How To Find the Best Drugstore Acne Products

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

If you know how to find the best drugstore acne products, you can get clear skin on any budget. Some sources claim that you need fancy skin care products that cost $50, $100, even $200 in order to have clear skin, but don’t be fooled. Sure, those expensive products probably work too, but why pay extra when you can get the same results from Walmart? Whenever you’re shopping around for the best acne products on a budget, follow this one simple rule: treat your skin gently. As long as you’re using products that are gentle and contain the right ingredients (we’ll get to those in a minute!), then you’re on your way to clear skin.

Woman in drugstore holding bottle
You might think a prescription is the only way to get clear skin, but most people don’t actually need such strong products so we’ve found the best drugstore acne products that work for your skin and your budget.

Why Should Skin Care Be Gentle?

Let’s review our first and most important point: no matter where you get your acne products, they need to treat your skin gently. This comes back to the root cause of acne, which is inflammation. Although oil production and bacteria also play major roles in acne formation, acne is first and foremost an inflammatory condition, so harsh products are bound to make things worse.

Why is this? Because harsh products irritate the skin, and when the skin is irritated, it tries to protect itself through inflammation. It can even release a burst of oil as well, which means irritation might trigger two of the three main causes of acne, making it a huge issue to avoid. Even though it can be tempting to try and scrub our acne away with products that sting or burn, this will only make our skin worse in the long run. Harsh products typically provide clear skin for two or three weeks, but then the irritation leads to inflammation and acne returns with a vengeance. Gentle products may produce slower results, but instead of quickly relapsing, your skin will simply continue to get better and better.

How to Find the Best Over the Counter Acne Treatment: Look for Ingredients, Not Brand Names

If you’re on a budget, the best way to find the best over the counter acne treatment is to look for specific ingredients instead of specific products. Name-brand over the counter (OTC) products are rarely the cheapest, and to be honest, they’re rarely the best. If you know the best ingredients, you can find generic products that suit your needs for both your skin care and your wallet.

If you have oily skin, you want to look for products containing gentle exfoliants, like sulfur, salicylic acid, or azelaic acid. Excess oil can clog pores, leading to blackheads and whiteheads, and gentle exfoliants can remove this excess oil without irritating the skin.

If you have dry skin, the top three ingredients you’re looking for in the best OTC acne treatment are green tea extract, shea butter, and glycerin. Even though too much oil can be an acne-causing problem, not having enough oil can cause acne too because it leaves your skin open to all kinds of irritation and inflammation. These ingredients deposit moisture, retain moisture, and prevent inflammation.

If you have sensitive skin, your main goal is to avoid certain ingredients like fragrances, parabens, and alcohol. These ingredients don’t always cause a problem for others, but for those of us with sensitive skin, we can react poorly to these ingredients. They can cause minor irritation that leads to major acne.

Finally, if you have more pimples than blackheads or whiteheads, the best OTC acne treatment for you will contain benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria, also called p. acnes, by bringing more oxygen below the surface of the skin, into the pores. P. acnes bacteria is anaerobic, meaning it can’t survive long in the presence of oxygen. This is a key ingredient for those of us with pimples or cysts.

Differin Acne Treatment: Why Differin Acne Gel Really is Different

Differin acne gel is one of the most popular OTC acne products because it is one of the only retinoids that’s available without a prescription. Retinoids are a unique type of acne product that regulate skin cell turnover to help prevent clogged pores, but it can sometimes cause irritation.

Retinoids are highly concentrated derivatives of vitamin A, and they work so well for treating acne because they regulate the life cycle of our skin cells. If skin cells are produced slowly but die quickly, the dead skin cells can build up and clog the pore, but if they are produced quickly and die slowly, the live cells can cling to the pore and build up to create a clog that way as well. Retinoids don’t solely slow down or speed up cell production or cell death, they do whichever is necessary to keep skin cell turnover running smoothly. Think of them sort of like a pace car for skin cells.

The trouble with retinoids is that they can be very irritating, especially if you have sensitive skin. The reason Differin acne gel is one of the best drugstore acne products is because it is a gentle retinoid option. It’s so gentle, in fact, that it’s allowed to be sold as an over the counter acne treatment. Differin uses adapalene, which is actually a retinoid-like compound rather than a retinoid. It’s sold in 1% and 3% concentrations, both of which are much safer options for sensitive skin than other retinoids like Retin-A or Tazorac. Even though retinoids are very effective in reducing cystic acne, Differin acne treatment may not be quite as useful because it’s much gentler. However, if you have sensitive skin and cystic acne, Differin is definitely our top recommendation.

How Does the Nexcare Acne Patch Work?

The Nexcare acne patch is one of the newer drugstore acne products, but it really works. It’s a mix between a bandage and a spot treatment, but it protects and treats better than either of the original products.

Nexcare acne patch in the hand of a woman
The Nexcare acne patch and other acne patches like it work using a hydrocolloid gel that absorbs the pus in a pimple or cyst.

Covering up your acne with a bandage can be helpful in many ways. It can cover up your acne so you don’t pick at it, or it can cover up a sticky treatment like honey to prevent it from dripping or smearing. The trouble is, the adhesives in bandages are often much stronger than what you want to apply to your face. Spot treatments are another great solution for acne because they can target specific acne blemishes. The problem is, the spot treatment will dry out the skin around that pimple as well. This might sound like a good thing—we often hear about “drying creams” for acne—but the truth is, dry skin is irritated skin, and as we know, irritated skin is often inflamed skin.

So how is the Nexcare acne patch better? It combines the best parts of a bandage with the best parts of a spot treatment, without all the drawbacks. The Nexcare acne patch is a hydrocolloid sticker, meaning it’s made of a gel-like material. This is much gentler than the adhesive used in bandages, and it actually helps absorb moisture, meaning it can remove pus from a pimple or cyst. Hydrocolloids can also help keep outside moisture form getting in, preventing any further infection from p. acnes bacteria. Simply apply the Nexcare acne patch before you go to bed, then remove it in the morning and do your normal skin care routine. The pimple should be much smaller, if not gone entirely.

Getting Creative: Aspirin for Acne

If you’ve ever tried aspirin for acne, you know that some of the best drugstore acne products aren’t even meant for acne specifically. But it’s important to be careful how you use aspirin for acne.

The main reason aspirin can help reduce acne is because aspirin is designed to reduce inflammation. When the skin is inflamed, the pores constrict, trapping oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria, which come together to form acne. Preventing this initial inflammation can help prevent acne, and decreasing inflammation can speed up the healing process for acne that’s already formed. There’s some debate over whether aspirin should be consumed regularly, so at the moment we don’t recommend using it to prevent acne, but you can take one or two on days when you have a particularly large pimple or cyst, or if you have a lot of stubborn blackheads or whiteheads.

Ingesting aspirin is the most popular way to use it for acne, but some people have found that you can also apply aspirin on acne directly. Many people do this by crushing it up and adding it to other acne-fighting ingredients to create an acne face mask. When you apply aspirin on acne directly, its anti-inflammatory powers don’t need to be processed throughout the whole body, so it can work solely on the skin. However, ground up pills are going to make your face mask very rough and it could cause a lot of irritation. If you’re going to use aspirin in a face mask, be sure to grind it up as finely as possible, and when you apply it to your skin, dab it on rather than rubbing it in to avoid irritating the skin.

If You Have Fungal Acne, You Might Want to Try Nizoral for Acne

Before you try Nizoral for acne, you need to know if you have fungal acne. Unlike normal acne which is caused by p. acnes bacteria, fungal acne is caused by a particular type of yeast called malassezia, sometimes also called pityrosporum. Nizoral, a popular dandruff shampoo, can’t treat acne caused by p. acnes, but it may be able to help control the malassezia that causes fungal acne.

Malassezia, like many other yeasts and bacteria, always lives on our skin and it usually doesn’t cause any problems. However, sometimes it can grow and get trapped in the pores, leading to minor infections that look a lot like regular acne. The trouble is, fungal acne doesn’t typically respond to normal acne treatments because the biggest problem with fungal acne isn’t inflammation or oil production, though those can also play a part, it’s the overgrowth of the malassezia. In order to get rid of fungal acne, you really need a product that can cut back on malassezia growth. That’s why some people see great results when using Nizoral for acme: it is designed to reduce malassezia growth because that is the same yeast associated with dandruff.

Because Nizoral treats malassezia and regular acne treatments do not, it is much more effective in treating fungal acne. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a few drawbacks. Generally speaking, Nizoral for acne is one good option for fungal acne, but it’s not right for everyone. If you have dry skin, you may want to see a dermatologist instead, since Nizoral can be somewhat drying and irritating.

The Truths and Myths Behind the Hibiclens Acne Trend

The Hibiclens acne trend is like all other trends: it’s everywhere and everyone claims it’s magic, so much so that you can’t help being a bit suspicious. That instinct is smart, because you never want to put something dangerous on your skin, but we’re here to clear a few things up.

First, Hibiclens is not a magical acne cure. Even though it can help with acne, it can’t “cure” it because acne doesn’t have a cure. Acne can be managed, prevented and treated, but it can’t be cured entirely. So why is everyone so obsessed with this particular treatment? Hibiclens is very effective at killing bacteria, so much so that many hospitals use it as a sanitizer. Studies have found that it can effectively kill p. acnes bacteria specifically, so many people have started using it as an acne treatment to fight pimples and cysts, the two main types of acne caused by bacteria. Best of all, Hibiclens is very gentle and can be safely used on dry or sensitive skin.

Bottle of HibiClens
Hibiclens is a medical-grade antibacterial that kills most types of bacteria, including p. acnes.

The Hibiclens acne trend is actually one of the best drugstore acne products on this list, but it still has drawbacks. For instance, the Hibiclens website says it should not be used on the head or face. The main reason for this seems to be out of concern for the eyes, ears, and mouth, which could be damaged by Hibiclens. It can still be used for body acne, and we suspect that if you are very careful in your application, possibly by soaking a cotton ball in Hibiclens and using that to gently apply it to your acne, it should be safe for your face as well.

How to Choose the Best Noxzema Acne Treatment

There are now several Noxzema acne products available, including a cleanser, cleansing pads, and a scrub. If you want to try Noxzema for acne, make sure you get the right product though, because the original Classic Clean formula is likely to have the opposite effect on your skin.

We like Noxzema’s view on skin care: excessive cleansing, scrubbing, or treatment can strip our skin of all its oil, which leaves it open to irritation, inflammation, and more acne. They create products under the assumption that maintaining a healthy thin layer of oil is better for your skin than harshly stripping away as much oil as possible. Research supports this point of view, so even if it feels more satisfying to use harsh exfoliating brushes or scrub vigorously at your skin, it is best to be gentle. Noxzema’s Ultimate Clear line has several products that can both treat your acne and treat your skin right.

It’s important to shop from the Ultimate Clean line because the Classic Clean products use linseed oil, soybean oil, and other oils to help trap moisture in the skin. Keeping the skin moisturized is important, but these ingredients are likely to cause more acne than they could prevent. Not all oils clog pores, but linseed and soybean oil definitely do.

If you want to try a Noxzema acne treatment, we recommend the Anti-Blemish Scrub. The Daily Deep Pore Cleanser is oil-free and contains glycerin to help the skin retain moisture, but it doesn’t have any active acne-fighting ingredients. The Anti-Blemish Pads contain salicylic acid, a great ingredient for fighting acne, but they are alcohol-based, meaning they’re very likely to dry out the skin. The Anti-Blemish Scrub is oil-free, it contains salicylic acid, and it’s not alcohol-based, so we believe it can help significantly reduce acne.

How to Prevent Acne By Protecting Your Skin: The Aquaphor Acne Solution

The Aquaphor acne solution aims to reduce acne by moisturizing the skin and preventing inflammation. Aquaphor is somewhat similar to Noxzema because they are both meant to help the skin retain moisture, but Aquaphor doesn’t have an acne-specific line. In fact, most of their products contain the exact same ingredients, but they are great ingredients for ensuring that your skin gets the moisture it needs.

Aquaphor Healing Ointment, Aquaphor’s most popular product, contains seven ingredients: petrolatum, mineral oil, ceresin, lanolin alcohol, panthenol, glycerin, and bisabolol. All of these ingredients either deposit moisture to the skin or help it retain the moisture it has, except for the bisabolol, which helps reduce inflammation. To make things even better, none of them rate higher than a 2 on the comedogenicity scale, which is a system that ranks how likely it is that various substances will clog pores. Substances like algae extract and wheat germ oil are rated as a 5, meaning they will almost definitely clog pores, while others like glycerin, mineral oil, and petrolatum rate as a 0, meaning there is almost no chance they will clog pores.

The best way to use Aquaphor for acne is to apply it at night, after the rest of your skin care routine. This will help moisturize your skin all night long without the interference of irritants that you encounter throughout the day, like pollutants or allergens in the air. In the morning, your cleanser will remove any shiny or oily appearance the Aquaphor may have left overnight, leaving your skin feeling moisturized and fresh.

Our Favorite Azelaic Acid Acne Product: Our Clearing Tonic

Azelaic acid acne products aren’t very common, but they should be. Azelaic acid can combat several factors related to acne, from bacteria to clogged pores to hyperpigmentation. That’s why we’ve included it in our Clearing Tonic here at Exposed Skin Care.

Bottle of Exposed Clearing tonic
Our Clearing Tonic is one of the best OTC acne treatments because it contains great acne-fighting ingredients, including azelaic acid.

The “acid” in “azelaic acid” might make it sound too harsh for the skin, but many acids are actually good for skin care as long as they’re not too acidic. Our skin is naturally slightly acidic, so applying mildly acidic products can help keep our skin’s pH balanced. Azelaic acid is relatively mild, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very effective acne-fighting agent. It can break up the oil and dead skin cells clogging pores, exfoliate the skin, fight p. acnes bacteria, and promote the production of new skin cells, which can help reduce hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation is the dark marks left behind once acne heals. This is due to the extra melanin our skin deposits throughout the healing process, leaving many of our skin cells darker than they usually are. Azelaic acid encourages skin cell turnover to get rid of the old cells and make room for new, non-hyperpigmented cells.

All of our products contain a mixture of scientific and natural ingredients, and our Clearing Tonic is no exception. It contains azelaic acid to help with exfoliation, bacteria, and skin cell turnover, salicylic acid, also to help with exfoliation, and glycolic acid, another great acid for exfoliation and skin cell turnover. It also contains green tea extract to reduce redness and inflammation, witch hazel to help kill bacteria, and sage extract, also to reduce inflammation. Together, these ingredients make our Clearing Tonic one of the best azelaic acid products on the market right now.

Acne Treatment Walmart Options

These are some of the best drugstore acne products available, and you can find most of them at any store that sells skin care items, but if you’re on a tight budget you might be wondering what your acne treatment Walmart options are. We recommend the following three products:

Equate Beauty Quick Action Daily Face Wash

This face wash contains salicylic acid to help fight acne, similar to our Facial Cleanser available here at Exposed. The Walmart option is slightly cheaper, but it does come with a few drawbacks. Namely, it may be too harsh for many people because it contains 2% salicylic acid. This may not seem like much, but it’s enough to cause irritation. If you have dry or sensitive skin, you may want to try a gentler concentration, like the 0.5% found in our Facial Cleanser.

Equate Beauty Exfoliating Makeup Remover Wipes

Makeup removal wipes are not a necessity if you have a good face wash, but they can come in handy. It’s always better to wash your face and do your full skin care routine before going to bed, but if you know you tend to get tired and skip your nighttime routine, it’s better to use makeup remover wipes than to use nothing at all. The trouble is, many remover wipes contain a lot of alcohol, which dries out the skin, especially if you use them right before bed and the alcohol sits on your skin all night. The reason we like these is because even though they include alcohol, they also contain aloe vera extract, cucumber extract, and green tea extract, all of which can help reduce any inflammation potentially caused by the alcohol.

Equate Beauty Gentle Skin Cream with Long-Lasting Moisture Lotion

One of the most important skin care steps is moisturizing because it helps prevent acne by preventing inflammation. Like Aquaphor, this Walmart moisturizing option contains petrolatum and glycerin to help deliver and retain moisture, but it is lacking in some of the more natural ingredients present in our signature Moisture Complex, like green tea extract to reduce inflammation and pumpkin seed extract to retain moisture.