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How to Create an OTC Acne Treatment Regimen

(AKA Making Your Own Proactiv-like Acne Treatment Routine)


Updated February 19, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Some of the most popular over-the-counter acne products are 3-step treatment kits. These all-inclusive acne regimens contain everything you need – a cleanser, toner, and treatment lotion. Some even come with a bonus mask. Proactiv is probably the most well-known (and arguably most widely used) OTC acne treatment kit, but there are plenty of others available as well.

But you don't have to purchase a kit. You can put together your very own 3-step treatment routine, with whatever products you like. Incorporating several OTC products together into a complete treatment routine will give you better results than using one just product alone.

Inexpensive brands can work as well as the more pricey products, so if saving money is the motivating factor it's completely OK use bargain basement brands. You can even use some of the OTC acne products you already have on hand.

Remember, though, OTC acne treatments really only work for mild acne. If you have moderate acne to severe acne, or if you've already used OTC treatments with no results, you should see a dermatologist instead. On the flip side, if you're already seeing a dermatologist for your acne, don't add this to your treatment routine unless you get the OK from your doc first.

Ready to build your own customized 3-step acne program? Head to the skin care aisle (or your skin care stash in the bathroom cabinet) and look for these products.

1. Start with a Cleanser

Look for a cleanser that contains the active ingredient benzoyl peroxide (look on the back under the ingredient listing). Bonus points if you get one that contains salicylic acid too.

Other than the active ingredient, it really doesn't matter what type of cleanser you choose. If you have oily skin, you'll most likely want a foaming cleanser. A non-foaming cleansing lotion will be a better choice for you if your skin tends to be on the dry side.

What about those cleansers with exfoliating beads? They're great too, so long as your skin isn’t super sensitive and your acne isn't too inflamed. If those beads seem to irritate your skin, skip them and use a cleanser without instead.

(Need more help? Read How To Choose the Right Cleanser.)

Use your cleanser twice daily, morning and night.

2. Pick a Toner

Choose a toner that contains salicylic acid and/or glycolic acid. These ingredients help exfoliate the skin and unclog pores.

Alcohol-free toners are much less likely to sting or burn, and they aren't as drying either. Dry or sensitive skin? Definitely get an alcohol-free brand.

Another option -- those treatment pads. (Think Stridex, Oxy, and the like.) They deliver blemish-fighting medication as well, and you don't have to pre-moisten your cotton ball. Teenage boys especially seem to like these. Watch for skin irritation, though.

Whichever product you choose, use twice daily after cleansing, morning and night.

3. Finish with a Treatment Lotion

This is the backbone of your OTC treatment regimen. Acne treatment lotions give you the most bang for your buck.

Look for a benzoyl peroxide lotion or cream. Some of the most common brands are Clearasil, Oxy, AcneFree, etc. You'll probably want to start with a 2.5% to 5% strength. You can move up to a 10% strength later, if needed.

Acne treatment lotions aren't moisturizers (they can actually dry your skin out). If you need, you can use an oil-free moisturizer under your treatment lotion. Apply it first, let it absorb completely, and then put your benzoyl peroxide lotion over the top.

You will use your treatment lotion once or twice daily, after cleansing and toning. Don't wash the treatment lotion off.

4. Add a Mask (optional, but a great idea)

A bonus treatment, and one that can help speed things along, is a medicated mask. Some of the most helpful: glycolic acid, sulfur, salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide.

Masks can help exfoliate (a necessity for keeping pores from becoming clogged), reduce oiliness, deep cleanse, and make the skin feel softer and smoother. Think of it as intensive therapy for your skin.

Don't go overboard with masks and scrubs though, or you can make things worse by irritating your skin. A few times a week is good; every day is probably overkill.

Use your mask one to three times per week, according to the directions on your product.

That's all there is to it! Remember, don't worry about the brand name; focus on the active ingredients. You can use whatever brand you like, and you can even mix-and-match products from different brands to create your own personal acne skin care line.

The main thing is to use your OTC treatment routine consistently. Do see a dermatologist if your treatment isn't working after 3-4 months, but with luck your OTC acne treatment routine will be just what your skin needed.

Next Steps

Are OTC Acne Treatments Right for Me?

How To Choose an OTC Acne Treatment

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  4. Treatment Options
  5. OTC Treatments
  6. Make Your Own Acne Treatment

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