What Are the Best Ingredients to Treat Acne?

Did you know that up to 85% of people will experience acne in their lifetime? Although many of us associate it with our teenage years, it can actually affect up to 1/3 of people in their 20s and 30s.

Because acne is so common, you’ve probably heard of many questionable treatments like toothpaste and DIY pimple popping — neither of which we recommend! 

So how do you figure out which acne treatments you can trust? Our dermatology experts have kindly provided the lowdown on their favourite ingredients, all of which are evidence-backed with real scientific studies. Take a look to learn more.

What actually is acne?

Before we get into treatments, it’s important to understand that acne can come in many different forms. In fact, there are a total of six different spots that can be caused by acne: 

Blackheads: Small, external black (or yellow) bumps.

Whiteheads: Firm spots under the skin that don’t ‘pop’ when squeezed.

Papules: Small red bumps that may feel tender when touched.

Pustules: Just like papules, with a white centre.

Nodules: Large, hard (and sometimes painful!) bumps.

Cysts: Large bumps, which can cause scarring.

Now you’re clued up, let’s find out how to fight them!

Our favourite acne-fighting actives

When designing personalised acne treatments, our dermatology experts choose from a selection of evidence-backed actives. Here’s a brief rundown of their favourite ingredients to treat acne:


First up is adapalene, a topical retinoid. Retinoids will be familiar to most skincare enthusiasts — they’re derived from vitamin A and have a host of cell-renewing benefits. Adapalene decreases emerging pimples, as well as quickly healing any you may already have. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory and reduces swelling caused by breakouts. Plus, it’s less likely to cause irritation than some other retinoids. 


Tretinoin is even more powerful. It’s another vitamin A derivative: retinoic acid. This is the form of retinoid your skin can utilise immediately, so it’s fast-acting and can be used to treat a wide range of skin concerns. When it comes to acne, tretinoin helps in a few ways — it increases cell turnover, which evens out pigmentation and scarring, and unclogs pores. 

Azelaic Acid 

Azelaic acid is available over the counter in many skincare products, including our own 20% Azelaic Acid Cream. It may be prescribed, though, to treat many skin conditions. It’s successful as a treatment for mild to moderate acne because it attacks the bacteria that causes breakouts, and also reduces the growth of the hard outer skin cells that block pores. It also helps to treat the pigmentation, redness and inflammation that comes along with acne, too

Benzoyl Peroxide 

One of the most well known acne treatments, benzoyl peroxide is often the first port of call in the treatment of acne. Like azelaic acid, it works to destroy the bacteria that causes blackheads, whiteheads and pimples. It’s also anti-inflammatory, and helps to unclog blocked pores.


Clindamycin is an antibiotic that’s clinically proven to work across all grades of acne, and prescribed if deemed appropriate. It works by preventing acne-causing bacteria from thriving and helps decrease swelling in areas already experiencing a breakout. It’s fast-acting and only tends to come with mild side effects, which is a bonus!


Niacinamide is another vitamin-derived active — this time B3. It’s an all-rounder that we use in all of our treatments, not just acne. It supports the hard work of other actives and is intensely hydrating, so it helps your skin stay nourished and dewy throughout your plan.

As your plan progresses, we’ll check in with you to get updates regarding your skin health. If your skin starts to get used to the ingredients, or you begin seeing improvements, we’ll adjust the strength of your formula to best suit you.

The alternatives

There are some less potent acne treatments you may have heard of too, which can often be purchased without a consultation from a dermatologist. These include:

Glycolic and Lactic Acid 

This is one of the most common alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) used in skincare products. Out of all AHAs, lactic acid is the least likely to cause irritation, and it can help to reduce the severity of breakouts by exfoliating the skin and unclogging pores. Glycolic acid can be a little more irritating, but can be a good option if you are treating uneven skin texture or scarring and can come in lower strengths. 

If you’re already using a Dermatica formula, there’s no need to add these acids to your routine, but if you’re really keen to give one a try, we recommend allowing your skin to get used to your treatment first, before adding them in very gradually.

Salicylic Acid 

Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are also in many over-the-counter acne treatments. Salicylic acid tends to be the most popular, as it penetrates deep into hair follicles and oil glands on the face, dissolving the dead skin cells and other debris that cause acne breakouts. It also helps regulate oil production, which helps reduce acne, too. As with AHAs, it’s best to allow your skin to settle and fully adjust to any new ingredients before adding BHAs to your routine. 


Retinal is one of the most talked-about vitamin A derivatives. Like other retinoids, it increases cell renewal and is a powerful exfoliator, too, which is key when treating acne. Early clinical studies suggest it may even be more effective than retinol, but it’s not quite on the same potency level as tretinoin. If you’re already using a retinoid treatment, you shouldn’t also use retinal — doubling up won’t give you faster results, and could cause irritation!

How will I know what’s right for me? 

If you’re looking for a personalised acne solution, we always recommend seeking a dermatology expert’s advice, so you can be sure you receive the right ingredients for your skin.

At Dermatica, we offer free, online dermatology consultations with real experts, who can create a customised acne formula, just for you. Want to find out more? Start a consultation now.

Sophie Atkinson
Originally published June 01 2022, updated July 01 2022

Leave a Reply