The Best and Worst Skincare Ingredients to Treat Acne

I’ve been trying to treat acne since I was 12, a.k.a when I first started my period. My acne began with oily skin that led to a face full of blackheads, then small pimples. At 15 my acne turned cystic and spread from my face (maily my chin) to my shoulders and back. Such fun.

Best and worst ingredients for acne

My parents had never had acne, and my mum wasn’t into skincare so I used to spend hours Googling ‘how to cure acne’. I tried every product aimed at fighting acne with zero success.

I used to paste toothpaste on my spots (not good, toothepaste is for your teeth NOT your skin) and I remember one time I forgot to wash it off my back before my ballet class. Needless to say, my teacher thought I was a weirdo and sent me to the bathroom to wash it off.

I was prescribed medicated creams and antiobiotics but again nothing worked. In my late teens I was put on Accutane, which worked wonders… until I stoppped taking it and I was back to square one.

After 14 years of acne (I’m now 26) and a life time worth of research, product testing, seeing doctors, dermatologists, naturopaths, and nutrtional therapists, it’s safe to say I’ve come a loooong way from toothpaste, alcohol based astringents, and abrassive face scrubs.

These are the Ingredients that are going to treat your acne according to scientific studies, dermatologists, and migthy skinfluencers (I’m talking Caroline Hirons and Hyram).

Best ingredients for acne

The 7 Best Ingredients to Treat Acne

1. Retinoids

Retinoids are an umbrella term for retinol products that help increase cell turn over and collagen synthesis (hello youthful skin). They are hugely beneficial for reducing acne, improving hyperpigmentation, unclogging pores, exfoliating the skin, reducing fine lines and wrinkles…magic.

Retinols come in different strengths and formulations:

weakest to strongest: retinol esters → retinol → retinals → retinoic acid.

Start low and gradully build up. I started with this 0.3% retinol serum/oil from Medik 8 and have just purchased this slightly more potent o.3% retinal serum/ cream.

You can read more about the different types here.

2. Salicylic Acid

This is a BHA (beta hydroxy acid) that loosens dead skin cells and helps unclog pores. It’s also anti-inflammatory so it may help reduce the size of angry spots. FYI, the bark of the willow tree is a natural source of salicylic acid.

Try Cerave smoothing cleanserPaula’s Choice BHA tonerBravura Salicylic acid 2% peelDerma E acne rebalancing creamSunday Riley U.F.O oil.

3. Azelaic Acid

Much like AHAs and BHAs azelaic acid penetrates the skin and helps clear blackheads, whiteheads, and spots. It is antimicrobial and has anti-inflammatory properties, which will help to reduce the size of larger pimples and cysts.

Try Dermatic azelaic acid 20% creamGarden of Wisdom azeliac serumVersed weekend glow solutionTypology mattifying serum

4. Niacinamide

An ingredient for basically every skin issue, niacinamide (vitamin B3) can help even out skin tone, reduce redness, reduce oil production (although it doesn’t seem to help my greasy face), prevent signs of ageing, and strengthen the skins lipid barrier.

Try The Ordinary niacinimide & zinc serum , Face theory porebright serumAlpha H vitamin B

5. Tea Tree

Extracted from the leaves of a small tree, Melaleuca alternifolia, native to Australia, tea tree is another great antimicrobial and anti-imflammatory ingredient.

Note: this might not be for you if you’re sensitive to essential oils. And never apply tea tree directly to your skin, mix it with an anti-inflammatory carrier oil such as jojoba, argan, hemp, or rosehip.

Try A’kin shine free moisturiser, Urban Veda purifying hydrating toner

6. Sulfur

Sulfur helps dry out the surface of your skin to help absorb excess oil that may lead to acne. As it can be quite drying, it is best used as a treatment applied to problem areas only.

Try this spot treatment by Kate SomervilleMalin & Goetz sulphur pasteSonya Dakar volcano mask, or Derma E sulphur spot treatment

7. Zinc

There are many studies that show taking zinc orally can help reduce oil prodution and breakouts as well as aid skin healing. My nutrional therapist put me on zinc but sadly it had no effect on me.

Zinc is also effective when applied topically. Try The odrinary niacinamide and zinc serum, Goldfaden pore clarifying mask, this Lyons Leaf zinc & calendula paste was very helpful when I had a breakout of perilodermatitis around my mouth


  • A lot of acne ingredients can be quite drying, so look for moisturisers with ingredients like glycerine or hyaluronic acid to look in moisture.
  • Don’t over do it with AHA and BHA aicds. Give your face a day off and focus on nourishing your skin barrier with hyaluronic acid, peptides, ceramides, squalane, oils high in essential fatty acids.
  • Turmeric, neem, calendula are also good for acne prone skins.
  • If in doubt think of good acne ingredients as: a) non comodegenic (won’t clog pores), b) anti bacterial (to fight acne causing bacteria), c) anti inflammatory (to reduce the size of pimples)
  • Good gut health is VITAL for good skin health. Try adding bone broth into your diet.
Best and worst ingredients for acne

5 Ingredients To Avoid For Acne

1. SLS

Also known as sodium lauryl sulfate, this is a foaming agent often found in face washes and shampoos. It is used to strip the skin of oils but it is known to cause irritaion and inflammation.

Instead of foam washes, try gels, oils, or creams. These are some of my all time favourites: Pai Camellia & Rose Creamy CleanserOskia Renaissance Cleansing GelEvolve Cleasning Melt

2. Scrubs/ exfoliating beads

If I could go back in time I would tell my teen self to BIN ALL SCRUBS. Also ignore my GP; they are not skin experts, go see a dermatologist.

Scrubs are very abbrasive and can actually cause micro tears in the skin and potentially lead to thread viens. It’s better to use chemical exfoliants like AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids, e.g glycolic and lactic acid), BHAs (beta hydroxy acids e.g salicylic acid), and the new kid on the block PHAs (poly hydroxy acids e.g gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acid).

3. Coconut oil

I know soooo many people rave about it and claim it’s a magical unicorn that can cure everything, but coconut oil is comedogenic, meaning it can clog your pores. Personally, it makes my acne worse and weirdly dries out my skin. Save this oil for your cooking.

4. Alcohol

It is so drying and irritating. Whilst you may think drying out your oily skin is a good idea, it is not. Drying ingredients may disrupt your skin barrier, make your skin irritated, inflammed, and more oily.

You’ll notice the majority of acne toners contain alcohol high up on the ingredients. AVOID. In a targeted spot treatment that you are applying to the blemish only, a bit of alcohol is ok.

5. Synthetic Fragrance/ parfum

Another known skin irratant. It’s especially important to avoid this if you are prone to redness or rosacea. The difference between synthetic and natural fragrance is that synthetic fragrances contain chemicals (including parabens, and phthalates which disrupt hormone activity), whilst natural fragrances contain ingredients from a natural sources e.g essential oils. 


I hope these help you to treat your acne and reclaim clear, radient, and balanced skin. Yours skin-cerley Elle. x

Health & Happiness, 

Elle x

Elle Frizzell Product and Food Photographer

oh hey there!

Hi, I’m Elle. Photographer, holistic nutritionist, fitness lover and owner of one very sensitive gut. 

Welcome to my snug nook of the internet where you can find recipes, read up on resources, or book me for food and product photography. 

Elle Frizzell Food Photography Hampshire

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