In order to understand the ingredients commonly used to treat acne, it’s important to first understand what acne is.
Acne is a genetic skin condition that causes dead skin cells to mix with oil and stick to the sides of the follicle wall (commonly known as pores) to form a plug. This plug is an acne lesion. If oxygen is able to get to the plug, then it will remain non-inflamed. For someone who is not acne prone, the dead skin simply sloughs off on its own. This is why people who aren’t acne prone do not have to be careful what skincare products they use. However, if the plug is cut off from oxygen, then bacteria builds up and the lesion becomes swollen, red and inflamed. This occurs in people who are acne-prone.
Additionally, most over-the-counter acne treatment products are not strong enough to truly clear skin. But not only do you need clinical strength products, but you also need guidance on how to use them correctly, as to not make acne worse.
Now we can get a better understanding of what products are used in acne treatment and why they work. Below is a list of the top 5 ingredients used to treat acne.
1. Salicylic Acid
Salicylic Acid is a Beta Hydroxy Acid, which is a mild antibacterial and exfoliant that works by dissolving dead skin cells on the surface of the skin as well as within the follicle wall.
Salicylic Acid is a great choice for specific types of acne. It can have a soothing effect on inflamed skin, making it a very popular ingredient, especially for people who have sensitive skin, redness, inflammation, and/or very oily skin.
You’re likely to find this ingredient in almost every acne treatment product on the drugstore shelf. However, over-the-counter products are limited to concentrations of 2%, which really isn’t strong enough to seriously treat acne. Salicylic acid needs to be on the skin for at least 30 minutes in order to work, so salicylic acid-based cleansers are not effective and a waste of your money.
For newbies just starting to get their acne under control, salicylic acid is beneficial starter serum that preps the skin for more intense ingredients for future treatments. Acne Specialists carries a very effective daily serum that contains 7% salicylic acid. We also treat patients in-person with chemical peels in concentrations up to 20%.
2. Alpha Hydroxy Acids
AHAs are a family of exfoliants that include mandelic, glycolic and lactic acids. AHAs are the real powerhouse acne-treatment products that you can only buy from a skincare professional.
Unlike Salicylic Acid, which works on the surface to dissolve dead skin cells, AHAs penetrate deeper to loosen the bonds that hold your skin cells together. Not only do they unclog pores to clear acne, but they also smooth fine lines, improve rough texture and assist in shedding hyper-pigmented skin cells, which reduces post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation (dark spots from old acne). AHAs also help Benzoyl Peroxide work much more efficiently because they get rid of old, dead skin cells that may be blocking your follicles.
AHAs are found in several forms. Sometimes, AHAs are added as a antibacterial and brightening boost to cleansers (like our Mandelic Wash and Mandelic Scrub), but they work best as leave-on form like our Mandelic 5%, 8% & 11% serums, Glycolic 10%, Lactic 10% and Micro Peel.
These products are ultra-concentrated and will give you the most bang for your buck. However, you can’t buy these strengths from anyone except a skincare professional because they are so potent and you need to follow specific instructions in order to use them properly.
3. Benzoyl Peroxide
Benzoyl Peroxide is both an anti-bacterial and exfoliant that works by loosening dead skin cells that are stuck within the follicle. It also releases oxygen within the follicle to kill bacteria, reducing inflammation. Because it doubles as an exfoliant and potent anti-bacterial, it’s rare that acne clears up without Benzoyl Peroxide.
BP comes in strengths of 2.5%-10%, depending on the severity of acne being treated and skin sensitivity, and can be a cream, gel, cleanser, or spot treatment. BP is one of the few acne ingredients that works immediately, so you actually get a benefit from it when it’s in cleanser form. However, BP is active for up to 4 hours after applied to the skin, so leaving it on overnight in a cream or gel form is the best way to get its full benefit.
It’s important to note that oil-based moisturizers stop the action of BP, so it can only be used with water based hydrators like our Hydra Gel, Hyaluronic Serum, or Vitamin C Serum.
Sulfur is another popular exfoliant and anti-bacterial ingredient. Sulfur is like BP, but often less aggressive although more drying. Most times it does not come in leave-on forms like BP does, plus has a strong smell, making it difficult to use consistently.
5. Vitamin A/Retinol
Vitamin A/Retinol is an exfoliant that works from the inside-out, rather than from the outside-in, by sending a signal to your skin cell receptors that tells your cells to regenerate faster. By consistently using high-quality vitamin A, you will notice your skin’s brighter, more even complexion with fewer acne impactions, plus receive dramatic anti-aging benefits, like smoother fine lines, improved texture, and reduced post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
However, vitamin A must be introduced to the skin slowly. When some people first start using vitamin A, they may experience a temporary “purging” effect that draws-up acne from beneath the surface. For this reason, our Acne Specialists slowly introduce this ingredient to the skin and use a form of vitamin A called Vitamin A Propionate, which is a new-generation form of retinol that causes much less irritation. Vitamin A Propionate absorbs into the skin at a slower rate than Retin-A, thus is able to take in the active ingredient slowly on an as-needed basis, rather than all at once. This means that even if you only use it every other night, you receive benefits from it daily.
Once your skin starts to clear, or if you are looking for added anti-aging benefits, vitamin A is an amazing addition to your regimen. Like the AHAs, the strength and form of vitamin A that we carry is extremely potent and can only be sold under the guidance of a professional. Although drugstores carry many inexpensive forms of vitamin A, they give no benefits.
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