Treatment Available without a Prescription
Used to treat mild, moderate and severe
acne, the effectiveness of over-the-counter medications lies in the
product’s active ingredient(s). Not all active ingredients work the
same way. The active ingredient benzoyl peroxide reduces
whereas, salicylic acid helps correct abnormal skin shedding. For
lesions to clear, the product(s) must be effective against the
factor(s) causing the acne. The following describes common active
ingredients used in over-the-counter acne medications sold in the
United States. Check with your dermatologist or pharmacist before
combining acne products.
Alcohol and acetone
Found together in some over-the-counter medications used to treat
acne, acetone works as a degreasing agent and alcohol has mild
properties. When used alone, acetone tends to have no effect.
The mainstay of over-the-counter acne treatment, benzoyl peroxide
works to clear up acne by reducing
and removing dead cells from the skin to prevent
It was one of the first agents found to be effective in treating
mild acne and has been used in acne treatment for decades. The
principal side effect is excessive dryness of the skin, so be sure
to follow directions and not use more than stated unless otherwise
instructed by a physician. Care should also be taken when applying
it to avoid the bleaching effect. Benzoyl peroxide has been known to
bleach hair, sheets, towels and clothing. For this reason, an old
shirt should be worn after applying benzoyl peroxide to acne on the
back or chest. Benzoyl peroxide is available over-the-counter as a
lotion or gel. Use of benzoyl peroxide should be continued after
acne clears to prevent new lesions from forming.
“Herbal,” “organic” and "natural"
Over-the-counter products labeled “herbal,” "organic" or "natural"
are marketed as acne treatments but their effectiveness has rarely
been tested in clinical trials. The value of such treatments is
A popular ingredient in over-the-counter acne medications,
resorcinol controls small acne lesions and is frequently combined
with sulfur in over-the-counter products.
Effective in treating non-inflammatory acne lesions, salicylic acid
helps correct the abnormal shedding of skin cells and unclog pores
to resolve and prevent lesions. Salicylic acid does not have any
effect on sebum
Like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid must be used continuously.
Once stopped, pores clog and acne returns. Salicylic acid is found
in many over-the-counter acne products, including lotions, creams
and pads. It may be irritating to the skin.
Sulfur has been used for more than 50 years in combination with
other agents, such as alcohol, salicylic acid and resorcinol and is
found in many over-the-counter acne medications. While long used to
treat acne, it is not known how sulfur works to clear acne. Due to
its unpleasant odor, sulfur is not frequently used alone as an acne
content solely developed by the American Academy of Dermatology