FYI—there are more than 430 face serums available at Sephora. At Dermstore? More than 650. Clearly, there is no shortage of covetable serums within the skincare-obsessed day and age we live in, but if you have certain kinds of skincare conditions like acne, finding the right formula that will help (not hurt) can be tricky.
Some formulas might be too oily, which can exacerbate bumps and quickly cause pores to clog with buildup. Others might be aggressively laced with acids, exfoliants, and botanicals that just further irritate and worsen sensitive, breakout-prone skin types. I've struggled with adult acne for years now and have tried my fair share of acne serums. Sadly, only a large handful have actually helped. To combat whiteheads, blackheads, cystic breakouts, and beyond, I'm sharing 11 of the best acne serums below I swear by for a brighter and clearer 2020. Keep scrolling!
If you have $20 or less to burn, try…
This lightweight treatment gel from clean skincare brand Ren was a new discovery this year and one that left me super impressed. Not all acne serums have the gusto to tackle more stubborn textural issues like whiteheads and blackheads, but this one does so handily. It's easy to layer with your other skincare products and features a skin-improving blend of 0.5% salicylic acid and prebiotic chlorella extract.
Swiss skincare brand Weleda is one of the most beloved lines in the industry, but, truth be told, most of its formulas have proven just a tad too rich for my congestion-prone complexion. Therefore, you can imagine my excitement when the brand recently launched a new clarifying line specifically for people struggling with stubborn bumps. (It also has a gel cleanser and lotion!)
Similar to the option from Ren, this treatment serum has a feather-light gel consistency that's oil-free, cooling, calming, and targeted to do battle against clogged pores and uneven pigmentation.
For a long time, I completely starved my face of hydration thinking extra moisturizers would simply clog my pores and oil-up my acne-prone skin. However, as I eventually learned from an onslaught of estheticians and dermatologists, that's pretty much the WORST strategy when it comes to clearing acne and will undoubtedly backfire. (Your oil glands will just create more sebum in retaliation!) So an ultra-hydrating serum loaded with hyaluronic acid is a must. I love this one from Versed because it's not only affordable, it's also so customizable. I can use it on its own, or sometimes I'll mix a few drops into my other serums or even my moisturizer.
If you have between $40 and $100 to burn, try…
Celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau has a few acne serums I love, but it's this fading gel, in particular, that has made the most difference with my skin. It's a fast-acting scar serum that's actually meant to be more of a spot treatment, but I've found mixing a tiny bit with my moisturizer has done serious wonders for lightening and fading lingering red and dark spots left over post-breakouts. Plus, it has exfoliants like lactic acid and glycolic acid which help current bumps heal and deflate faster as well.
Exfoliation is key for healing breakouts, and this new acne serum from Herbivore is one of the best I've tried. It's non-toxic and includes a naturally derived melding of AHAs and BHA to reduce hyperpigmentation, exfoliate away buildup and congestion, and smooth out skin texture, all while rose water helps soothe, hydrate, and calm aggravated skin. Plus, how pretty is that packaging?!
There are only a handful of retinol serums I've tried and liked, but Sunday Riley's formula is one of my favorites and one I always recommend to people who are curious but new to the retinol bandwagon. I always find myself coming back to it because, despite its high dose of retinol, (it's a 6.5% solution of stabilized retinoid blends and botanical retinol-alternative extracts), it has never irritated my skin or left me red, flaky, or peeling. Instead, my skin always gets brighter, clearer, and far more smooth if I've been on my best beauty editor's behavior and using it consistently.
Unpopular opinion, but I like this discoloration-reducing serum from SkinCeuticals more than its more popular sisters CE Ferulic and CF Phloretin. I appreciate that it's a little less expensive and comes in just under $100, and I've found the unique brightening blend of tranexamic acid, niacinamide, HEPES, and kojic acid rather miraculous in terms of minimizing leftover acne discoloration and spots. I apply a few drops both morning and night!
If you have $100 or more to burn, try…
iS Clinical is regarded as one of the best science-backed brands in the skincare biz, and it has numerous formulas its well-know for. Recommended to me by another A-list esthetician when I was going through a rough string of breakouts, this lovely serum worked handily—and fast—in terms of minimizing the collateral damage and slowing down burgeoning bumps. Rich with antioxidants, this acne serum boasts time-released vitamin C with a strategic mix of botanicals, zinc sulfate, kojic acid, and vitamins A and E to help treat acne and other inflammatory skin conditioners.
Celebrity esthetician Kerry Benjamin is behind StackedSkincare, and I've found her cult-loved serums serious game changers for helping to calm, treat, and heal my acne issues. The game-changing ingredient, here? Potent epidermal growth factors which, as the brand explains, are vegan proteins that improve cell turnover and boost the skin’s natural healing abilities. Thus, since the serum is instigating regeneration, it's an amazing solution for those struggling with acne. It speeds up the entire healing process, brightens up pigmentation, and also stimulates collagen protection so your skin looks dewier, healthier, and plumper.
As hefty as the price point of this iconic botanical serum might be, it is, very honestly, pretty magical. Countless celebrities and makeup artists swear by it for imparting a healthy, congestion-free glow, and after trying it myself, I couldn't agree more. Not only are serums well-suited for those with acne—especially one with lots of active or natural ingredients (which can be irritating!), but this formula is so synergistic, high-quality, and strategic, I have only had the best experience since incorporating it into my routine when my skin flares up. Additionally, it also wards off pre-mature wrinkles thanks to powerful antioxidants and phytoceramides, speeds up cell turnover, inhibits melanin production (hello, radiance!), and keeps skin nourished and hydrated with essential fatty acids.
$250 for one serum is nothing to sneeze at, but leave it to Dr. Barbara Sturm to create the acne serum of all acne serums. If your funds allow (and I promise, a little goes a long way!), this lightweight serum is truly one of the best money can buy. The blend of ingredients is unique, and I've found it to be superior to most other formulas when it comes to calming and treating angry red bumps and whiteheads. Unlike a lot of acne products, it has a sufficient dose of high-quality hyaluronic acid to keep skin moisturized and dewy, while other ingredients like Albatrellus Ovinus help calm quick-to-redden complexions and Bistort Root Extract improves radiance. Never do I get as many compliments on my skin as when this acne serum has been in my heavy rotation.
This article was originally published at an earlier date and has been updated.