The Acne Starter Pack: Dermatologists Recommend 5 Breakout Basics

Welcome to the Starter Pack series, a Who What Wear column that dives deep into the seasonal trends everyone's talking about.

Acne-fighting products are not so much a "trend" but more so a deeply unpleasant reality, but we figured they warranted a starter pack anyway. If you're breakout prone but aren't exactly a skincare guru, wrapping your head around what products to have on hand when your skin is being mean to you can be an overwhelming task. That's why we hit up two top dermatologists—Iris Rubin, MD, co-founder of Seen Hair Care; and Shari Sperling of North Jersey's Sperling Dermatology—to help put together a no-frills guide to the acne products you actually need. 

The following five products are aimed at preventing and treating acne from the source. "Acne starts with your pores, which can get clogged with dead skin cells and sebum (oil)," explains Rubin. "A blackhead or whitehead is basically a clogged pore." When oil and dead skin cells mix with bacteria, inflammation and pimples result. Certain ingredients can make this process worse, so it's important to buy only products that are noncomedogenic, which means they won’t clog your pores. 

What should you buy specifically? To find out, keep scrolling for our dermatologist-approved acne starter pack.

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Every effective acne-blasting skincare routine starts with cleanser. "A cleanser is key because it treats your whole face and other acne-prone skin areas instead of just spot-treating," Rubin explains. "The reason to treat your whole acne-prone area is that the goal is to prevent breakouts as much as possible before they happen."

In a cleanser, look specifically for salicylic acid (SA) or benzoyl peroxide (BP): These two ingredients help deeply clean pores and fight inflammation-causing bacteria.

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Some think that oily or acneic skin types don't need moisturizer, because it will further clog your pores, but keeping your skin from drying out is actually key for preventing future breakouts. To hydrate the skin while keeping pimples at bay, Sperling says to look for a moisturizer that is noncomedogenic and oil-free. "If not, you're adding oils and ingredients to your face that are going to make you more prone to breaking out," Sperling explains. A few of our editors' favorite moisturizers for acne-prone skin are below.

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Over-the-counter products aren't sufficient for treating every case of acne, so Rubin recommends finding a dermatologist, who might prescribe you a medicated cream like Differin or Retin-A. "These can be drying, so some people can't use them every day," says Rubin. But they still play an important role in most anti-acne arsenals.

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For isolated breakouts, Rubin says, "Definitely keep a spot treatment gel or serum on hand." The most effective ones have a higher concentration of benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid to strong-arm those stubborn spots.

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The last truly necessary piece of your acne-fighting routine is a retinol serum to use at nighttime. Retinol helps with blackheads, whiteheads, and to normalize the skin to prevent future breakouts, says Sperling. "It also helps to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, tone and texture, and more. It keeps your skin healthy and young."

Want more skincare advice? Don't miss 28 holy-grail skincare products that cost less than $5 per wear.