Acne is one of life’s greatest equalizers—at some point in everyone’s life, there’s likely to be a period of suffering at its cruel hand. And the hardest part about treating it is how sneaky it can be. The quest for clear skin can be stressful, sure—but it need not be hugely expensive. There are a variety of great buys for acne available at the drugstore. Here are my top picks!
One of the holy grails of clear skin is adequate makeup removal. While wipes can serve a purpose, I’ve never met one which actually gets everything off—plus, all the rubbing and tugging only aggravates your already compromised complexion. The best first stage of makeup removal is micellar water on a cotton round, and the Garnier Micellar Water is truly fantastic.
If you think your cleansing is done here, you’ve got another thing coming. To make sure your face is free of makeup, oil, sweat, and dirt, you’ll need to actually wash it. The best drugstore cleansers come from CeraVe. Their Hydrating Cleanser, although touted as being for drier skins, is gentle, effective, and won’t irritate or clog pores. For those who prefer a more conventional wash experience, go with the Foaming Cleanser instead.
In order to work cleanser into skin, I enjoy an exfoliating tool. Rite-Aid has these fantastic Facial Scrubbers, which are round discs covered with mesh. They help exfoliate flakes and smooth skin, but feel much less abrasive than a conventional scrub. Better exfoliation means fewer clogged pores, which is great news.
Rather than a traditional washcloth, I prefer a microfiber version. These can be purchased at most drugstores—although, weirdly enough, they’re often in the home cleaning section. This is because they are like magnets for dirt. You know what else could use a dirt magnet? Your face after a long day.
Toner-wise, I’m of the opinion that there is little out there that beats witch hazel. It’s astringent, meaning it temporarily tightens pores, and antimicrobial, meaning it fights acne-causing bacteria. But it’s also very soothing and softening, not falling into the conventional trappings of harsh acne toners. One of the cheapest and the best is the Dickinson’s Hydrating Toner, which adds a dose of hyaluronic acid to its witch hazel base. This helps your skin retain water, making it look plumper and less prone to flaking.
For a more “treatment-y” toner, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Pixi Glow Tonic. It’s a great beginner’s glycolic acid, as it is fairly dilute and gentle, but still effective over time. Glycolic acid basically works by breaking down bonds between dead skin cells, revealing fresher, glowing skin beneath. It can also help with breakouts by preventing these dead cells from clogging pores and causing pimples.
On to masks. I’m a firm believer in not paying a lot for a clay face mask. This belief stems mostly from the fact that the most intense and effective one out there is the Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay, which costs $10 for about five million treatments. Mix the powder with apple cider vinegar for an experience like no other. It truly feels like it’s vacuuming out your pores. Afterwards, skin is noticeably brighter, clearer, and less clogged up. This can also be used as a spot treatment.
If you want something a little less intense, I’d go for the cult-classic Queen Helene Mint Julep Masque or the Freemans Sweet Tea & Lemon Peel Away Masque. The former is a tube of minty, green goodness which effectively absorbs oil and speeds up the life cycle of zits. The latter is better on post-picked, flaky skin—it essentially works as an exfoliator, removing dead cells and giving you a baby soft complexion.
For a quick spot treatment, there is truly no better (whether drugstore or high end) than the Clean & Clear Persa Gel 10. A small dot over a blemish will shrink it overnight. If you’re prone to chin zits during your period, this can be applied as a preventative treatment, too.
For moments of true crisis, sometimes a full benzoyl peroxide wash is necessary. The Oxy Maximum Action Advanced Face Wash is harsh and drying, but a good standby for moments of total acne despair. If you want something a little gentler, the Panoxyl 4% Acne Creamy Wash is fabulous. I apply it almost as a mask before getting in the shower, then rinse it off at the end. Pimples will be shrunk, but some dryness is to be expected.
Not strictly from the drugstore, but cheap enough that I couldn’t not include, are the CosRX Acne Pimple Master Patches. These things are so weird! They essentially work as a Band-Aid over a zit—preferably one you’ve recently popped. Overnight, these patches help draw out all the nastiness and induce healing. By morning, whatever sins you’ve committed will be drastically lessened.
If you’re treating acne with acids, clays, and benzoyl peroxide, you really, really must be moisturizing. I cannot stress this enough. And for those with acne, it’s super important to find a moisturizer that doesn’t clog pores or irritate compromised skin. The CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion is the best. It absorbs quickly, visibly pumps and hydrates, and provides a perfect base for makeup—all while not interfering with pores or active breakouts. 10/10.
You’ll also need to wear sunscreen, particularly as some acne treatments can increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV rays. Again, a problem with a majority of sunscreens is their tendency to cause breakouts. One which won’t is the Neutrogena Clear Skin Sunscreen Lotion SPF 55. It’s highly protective, non-greasy, and it won’t break you out—I promise.
Annie Walton Doyle