Those of us with acne-prone skin usually never have to worry about a breakout for too long, because when it comes to treating blemishes, there are so many options. You could try pimple patches, special cleansers, or an LED face mask, but there’s nothing quite like an acne serum to really get the job done.
As board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at the Shafer Clinic Dendy Engelman tells BAZAAR, an acne serum is a lightweight treatment that has the active ingredients to fight acne, clarify skin, and support a clearer complexion. Unlike spot treatments that are placed directly on breakouts, these serums are designed to be applied all over the face for more regular use. “Acne spot treatments are only meant for application on blemishes and can cause dryness and irritation if applied to non-acneic areas of the skin,” says Engelman. “Acne serums may not eliminate blemishes as quickly as a spot treatment might, but they help keep skin clearer over time.”
So if you’re all about playing the long game with treating acne, you’ve come to the right place. Ahead, Engelman and MDCS Dermatology’s Marisa Garshick, share their expert picks for the best acne serums of 2023. Plus, get to know some of our editors’ favourite tested and reviewed serums, and tips on how to use them.
Related article: The Best Hydrating Face Masks To Soothe Dry Skin Fast
Shop the Best Acne Serums
Glow Recipe Strawberry Smooth BHA + AHA Salicylic Acid Serum
- Reduces Oil
- Evens out Skin Texture
- Provides exfoliation
Garshick’s pick is one that contains known acne-fighting heavy hitters such as salicylic acid, mandelic acid, and azelaic acid to gently exfoliate skin and keep pores clear. She adds that the strawberry helps reduce oil and even tone to help brighten the skin and reduce the appearance of visible pores.
La Roche Posay Effaclar Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment
- Treats hyperpigmentation
- Clarifies skin
- Boosts Skin’s natural radiance
Engelman loves this acne serum because it clarifies skin, addresses fine lines and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and prevents future breakouts. It contains salicylic acid mixed with glycolic acid and micro-exfoliating lipids, plus niacinamide and La Roche-Posay‘s signature thermal water to soothe any irritation.
BEST FOR BLACKHEADS
Neutrogena Stubborn Blackheads Daily Acne Facial Serum
- Under $30
- Keeps pores clear
The key to treating those pesky blackheads starts with this acne serum. It contains salicylic acid to clear clogged pores while the glycolic and mandelic acid provide the exfoliation needed to remove debris and dead skin cells. As an added bonus, it’s oil-free and super lightweight.
Pro-tip: Garshick recommends using it one to two times daily to keep those blackheads at bay.
Glo Skin Beta-Clarity BHA Drops
- Also brightens and smooth skin texture
- Contains retinol
Engelman says this is an excellent serum to add to your routine regardless of skin type, but it especially helps those with oil and acne-prone skin keep their complexion clear. It blends salicylic acid, retinol, niacinamide, glycolic acid and witch hazel to clarify, smooth, firm, and brighten.
BEST FOR FACE AND BODY
DRMTLGY 24 Hour Acne Serum
- Can be used for face and body
- Reduces inflammation
Garshick loves this serum because it can be used for both the face and the body (yes, bacne be damned). It contains benzoyl peroxide and glycolic acid reduce inflammation and provide any needed exfoliation.
iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance+
- Antioxidant properties to protect skin from environmental agressors
- Clarifies skin
- Over $200
Another powerhouse serum that does it all, Engelman recommends using this to keep skin looking smooth and clear. It is made with vitamin A, C, and E to protect skin from environmental aggressors, and olive leaf to reduce inflammation.
BEST FOR SENSITIVE SKIN
Tower 28 Beauty SOS Intensive Redness Relief Serum
- Gentle enough for sensitive skin
- Soothes irritation and inflammation
- Reduces redness
If you have both sensitive and oily skin, then Garshick says this is your new go-to acne serum. It contains hypochlorous acid to soothe any redness, inflammation, or irritation caused by acne (or just in general too).
SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense
- Controls excess sebum
- Clears pores
- Minimises appearance of fine lines
- Can be too strong for sensitive skin
This is a splurge that Garshick says is worth every penny. It mixes salicylic acid to control excess oil production and keep pores clear. It also has dioic acid and LHA to reduce excess sebum and decongest pores. Plus, you get the added bonus of glycolic and citric acid that smooth and minimise the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
- Unclogs pores
- Strengthens skin barrier
For your post-acne needs, Garshick loves this drugstore acne serum. It contains retinol to declog pores and smooth out your skin texture, but it also contains licorice root and niacinamide to brighten any post-acne marks, and ceramides to calm the skin and strengthen its barrier.
NEARLY PRESCRIPTION STRENGTH
Skinbetter AlphaRet Clearing Serum
- Clears acne and evens out skin texture
- Reduces inflammation and calms skin
According to Garshick, this serum helps treat blemishes and treats any post-acne skin concerns. It contains a patented retinoid technology (AlphaRet) with salicylic acid to clear blackheads and pores while also smoothing uneven texture. And thanks to the blend of antioxidants and peptides, it helps reduce inflammation and support the skin’s natural healing process so that those pesky acne marks won’t be as visible.
The INKEY List Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) Blemish + Blackhead Serum
- Effectively keeps pores clear
- Contains zinc
If you’re dealing with major congestion on your chin, nose, or wherever, this will help clear it all. It contains salicylic acid to gently exfoliate the skin and unclog pores while zinc helps control excess oil. To combat any dryness, it also hyaluronic acid to hydrate and plump skin. And at less than $25, it’s a steal.
Renee Rouleau Post-Breakout Fading Gel
- Gets rid of dark spots fast
For when your deepest breakouts leave behind a mark, turn to this fading gel beloved by BAZAAR’s editors. It contains lactic and glycolic acid to exfoliate and brighten dark spots and has antioxidants to soothe skin.
One satisfied customer writes: “I’m a fan of this product. Breakouts are so frustrating because it can take the skin so long to heal once the blemish is gone. This product accelerates that healing / fading process. Be sure to wait until the pimple has popped and there’s no more scab before you start using. You just need a little bit of the product.” — Kristin
Paula’s Choice CLINICAL 0.3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment
- Contains retinol
- Also firms skin and reduces the appearance of fine lines
This is an all-time retinol fave. The powerhouse ingredient gets a boost from bakuchiol to exfoliate away dead skin cells, keeping pores clear and to help control excess oil. It also has peptides to firm skin, so you’re just adding anti-aging benefits which is always a welcome bonus.
The Ordinary The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution
- Clears up most stubborn acne
- Can be drying
- Not for sensitive skin
Can a product be both effective and wallet-friendly? With this acne serum, absolutely. Its star ingredient is non other than salicylic acid, which works to clear congestion, exfoliate skin, and smooth texture. Reviews rave how instant you’ll see results and all for less than $15. Sign us up ASAP.
One satisfied customer writes: “Cleared up my acne and blackheads almost immediately!!! Absolute must-have in my skincare routine now. My skin feels completely different now, way brighter and smoother than before. Salicylic acid always does wonders.” — rgoertz
GREAT FOR MELANATED SKIN
Hyper Hyper Even Brightening Dark Spot Vitamin C Serum
- Treats acne and prevents future breakouts
- Helps brighten complexion
If the goal is to get the most radiant complexion when dealing with post-acne spots, this has to be part of your regimen. It is made with vitamin C and E and kojic acid to brighten acne scars and any forms of sun damage. Plus, it is made with salicylic acid and tumeric to treat breakouts and prevent future ones from forming.
One satisfied customer writes: “My skin is very sensitive to many products. During the pandemic, I wore face masks 7 days a week. The masks irritated my skin which led to acne and acne “scarring,” in addition to hyperpigmentation. I read online about about Hyper being a black owned business and wanted to support it. I have been using the serum for thirteen months now and it has Read more about review stating Love Hyper!!cleared up my dark spots/scarring. I am from the West Indies so I needed a product that would cater to my skin, and my hyperpigmentation. I follow the suggested regime, using a face scrub once a week, moisturiser and Hyper. I am thoroughly pleased with it!” — Francesca B.v
Related article: The 20 Best Face Masks For All Skin Types
How do you use an acne serum?
Engelman says that if you are not experiencing an active breakout but have oily, acne-prone skin, you may benefit from using certain acne serums regularly during your skincare routine; just make sure that they are not too drying or irritating. But she encourages you to talk to your dermatologist about which ingredients and products are best for your specific skin.
What ingredients should one look for in an acne serum?
Garshick lists salicylic acid as one of the main ingredients to look for in a good acne serum. “Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that is able to penetrate deep into the skin to unclog pores, regulate sebum (oil) production, and exfoliate the skin, all of which help treat acne and aid in maintaining a clearer complexion,” she explains.
Other ingredients to look for, she says, include retinol and niacinamide to exfoliate skin and reduce inflammation.
Can you use both an acne serum and a spot treatment at the same time?
Engelman says yes, you can use both an acne serum and an acne spot treatment together. “I recommend [doing] this if you are experiencing an active breakout,” she says. She recommends first applying the acne serum to clean, dry skin, and then tapping a spot treatment onto any active pimples.
What else should someone consider in an acne serum?
“Choose an acne serum with high-quality ingredients, no added fragrances or harsh chemicals, and a balanced formula that will not overly dry or irritate the skin,” says Engelman. “Treating acne can be a tricky balancing act, as some of the best acne-fighting ingredients tend to be harsh on skin; the goal is to find a happy medium of reducing acne without drying out or irritating the skin barrier.”
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US.