Over-the-Counter OTC Acne Medications and Creams: Salicylic Acid, Benzoyl Peroxide, Sulfur, Resorcinol

Over-the counter (OTC) medications - the kind you can purchase in the drugstore or online without a prescription - are often the first thing that is tried for acne. Most of these medicines are topical. That means they are applied to the skin.

Doctors usually recommend an OTC topical medication first for mild cases of acne. Prescription topical medicine might be used next if the OTC medications don't work. Topical medicine is applied directly to the acne or to the entire area of affected skin.

There are several OTC topical medicines used for mild acne. Each works a little differently. Following are the most common ones:

  • Benzoyl peroxide - destroys P. acnes, and may also reduce oil production.It is one of the ingredients in the Proactive skincare system. This can help to clear up pimples and blackheads. Benzoyl peroxide can dry the skin, so be careful not to overdo it. You should also make sure that any products with benzoyl peroxide don't touch any clothing, sheets, etc, as they can have a bleaching effect. You can find benzoyl peroxide in lotions and gels form. It is also an ingredient found in many acne soaps. Make sure you avoid getting this product in your eyes. Benzoyl peroxide comes in different strengths, such as 5% and 10%. It is usually a good idea to start with the mildest strength possible. Brand names of products with benzoyl peroxide include Clearasil and Fostex.
  • Resorcinol - can help break down blackheads and whiteheads. Resorcinol is often combined with sulfur in acne prodcuts. Brand names of products with resorcinol include Acnomel.

Other common OTC acne products include:

  • Salicylic acid - helps break down blackheads and whiteheads. It also helps cut down the shedding of cells lining the hair follicles. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). When pores are clear, it can help keep zits and blackheads from developing. Salicylic acid can cause peeling of the skin. It can also be irritating, so be careful not to use on sensitive skin. Avoid getting it in your eyes. Salicylic acid is found in lotions, creams and soaps for acne. Brand names of products with salicylic acid include Clean & Clear, Noxzema cleansing pads, Oxy clean pads, and Stri-dex.
  • Sulfur - helps break down blackheads and whiteheads. Sulfur is often combined with resorcinol in acne products. Brand names of products with sulfur include Liquimat.

Brand names included in article are provided as examples only, and their inclusion does not mean that these products are better or worse than others. You should discuss your situation with your dermatologist. Also, if a particular brand name is not mentioned, this does not mean or imply that the product is unsatisfactory.

Topical OTC medicines come in many forms. You can find them as gels, lotions, creams, soaps or pads. OTC acne medicines may cause side effects such as skin irritation, burning or redness in some people. The side effects often get better or go away with longer use of the medicine. If you have side effects, you should report them to your doctor.

OTC topical medicines can be useful for treating acne when used regularly. Be aware however, it can take up to 8 weeks before you actually see noticeable improvement.

When using an OTC acne product on your face, make sure you avoid sun exposure. Many of the medicines used to treat acne can make you more prone to sunburn. A sunburn may seem to make the pimples less noticeable, but this is just temporary, and there are known risks of excessive sun exposure, such as more rapid skin aging and a risk of developing skin cancer.

If you shave areas where you are using these products, shave carefully and test both electric and safety razors to see which is more comfortable.

If you are using make-up (cosmetics), you may need to change some of the cosmetics you use. That's because, for the first few weeks of treatment, applying foundation evenly may be difficult because the skin may be red or scaly, particularly with the use of topical tretinoin or benzoyl peroxide. As you continue treatment, the scaling may lessen, making it easier to apply makeup.

All makeup, including foundation, blush, eye shadow, moisturizers, and hair-care products should be oil free. Choose products labeled noncomedogenic (meaning they don't promote the formation of closed pores). In some people, however, even these products may make acne worse.

Above all, when you are trying to get rid of acne, don't keep touching your skin. And don't be tempted to squeeze or pick at blemishes - that will only make them worse.


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