Why OTC Acne Products Don't Work and How You Can Ensure They Do

3 Fast Fixes for Getting Results from Over-the-Counter Acne Products

You have acne.  You head to the drugstore and buy an acne treatment cleanser.  You use said cleanser for several weeks.  You still have acne.  So, you head to the drugstore and buy an acne treatment toner.  Use it; still have acne.  Repeat for months. 

Sound familiar?  It sure does for me.  I did this dance for a long, long time before I realized that I was doing a lot of things wrong. 

Here are 3 reasons why over-the-counter acne treatments aren’t working – and what you can do to ensure you get actual results.

Reason#1: Your Product Doesn't Contain a Proven Acne Treatment Ingredient

This doesn’t seem quite fair, but there are no rules out there saying an over-the-counter acne treatment product must contain ingredients that actually proven to treat acne.

Many effectiveness of many ingredients found in OTC products haven’t been thoroughly studied.  And when studies have been done, they are often completed by the manufacturers themselves.  Makes you wonder about the objectivity.  Just sayin’.  

Fast Fix:  Get a product that contains proven acne treatment ingredients.

Next time you buy an OTC acne product, check out the active ingredients.  They will be listed on the bottle or box.

Look for salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, or better yet a combination of these.  (OK, so glycolic acid isn’t an acne treatment per se, but it can help boost the effectiveness of other acne treatment ingredients.)  These have been studied and proven effective against acne.

Choosing an OTC acne treatment product can be overwhelming, so I’ve put together a cheat-sheet that will help you when you head to the skin care aisle:  How To Choose an Over-the-Counter Acne Treatment.

Reason #2: You’re Using Only One Treatment Product

I’m going to let you in on a little secret – putting together several over-the-counter acne products can give you much better results than just one. 

There's a reason why Proactiv, AcneFree, and other OTC acne treatment leaders give you a kit complete with cleanser, toner, mask, and lotion. 

Acne is caused by several factors.  Using different products with different active ingredients gives acne a one-two punch.  You’ll be targeting various breakout-causing factors at once and seeing the results because of it.

Fast fix:  Put together a complete acne treatment routine with several OTC acne products. 

You can buy all-inclusive acne treatment kits, or put together your own a-la-carte with products off the shelf.  Here’s how: Create Your Own OTC Acne Treatment Regimen.

Reason #3: Your Acne Is Too Severe to Be Treated By OTC Products

You could be doing everything right, and still not get good results from over-the-counter acne products.  It’s not your fault.  It may simply be you're not a good candidate for over-the-counter treatment.

OTC acne products work best on mild acne.  If your acne is moderate to severe, deep or very inflamed, it’s highly unlikely it will respond to the products you can buy at the drugstore. 

But you’re not out of luck!  Even though OTC acne products aren’t working, there are plenty of more powerful prescription options that will.

Fast fix:  Forgo over-the-counter acne treatments and get a prescription medication instead. 

OK, so this isn't necessarily a fast fix.  It does mean a trip to see your doctor, which isn’t nearly as convenient as hitting the corner drugstore.  But long-term, you’re going to get more bang for your buck with a prescription acne medication. 

You’ll be much happier with the results because you can actually start getting improvement in your skin.  Doesn’t that make the trip to the dermatologist seem worthwhile?

So, if you’re ready, these articles will help you get started:

5 Signs It’s Time to See a Dermatologist About Your Acne

How To Choose the Right Dermatologist

What To Expect at Your First Dermatology Appointment     


Decker A, Graber EM.  “Over-the-counter acne treatments: A review.”  J Clin Aesthet Dermatol.  2012 May; 5(5):32-40.

"Dermatologists Advise Patients That Over-the-counter Acne Products Can Have Benefits and a Place on Their Medicine Shelf." American Academy of Dermatology. American Academy of Dermatology, 3 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 July 2015.

Titus S, Hodge J.  “Diagnosis and treatment of acne.”  Am Fam Physician.  2012 Oct; 86(8):734-40.

Well D.  “Acne vulgaris: A review of causes and treatment options.”  Nurse Pract.  2013 Oc 10;38(10):22-31.

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