Non-Prescription Acne Treatments

Non-Prescription Acne Treatments

What over the counter treatments are available to treat acne?

There are a variety of over the counter treatments for acne. At a glance, here are some of the most common: 

Acne Cleansers

Acne cleansers work by removing dead skin cells to reduce clogged pores. There are two main ingredients that may be used in acne cleansers: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Salicylic acid is most effective for treating and preventing comedones such as blackheads and whiteheads. Benzoyl peroxide, on the other hand, works well on red, pus-filled pimples since it can kill acne-causing bacteria below the skin. However, benzoyl peroxide is not ideal for individuals who have sensitive skin. If you have sensitive skin, you should talk to our dermatology specialists before using acne cleansers containing benzoyl peroxide. 


  • Widely available
  • Do not require a prescription
  • Safe 
  • Clear mild acne and reduce future breakouts

Potential Side Effects: 

Salicylic acid

  • Can dry out the skin and cause peeling
  • Itching
  • Stinging or tingling

Benzoyl peroxide

  • Can dry the skin
  • Skin irritation 
  • Can stain hair and clothes

How to Use Acne Cleansers: 

Acne cleansers containing salicylic acid can be used once or twice a day to gently wash the face. Cleansers containing benzoyl peroxide can also generally be used once to twice a day, unless you use a retinoid or retinol product at night, in which case the cleanser should only be used in the morning to minimize skin irritation. Additionally, when first starting to use a cleanser with benzoyl peroxide, it is recommended to start applying it once a day, then gradually increase to twice a day. In most cases, you will want to use only cleansers that contain either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, however there are cases where your dermatologist may recommend using both.  

Adapalene 0.1% Gel

Adapalene is a type of retinoid, which means that it affects cell growth in order to decrease swelling and inflammation. By promoting faster cell turnover, adapalene reduces the amount of dead skin that clogs the pores. It is used to decrease the number and severity of pimples, as well as to promote faster healing of existing pimples. In addition to a gel, it is also available as a cream or lotion. 


  • 0.1% gel does not require a prescription
  • Safe
  • Proven to be effective

Possible Side Effects: 

  • Redness 
  • Peeling 
  • Skin irritation
  • Warmth or tingling
  • Dryness
  • Itching 
  • Worsening of acne for the first 2-4 weeks
  • Should not be used if pregnant

How to Use Adapalene Gel: 

Adapalene gel is generally applied once a day at night and should be applied at the same time each day. Before applying the gel, be sure to wash your hands and cleanse the affected area. Once the skin is dry, you can use your fingertips or medicated swab to apply a small amount of the gel, creating a thin layer. Adapalene gel should never be used on cut, scraped, or sunburned skin, as well as skin with eczema. 

Alpha Hydroxy Acid Peel

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are organic acids composed of oxygen and carbon (carboxylic acid). They are used in a variety of skincare products such as serums, tongers, creams, anti-aging treatments, and chemical peels. When used in a chemical peel, a higher concentration of AHA is applied to the skin. There are seven different types of AHA that may be used for a chemical peel, including: 

  • Citric acid (from citrus fruits)
  • Glycolic acid (from sugar cane)
  • Hydroxycaproic acid (from royal jelly)
  • Hydroxycaprylic ( from animals)
  • Lactic acid (from lactose or other carbohydrates)
  • Malic acid ( from fruits)
  • Tartaric acid (from grapes)

Only glycolic and lactic acids are available as over the counter peels. This is because they are mild and less likely than other AHAs to cause skin irritation. Over the counter peels, also known as lunchtime peels, only penetrate the surface layer of skin and require little to no downtime. 


  • Exfoliates skin (remove dead skin cells)
  • Corrects discoloration from scars and age spots
  • Increases product absorption
  • Diminishes fine lines and wrinkles
  • Prevent acne breakouts
  • Brightens complexion

Potential Side Effects: 

  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Blisters
  • Dermatitis (eczema)

How to Perform an Alpha Hydroxy Acid Peel

Since AHA peels can irritate your skin when performed too often, it is recommended to only perform an AHA peel once a week or once every two weeks. Before starting the peel, be sure to perform a patch test where you test a small amount of product on your wrist to make sure there is no allergic reaction. When performing an AHA peel at home for the first time, start with a low concentration of product. Apply the product to the surface of your face, excluding sensitive areas like the sides of the nose, lips, and eye sockets. The first time you peel, it is recommended to only leave the product in place for 30 seconds. Each time you peel, you would then add 30 seconds until you’ve reached the 5 minute maximum. At this point, you could try a stronger concentration of product and start the entire process over. After a peel, be sure to avoid retinoids, prescription tretinoins, chemical exfoliates, AHAs, BHAs, vitamin C serums with ascorbic acid, and low-pH serums for the first 24 hours. 

Sulfur Products

Sulfur has antimicrobial properties, meaning that it can kill acne-causing bacteria. When used topically, or on the skin, sulfur works like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, albeit gentler. By drying out the skin to absorb excess oil and unclog pores, topical sulfur treatments are effective on mild forms of acne, such as whiteheads and blackheads. However, sulfur generally is not strong enough to be effective on moderate to severe acne. Sulfur can be used as a spot treatment, and it is also found in cleansers and masks. 


  • Idea for sensitive skin
  • Gentle and less likely to cause irritation
  • Effective spot treatment for dry-to-combination skin types

Possible Side Effects: 

  • Excessively dry skin
  • Skin irritation
  • Some products have an unpleasant smell

How to Use Sulfur 

Only use topical sulfur treatments that are designed for acne. Before applying a sulfur treatment to the surface of your skin, be sure to wash your hands and face to ensure a clean foundation. Check the package to see if it needs to be shook before application. Next, use your fingertip to apply a thin layer of the product over the areas affected by acne. Be sure to avoid areas that are cracked, broken, or raw. You will also want to avoid getting sulfur treatments on your eyelids or lips, as well as in your eyes, nose, or mouth. Since sulfur treatments work as a spot treatment, it can be applied 1-2 times daily, depending on the severity of acne and how your skin responds to treatment. Our dermatology specialists can help provide insight on how many times per day you should be applying sulfur spot treatments. After applying the product, be sure to wash your hands. 

Pore-Clearing Adhesive Pads

Pore-clearing adhesive pads, also known as pore strips, are used to remove debris from the surface of your skin in order to prevent breakouts. They are made of two sides: one is a woven material and the other is coated with an adhesive that can stick to wet skin. When the strip is pulled off, it will bring dead skin cells, oil, wax, and bacteria with it. 


  • Can remove blackheads
  • Make pores look smaller

Possible Side Effects

  • Can remove sebaceous filaments, which maintain healthy oil balance in the skin
  • Can expose pores to dirt and oils
  • Skin irritation
  • Redness 

How to Use Pore-Cleansing Adhesive Pads

Before applying a pore strip, be sure to wash your face and hands so you are working with a clean base. It is recommended to use pore strips at night so your skin can recover overnight. To apply a pore strip, wet the top of your nose and press the strip over the bridge of your nose. Be sure to only leave the strip in place for the recommended amount of time. Usually this is only until the adhesive firms up. At this point, you will gently pull off the strip and all the gross stuff that comes with it. 

To Sum it All Up: 

As you can see, there are many different over the counter options available to treat acne. The best acne treatment for you will depend on the type of acne you have, how your skin reacts, and personal preference. In some cases, using a combination of multiple over the counter treatments is the best way to manage acne breakouts. For more information about what type of acne treatment is right for you, schedule a consultation with our dermatology specialists today!

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