4 Under-the-Radar Acne-Fighting Ingredients That Aren't Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid

Stubborn acne has no place in 2021.

Under-the-Radar Acne Ingredients That Work Just as Well as Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide
Photo: Susana Ram/Stocksy/Adobe Stock

If you're one of the 50 million people in America that gets acne, you're probably well aquatinted with salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.

These two chemical exfoliants are often recommended by dermatologists because, well, they work, and are scientifically proven to kill acne-causing bacteria beneath the skin.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, adult acne is on the rise. And whether you've been dealing with breakouts since middle school or just started getting pimples in your late 20s, odds are you've tried a number of over-the-counter or even prescription remedies. While salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are effective treatments for a lot of acne-prone skin, they don't always work for everyone. Or maybe these acids are too drying for your skin or conflict with other active ingredients in your everyday routine such as retinol.

The following ingredients aren't new to skincare per se, but they're alternative options to traditional acne treatments. And they're worth considering, if like me, your skin doesn't always respond to benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.

Here, we're demystifying four under-the-radar ingredients used to treat breakouts with help from top dermatologists.

Succinic Acid

This buzzy ingredient is derived from amber or sugar cane through a fermentation process. It helps control excess sebum and shine, which can potentially lead to breakouts. However, Dr. Jeanine Downie, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Image Dermatology in Montclair, N.J., says while succinic acid can decrease oil levels, it can be drying and isn't as potent as salicylic acid.

With that in mind, succinic acid can give a product a boost when formulated in conjunction with salicylic acid and other ingredients tailored to acne-prone skin.

The INKEY List Succinic Acid Acne Treatment

Acne Products for Sensitive Skin

In addition to succinic acid, this spot treatment contains salicylic acid and sulfur (more on that ingredient in a sec) to treat blemishes and blackheads. Hyaluronic acid provides a bit of hydration to prevent dryness and flaking, so the treatment can be worn underneath makeup during the day. As someone with sensitive skin, I found this treatment to be calming for the inflamed zit I had near the corner of my mouth without being too drying.

To shop: $9; theinkeylist.com

Perricone MD Acne Relief Calming Treatment & Hydrator

Acne Products for Sensitive Skin

This lightweight serum can be used twice a day to help minimize inflammation, acne-exacerbating bacteria, and dryness. Along with succinic acid, niacinamide, lactic acid, squalane, and citrulline (a calming alpha-amino acid) are the hero ingredients of the treatment.

To shop: $45


"Topical sulfur can be an effective treatment for acne," says Dr. Downie. "It is effective for some people because it is antibacterial." This means sulfur can reduce inflammation and bacteria growth that leads to breakouts.

While sulfur is safe for all skin types, Dr. Downie points out people with allergies to the ingredient should avoid using it as an acne treatment. Sensitive skin types may find sulfur too drying and irritating, especially when combined with benzoyl peroxide.

Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment

Acne Products for Sensitive Skin

Kate Somerville's spot treatment contains the highest level of sulfur allowed in a topical product. Exfoliating BHA acid and zinc oxide (we'll also get into this ingredient later) round out the formula. Throughout the years I've returned to this cult-favorite pink goop because I see a significant improvement in the size and redness of my zits overnight.

To shop: $26; sephora.com

Dr. Dennis Gross DRx Blemish Solutions Clarifying Mask with Colloidal Sulfur

Acne Products for Sensitive Skin

For an allover treatment, try a face mask infused with sulfur and other acne-fighting ingredients. Dr. Dennis Gross' overnight mask absorbs excess oil, bacteria, and impurities as you catch some ZzZ. Alternatively, you can use the mask as a spot treatment.

To shop: $28; sephora.com


While zinc is an essential nutrient your body needs to support immunity, it also can be an effective acne treatment that reduces inflammation and excess oil production. "The exact mechanism of action of how zinc works in acne treatment is poorly understood but is thought to be associated with inflammatory pathways," says Dr. Shari Sperling, board-certified dermatologist and founder Sperling Dermatology in Florham Park, N.J.

In addition to acne treatments, zinc is also found in physical sunscreens (zinc oxide) and anti-dandruff shampoo (zinc pyrithione). If you want to incorporate zinc into your skincare routine, just proceed with caution because it can cause some sensitivity. To avoid any serious issues, Dr. Sperling recommends doing a patch test first. "You could have a topical reaction to zinc, so make sure you test an area of your skin prior to using to see if you are sensitive to it," she says.

Zinc can also be taken orally to treat acne. "Zinc is over the counter as zinc acetate, zinc gluconate, and zinc sulfate, and has different formulations, Dr. Sperling explains. "Zinc is also found in food such as beans and dairy products. You should always check with your physician to make sure you are taking the appropriate amount of zinc."

Dr. Sperling says zinc sulfate has been shown to be more effective with severe acne, but has been associated with side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, so keep that in mind when considering zinc supplements as a treatment option.

Glossier Super Pure Niacinamide + Zinc serum

Acne Products for Sensitive Skin

Glossier created it's Super Pure serum for skin that tends to get dried out or irritated from the typical acne treatments. It combines zinc PCA to decongest pores and 5% niacinamide to help balance oil levels and has a water-gel texture that absorbs into skin without any greasy residue.

To shop: $28; glossier.com

Pai All Becomes Clear Blemish Serum

This concentrated serum works to minimize congestion in oily, acne-prone skin while simultaneously supporting the skin barrier to prevent irritation and flakiness. Pai has formulated it to be gentle enough to use every day on weeks where you're experiencing more acne, but using it once or twice a week will help maintain clear skin, too.

To shop: $69; credobeauty.com


If you haven't heard of comedoclastin yet, it's because the ingredient is exclusive to Avène, a brand known for gentle, healing products formulated with its signature thermal spring water.

Comedoclastin comes from milk thistle and has been discovered to have pimple and oil reducing properties.

"It's a great ingredient because it does play nice with other active ingredients and does not cause any irritation or concern when using with other products," says Dr. Mona Gohara, board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine.

The brand's clinical studies show that comedoclastin can improve the appearance of acne in just a week. "Significant changes can be seen in clearing acne spots from just seven days of use," Dr. Gohara shares. "It visibly reduces blemishes up to 22% from seven days and up to 39% in two months when observed under dermatological control."

Avène Cleanance Concentrate Blemish Control Serum

Acne Products for Sensitive Skin

Avène's serum can be used on all types of acne at every stage, including hormonal cysts, and is also soothing, thanks to the addition of the brand's thermal spring water. Because the serum has a water-gel texture, a little goes a long way. I've been using every night for over a month and still haven't hit the bottom. The fact that the comedoclastin plays nice with all other ingredients makes it a no-brainer to try. I don't have to think about alternating my other actives like retinol to treat my hormonal and mask-related breakouts.

To shop: $28; dermstore.com

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