The Best Acne Treatments That Really Work On Spots and Scars

  • Marie Claire is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission on some of the items you choose to buy.
  • Acne is no fun – at any age. But until recently, there was a blanket approach to the best acne treatments, whether you had teenage pimples or adult acne. 

    Thankfully, there are now more innovative ways than just a dollop of benzoyl peroxide to make your breakouts disappear.

    It all comes down to what derms are calling ‘age-specific acne’. The over-arching takeaway being that 40 per cent of cases of adult acne occur in women, which is a very different beast to teenage breakouts. 

    What is acne?

    In a nutshell, acne is caused by excess sebum. This clogs pores with a paste-like mixture of oil, dead cells and leftover make-up.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    Bacteria (especially one called Propionibacterium acnes) can then get trapped inside the pores and multiply. This causes swelling and redness, which is the start of a spot.

    Why do you get acne?

    Factors like pollution, oily cosmetic products like foundation, certain medications and smoking are all factors you want to swerve to avoid break outs.

    But a lot of it comes down to good old hormones. 

    ‘Growth hormones in your teens send oil production into overdrive, causing mostly blackheads and whiteheads,’ explains Sally Penford, Head of Education at Dermalogica.

    Also worth noting: in women, the predominant hormone is oestrogen, so no wonder your skin throws a temper tantrum when there’s a spike in testosterone the week before your period.

    ‘PMS and the drop in oestrogen drives acne and increased oil production,’ says Dr Anjali Mahto from London’s Cadogen Clinic.

    Frustratingly, you can still get acne in your twenties, and some adults will experience it well into their thirties, forties and even fifties. It’s even possible to get acne for the first time as an adult. In fact,  it’s now thought that 50% of us will experience fringe breakouts during adulthood.

    ‘In adults, acne tends to be the result of stress, coupled with hormonal changes, and is more inflammatory with cysts appearing around the chin and jawline,’ says Penfold. ‘You have to treat it differently and take into account that adults also face the challenge of pigmentation, slow healing, sensitivity and skin dryness.’ 

    best acne treatments

    Best acne spot treatments

    Just like your taste in fashion, acne formulas have moved on in the last decade. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ product, and it may take a bit of experimentation to find what works for your skin. But persevere and with these tips, you should be able to ease your acne woes:

    1. Only cleanse twice a day

    ‘Don’t over cleanse your skin – morning and evening will suffice,’ says Mahto. Oil cleansers, however, are a beauty fad best avoided if you want to avoid spots. ‘They leave behind residue, which can block pores. Instead, opt for a gentle foaming cleanser with salicylic or glycolic acids to purge pores of impurities.’

    The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Cleanser, £10.99, Cult Beauty

    best acne treatments

    Buy it now

    Follow up with a topical probiotic to balance the natural bacteria on the surface of your skin. Zelens Z Balance Prebiotic & Probiotic Facial Mist (£48, Cult Beauty), contains no fewer than five different strains.

    2. Use a non-comedogenic moisturiser

    ‘It’s possible for skin to be both oily <and> dehydrated so don’t avoid moisturiser out of fear of making skin greasier. Choose one that is oil-free, ‘non-comedogenic’ [prevents blackheads] and mattifying,’ says Dr Stefanie Williams, medical director at the Eudelo skin clinic. Here you can find a comprehensive guide to the best moisturisers for oily skin.

    3. Exfoliate twice a week

    ‘It’s harder for oily skin to shed dead cells so it’s important to exfoliate. A cleanser with salicylic acid is the gentlest option as it dissolves the oil and dead cells in your pores,’ says Mahto.

    4. Apply a retinol cream overnight

    Before being touted as a wrinkle-smoothing ingredient, retinol was used to clear up acne. Applied overnight it helps to unclog pores, reduce the formation of blackheads and whiteheads, and calm inflammation.

    Paula’s Choice Resist 1% Retinol Booster, £48, Space NK

    best acne treatments

    To cushion any potential redness, a slow-delivery system drip feeds skin the 1 per cent retinol solution. Plus there’s a multitude of soothing extracts to keep skin in check and you can always combine it with moisturiser if you suffer any drying side effects.

    Buy it now

    5. Look for CBD serums

    Cannabidiol (CBD) is exploding onto the scene as a way of tackling acne minus any irksome side effects. 

    ‘The cannabidiol in hemp seeds is anti-inflammatory and aids in the treatment and prevention of spots,’ says Dr Alexis Granite, Kiehl’s Consulting Dermatologist. ‘Hemp seeds also contain essential fatty acids, which help regulate skin’s sebum production.’ 

    Best acne treatments for adults

    Kiehl’s Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil Concentrate, £40, Selfridges

    best acne treatments

    Soothing hemp seed meets antiseptic green oregano in a hydrating oil that also avoids the pitfalls [read: redness, dryness and irritation] of typically harsh acne treatments.

    Buy it now

    Best acne treatments for teens

    Mario Badescu Drying Lotion, £16, Harvey Nichols

    Mario Badescu, Mario Badescu Drying Lotion, £16, Harvey Nichols

    Your teenager is bound to know that Bella Hadid and Kylie Jenner are fans of this Pepto-Bismal pink concoction. A perennial best seller for Mario Badescu, the Drying Lotion uses salicylic acid to exfoliate, encourage cell turnover and treat congestion. The addition of calamine lotion soothes, draws out whiteheads and reduces redness even on under-the-skin blinders.

    Buy it now

    Best acne scar treatments

    Bea Skincare Brightening Serum, £54

    best acne treatments

    If you had acne as a teen, it may well have left you with some scarring. This is especially true of black skin – melanin goes into overdrive when skin suffers trauma, like a spot. This tends to make acne scarring and post-inflammatory pigmentation more prominent. Created by renowned facialist Bianca Estelle, this serum is chock full of kojic, mandelic and lactic acids, which bump up against each other in their eagerness to reduce discolouration and speed up skin turnover. Expect results in six weeks.

    Buy it now

    Analysing our spots has also moved on from simply asking Google. The first spot diagnosis tool engineered by artificial intelligence and developed with dermatologists has launched. 

    Using your mobile,  La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Spotscan (free, boots.com) will take three images of your skin. It grades the severity of your acne, counts the number of blackheads, inflammatory spots and marks left by spots before providing expert advice and product recommendations. 

    All of which is pretty useful when you consider only 2% of the UK has access to a dermatologist IRL. 

    More of the best acne treatments for the clearest skin of your life

    Reading now

    Popular