This article has been medically reviewed by Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board.
If you have acne regularly, you know how frustrating it can be to keep those pesky spots under control. You’ve tried powerful spot treatments, sophisticated facial cleansers, and oil-absorbing masks, but you haven’t gotten into Serum Land yet because… how do you know which one to buy? With all the claims of skin care labels, this can seem really confusing. But you can absolutely benefit from a serum if you’re prone to acne – you just need to find one that meets your specific needs.
“The serums are great because they are very concentrated, they are aesthetically elegant and they are easy to layer,” explains Mona Gohara, MD, a certified dermatologist based in Connecticut and a member of PreventionMedical Examination Board of.
Because serums contain a high dose of a beneficial ingredient (or ingredients), they offer more for your money. However, this also makes them potentially irritating. “If you are already managing your acne with products that may be irritating,” such as a prescribed cream or spot treatment, “[adding a serum] maybe too much ”, says Orit Markowitz, MD, FAAD, and CEO and Founder of OptiSkin. However, adjusting your routine as needed can compensate for any redness, peeling, or bleeding (meaning you break out even more at first).
How to choose the best serum for acne-prone skin
✔️ Know your assets: There are many different active ingredients that, when formulated into a serum, could potentially help manage acne. But it is important to know what they are and how they work before you buy:
- Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, is not just an anti-aging agent. Because it increases skin cell turnover, Dr. Gohara says it is also “a proven acne treatment”. But its potent nature makes it potentially irritating. Recommended usage is once a day (every two, if you’re just starting out), at night. Many times acne patients prefer to try a retinol prescribed by their dermatologist first.
- Hydroxy acids are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic and lactic and beta hydroxy acids (BHA) such as salicylic acid which exfoliate the top layer of skin and unclog pores, respectively. If overused, they can dry out the skin. The recommended use is generally once a day, at night.
- Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, is anti-inflammatory and “will work on pustules, tenderness and redness,” says Ava Shamban, MD, certified dermatologist in California. It also helps to balance the sebum production of the skin. As a less irritating ingredient, it can be used morning and night.
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps even skin tone and reduce acne scars. Recommended use is daily in the morning followed by sunscreen, according to Dr. Gohara.
- Hyaluronic Acire moisturizes dry or irritated skin from overtreatment and can be used as needed.
✔️ Watch the oils: “The first cardinal rule is to avoid oil-based serums if you are prone to acne,” says Dr. Markowitz. Non-comedogenic is another buzzword to look for to make sure a product has been designed to not clog pores.
✔️ Choose the right cocktails: Many serums on the market contain a mixture of the above ingredients. For example, you might find a salicylic acid serum that also contains hyaluronic acid. This is good, because as salicylic exfoliates, hyaluronic acid hydrates and repairs.
✔️ Start slowly: In other words, don’t buy one of everything and start brushing. “You always have to make sure that you are using a small amount (the size of a pea) and that you work gradually so as not to irritate your skin,” says Dr. Gohara. If you’re using more than one potentially drying serum, try applying it every other night. (And remember, the serum is applied after cleansing and before moisturizer or sunscreen.)
Now that you’ve taken a crash course in serums, check out the dermis-approved choices below if you have acne-prone skin.
Retinol 0.5% in squalane
Dr Gohara is a huge fan of The Ordinary products because they are both affordable and effective. “I like it because it contains squalane, so it’s hydrating,” she says, but it’s also improves skin tone and texture using retinol. If you’re acne prone but have combination or dry skin, this is the one for you.
Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
Dr Shamban and Dr Gohara recommend this serum, which has more of a gel-like consistency. Zinc and niacinamide reduce inflammation while working to fade post-acne marks. The combo too helps balance the skin’s sebum production, which is especially useful if your skin is very oily.
2% BHA Salicylic Acid Liquid Exfoliant
While technically not a serum, this product feels like it and is meant to be used the same way – after cleansing and before moisturizer. “I think it’s a great addition to the routine of someone looking to fight acne,” says Dr. Markowitz. “It is a gentle, no-rinse formula that exfoliates dead skin cells while unblocking and cleaning the pores ”, thanks to 2% salicylic acid.
Retinol Resurfacing Serum
This serum has everything for acne-prone skin: retinol to directly tackle the problem, ceramides to help nourish and strengthen the delicate skin barrier, niacinamide to keep sebum under control and licorice root to soothe. It is especially ideal for anyone with large pores or stubborn scars. Because the brand is formulated with sensitive skin in mind, it is also loved by most dermatologists (including our experts).
Light Skin Willow Bark Booster
Infused with willow bark (a natural form of salicylic acid) and tea tree oil (which helps fight oil), this serum helps calm redness and irritation while gently exfoliating to prevent future breakouts, earning Dr. Shamban’s seal of approval.
Anti-acne anti-blemish + anti-aging treatment
This salicylic acid serum kills two birds with one stone fight rashes and reduce wrinkles at the same time. That’s why Dr Shamban and Dr Gohara say it is a great choice. It contains various lightening acids to decongest clogged pores, reduce signs of aging and improve uneven skin tone.
Just Breathe Clarifying Serum
Zinc, willow bark and niacinamide work together to gently exfoliate, tame redness and calm rashes. The formula of this serum is extremely fine and light, so it absorbs quickly to get to work. Bonus: it costs just $ 20, making it one of the more affordable options on this list.
UFO Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil
We know what you are thinking, “You said no oil!” This product is the exception. Dr Shamban loves it because it is a special, dry oil that quickly penetrates the skin. It contains salicylic acid and tea tree oil to keep pores clear and licorice root extract to help reduce hyperpigmentation left by rashes.
“It’s a great light serum which was created for acne prone skin, formulated with salicylic acid, ”says Dr. Markowitz. “The formula is also fragrance-free, which is a great benefit for sensitive skin.”
0.25% pure concentrated retinol serum
If you’ve never used a retinol product before, this serum is a great place to start, says Dr. Gohara, because it contains a small percentage of the potent ingredient. This too contains hyaluronic acid and peptides (known as the ‘building blocks’ of proteins) to work on hydration and smoothing the appearance of fine lines.
“Especially in brown and black skin when we have pimples, we can have discoloration,” says Dr. Gohara. Antioxidants in a vitamin C serum prevent these marks from sticking and with the help of nourishing vitamin E, they are even more effective. “They are good antioxidants individually, but even better when they work together,” she adds.
AlphaRet Clearing Serum
If there ever was an all-in-one serum for acne-prone skin, this is it. Recommended by Dr Shamban, it is marketed for clogged and oily skin and contains salicylic acid, lactic acid and a retinoid, which means it’s a pretty potent exfoliant. If you choose this one, try it in small increments and remember to always follow it up with sunscreen the next morning.
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