A top dermatologist on the best skincare products for treating acne

Rosie Fitzmaurice
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A top dermatologist on the best skincare products for treating acne

Suffering from acne is no fun. Whether it's mild or severe, whether you're a teenager or an adult, it can crush your confidence and have a profound impact on your emotional health.

There's lots you can do with prescription medications – and if your acne is causing you concern it's definitely worth making an appointment with your GP to discuss it – while some people prefer to use topical treatments, or to combine the two.

One thing we do know for certain is that skincare products often don't come cheap. So, we asked Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible, who has suffered with acne herself most of her life, which products she actually recommends to her clients with blemish-prone skin, and the ones she also uses on herself.

If you're prone to breakouts and you want to decongest your skin, according to Dr Mahto, it's important to look for non-comedogenic products, which contain ingredients that won't clog your pores.

"I don’t like to use oils or oil cleansers on acne-prone skin," she says. "Coconut oil, for example, is highly comedogenic so I’d avoid it if you’re prone to breakouts and blackheads."

"Pay attention to textures," she adds. "You don’t need thick, heavy creams, and I would avoid ingredients like petroleum, shea butter and glycerin, essentially any ingredient designed to be really moisturising to the skin as they'll also clog the pores.

"Instead, look out for lightweight gel formulas and ingredients such as salicylic acid (a BHA, or beta hydroxy acid), benzoyl peroxide, witch hazel and niacinamide (a form of Vitamin B3​)."

Here are the products Dr Mahto really rates...

The glycolic acid cleanser

"Glycolic acid (an AHA or alpha hydroxy acid) has a number of benefits in skincare, it's a fantastic multi-purpose ingredient," says Dr Mahto, whose favourite cleanser for acne-prone skin is the Jan Marini Bioglycolic oily skin cleansing gel (£28.50).

"It acts as a chemical exfoliant and is good at decongesting skin that's prone to breaking out. It also helps to remove pigmentation or staining from any old acne spots. It also has anti-ageing properties and can help improve the support structure of the skin reducing fine lines as we age."

Though she warns, it's best to gradually build up use of this product: "High percentages of glycolic acid can cause redness and irritation in people with sensitive skin so for most people you don’t just jump into [it]."

The lightweight serum

When it comes to keeping acne-prone skin moisturised, Dr Mahto's top pick is Vichy Mineral 89 (£22), a serum-gel, that's "light on the skin," she says.

The body wash

If you're prone to breakouts on areas of your body other than your face, Dr Mahto recommends regularly using Mario Badescu AHA Botanical Body Soap (£8).

"Body acne can be caused by heat, sweat and occlusive clothing raising the body temperature, which in turn can cause spots," she says. "So while it is tempting to sit around in your gym wear while glugging down a green juice, it’s no good for your skin."

She recommends always showering immediately after exercise and switching to shower gels and body washes containing salicylic acid, glycolic acid and tea tree oil.

The oil-free SPF

When it comes to sun protection, which is a vital part of her skincare regime, Dr Mahto says her favourite product is the Heliocare Sunscreen 360 gel oil-free SPF 50 (£27): "This cult SPF is a beauty industry best-kept secret – it won’t clog pores and sinks in instantly. I couldn’t be without it."

The long-lasting foundation

If you're looking for a long-lasting foundation that's kind to blemish-prone skin Dr Mahto's go-to is Vichy Dermablend Corrective Compact Cream Foundation (£23).

"The Dermablend range is waterproof and smudge resistant and will last for up to 14 hours," she says. "The products are suitable for oily or acne-prone skin and will not clog your pores. They have also been allergy tested and are tolerated well by sensitive skin types."

The foundation can cover anything from scars to tattoos, acne, and redness caused either by surgical procedures or skin conditions such as rosacea, she explains.

"I also highly recommend it for people looking to find a product that will smooth out imperfections or skin pigmentation. Dermablend leaves the skin looking luminous without a mask-like effect. A small amount of product goes a long way."

The clay mask

"If you have acne or blemish-prone skin, using a clay mask once a week can be really beneficial," Dr Mahto says. "These are super effective when it comes to drawing impurities out of the skin and reducing oil production.

"Exfoliate before applying the mask, as this will allow it to really penetrate the skin," she says, adding that her top picks are Origins Clear Improvement Active Charcoal Mask (£22) and Skinceuticals Clarifying Clay Mask (£60).

The blackhead treatments

"AHAs are really good for treating blackheads, so your glycolic acids and your lactic acids," she says, adding that she's a particular fan of The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% (£6.75) and The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% +HA 2% (£5.80).

"Then you have your BHAs (beta hydroxy acids), like salicylic acid. They cause a chemical disintegration of the top layer of skin cells, so they dissolve everything and that unblocks the pores," she continues, adding that The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% (£4.20) is a good (and reasonable) option.

Retinoids are vitamin A-based formulas that cause accelerated exfoliation and can also be an effective treatment for blackheads, she adds. She recommends The Ordinary Advance Retinoid 2% (£8).

"[They] are great if you have blackhead-type acne or a predisposition to blackheads. You have to be patient though, as they take about 12 weeks to kick in."

The spot treatment

Kiehl's Blue Herbal Spot Treatment

Finally, when it comes to a top notch spot treatment, Dr Mahto's pick is Kiehl’s Blue Herbal Spot Treatment. "This contains salicylic acid and is good at drying out spots quickly. You just need to take care to apply it to the spot only and not on surrounding skin, otherwise you may find it can cause burning and irritation.

"When you get a breakout, it's important to get a product directly onto the acne spot as soon as possible to dry it out and reduce inflammation," she adds.