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If you’re struggling with adult acne, you know how absolutely frustrating it can be. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wasted a ton of money on OTC products that don’t actually work.
Last year, I decided to finally take the plunge and see a dermatologist. I was nervous because I only have mild-moderate acne and was worried that the doctor wouldn’t take me seriously. Aren’t prescriptions for people with severe acne only?
But it turns out she was happy to prescribe me a prescription — one that, it turns out, she’d prescribed to many patients just like me with regular old acne.
After examining my skin and asking a few questions, she was able to set me up with a full regimen complete with face wash, moisturizer, and, of course, an acne-fighter.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the access, money, or resources to get to a dermatologist or to afford prescription medication. But you might not need a prescription to get clear skin. Turns out, a lot of the products she recommended were super accessible and even affordable.
Before you proceed, however, you’ll need to get familiar with the different types of acne out there. Treatments will vary greatly based on what type of acne you’re facing, whether it’s cystic acne, hormonal acne, blackheads, whiteheads, papules, or otherwise.
The below recommendations are based on the most common type of acne: papules.
Note: If you can, it’s best to consult a doctor or dermatologist before starting any new treatments.
Ok, so let’s get started.
For the cleanser, my dermatologist recommended two options: a Benzoyl Peroxide 5% wash or a Sulfur Wash.
I went for the Benzoyl Peroxide and she ordered the one by Harris Pharmacy (see below). Turns out, you can get the *exact* version she prescribed from Amazon.
Her directions were to wash my face twice a day, both morning and night.
As for the second option, there’s an OTC Sulfur Acne treatment by De La Cruz that has *amazing* reviews. I’ve never tried it myself but if you haven’t had much success with Benzoyl Peroxide, it might be worth a try. Many have called it “life-changing” and said it has been the one product that works for them when everything else hasn’t. Follow the instructions on the bottom to get the best use of the treatment.
The Active Ingredient
Since I only had mild-moderate acne, my dermatologist started me off on tretinoin 0.025%.
This is going to be the hardest one to get OTC. But you do have options.
The best OTC dupes for tretinoin are Differin Gel with 0.1% Adapalene, Paula’s Choice Intensive Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum, and The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane. Most are very affordable and available online on Amazon or at your local pharmacy.
Any OTC retinols should only be used once a day and you should always start with the lowest dose possible.
If you want the real deal, there are a few ways that you can get tretinoin without health insurance.
If you don’t have access to a dermatologist, your best choice is to go through e-pharmacy Nurx where a dermatologist will evaluate pictures of your skin online to determine a personalized regimen for you. You can ask for tretinoin or you can see what the dermatologist recommends. The virtual consultant is $40, which covers a year of medical care and consultations. The actual tretinoin cream itself costs $30 a month without insurance, free if you do have insurance.
Your other option requires an actual trip to the dermatologist, unfortunately. But once you get the prescription, you can use GoodRx to get major discounts if you don’t have health insurance. Users have been able to get tretinoin creme 0.025% for $30-$40. It’s not exactly cheap, but it’s certainly a lot more affordable than it would be otherwise.
One thing to keep in mind with any retinol — it can make your skin much more sensitive to UV rays so try not to use it right before you go outside. Many dermatologists recommend using it at night (mine did!) so as not to pose any risk.
There might be a lot of flashy products out there, but it turns out that the old stand-bys Cereve and Cetaphil are going to be your best bets.
My dermatologist’s first choice is the Cereve AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion with SPF 30. And don’t let the name fool you — you can and should use this moisturizer morning and night.
Her second choice was Cetaphil Daily Oil-Free Facial Moisturizer with SPF 35. Again, use this moisturizer morning and night.
The most important things she wanted to convey were that (1) your moisturizer should have SPF and (2) it should be something light, fragrance-free, and without any extra bells and whistles.
If you have extra dry skin or need a little extra moisturization due to the retinol or tretinoin, you may want to consider adding another moisturizer to your nighttime routine. My personal choice? Nivea Creme. Many skincare addicts claim that it is an *exact* dupe for the coveted (and expensive!) Crème de la Mer and it’s incredibly affordable at less than $10 for a tub — for reference the “mini” tub of La Mer will cost you a cool $95.
Both Nivea Creme and Crème de la Mer are super-rich so you only need a tiny bit to hydrate your skin. I recommend using it at night right before bedtime so it can do the work overnight.
Before you consider adding any new active ingredients to your skincare routine, look to see a medical professional if you can, even if it’s only online. To be clear: I am not a doctor and anything I’ve written here is based on my own experiences with a dermatologist and nothing more.
Need more skincare advice? Check out our skincare archives here.
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