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10 acne treatments you can try - and how they work

Medically reviewed by
Dr. Mohamed Elfayoumi from ZO Skin Centre by Zein Obagi

From simple lifestyle tweaks to ground-breaking aesthetic procedures, there are plenty of options when it comes to getting rid of acne.

Here are some of the best acne treatments to help you achieve smoother, clearer, glowing skin.

1. Lifestyle changes

Acne is not a result of dirty skin, but instead, hormonal changes, certain medications, diet, and stress. Although some of these are simply out of our control, there are others we can influence.

If you’re female, one option is to speak to your doctor about contraceptives.

Certain types of the combination pill that contain both oestrogen and progestin hormones, and the hormonal coil, can transform skin. They decrease the circulation of androgens, which reduces sebum production, the overproduction of which can, of course, lead to acne.

There should be one that is right for you. If you experience negative side-effects or disappointing results, go back to your doctor, and ask again.

Eat a colourful and varied diet.

There are no “bad” foods, but there may be one or two having an adverse effect on your skin. Keep a food diary and note down when you experience worse breakouts. Try an elimination diet – removing one food at a time for a few weeks – to help you identify “hidden” culprits, as well as picking up on any potential allergens.

Experiment with mindfulness.

It’s perfectly normal to experience stress from modern life but try to make it a priority to look after yourself. Leaving your desk for a lunchtime walk, trying some breathing exercises, and getting enough sleep really can help.

Some other helpful tips include:

  • Try to not touch your face
  • Clean your phone regularly

And possibly the hardest one: do not pick your pimples, as this will almost certainly lead to scarring.

2. Skincare reset

There are more skincare products promising transformative results than ever before, and it can be very tempting to try them all – at once.

But when it comes to acne and skincare, sometimes a complicated and overloaded regime can do more harm than good.

  • Experiment with going back to basics: use a gentle cleanser, moisturiser, and SPF, for six weeks, the minimum time it takes your skin to regenerate naturally.
  • When adding in more products, do it one at a time, gradually, starting with an application once every three days for two weeks, then every two days for two weeks, then daily.
  • Some actives are just not happy together. Either use them at different times of the day (AM/PM) or on alternate days altogether.
  • Avoid physical exfoliants and opt for chemicals, such as salicylic acid, instead.
  • Try double cleansing at night with an oil or balm first, followed by gentle foam cleanser.

The most important rule is this: listen to your skin instead of the marketing hype. A good dermatologist can also help put you on the right path.

3. Retinoid

Retinol has long been hailed as an anti-wrinkle skincare hero, but it’s also an incredibly effective acne vulgaris treatment.

  • When we talk about retinol we’re actually talking about retinoids. All are derived from vitamin A and come in different strengths from prescription (Retin-A or tretinoin) to the weakest (retinol esters). Suitable to use from your late 20s onwards, they encourage the production of collagen while removing dead skin cells, bacteria, and impurities. This improves texture, reduces redness, and prevents your pores becoming clogged with oil.
  • For treating acne, you’ll most likely want a prescription-strength product – so speak to your doctor for advice. Start slow to build your tolerance and you’ll only need a pea-sized amount, a few times a week or less.
  • It’s powerful stuff, so don’t mix retinol with other strong actives such as vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide or AHA / BHA Acids, as they will either irritate your skin or cancel each other out.

4. Microneedling

Microneedling is an incredibly effective and increasingly popular rejuvenating treatment that can help those of us left with scarring from their acne.

  • Involving multiple fine needles rolled over the skin – usually up to 2mm deep – the procedure creates a controlled skin injury to trick the body into producing new, healthy skin cells.
  • Studies show that skin treated with four microneedling sessions spaced one month apart experiences a 400 per cent increase in collagen and elastin six months after treatment.
  • Alongside acne scarring, microneedling helps treat fine lines and wrinkles, loose skin, skin texture, pore size, brown spots, and pigmentation issues.
  • It’s important to note that microneedling is not suitable when you are experiencing any active acne breakouts. It’s also worth avoiding if you have rosacea or eczema as it may make your condition worse.
  • RF microneedling is an enhanced procedure that applies radio-frequency waves even deeper into the skin – potentially acting as an even more effective collagen induction therapy.

5. Chemical peels

Despite the ample range of chemical exfoliants you can use at home (glycolic acid and salicylic acid are two of our favourites for acne-prone skin), for stubborn acne and scarring, a professional acne facial can’t be beaten.

Professionals can use more intense acids, such as phenol and trichloroacetic, which rid the skin of dead skin cells and impurities and encourage the regeneration of healthy cells, giving almost instant results.

You’ll be advised to stop using your retinol seven to 14 days prior to treatment and avoid the sun post-treatment, so make sure you give yourself enough recovery time before any big events or holidays.

The great news is chemical peels are ideal for those with active acne breakouts. However, its deemed too intense for complex skin complaints, such as psoriasis or eczema.

6. Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is used in a variety of popular creams and is an organic compound completely safe to use. It works as an antiseptic to reduce bacteria on the surface of your skin and, for acne, is best applied as a gel containing five per cent BP, which is available over the counter.

Many find it to be one of the best ways to get rid of acne due to how reliable it is.

Best for inflammatory acne (pustules, papules, cysts, and nodules) rather than whiteheads and blackheads, it can help with cystic acne in combination with other prescription medications.

Benzoyl peroxide takes around four weeks to start working if you use it one or two times a day.

7. Steroid injections

Professionally referred to as intralesional corticosteroid injections, but widely known as cortisone or steroid shots, this acne remedy is relatively painless and quick. Plus, the results are worth it if you have a particularly stubborn area of cystic acne – or a painful inflamed spot.

A dermatologist will inject a solution of diluted cortisone into the pimple. This solution is designed to reduce pain, swelling and inflammation in just 24 hours.

If you have an important event coming up, give yourself a week, if you can, to make sure things have cleared up in time. But usually, you will see impressive results in just a few days.

Steroid shots are great if your skin is not responding to typical acne therapies, but it’s wise to note they offer short-term relief. They’re not intended for regular, repeated use as they can thin your skin or cause their own injection site scars, and you will have to wait six weeks at least between each treatment.

8. Light and lasers

While the results vary per person, studies have shown that light and lasers are both extremely safe, and impressively effective, especially when used as part of a more detailed acne treatment plan.

Options include:

  • Blue light therapy, which penetrates the skin to destroy bacteria.
  • Red LED light therapy, which – despite the name – is less intense than the blue version. It works in a similar way though; penetrating the skin to reduce inflammation and skin barrier.
  • Carbon peel with QS lasers – two-stage treatment that applies a carbon liquid to the skin, followed by a powerful laser.
  • Vascular lasers – these can pinpoint and remove damaged or unwanted blood vessels in the skin, including those associated with acne.
  • Fractional ablative lasers – this laser treatment sees the beam split into numerous smaller beams that can then each target a different point. Ablative lasers mainly target the outermost layer of skin.
  • PDT – or ‘photodynamic therapy’, which uses a combination of focused light and ‘photosensitiser’ drugs to target abnormal cells.

You’ll need a series of treatments to get optimum results and may experience some slight redness and swelling post-treatment.

Be sure to speak to a clinician or dermatologist if you’re considering light and lasers, as they’ll be able to recommend which type may be right for your specific case and needs.

9. Topical antibiotics

To give your acne treatments a boost, why not try a topical antibiotic?

Topical antibiotics reduce the amount of P. acnes (the acne-causing bacteria that lives on our skin) which in turn helps control acne. They also help to reduce inflammation, so work best for inflamed breakouts rather than non-inflamed blemishes or blackheads.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are becoming more of a problem, so using topical antibiotics alone to treat acne is not advised. Clindamycin or erythromycin are typically used in conjunction with Benzoyl peroxide, while retinoids are another happy combination.

In general, long-term use of topical antibiotics should be avoided, if possible. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about your options.

10. Roaccutane

Made with retinol, Roaccutane is a medication that can reduce oil production and bacteria in the skin, both of which contribute to acne. However, while it is a highly effective acne treatment, there are a few potential side-effects to consider.

Around one in 10 people will experience side-effects such as dry eyes, dry throat, sensitive skin, and headaches.

There are mixed reviews from those who have been put on Roaccutane. Some have experienced positive, life-changing results, while others have suffered with their mental health. Do your research and speak to your doctor in depth before deciding if a course might work for you.


Finding the best acne treatment for you is no mean feat, which is why we’re on hand to help.

Interested in booking a microneedling appointment? Or perhaps a chemical peel is more up your street? Either way, you can use our local clinic finder to start your journey towards clearer, glow-getting skin.

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