritation, according to the brand. Simply dip a cotton swab into the pink sediment at the bottom of the bottle and dab it directly onto your pimple, according to the brand. The lotion dries quickly but leaves a pink, chalky residue, so the brand recommends using this product at night.

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads

These First Aid Beauty facial pads are made for sensitive skin because they can gently exfoliate using an alcohol-free (non-drying) formula, according to the brand. Recommended by Gohara, these pads contain hyaluronic acid and white tea extract to hydrate and protect your skin. The brand recommends using this product in the morning and in the evening after cleansing and before moisturizing.

How to treat teen acne

Combating acne can be tough, and finding the root cause — whether that’s hormones, stress or genetics — can help you find the best solution. There are generally two ways to treat teen acne and pimples, according to our experts: preemptive face-washing with appropriate cleansers and spot-treating breakouts.

Wash your face with gentle, soap-free cleanser

It’s important to remove any makeup before bed and to wash your face every day — twice a day if you have oily skin or if your face gets dirty throughout the day, like after a workout, according to Jaber.

When it comes to face cleansers, look for gentle, noncomedogenic products, which means they won’t block pores, says Mir. “Cleansers with ingredients like glycolic acid, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide can be very helpful for those with acne,” says Jaber. “But be careful as they can be irritating and drying.”

Spot treat pimples

All three dermatologists we spoke to recommended spot treating pimples from the second they start to develop until they’re just about gone. Look for a product containing a retinoid (a form of vitamin A that helps unclog pores), benzoyl peroxide (a topical antiseptic) or salicylic acid (an exfoliant that removes dead skin and unclogs pores), according to the experts.

Meet our experts

At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Dr. Adnan Mir is the former committee chair for the Society for Pediatric Dermatology. He is an assistant professor at New York Medical College and dermatopathologist at Dermpath Diagnostics in Port Chester, New York
  • Dr. Mona Gohara is a board-certified dermatologist at Dermatology Physicians of Connecticut.
  • Dr. Samer Jaber is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Washington Square Dermatology in New York City.

Why trust Select?

Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a freelance contributor at Select.

Mili Godio is an editor at Select who has covered a variety of skin care topics, including products for rosacea, keratosis pilaris and cystic acne treatments. For this article, Godio and Manning-Schaffel spoke to three dermatologists to narrow down the best treatments for teen acne, and highlighted their recommendations for the best products to consider. 

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