Here's What Derms Want You to Know About Acne Before You Buy Your Next Serum


(Image credit: @chrissyford)

There's one major thing about my acne-prone skin that I didn't understand until recently. Acne-prone skin is actually just sensitive skin. After hearing this from multiple skin experts, I finally started to understand my breakouts a lot better. First of all, I was using the wrong kind of "acne-fighters" for my skin type. Sometimes, those who have very sensitive skin don't react well to high doses of acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid. Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way, but I'm glad I'm armed with this knowledge now. It has completely transformed my skin and skincare routine for the better. Now, I focus on gentler ingredients that support the skin barrier and help with acne like niacinamide. 

It's also important to note that there are so many different factors that can affect your breakouts. You should definitely see a professional to help you nail down exactly what's going on with your specific acne, but taking note of how your skin responds to certain ingredients is a good place to start. Dermatologists and a celebrity esthetician have more on the best serums to not only help you fight acne but also help you beat post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation as well. After all, serums are one of the most important steps in any skincare routine. Keep reading—lots of bookmark-worthy knowledge is ahead.

How to Choose the Best Serums for Acne

Board-certified dermatologist Lauren Penzi, MD, says there are three key ingredients that work the best for acne-prone skin—salicylic acid, niacinamide, and retinol. "Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that helps dissolve and break down the excess sebum and oil that gets trapped in pores," she says. "Niacinamide is a fabulous multipurpose ingredient that helps decrease inflammation, decreases oil production, fades pigmentation, and reinforces the skin barrier. Retinol works to increase cell turnover promotes new collagen synthesis, and keeps dirt and sebum out of pores." 

Additionally, board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, says hydration is also key. "[Look for] ingredients that hydrate and support the skin barrier like hyaluronic acid and ceramides, niacinamide to help soothe and calm the skin, azelaic acid, and ingredients that help address pigmentation." She also says there are a few things to avoid. "Regardless of which ingredients or serum used, it is important to avoid products that are comedogenic or clog the pores. Specifically, certain oils (like coconut oil) can make acne worse as they can clog pores and contribute to more breakouts."

The Truth About Acne Scars


(Image credit: @spicy.mayo)

If you're also dealing with acne scars, skin experts want you to know a bit more information on them first. "There’s no magic wand for acne scars, typically we recommend a combination approach to remodeling textural acne scars, says celebrity esthetician Candace Marino. "Scars are the loss of collagen in the skin. In order to rebuild the skin, we recommend a combination of lasers, peels, micro-needling, and radio frequency alongside skincare that includes growth factors."

"Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or erythema is often times called acne scars, however, these are not scars—they are pigment or lingering redness caused by the inflammation or injury to the skin (if you pick). These are treated as pigmentation, and acids, retinols, and pigment inhibitors are the standard combination for treating these. While sunscreen is always recommended, with pigmented skin, it’s absolutely imperative, as the sun will only deepen the discoloration." 

Garshick also has a running list of ingredients that can help hyperpigmentation. "Other ingredients used to help hyperpigmentation that may also be helpful for those with acne-prone skin include azelaic acid, alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic or lactic acid, licorice root extract, and vitamin C. Azelaic acid is also particularly good for those who are dealing with acne while pregnant as it is considered pregnancy-safe."

Take a peak below for each skin expert's picks for acne.

The Best Serums for Acne

Best Overall: IS Clinical Active Serum

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

La Roche-Posay Retinol Face Serum

Glow Recipe Strawberry Smooth BHA +AHA Salicylic Acid Serum

SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF

Sunday Riley U.F.O. Salicylic Acid BHA Acne Treatment Face Oil

Jan Marini Age Intervention Duality

Skinbetter Science AlphaRet Clearing Serum

Naturium Azelaic Acid Serum

Vichy Mineral 89 Prebiotic Recovery and Defense Concentrate

SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense

The Best Serums for Acne Scars

Paula's Choice Clinical Discoloration Repair Serum

Murad Rapid Dark Spot Correcting Serum 

Renée Roleau Post-Breakout Fading Gel

IS Clinical Super Serum Advanced Plus

IS Clinical Brightening Complex

This article was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated.

Shawna Hudson
Associate Beauty Editor

Shawna Hudson has worked in editorial for over six years, with experience covering entertainment, fashion, culture, celebrities, and her favorite topic of all, beauty. She graduated from California State University, Fullerton, with a degree in journalism and has written for other publications such as Bustle, The Zoe Report, Byrdie, Elite Daily, Mane Addicts, and more. She is currently an associate beauty editor at Who What Wear and hopes to continue feeding her (completely out-of-control) beauty obsession as long as she can. Stay up to date on her latest finds on Instagram @shawnasimonee.