Acne Blog: The Real Deal on OTC (Over-the-counter) Products.

Navigating the acne aisle can be quite tricky. There are tons of products boasting various claims of how they will give you pimple free skin. So how do you know what to believe and what will work? By becoming an educated consumer of course! Learn to decode marketing mumbo-jumbo, know what you’re using, and why!
OTC Ingredient Regulations
Due to legal regulations, the availability of what can be sold OTC versus what is labeled as a prescription medication leaves a narrow list of ingredients with proven medicinary benefits. Additionally, there is a hierarchy of effectiveness when using products to treat skin conditions (excluding a few RX turned OTC products). In store products are considered the lowest strength, medical grade products (sold in Dr.'s Offices) as the moderate category, with more options, and prescription is the strongest with the greatest variety.
Such limitations have created a few main ingredients in OTC acne lines. The 3 most common are: 1. Benzoyl Peroxide 2. Hydroxy Acids (Salicylic Acid, Glycolic Acid, and Lactic Acid) and 3. Sulfur. Other touted ingredients which range from charcoal, to clay, to fruit acids, may have various degrees of effectiveness, but many unfounded in research. So is your brain churning to the REVELATION....: Everything you are buying OTC for acne treatment, has the same main ingredients! The only differences are packaging, brand marketing, additives, and percentages of active ingredients.
Don't Judge a Product by Its Cover
Nonetheless, there are still beneficial differences between OTC products. Some may use a base or additive that is more hydrating, more tolerable, greater or lesser percentage of active ingredient, utilize a combination effect with other chemicals for greater improvement, or are made with a scientifically advanced formula that helps penetrate the skin barrier. The best products are typically made by companies who are larger brands and have research to test their products effectiveness. Otherwise, OTC products are quite a wild west of freedom in marketing without much statistics to back up claims.
All that Glitters is Not Gold
I often see patients with moderate to severe acne in office, who tell the same tale...they started with a certain OTC product after seeing a magazine ad, a commercial, or celebrity endorsement. However, such ads do not necessarily show the whole story. What did the individual look like before treatment? What other products is the individual using? If the ad features a celebrity, there could be tons at their disposal, even prescription medications, chemical peels, or laser. "Well, the OTC brand worked at first but then things got worse." This is one of the most common quotes I hear about OTC acne products, in someone with moderate to severe acne. Based on practice, if your face is covered with black/white heads, or you have big tender acne bumps and redness all over your face, please go see your dermatology clinician. An OTC product will not cut it for someone with moderate to severe acne, even if it seems to help for a few months, the results typically wane. Nonetheless, for mild acne, OTC products can be sufficient, and may also be used in conjunction with RX for more advanced cases.
1. Read the Label: ingredients are listed in order from greatest to least. If you are reading a label and salicylic acid is number 35 in the list, you are not getting the amount of product you need for it to work. The best products will list the percentage of active ingredient.
2. Know Your Brand: Read up on the brand you are using. Is the company based out of someone’s garage in Kentucky (lol)? How many years has the company been in business? Do they specialize in dermatology products? Does their website provide any research that backs up the marketing claims about their products? For specifics: Pro-activ and Rodan & Fields were created by the same two dermatologists, although now owned as separate entities (Galderma purchased Pro-Activ). For the right acne candidate, these two brands do provide products which meet positive standards for the OTC world.
Neutrogena is also a trusted brand who presents an appropriate use of chemicals and percentages in use of acne products. Others like Murad, Dr. Gross, and Dermalogica also provide an impressive line-up of products that are more diverse and stronger in active ingredients than the prior mentioned.
3. Understand the Chemical Contents: Find where to look up chemical ingredients and learn about what you are using. Of course you will obtain guidance based on researched focused medicine on Beaute Lab, but other websites utilize a chemist's point of view to unravel beauty products. One of my favorite sites is And for those of you who are proactive in seeking more natural ingredients, EWG (Environmental Working Group) provides a conservative approach to any studies regarding chemicals in cosmetics,
Understanding the marketing and use for OTC acne products requires an extensive forethought and understanding of multiple factors. Therefore, I have divided this blog into a multi-part series, to inform while not overwhelming, or boring you ;)
UP NEXT........Choosing Pre & Post Treatment Acne Prep! Find out how to prepare your skin and deal with anticipated side effects of acne products, before you begin!
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