Treating Acne with Prescription and Over-the-Counter Products

Like most people with ovaries, I am no stranger to hormonal acne. Although I didn’t suffer from acne as a teenager, my body decided to get in on the action in my thirties, and each month I am prone to breakouts in the chin area. Additionally, I have always struggled with blackheads (which are different from the sebaceous filaments on your nose: everyone gets those, and surprise! Those are not blackheads.) and if I’m not careful I end up with them on the my cheeks, and unlike whiteheads, they don’t go away on their own. So prevention really is the best medicine.

The regimen I describe below targets whiteheads and blackheads and uses (mostly)  inexpensive products that can be supplemented with more luxurious products, but they are not necessary to achieving blemish-free skin. Plus, you do not need to use everything on this list to see results! Feel free to pick and choose products that are right for your lifestyle and budget.

Tea Tree Oil serum

Tea tree oil products are wonderful for acne. That said, DO NOT go putting pure tea tree oil on your face. Essential oils can be irritating on the skin when applied directly, so just get yourself a formulation with tea tree oil in it. The LJH Tea Tree Essence is a staple. This can also be used all over the face for those of us with oily skin. Can be used morning or night.


Alpha Hydroxy and Beta Hydroxy Acids

Chemical exfoliants are an important part of any acne-battling routine. The idea is that these products help the skin slough off the dead cells at the surface. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are recommended here because they can help reduce the skin hyperpigmentation acne often incurs. But the real star for acne sufferers is beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). BHAs, unlike AHAs, are oil-soluble, which means they can get into the sebum that is hanging out in your pores and break it up, meaning you get clearer looking pores and fewer hateful pimples.

While both are useful in any acne-care routine, take care when adding them if you’ve never used them before. Over-exfoliation is very easy, and is totally counterproductive to your purposes. To safely and effectively add acids into your routine:

  • Start with a BHA and use it two or three times a week in the evening. Use it after your hydrating toner.
  • Give yourself three weeks, and then slowly begin to increase your usage if you feel your skin needs it.
  • If you’re tolerating your BHA well, begin to add an AHA into your routine the same way. You can use both in the same evening.

Acid Toner

Acid toners can be super useful for a variety of reasons, but as an acne treatment, the COSRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol is designed to both prevent and heal existing acne. I’m listing it as an acid toner, but it’s also quite hydrating, which is especially important when treating acne as many people tend to go overboard, leaving their skin irritated, dry, and flaky.  It can also be used as a spot treatment.

I am a sucker for small-batch products, and I’m really enjoying Marble & Milkweed’s artisanal approach to skincare.

Healing Balm

A calming skin balm is always nice when your skin is inflamed and red and irritated. I’m really enjoying:

  • Marble & Milkweed’s Rose & Chamomile butter. Chamomile is very nice to calming irritation, and her products are most organic, which I enjoy.
  • Klair’s Midnight Blue Calming Cream. This is actually not a balm; it’s a cream, but it’s very soothing on angry skin. It contains guaiazulene, which is derived from calming chamomile.
  • May Lindstrom’s The Blue Cocoon is a modern classic but it’s damned expensive. The good news is that it lasts forever and it does a great job holding moisture in, and with blue tansy it’s lovely for calming irritation and inflammation.

Hydrocolloid Bandages

For pimples you have to immediately get rid of, these hydrocolloid pimple patches from CosRX are amazing. Here’s how my esthetician told me to use them: First, use a sterile, very sharp needle to gently prick the top of the pimple. That skin is already dead, so it shouldn’t be painful. You just want to create an opening for the pus to come out. Second, with your finger pads (not your fingertips) gently press down on the area around the pimple and encourage the fluid to come out. DONT squeeze the pimple; you do not want more inflammation or to damage the tissue. Gently dab away any ooze and then place one of these bandages on top of the pimple. Hydrocolloid bandages will suck out moisture/pus/grossness over time.

You may have luck finding hydrocolloid bandages at your local drugstore. Those work, too. I just like these because they’re already the perfect size for working with pimples.


I use Curology as my everyday acne medicine and I love it. My perscription includes tretinoin, which is useful for controlling both whiteheads and blackheads, plus it’s great for fighting wrinkles. However, if blackheads are not an issue for you and you’ don’t need anti-aging assistance, you might look into Aczone. Aczone is wonderful medication for acne vulgaris (common acne): you only use a pea size amount for your whole face. My dermatologist prescribed this for my kids and they like using it. IT’s a lot less irritating than Retin-A/tretinoin.

And that about wraps it up. What do you use for unexpected breakouts?


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