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Skin care

10 ingredients and products you need in your treatment regime to fight acne

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed

Published April 5 2021

For those burdened with an erratic complexion, we all have our own regime for preventing, treating, and healing acne breakouts—that said, understanding your active ingredients so you can dive deeper into the topic to make informed, effective decisions for your skin is a starting point I’d recommend.

Advice for those dealing with acne

I have acne and eczema in my family, I’ve struggled with hormonal acne throughout my adult life—and a big part of that is stress. And when you have hormonal, cystic acne, your derm or aesthetician will tell you to reduce your stress, and you’re like “How can I do that?!” I haven’t needed medication for my skin, instead I’ve researched; taken recommendations from aestheticians online, product reviews from people, countless Into The Gloss posts including the post comments. All this led me to pick products focusing on brands that have active, stabilised ingredients, are cruelty-free and vegan. Develop your skincare regimen and stick to it. It comes down to discipline. And consistency. Consider this your cheat sheet for determining which products your complexion will respond to the best. I hope this is of some use to you and if you have a product or protocol that really worked for you, email me, I’d love to hear it.

Retinoids. Vitamin A derivatives

Vitamin A Group of vitamins that includes retinol, retinal, retinoic acid, and pro-Vitamin A (carotenoids). But their wrinkle-fighting, complexion-perfecting abilities are more straightforward. This Into The Gloss article on retinoids explains the difference between some of the most name checked ingredients, including Retin A (Tretinoin). It’s all a question of potency. If you’re dealing with severe acne, prescription retinoids are an option. If not, then retinol is potent enough, a derivative of vitamin A and, perhaps, the most popular example of retinoids that increases cell turnover — refreshing the skin’s surface more quickly.

Our skin sheds every twenty-eight days and retinol is something that helps it go through that shedding process a little faster to brighten and correct skin textural irregularities, reverse photo-aging damage while strengthening the skin barrier. So, retinol really is an ideal starting point for twenty-something and beyond, looking to graduate to products that are more results-oriented. Retinol can have a significant impact; it may take six months to see results.

NOTES: Retinoids make your skin UV sensitive, so in addition to nighttime use you should wear SPF daily, even if you haven’t applied retinol for a few days. And do not use while pregnant or with other traditional acne ingredients (like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, and other AHAs).

Emma Lewisham Supernatural Night Oil With High Dose Vitamin A, C, E

Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni™ Retinol Cream

The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane

Exfoliants for smoothing and controlling acne

There are two ways to exfoliate and a lot will depend on your skin condition and preference. Manual or physical exfoliation is when you use a scrub, dry brush or wash cloth to manually buff off dry skin and dead skin cells from the top layer of your skin. Chemical exfoliation is when a chemical exfoliant is used to loosen up the glue that holds the cells together, sloughing off the loose cells. Determining which forms of exfoliation and the products your complexion will respond to the best will depend on your skin and preference. And if you’re hesitant about incorporating acids, a wash or toner can be an ideal gateway product.


Acids are incredibly important in terms of primary exfoliation that can help with almost any skin issue, removing built-up skin cells that clog pores, and cause breakouts, dry or dull skin. And everyone—no matter what skin type, we can all benefit from incorporating acids.

I like to alternate between physical and chemical exfoliants—and I exfoliate daily. Once or twice a week, more if your skin can handle it, physical exfoliation is an important step to any skincare routine. That and proper exfoliation allows your serums and moisturisers to sink deeper into your skin. For those seeking more glow, there are three acid families to get acquainted.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids are a family of acids (glycolic, lactic, mandelic, and citric are all offspring) and are generally best suited for normal and dry skin. They exfoliate the surfaces by breaking down the cellular bonds so dead skin cells can be removed from the top layer of the skin. Glycolic—the most researched and arguably most popular, is very effective in breaking down skin cells and removing dead particles and is a great anti-ageing ingredient as it boosts collagen and elastin production, with the removal of the waste and dead skin cells. It works not only as an exfoliant but also increases your skin’s natural supply of hyaluronic acid. Lactic is the gentlest exfoliator and therefore ideal for sensitive skin types or those with rosacea.

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
Summer Fridays Soft Reset AHA Exfoliating Solution
Omorovicza Acid Fix
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10%
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
Go-To Exfoliating Swipeys
Youth To The People Kombucha + 11% AHA Exfoliation Power Toner

Beta Hydroxy Acids are lipid-soluble (versus AHAs which are water-soluble) so they penetrate deeper into the skin. BHAs improve the skin by removing the top layers through weakening the lipids that bond them together, thus removing dull and dead skin cells and revealing healthy ones. Salicylic acid, the most well-known beta hydroxy acid derived from willow bark, is an indispensable tool for acneic skin and congested pores.

When used properly in the right concentration and formulation, anti-bacterial, anti-comedogenic salicylic acid is essential for controlling acne, unclogging pores, and tapering oil production. It has keratolytic (keratin dissolving) properties, meaning it can actually penetrate into the pores to dissolve dead skin cell buildup and encourage the shedding of the top layer of skin making salicylic the gold standard for acne prone skin.

Herbivore PRISM 12% AHA + 3% BHA Exfoliating Glow Serum
The Ordinary AHA/BHA Peel
Moon Juice Acid Potion
Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser
Indie Lee I-Waken Resurfacing Mask
Farmacy Deep Sweep 2% BHA Toner

Poly Hydroxy Acids include (most commonly) gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acid and are considered 'cousins' of alpha hydroxy acids, as they are, in fact, second-generation AHAs. Like other AHAs, Polyhydroxy acid is water-soluble, and works on the skin's surface to smooth texture and lighten dark spots. But, unlike other AHAs, PHA molecules are much larger and therefore cannot penetrate as deeply as AHAs and BHAs—they work on the surface which is one reason it’s a gentler acid and ideal for those with a weaker skin barrier. PHA can also act as a humectant, drawing moisture to the surface of skin and preventing that post-acid dry out, offering less irritation than their acidic counterparts. You’ll most probably find PHAs in toner, which is best for sensitive skin that needs a little help with post-acne trauma and correcting tone.

Glossier Solution

Some By Mi, AHA, BHA, PHA 30 Days Miracle Serum

Facial scrubs and physical exfoliants

If you're completely new to exfoliation go easy so you’re not setting your skin up for irritation and inflammation. If you're unsure, try washing your face with and without a washcloth. You'll most likely notice a difference. And if you are yet to invest in some, Baina, Bianca Lorenne, Tekla and Ottoloom are produced ethically from sustainable materials. And then if you need a little more abrasiveness you can always add a granular exfoliation — sans microbeads. Below are my favourites.

Youth To The People Yerba Mate Resurfacing Energy Facial Exfoliator

Tata Harper Resurfacing Mask

Bangn Body Face And Body Exfoliator

Aesop Purifying Facial Exfoliant Paste

NOTES: Microbeads are essentially plastic, too minuscule for filters, they eventually enter fresh water systems and our larger environment, impacting marine life — and for some, the food supply.


Want an otherworldly glow? Layering Niacinamide and Vitamin C — the holy grail of actives will deliver results. Generally speaking, Vitamin C needs to be used at a low pH in order to be effective, while niacinamide works better at a higher or more neutral pH so layering is advised versus seeking products containing both.

Vitamin C We don’t synthesize vitamin C so we must get it in our diets to prevent scurvy and topically if we want to maintain good collagen levels. And who doesn’t? Apply it consistently for perpetual radiance. It will also help even out spots and always use SPF.

The Ordinary 100% Ascorbic Acid

Frank Body Vitamin C

Drunk Elephant C-Firma™ Day Serum

Dr Dennis Gross C+ Collagen Brighten + Firm Vitamin C Serum
Indie Lee Active Oil-Free Moisturiser

Niacinamide Is a form of vitamin B3 that works to reduce congestion and the appearance of skin blemishes, calms redness and inflammation, and helps reduce hyperpigmentation while reinforcing the skin barrier. Look for a concentration of 5% to 10% and to enhance your efforts, use along with retinol.

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%

[ONE THING] Niacinamide 10%

GOOD MOLECULES Niacinamide Serum

Aesop Control

Go-To Transformazing

Dr. Dennis Gross B³Adaptive SuperFoods Stress Rescue Super Serum


Antiquated advice for addressing acne was to dry it out, but nothing could be more detrimental than messing with the skin’s barrier function. Your skin’s response will be to compensate by overproducing more oil, then your pores get blocked and you flare up. Your face will look a lot better if you hydrate it properly. Even if you have acne.

Hyaluronic acid A sugar (or more specifically a long chain disaccharide molecule of repeating units of glucosamine and glucuronic acid) found naturally in the body. Hyaluronic acid can hold up to 1000x its weight in water, so when applied, it creates a barrier for the skin, locking in moisture and improving texture. If your skin is oily or acne-prone, go with a lighter formula, like a toner or a serum, which won’t feel greasy. Neither will replace your moisturiser, pair your hyaluronic toner and serum with a moisturiser for maximum moisture. If your skin leans towards dry, try cream.

GOOD MOLECULES Hyaluronic Acid Serum

Dr. Dennis Gross Hyaluronic Marine Meltaway Cleanser

Drunk Elephant B-Hydra™ Intensive Hydration Serum

Sand And Sky Tasmanian Spring Water - Splash Serum

Isle Of Paradise HY-GLO Face

Ceramides essential for optimal barrier function the lipid layer locks in moisture and acts as a barrier against pollution, bacteria. Ceramides help restore the skin’s barrier by holding the cells together, making it feel smoother, plumper, and more moisturised. Acne prone benefits from a lighter oil-free ceramide serums.

Drunk Elephant E-Rase™ Milki Micellar Water

The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA

COSRX Balancium Comfort Ceramide Cream

Squalene: A naturally-occurring lipid. A skin protector and hydrator which, you guessed it, starts to dip after age 30. At birth about 12% of our skin surface is made of squalene, in our mid to late twenties its production begins to decline quite rapidly, and by 50 it drops to below 5%. The secret to lab-formulated squalene’s skin success? Its molecular structure resembles our own. “The similarity allows it to penetrate the skin completely and synthesize quickly, so it won’t clog pores or leave a greasy residue.” Can be used regularly as part of your moisturizing routine.

Indie Lee Squalene Facial Oil

Biossance 100% Squalene Oil

The Ordinary 100% Plant-Derived Squalane

The Light Fantastic, Cacao & Schisandra Ceramide Face Oil


Sulfur is keratolytic, which means it works by softening and thinning the epidermis to prevent clogged pores. It’s going to remove the top layer of skin by drying it out and allowing it to easily peel off – ideal if you need your spot gone overnight. Sulfur also has antibacterial properties, which help to combat the presence of any lingering bacteria on the skin that may cause infections under the skin’s surface. The same elements that make Sulfur an effective acne treatment can also cause barrier irritation for some due to its high pH balance. Read, you must moisturise.

Malin+Goetz Acne Treatment Nighttime

Sunday Riley Saturn Spot Treatment

De La Cruz, Ointment, Acne Treatment with 10% Sulfur

Indie Lee Clearing Mask

Indie Lee Blemish Lotion

There are definitely benefits to layering active ingredients. Just watch out for reactions

Many dermatologists advise against combining retinol with alpha hydroxy acids and vitamin C, but some people’s skin (especially if it’s naturally oilier) can tolerate more active ingredient combinations. Start with a pea-sized amount of product and employ a bit of trial and error. It comes down to the individual. If you’re getting irritated then stop everything and add products back one at a time. Ease new active ingredients into your routine and read the product usage recommendations.

And no matter what your acne treatment regime an SPF is vital when contending with acne. You’ll curb additional inflammation and also help reduce pigmentation. As always, natural is the modern choice, so a quality reef-safe mineral based sunscreen is best. If you’re in need of purchasing one, Amandine researched and wrote up a list of natural, vegan, cruelty-free and reef-safe sunscreens to protect your face and the environment.

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