Effective over-the-counter acne treatments

Semin Cutan Med Surg. 2008 Sep;27(3):170-6. doi: 10.1016/j.sder.2008.07.004.


Acne is the most common disease of the skin, yet only a fraction of acne sufferers are treated with prescription products by physicians. There is, however, a large and expanding market for over-the-counter (OTC) medications, many of which are not only effective but also well tolerated and cosmetically elegant. Given the presence of OTC acne medications on the television, the Internet, and store shelves, patients will be acutely aware of these OTC remedies and will have questions. Patients will expect dermatologists to advise them regarding products to use either as a sole therapy or in combination with prescription drugs. Recently, combinations of OTC acne medications in treatment regimens or "kits" have gained popularity and appear to have increased patient compliance. Quality-of-life outcomes from OTC medication use, in at least one study, have demonstrated good benefit. The most common OTC ingredients include benzoyl peroxide, a potent antibacterial agent, and salicylic acid, a mild comedolytic and antiinflammatory medication. Other, less-common OTC ingredients include sulfur, sodium sulfacetamide, and alpha hydroxy acids. Zinc, vitamin A, tea tree oil, and ayurvedic therapies also are available OTC for acne. Additional and better studies are needed to clarify the benefit of these latter medications.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acne Vulgaris / drug therapy*
  • Benzoyl Peroxide / therapeutic use
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Humans
  • Hydroxy Acids / therapeutic use
  • Nonprescription Drugs
  • Salicylic Acid / therapeutic use
  • Sulfur / therapeutic use
  • Vitamin A / therapeutic use
  • Zinc / therapeutic use


  • Hydroxy Acids
  • Nonprescription Drugs
  • Vitamin A
  • Sulfur
  • Zinc
  • Salicylic Acid
  • Benzoyl Peroxide