The 16 Best Acne Serums of 2023 for Clearer, Brighter Skin

No matter the type of acne you have, it’s no match for these powerful serums.

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The Best Acne Serums for Clearer, Brighter Skin

InStyle / Alli Waataja

Acne is one of the most frustrating, stubborn, and, frankly, overwhelming skin concerns to treat. With so many factors at play — what’s the root cause? What type of breakouts are you dealing with? — and so many different types of skincare products to treat this wide range of blemishes, it can be challenging to figure out the best course of action. Yet, the solution is strikingly simple: Serums.

Acne serums are loaded with concentrated levels of active ingredients to help you eradicate pimples and congestion of all kinds, from hormonal breakouts to painful nodules to pesky whiteheads, and the equally frustrating side effects they leave behind, like scarring and hyperpigmentation.

Best Overall

SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Clearing Serum


Skin Better

What We Love: This derm-approved formula is loaded with multiple blemish fighters.

What We Don’t Love: It absorbs into skin quickly, which is great, but also means it's easy to overdo it and apply more than you need.

We love that SkinBetter Science formulas are clinically tested by dermatologists — and in the case of this well-rounded acne serum, used by them, too. “I personally use this product when needed,” says Alabama-based board certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman. 

It features both BHA salicylic acid and retinol to decongest pores, improve oil flow, promote cellular turnover, and clarify the complexion. “I love that it has two powerhouse ingredients in the retinol and salicylic acid, but it won’t dry out the skin,” Dr. Hartman adds. 

But that’s not all: AlphaRet Clearing Serum also tapped lactic acid, a powerful AHA, along with anti-inflammatories (and oil tamers!) niacinamide and zinc, hydrating hyaluronic acid, and many plant extracts to soothe, calm, and nourish skin. It’s a truly efficacious product and a must for those looking to treat blemish-prone skin. 

Price at time of publish: $135

Key Ingredients: Salicylic acid, retinol, zinc|Size: 1 fl oz|Best for: Skin clarity, reducing pore size and improving texture

Best Budget

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% Oil Control Serum


What We Love: It has a pared-down ingredient list with a concentration of hardworking ingredients.

What We Don’t Love: This may not treat more advanced breakouts.

If you’re dealing with skin inflammation and oily skin that causes breakouts, this affordable formula is a wonderful place to start. “This a great choice for first-time niacinamide users — it’s a fantastic price point and niacinamide will help reduce oil production and smooth the skin,” says Dr. Hartman, who notes that zinc is another sebum-balancing ingredient. 

Niacinamide and zinc are both skin soothers, so red, tender breakouts may also find relief from this serum. However, if you need a treatment that will help resurface your skin to boost its clarity, this won’t do that for you.

Price at time of publish: $6

Key Ingredients: Niacinamide, zinc|Size: 1 fl. oz.|Best for: Clearing blackheads and improving uneven texture and redness

Best Splurge

Dr. Barbara Sturm Clarifying Serum

Dr. Barbara Sturm Clarifying Serum

Dr. Barbara Sturm

What We Love: This formula is gentle enough to treat even the most sensitive acne-prone skin.

What We Don’t Love: For the price, it doesn’t contain many actives.

Beloved luxury skincare brand, Dr. Barbara Sturm, is known for its clean, solution-oriented formulas that treat skin without harsh ingredients, making them usable by anyone and everyone ready to invest in them. Dr. Sturm also follows the EU standards for product development, which are rigorous and don’t allow for the inclusion of over 1,000 ingredients that US brands are free to use.

Case in point: This skin-clearing serum. It’s safe to be used by anyone over 15 and is so gentle that those with ultra-sensitive skin (even those with rosacea) can use it comfortably. Its power comes from plant extracts like purslane and albatrellus ovinus, a fungus with soothing properties, as well as calming zinc and moisturizing hyaluronic acid

Fans of this product swear by it for its ability to clear up breakouts, fade acne scars, and brighten away discoloration — even melasma. It’s a great option for those who want something very gentle or who have reactive skin that can’t tolerate more aggressive formulations. However, if you’re looking for something super potent that’s loaded with active ingredients known for treating acne, you may not be satisfied by this product.

Price at time of publish: $255

Key Ingredients: Purslane extract, zinc, hyaluronic extract|Size: 1 fl oz|Best for: Clearing breakouts and calming redness

Best Vitamin C

SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF Gel

SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF Gel


What We Love: This formula maintains and improves skin clarity while defending skin from free radicals.

What We Don’t Love: Like most SkinCeuticals products, the price is on the steep side.

All dermatologists can agree that daily application of an antioxidant serum — especially a vitamin C formula — is a must for healthy and happy skin. “Phloretin CF Gel is a vitamin C that should be used first thing in the morning,” says Dr. Amanda Doyle, a board certified dermatologist in New York City. “This helps to reduce oxidative damage to the skin, which can contribute to acne.” 

While many vitamin C serums can be irritating to sensitive, acneic skin, this one was developed to be effective, yet still neutral enough to use daily. When applied as a topical, vitamin C speeds up cell turnover and boosts collagen production within the skin, to reveal brighter, more even skin, faster. Those who have acne scarring or post-pimple discoloration will benefit the most by using this powerful vitamin C serum daily.

Price at time of publish: $182

Key Ingredients: Phloretin, vitamin C, ferulic acid|Size: 1 fl oz|Best for: Discoloration and scars

Best for Acne Scars

Renée Rouleau Post-Breakout Fading Gel

Renée Rouleau Post-Breakout Fading Gel

Renée Rouleau

What We Love: This product is a lifesaver for those with dark post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation caused by cystic acne.

What We Don’t Love: You only get half an ounce of product.

Acne, especially inflammatory acne in the form of cysts, cause trauma to the skin, even after the blemish has disappeared. Cysts often leave behind dark spots that take their good old time to clear up, sometimes even weeks or months. Kicking these spots to the curb quickly was the hope behind this treatment gel from celebrity esthetician, Renée Rouleau. 

This serum uses a blend of exfoliating acids (lactic and glycolic, to be specific) to fade discoloration, along with green and white teas to soothe and reduce inflammation, resulting in faster skin recovery. 

You’ll only get half an ounce of the stuff in this bottle, though, so if you have a lot of dark spots to treat, you may burn through this serum quickly.

Price at time of publish: $43

Key Ingredients: Lactic acid, glycolic acid, green tea extract|Size: 0.5 fl oz|Best for: Acne scars

Best Retinol

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

differin adapalene gel


What We Love: This is a rare prescription-strength retinoid that is available for OTC purchase.

What We Don’t Love: It can be irritating to sensitive or reactive complexions.

This FDA-approved formula was formerly only accessible by prescription, but as of 2016, it’s been available to buy at the drugstore, making it easier than ever to clear up skin. 

The potent vitamin A-derivative fights acne from multiple angles — it sweeps out clogged pores to prevent breakouts, reduces the inflammation that makes blemishes worse, and stimulates cellular turnover to smooth out uneven texture and brightening up any dark spots left behind. 

It’s incredibly affordable as well as effective, but like any retinoid, it can be pretty sensitizing, especially if not used sparingly at first.

Price at time of publish: $15

Key Ingredients: Adapalene|Size: 0.5 fl oz|Best for: Decongesting pores and improving skin texture and tone

Best for Oily Acne-Prone Skin

Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster

Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster

Paula’s Choice

What We Love: This can be mixed into any product in your existing routine.

What We Don’t Love: This formula is a strong dose of niacinamide, which can trigger redness.

When you’re looking to take your skincare regimen to the next level, try a booster, like this favorite of Dr. Hartman’s. “You can mix a few drops with your favorite moisturizer or night cream to get the benefits of niacinamide without adding an extra step into your routine,” he says. 

The concentrated formula includes niacinamide, an oil-controlling and anti-inflammatory ingredient to help balance skin, plus color-correcting licorice extract and vitamin C to maintain clarity — all within one lightweight, watery serum that’ll mix beautifully into any of your go-to products.

“I find the easier the skincare routine is, the more likely a patient will comply with the routine,” adds Dr. Hartman, who also notes that 10 percent of niacinamide is on the higher side, which can cause irritation.

Price at time of publish: $49

Key Ingredients: Niacinamide, licorice extract, vitamin C|Size: 0.67 fl oz|Best for: Oil control, skin brightening and minimizing pores

Best Hydrating

Eminence Organic Skin Care Acne Advanced Clarifying Hydrator

Eminence Organic Skin Care Acne Advanced Clarifying Hydrator


What We Love: This milky serum is lightweight and sits comfortably on oily skin.

What We Don’t Love: The smell is a little funky.

If your skin is so oily that it feels suffocated by moisturizer, this hydrating, aloe-rich serum may be your dream formula. It mattifies greasy-looking (and feeling) skin while also offering clarifying benefits, courtesy of salicylic acid and niacinamide, leaving it soft and touchable. Bonus: It layers very well under makeup.

This option is a certified organic acne serum, which is a rare distinction, and it’s got the heavy dose of hardworking plant extracts you’d expect from a clean product. The only downside is that the potent formula has an equally potent smell that not everyone will enjoy.

Price at time of publish: $69

Key Ingredients: Salicylic acid, niacinamide, aloe vera|Size: 1.2 fl oz|Best for: Reducing oiliness and clearing breakouts

Best Drugstore

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum


What We Love: This retinol serum is skin and budget friendly.

What We Don’t Love: The formula is so strong it can be irritating on sensitive skin.

CeraVe is one of the most dermatologist-recommended brands on the market and its affordable pricepoint is just icing on the cake.

With a blend of encapsulated retinol, a form that more slowly dissolves into skin for enhanced penetration (and thus, efficacy), nourishing ceramides to strengthen and support the skin barrier, and brightening licorice extract to fade discoloration, this serum is a true multitasker in the fight against acne (and the spots acne leaves in its wake). 

However, even though time-released retinol is gentler than other forms of the ingredient, it may still be too strong for sensitive skin.

Price at time of publish: $22

Key Ingredients: Retinol, ceramides, licorice root extract|Size: 1 fl oz|Best for: Skin clarity and discoloration

Best Exfoliating

Glow Recipe Strawberry Smooth BHA + AHA Salicylic Acid Serum

Glow Recipe Strawberry Smooth BHA + AHA Salicylic Acid Serum


What We Love: This two-in-one exfoliating serum resurfaces skin and has a subtle, delightful scent.

What We Don’t Love: It can feel a little sticky.

“This Glow Recipe serum is a nice choice for people who have acne scarring and ongoing acne,” says Dr. Hartman of the brand's bestselling AHA/BHA blend. “It will help clear up acne that you have currently as well as smooth out the skin.” 

The formula also includes hyaluronic acid for a nice little hydration boost and strawberry extract to naturally exfoliate skin. However, it can take a good bit of time to fully absorb into skin and leave a slightly tacky finish that may not sit well under makeup.

Price at time of publish: $42

Key Ingredients: Salicylic acid, mandelic acid, hyaluronic acid|Size: 1 fl oz|Best for: Retexturizing, brightening, hydrating

Best for Sensitive Skin

Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra Clarifying Acne Treatment Face Oil

Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra Clarifying Acne Treatment Face Oil


What We Love: By mixing acne-fighting oil and acids with soothing plant extracts, this solution-oriented serum offers everything you need in the fight against acne.

What We Don’t Love: The herbaceous smell is pretty strong.

Contrary to popular belief, oily skin needs moisture — it just needs to be the right kind. 

This fast-absorbing oil from Sunday Riley features salicylic acid, along with tea tree and black cumin oils to clear existing breakouts and protect against future ones, while dissolving congestion-causing sebum within pores. We'd sacrifice a little comfort for an acne-fighting product as miraculous as this one, but we don't have to — its silky texture feels lovely on skin, doesn't add grease (an ordinarily fair assumption for a face oil) and can be worn both day and night. 

The addition of black cumin does give it a potent scent, which some users say is not unlike tacos (not the worst thing, depending on your mindset).

Price at time of publish: $80

Key Ingredients: Salicylic acid, tea tree oil, black cumin seed oil|Size: 1.18 fl oz|Best for: Clearing acne, blackheads and blemishes, and reducing the size of pores

Best for Redness

The Inkey List SuperSolutions 10% Azelaic Serum Redness Relief Solution

The INKEY List SuperSolutions 10% Azelaic Serum Redness Relief Solution


What We Love: It contains azelaic acid, which is one of the few acne-busting ingredients that is safe for pregnancy and breast feeding.

What We Don’t Love: With such a high concentration of the acid, it could be too strong for some.

Azelaic acid is pretty unique — it’s neither an AHA or BHA, but rather, an exfoliant derived from a yeast. It can treat a variety of tough skin concerns, including acne, while being totally safe for both new and expecting moms to use.

Because of its soothing properties, prescription-strength iterations of azelaic acid are used to treat inflammatory acne and its associated redness, usually at a 15 percent concentration, but this over-the-counter formula features a whopping 10 percent. This heavy dose has enabled some to replace their Rx formula altogether in favor of this wallet-friendly pick from The INKEY List. However, it is strong, so newbies should ease into the routine.

Price at time of publish: $18

Key Ingredients: Azelaic acid, allantoin, glycerin|Size: 1 fl oz|Best for: Congestion and redness

Best for Dark Spots

Hero Cosmetics Lightning Wand Dark Spot Brightening Serum

Hero Cosmetics Lightning Wand

Hero Cosmetics

What We Love: This travel-friendly serum makes it easy to spot-treat dark marks left behind by acne.

What We Don’t Love: The dispenser can be a little challenging to use at first.

Tranexamic acid is an ingredient frequently prescribed by doctors to help combat melasma, and you’ll find it in this portable serum pen alongside fellow brighteners, vitamin C and licorice root extract. The serum applies via a soothing, cooling rollerball that dispenses a small, but mighty, dose of the spot-fading treatment directly on top of the offending spot you're looking to neutralize.

The only frustrating aspect of this product is the packaging. It’s dispensed with a squeeze button rather than the more commonly seen twist pen, and it can be hard to get the product flowing through the top. Pro tip: Try pressing the rollerball down hard on a flat surface while squeezing the button.

Price at time of publish: $29

Key Ingredients: Tranexamic acid, vitamin C, licorice root extract|Size: 0.34 fl oz|Best for: Post-pimple discoloration

Best for Inflammation

Versed Just Breathe Clarifying Serum

Versed Just Breathe Clarifying Serum


What We Love: This product is clean, affordable, and pregnancy-safe.

What We Don’t Love: It can leave a slight film on the skin.

Both sustainable and buzzy, Versed products prioritize naturally-derived ingredients to treat skin concerns. Just Breathe features willow bark, a plant-based salicylic acid alternative, to flush pores of congestion and keep them clear, as well as zinc and niacinamide to control oil and soothe stressed out skin. 

We love the minimalist packaging (it looks great in a shelfie) and that it only takes a few drops to get results. Just remember that a few drops are truly all you need — if you apply too much, the serum won’t absorb and will leave a sticky finish behind.

Price at time of publish: $20

Key Ingredients: Willow bark, zinc, niacinamide|Size: 1 fl oz|Best for: Clarifying skin, soothing inflammation and calming redness

Best for Blackheads

StriVectin Multi-Action Super Shrink Pore Minimizing Serum

StriVectin Multi-Action Super Shrink Pore Minimizing Serum


What We Love: This serum uses a gentle and natural form of salicylic acid to shrink pores.

What We Don’t Love: Although the brand says it won't leave skin feeling tight, it could have that effect on already dry skin.

Instead of using traditional salicylic acid, this formula harnesses a new-to-us iteration, betaine salicylate, which is derived from sugar beets to clear acneic skin and purge pores of grime. The addition of enzymatic exfoliants help improve the appearance of rough skin texture, while red clover extract works to tighten enlarged pores for a refined, smoother-looking complexion. 

Many cite the velvety smooth texture as an added bonus (it feels like a slick primer). However, if the debris within your pores isn't budging after a week, you may need to level up your intervention with a stronger acne-fighting skincare product.

Price at time of publish: $72

Key Ingredients: BHA, enzymes, red clover extract|Size: 1 fl oz|Best for: Clearing blackheads, shrinking enlarged pores and mattifying greasy-looking skin

Best Overnight

Malin+Goetz Nighttime Acne Treatment

Malin+Goetz Acne Treatment Nighttime


What We Love: This pint-sized product works fast to give congestion the boot.

What We Don’t Love: It smells like medication.

This is the brand’s top-selling skincare product for a reason — it deflates painful, bulbous pimples overnight using sulfur, salicylic acid, and zinc, plus a dose of calming camphor tree extract for good measure (which is the ingredient, we believe, is behind its less-than-pleasant medicinal smell). 

A tiny amount goes a long way towards calming down swollen blemishes while you sleep, just dab it directly onto the offending area after nighttime cleansing. This formula also helps inhibit the formation of post-pimple hyperpigmentation, so once the zit itself is gone, you won’t have any lingering reminders of it.

Price at time of publish: $22

Key Ingredients: Sulfur, salicylic acid, zinc|Size: 0.5 fl. oz.|Best for: Targeting painful, inflamed pimples

What to Keep in Mind

Acne Type

There are many forms of acne and each type requires a different treatment. The most recognizable types of blemishes are visibly congested pores known as whiteheads and blackheads, which look exactly like their names. They form when sebum blocks the pore, inhibiting its ability to flow through smoothly. 

The other forms of blemishes are less well-known by their formal names. The first category are papules, which look like skin-colored or red bumps. “The cause is a blocked pore, but they occur when the pore is stretched too thin and ruptures, spreading dirt, oil, and debris into the surrounding skin,” explains Dr. Hartman. This triggers your body’s inflammatory response, leaving the skin tender and painful. You’ll typically find them on the face and neck, though they can form anywhere.

Pustules are another form of blemish caused by inflammation, but look more intense — they’re what you’d recognize as a traditional zit. “These pimples develop when a collection of ‘pus’ or a thick and opaque, usually yellowish-white fluid matter forms in association with an acne lesion,” says Dr. Doyle. In addition to the face and neck, you might find these on the back in addition to the rest of the body.

Then, there’s what is considered severe acne — both nodules and cysts. These blemishes lie deep under the skin, feel painful and look like a hard bump. “Acne nodules are often caused by a surge in androgen hormones, as well as an overabundance of sebum production,” explains Dr. Hartman. “I see nodular acne more often in young male patients and in adult female patients.”

According to Dr. Doyle, cysts have a bit more substance. “They often develop a ‘wall’ or lining around the dead skin cells, oil and inflammation,” she says. “They can be recurrent given that they often refill with material over time.” 

When treating these different forms of acne, you want to look for a serum with active ingredients that target their unique causes. For example, what works to combat blackheads will not be effective on a cyst.

Active Ingredients

One of the heaviest-hitting ingredient classes across the skincare spectrum is retinoids, which are vitamin A derivatives. “My opinion is that, with the exception of people with rosacea or overly sensitive skin, everyone should be using a retinol,” says Dr. Hartman, who says it’s the most important step to add to your routine to promote skin health after SPF. “Retinols regulate cell turnover, promote effective exfoliation, prevent acne, even discoloration, control oil, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, unclog pores, and so much more.”

Another common ingredient you’ll see listed on the boxes of acne serums is salicylic acid, also known as a beta-hydroxy acid or BHA. This exfoliating ingredient is oil-soluble, which means it can go deep within the pore to break up the dead skin cells causing congestion. And though they look and sound similar, BHAs differ from alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). AHAs, like glycolic and lactic acids, are water-soluble, which means they resurface the top layer of the skin.

Benzoyl peroxide is another key player in blemish serums. “Benzoyl peroxide is an anti-inflammatory that works to treat mild to moderate acne by killing the bacteria that causes acne,” explains Dr. Hartman. “It also helps to prevent acne by exfoliating the skin and can help minimize redness and the inflammation from cystic acne.”

Though these are the main ingredients you’ll see in acne serums, there are plenty of others that are used to balance or neutralize a strong formula in order to make it wearable and comfortable, including the anti-inflammatory niacinamide and zinc or plant-based alternatives, like bakuchiol and willow bark.

Non-Comedogenic Formulas

Fun fact: “Comedo” is the technical term for blackheads, one of the most familiar forms of pore congestion. When a product is labeled as ‘non-comedogenic,’ that means it won’t clog pores. 

Considering that a plugged pore is the foundation of a breakout, it’s always a good idea to look for formulas that are marketed as being non-comedogenic when aiming to treat acne.

A good rule of thumb, though, is to consider the texture of a serum when shopping. “You’ll want to avoid most oil-based serums, as they can re-congest the pores,” warns Dr. Doyle.

Your Questions, Answered

What ingredients are best to fight acne?

Retinoids are almost universally useful in the treatment of skin blemishes, but integrating products with other ingredients depends on the type of acne you're looking to fight.

Dr. Doyle recommends using salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to treat papules and pustules, while Dr. Hartman suggests niacinamide for those suffering from inflammatory, reactive types of acne. Benzoyl peroxide can also be great for inflamed, angry acne. However, if your acne isn't chronic or they appear as small whiteheads and blackheads, AHAs are a solid bet. They’ll slough away the surface layer of skin, which can block the pore, inhibiting the flow of oil, while offering the added bonus of drying out little pimples to push them to heal faster.

Are serums good for acne?

Serums are targeted treatments with high percentages of active ingredients, so they can be stellar solutions for acne — but not all serums are the same, and what works for one person may not work for another. “Whether or not acne-prone skin benefits from a serum has more to do with the individual’s skin health,” says Dr. Madhère.

If your acne is more severe and manifests as nodules or cysts, a serum bought over the counter may not work for you. “Often, a prescription paired with in-office treatments are needed to clear the skin,” says Dr. Hartman. 

If your blemishes aren’t responding to what you’ve bought from your favorite beauty retailer, book an appointment with a board certified dermatologist for a proper medical evaluation about what’s going on with your skin and how to heal it.

How often should you apply acne serums?

The answer to this question depends on your skin and the formula you’ve chosen, as well as the season and your geographical climate.

“Most people can tolerate using a serum to treat acne three to four times per week,” says Dr. Hartman, who recommends building up from a once- or twice-weekly application. 

If you have sensitive skin, remember that some ingredients, like acids and retinoids, can cause irritation, so don’t overdo it. Your physician will best be able to advise you on application instruction according to your unique needs.

Why Shop With Us

Emily Orofino is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant with over a decade of experience in the beauty industry. Beyond testing countless serums throughout her lifetime, she has worked with brands to bring new products to market, including products formulated to treat acne. For this piece, she interviewed two board certified dermatologists Dr. Amanda Doyle and Dr. Corey L. Hartman, as well as holistic plastic surgeon, Dr. Shirley Madhère.

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