Is there anyone else who, like me, thought all we had to do was survive our teenage years and our acne would magically disappear only to reveal clear beautiful skin like the women in glossy magazines? Well if you too got a rude awakening when you’re well into your 20s and still wake up to red, angry zits in the most inappropraite of times (like right before a hot date), then this article is for you.


When we talk about acne, there is a lot to unpack. If we want to treat it, we first need to look at the underlying causes to the problem; what is the point of putting a band-aid on a bullet hole. The main culprits contributing to acne are excess sebum production, inflammation, abnormal epithelial desquamation and the presence of bacteria. At a secondary level, hormonal imbalance, stress, diet and lifestyle can all affect skin health and lead to acne. Moreover, these causative factors contribute to the type of acne affecting you – either comedonal (whiteheads which are closed comedones, and blackheads which are open comedones) or inflammatory lesions (red bumps, pustules, and cystic nodules).


The surest way of clearing and preventing acne is to treat it at the source, so take care to analyze what is contributing to your breakouts. That said, we can always get some extra help from our skincare routine. However, with so many products and treatments promising to be a cure-all, I’m here to help you cut through the noise. Whether suffering from occasional breakouts or from more severe acne, these are the super powered ingredients to look for.


1.     Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is best known for its bactericidal effect, i.e. it is super effective at killing bacteria that lead to acne. It is also great at reducing inflammation and unclogging pores. This not only helps to diminish current breakouts, but helps to prevent future breakouts.


Unfortunately, benzoyl peroxide comes with many drawbacks that, if not counteracted with other ingredients, can in fact exacerbate breakout and sensitize skin. While benzoyl peroxide reduces oil making it beneficial for fighting acne, in excess it can be counterintuitive, drying out the skin so much so that it leads to scaliness, peeling and flaking.


Benzoyl peroxide is tough on bacteria but it can differentiate between good bacteria, necessary for skin health, and bad bacteria that causes acne. By killing all bacteria, this leads to a bacterial imbalance, which in turn leads to more acne breakouts and inflammation. It becomes a never-ending cycle.


Despite these side effects, benzoyl peroxide is one of the main ingredients used in a wide variety of acne fighting products. When formulated in combination with soothing ingredients, this active can effectively target the acne source, while the accompanying ingredients alleviate the harsh side effects. Paula’s Choice CLEAR Skin Clearing Treatment is a firm favourite. In two strengths, 2% for mild to moderate acne, and 5% for stubborn to severe acne, these are formulated to be tough on breakouts but soothing and hydrating too.


2.     Salicylic acid

As a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), salicylic acid is particularly functional at treating acne related to abnormal epithelial desquamation. In other words, due to its exfoliating properties, it helps to slough off dead skin. It is the build up of dead skin cells and sebum that clogs the pore and results in a breakout. Salicylic acid can penetrate deep within the pore as well as acts on the skin surface, making it especially effective in targeting blackheads and whiteheads. This super active doesn’t stop there – salicylic acid encourages collagen production, it evens skin tone and it can be soothing and calming, so you won’t experience those severe side effects as with benzoyl peroxide.


3.     Retinoids

Retionoids are a dermatologist favourite because it is a one-stop wonder. This multi-functioning active works to reduce sebum production, it stimulates cellular turnover (thereby reducing the likelihood of clogged pores) and it has anti-inflammatory effects.  Retinoids work deep within the pore to remove build up and prevent further clogging; it therefore stops acne from forming. Not only that, but by enhancing collagen production, it helps mitigate acne scarring when pesky breakouts do surface. Though not marketed as a acne fighting product per se, Sunday Riley’s Luna Sleeping Night Oil has been a staple in my skincare routine. Combining retinoil and blue tansy, the overnight treatment reveals smooth, clear, calm skin by morning. My active breakouts are minimised and the frequency of my breakouts is reduced.


Utmost are should be taken when using retinoids as they make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. A strong SPF is therefore necessary. Similarly, retinoids can irritate the skin leading to redness and itching. To manage this, a rich hydrating cream can alleviate these symptoms. 


4.     Natural Wonders

If you err towards more natural/organic beauty, then mother nature has got you covered. Tea tree oil due to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties is an excellent natural option for treating inflammatory acne. Studies show that using concentrations of 5% tea tree oil result in clear skin, however, this is well above the concentration found in market products or what you can find at the health store. Nonetheless, if you are enticed by using this oil, then you can apply it using a damp cotton swap directly to blemishes as a spot treatment.


Like tea tree oil, another natural acne fighting ingredient commonly used is sulphur. If you can withstand the intense smell, sulphur is a great ingredient for its calming and antibacterial properties. A popular choice is the Kate Sommerville EradiKate Acne Treatment, which is meant to be used overnight as a spot treatment.


When it comes to acne, the cards are stacked against us. However, by understanding your skin, what it needs and what ingredients are suited for those needs, it will help you to find a healthy skin balance.

Words by Christal McLennan & Image via. @thylaneblondeau