Understanding ingredients

Best ingredients for acne

Discover the chemical and natural additives commonly found in acne products.

There are a lot of products on the market that claim to help acne, from covering it up to relieving its symptoms. Some work for the skin while others work against it. We’ve put together a guide to the most common ingredients so you can make up your own mind.

What are the common ingredients that acne products have?

Benzoyl peroxide

Available over the counter in strengths from 2.5-10%, Benzoyl peroxide kills the bacteria that cause acne, helping remove excess oil from the skin and removing the dead skin cells that can clog pores. Possible side effects include: dry skin, scaling, redness, burning and stinging, especially if you have sensitive skin. Be careful when applying Benzoyl peroxide, as it can bleach hair and clothing.

Salicylic acid (BHA) 

Salicylic acid helps prevent pores from becoming blocked. It is available over the counter in strengths from 0.5-5%. Possible side effects include: mild stinging and skin irritation. Learn more about salicylic acid here

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) 

Two types of Alpha hydroxy acids are used in non-prescription acne products: glycolic acid and lactic acid. Alpha hydroxy acids are synthetic versions of acids derived from sugar-containing fruits. They treat acne by helping to remove dead skin cells and reduce inflammation. Alpha hydroxy acids also stimulate the growth of new, smoother skin. This helps improve the appearance of acne scars and gives the impression of smaller pores.


Sulfur is a natural element that is an essential component for all living cells. It is common in rocks and minerals and essential for plant growth. It’s also found throughout our body in amino acids, vitamins, and our skin and hair. Known for its yellow color and strong smell. It’s often combined with other ingredients, such as Salicylic acid and Benzoyl peroxide. It dries out the surface of your skin to help absorb excess oil (sebum) that may contribute to acne breakouts. It also dries out dead skin cells to help unclog your pores. Possible side effects include: dry skin and an unpleasant odor.


Retinoids stimulate cell turnover which means they bring healthy cells to the skin’s surface and push away the old dead ones. By speeding up the process it helps unclog pores and reduces bacterial infections. There are varying potency levels of the active ingredient, from the over-the-counter options like Retinol and Adapalene, to prescription treatments like Tretinoin (also known as Retin-A).


Niacinamide is an antioxidant, derived from vitamin B3, that helps fight acne while keeping inflammation and dark spots to a minimum.It brightens the skin and increases barrier function, while also supporting healthy collagen stimulation. Unlike other ingredients on this list, it’s gentle enough to be used on all skin types and won’t leave you dry and peeling. Learn more about Niacinamide here.


When clay is applied wet (for example, on a face mask), its molecules produce electrical charges that attract bacteria and debris from the skin, clarifying congested pores and providing a gentle yet effective, deep pore cleansing. Clay smoothes out roughness to leave your skin clean, refreshed, and smoother than before. That said, it’s important to use the right clay in the right way.

White and Yellow Kaolin Clay: These gentle clays from France, England, Germany and the United States are ideal for dry and/or sensitive skin. High in calcium, silica, zinc, and magnesium, they have relatively weak absorption capabilities to remove excess oil and toxins.

Red Kaolin Clay: Red clay has the strongest absorption of any of the Kaolin clay family, making it a great option for oily skin. However, it can often be too irritating for dry and sensitive skin.

Pink Kaolin Clay: This clay is essentially a mix of the white and red clays, making it ideal for all skin types and, more specifically, for sensitive and oily, acne-prone skin. When mixed with water, it swells and gains sponge-like qualities, drawing out impurities, exfoliating dead skin, and rejuvenating the skin by increasing the turnover of new skin cells.

Bentonite Clay (aka Natural Calcium Bentonite Clay): Bentonite, derived from volcanic ash sediments, is one of the most effective clays at absorbing excess oil from the skin as well as healing skin lesions. It’s packed with skin loving minerals like silica, calcium, magnesium, sodium, iron, and potassium and is ideal for people with acne or acne-prone skin as well as people with oily skin. You can read more about it at Bentonite Clay as a Natural Remedy: A Brief Review 

French Green Clay: 

Derived from decomposed plant matter and iron oxide, this rich green clay provides exfoliation as well as oil-absorption. Avoid any with a grey or white appearance as they won’t be as pure, safe, or effective.

Rhassoul Clay: 

Derived from decomposed plant matter and iron oxide, this rich green clay provides exfoliation as well as oil-absorption. Avoid any with a grey or white appearance as they won’t be as pure, safe, or effective.


Zinc is one of the most widely studied forms of acne treatment. Produced naturally, most people get the zinc they need through their diet. If they don’t, zinc supplements also have anti-inflammatory properties that can help fight viruses and bacteria and relieve some of the redness and irritation associated with moderate-to-severe acne. It may even help reduce the appearance of acne scars. 

Activated Charcoal:

Activated charcoal has been treated to give it a sponge-like structure. Its absorbent holes absorb oil from pores, much like a clay mask does, as well as any dead skin cells. Studies on activated charcoal show that it typically takes a few hours for it to take its full effect which may make it an impractical option.

Tea Tree oil:

Aboriginal Australians have used Tea Tree oil as a traditional medicine for many centuries. A number of studies have taken place to support its use for acne and, while there is some evidence of its efficacy, the general consensus is that while it might help improve acne, it’s not a cure-all.

These studies include:

  • A 2015 review of 35 studies on the use of complementary treatments for acne concluded that there’s some evidence to support using tea tree oil for acne. But researchers note that this evidence isn’t of the best quality.
  • One 2006 nb study found that tea tree oil has both anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. This may help with treating inflammatory acne lesions, such as pimples.
  • A 2016 study looked at using a combination of tea tree oil and resveratrol to protect the skin from sun damage. Although not the aim of the study, researchers found most participants had less oil and bacteria on their skin, as well as smaller pores. This could potentially improve acne.
  • In a 2017 study participants applied tea tree oil to their face twice daily for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, researchers concluded tea tree oil has the ability to “significantly improve” mild to moderate acne with no serious side effects. But this study only had 14 participants and didn’t adhere to other research quality standards.
  • A 2018 study found combining aloe vera, propolis, and tea tree oil can also improve acne.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana):

Indigenous to the United States this shrub has been used for centuries by Native Americans as a remedy for a variety of skin ailments related to irritation and inflammation. It acts as an astringent, drying out acne blemishes. As well as helping inflammatory types of acne (such as cysts and pustules) there may be benefits for blackheads and whiteheads too.

Which ingredient groups are most beneficial?

Salicylic acid (BHA) and Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), Retinoids, vitamins like Niacinamide and minerals (individual ones like zinc and sulfer as well as those found in clays).

How do I use these acne products?

The important thing is to remember to work with your skin’s not against it. You are trying to achieve balance, so don’t dry your skin out while attempting to reduce its oiliness.


Be gentle. Focus on ingredients like niacinamide, zinc, minerals and gentler acids that help restore a healthy barrier function. Harsher ingredients may work in the short term but, if not used correctly, can create new issues, like hyperpigmentation, because they can increase the skin’s UV absorption. Equally, by over-stripping the skin of its oils, it can prompt the skin to respond by producing more. 


Remember, skin care is a marathon, not a sprint. There are plenty of lightweight, small molecule oils that can help reduce excess oil production over a period of time. If you feed your skin healthy, balancing and even anti-bacterial oils, in tandem with some of the beneficial ingredients mentioned, you are more likely to get stronger, longer lasting results.