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The Best Acne Serums for Whiteheads, Blackheads, Clogged Pores and Cystic Acne

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Written by Jenna Cartusciello
Best Acne Serums

If you want to reduce your breakouts over time, acne serums are a great way to maintain healthy skin and a clear complexion. Unlike a spot treatment, which is applied to pimples and nowhere else, a serum is spread across the entire face. Ideally, it rests under a layer of your favorite moisturizer, and the combination helps create clarified and hydrated skin. However, not every serum pairs well with every acne and skin type. Blackheads, for instance, respond well to deep pore cleansers like salicylic acid, but this ingredient often causes dry skin.

Fortunately, the acne serum market is saturated, so there are a wide variety of heavy duty, moderate and light serums available that cater to every skin type. And once you find the serum that matches your skincare needs, you won’t want to turn back. That’s because a good serum provides additional benefits, such as a brightened complexion, reduced fine lines and a smoother texture. The bottom line? Serums are the way to go! Learn how to find the right product for your skin below.

The 15 Best Acne Serums for Oily, Dry and Combination Skin

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Finding the Best Acne Serums

If acne face washes and wash-off treatments haven’t worked for you, an acne serum is an excellent alternative. Serums are made of concentrated active ingredients known to clear pores, slough off dead skin cells and treat breakouts. An ideal serum will reduce pimples over time without causing excessive dryness and irritation. So, how do you know what type of serum will work for your acne and skin type?

The answer depends on your tolerance to chemical exfoliants, the level of acne you are facing (the occasional breakout, whiteheads, blackheads or cystic) and whether you have dry, oily or combination skin. If you’re a beginner, we recommend trying a mild serum — then maybe building up in strength over time. As you become more experienced, you may find that you can use multiple serums in your routine, such as one in the morning and a different one at night, which work together to clear acne and keep your skin healthy.

What to Consider When Choosing the Best Acne Serums


A strong acne serum is one that contains strong chemical exfoliators — acids that remove dead skin cells, increase skin cell turnover, clear pores and brighten skin. Strong exfoliants such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are the best for clearing out pores but can also cause irritation, flaky skin and dryness. In contrast, weak acne serums may contain weak acids such as mandelic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid and gluconolactone acid. The concentration of the chemical exfoliants also matters; an. 0.5% solution of salicylic acid will be easier to tolerate than a 2% solution, for example.

Some acne serums don’t contain traditional exfoliants, which are difficult to tolerate if you have sensitive skin. Instead, they may contain niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3 that regulates oil production and reduces the swelling and inflammation that comes with acne. They may also contain zinc, which is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial.

Chemical Exfoliants

There are three types of chemical exfoliants you’ll find in acne serums: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). BHAs like salicylic acid are the strongest of the three, and help clear clogged pores and reduce oil. AHAs are gentler, and they primarily slough off dead skin cells and increase skin cell turnover. PHAs are the gentlest exfoliants of the bunch because they don’t penetrate the skin as deeply as BHAs or AHAs, making them a great choice for sensitive skin.


If your acne serum contains one or more chemical exfoliants, it’s important for it to also contain hydrating ingredients. Common moisturizers that perform well in serums and don’t clog pores include hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, glycerin and fatty acids.

Skin Type

Your skin type can also help you determine which acne serum will work for you. If you have dry or sensitive skin, for instance, a gentle formula that contains an AHA or a PHA along with hydrating ingredients is a great pick. Oily skin may perform better with a BHA-based formula. Ingredients like niacinamide and zinc are great for beginners, regardless of your skin type.


How much do you want to spend on your acne serum? While these treatments can get exorbitantly expensive, we believe you don’t have to spend more than $40 to experience great results. Some of our top picks cost less than $20.

What Are the Different Types of Acne Serums?


A mild acne serum will likely have a low concentration of an AHA or PHA, and it may have a combination of both. It could also contain a BHA and still be gentle as long as the BHA is a low concentration (typically less than 1%). Some acne serums contain no active ingredients at all, just anti-inflammatories and hydrators. Mild serums are great for beginners, people with sensitive skin or people who want to use the serum on a daily basis.


Moderate acne serums are those that contain moderately-strong chemical exfoliators or active ingredients, such as a higher concentration of an AHA or PHA. Or it may contain encapsulated salicylic acid or encapsulated retinol. These are strong ingredients that deeply penetrate skin and increase skin cell turnover, but are milder in an encapsulated form.


A heavy-duty acne serum typically contains a moderate to high concentration of a BHA (around 2%), or it may contain a high concentration of multiple chemical exfoliators. Some strong serums contain a form of vitamin A such as retinol or adapalene, which target blind pimples and help bring them to the surface. While effective, heavy-duty serums can easily irritate the skin, so we recommend using them once every five days to start and increasing frequency from there.


Best Overall: The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% and Zinc 1% Oil Control Serum


  • Great for everyday use
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Affordable


  • Tacky finish
  • May make skin look shiny
  • May leave a burning sensation in certain scenarios

If you’re new to skincare, a seasoned pro or need something for sensitive skin, we recommend The Ordinary Niacinamide and Zinc Serum. A high percentage of niacinamide helps reduce inflammation, minimize pores and brighten hyperpigmentation from former pimples, while zinc also reduces inflammation and keeps acne in check. This formula is great to wear under your daily moisturizer, and the price is hard to beat.

However, this serum has a tacky finish and it can make the skin appear shiny. We don’t recommend applying it after a chemical exfoliant or a day sun or frigid weather, because it may leave a slight burning sensation.


Best Splurge: La Roche Posay Acne Treatment Salicylic Acid Face Serum


  • 2 chemical exfoliators
  • Niacinamide to reduce inflammation
  • Hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid


  • Skin needs to acclimate
  • May increase skin sensitivity
  • May cause flaking and irritation

Looking for a classic, trusted acne serum that targets underground breakouts? Try the La Roche posay Acne Treatment Serum. It contains salicylic acid, a tough exfoliator that reaches deep into pores, glycolic acid, a gentle exfoliator that removes the top layer of dead skin cells and niacinamide, which brightens skin and reduces inflammation. We like that the concentration of salicylic acid (1.5%) is slightly weaker than normal, which may reduce skin sensitivity.

However, having multiple exfoliators in one serum means your skin needs to acclimate. We recommend applying this serum once every three days, and then applying more frequently if necessary. In addition, the product can increase your skin’s sensitivity and cause flaking and irritation on very sensitive skin.


Best Drugstore: e.l.f. Blemish Breakthrough Triple-Acid Resurfacing Serum


  • Affordable
  • Well-balanced blend of exfoliators
  • Reduces inflammation


  • May cause dryness
  • May create burning sensation
  • Skin may need to acclimate

Hoping for an acne serum with a well-balanced formula of exfoliators that won’t break the bank? Meet the e.l.f. Blemish Breakthrough Triple-Acid Resurfacing Serum. Designed for nighttime skincare, this product contains salicylic acid, tranexamic acid (a non-exfoliating acid that reduces inflammation and brightens skin) and lactobionic acid (a PHA that gently sloughs off dead skin cells). We like that it also has niacinamide to help further lower inflammation and tighten pores.

Note that this product (like other products that contain salicylic acid) may cause purging — when acne beneath the skin comes to the surface — so it can take a while for the skin to truly improve. Also, it may cause dryness and a burning sensation if your skin barrier is damaged.


Best for Daily Use: Good Molecules Niacinamide Serum


  • Gently exfoliates
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Hydrating ingredients


  • Tacky finish
  • Drying without moisturizer
  • Won’t clear pores as well as strong serums

If you’re looking for a simple acne serum that you can use everyday without irritating your skin, try the Good Molecules Niacinamide Serum. This 10% niacinamide solution helps gently exfoliate skin, reduce inflammation, even out skin tone and brighten hyperpigmentation left over from pimples. We like that the formula contains glycerin, which hydrates the skin and counteracts any dryness that niacinamide causes.

The downsides: This serum has a tacky finish and it can be drying, so make sure to apply moisturizer on top. Since it’s a weaker formula compared to serums that have chemical exfoliants, it may not clear out the pores as well as other products.


Best for Blackheads: Medik8 Press and Clear Exfoliating 2% BHA Tonic


  • Relatively gentle
  • Encapsulated salicylic acid
  • Contains soothing aloe vera


  • Tacky finish
  • Expensive
  • Quality issues when buying from Amazon

Blackheads, or tiny clogged pores, are difficult to get rid of because they contain deeply embedded dirt, oil and sebum. A strong chemical exfoliator that penetrates below the skin’s surface will be your best shot at getting rid of blackheads, which is why we recommend the Medik8 Press and Clear Exfoliating 2% BHA Tonic. A 2% concentration of BHA like this one can help clarify the skin in just one week. Plus, we like that the salicylic acid in this formula is capsulated, so it releases slowly into the skin. It’s a relatively gentle serum as a result.

However, this serum feels a little tacky, which some people may not like. This product is expensive, and a few customers have experienced quality issues when buying the item from Amazon.


Best for Dry Skin: The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% and HA 2% Exfoliating Serum


  • Contains hyaluronic acid
  • Simple ingredients
  • Affordable


  • May irritate sensitive skin
  • May cause flakiness
  • Tacky finish

The alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) lactic acid is one of the gentler chemical exfoliators out there, making it a good option for dry skin. The Ordinary Lactic Acid serum is the one we’d pick for people with dry skin and acne because it also contains hyaluronic acid, an excellent hydrator. Plus, it’s affordable.

The downsides: Though lactic acid is gentler than salicylic acid, it may still irritate sensitive skin and cause flakiness. This serum also has a slightly tacky finish (thanks to the hyaluronic acid).


Best for Oily Skin: CeraVe Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment with Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid


  • Triple exfoliant blend
  • Ceramides help protect skin barrier
  • Great for oily skin


  • May feel heavy
  • Tacky finish
  • Takes a while to dry

If moisturizing serums feel too hydrating on your skin, consider a gel-based formula like the CeraVe Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment. This leave-on treatment is designed to reduce whiteheads, blackheads and future breakouts, and it may cause purging (when blind pimples come to the surface).

We like that this formula contains glycolic and lactic acids to help further exfoliate the skin and ceramides to protect the skin barrier. However, a few customers dislike the thick consistency and tacky finish, which takes a while to dry.


Best for Combination Skin: Selfless by Hyram Salicylic Acid and Sea Kelp Pore Clearing and Oil Control Face Serum


  • Great for sensitive skin
  • Encapsulated salicylic acid
  • Reduces excess oil


  • May not be strong enough for severe breakouts
  • Expensive
  • Watery consistency makes it difficult to apply

Skin that’s both dry and oily would benefit from a gentle salicylic acid product, and the Selfless by Hyram Salicylic Acid Serum fits the bill. It contains just 0.5% encapsulated salicylic acid, which slowly releases into the skin and irritates it less. The product also has succinic acid and niacinamide, which help reduce excess oil and the frequency of breakouts.

If you have cystic or hormonal acne, this product may not be strong enough to reduce your breakouts. It’s also expensive for the size (just one fluid ounce) and very watery, so it can be difficult to apply.


Best for Sensitive Skin: Selfless by Hyram Mandelic Acid & Rice Bran Gentle Exfoliating Serum


  • Gently exfoliates
  • Reduces excess oil
  • Helps skin retain water


  • Not strong enough for severe breakouts
  • Expensive
  • Water consistency makes it difficult to apply

Is your skin easily irritated? If so, we recommend starting with a mild acne serum like the Selfless Mandelic Acid & Rice Bran Serum. Mandelic acid gently removes dead skin cells and smooths texture while phytic acid (rice bran) also helps exfoliate and reduce excess oil. This formula also contains 0.5 percent encapsulated salicylic acid 2.5% gluconolactone, a very mild PHA that helps the skin retain water.

Bear in mind that this product isn’t strong enough to clear a serious breakout, but it’s great for maintenance. It’s also expensive (though often on sale) and has a very watery consistency, like other Selfless serums.


Best for Mature Skin: Naturium Mandelic Topical Acid 12%


  • Exfoliates throughout the day
  • Brightens skin
  • Reduces frequency of breakouts


  • Too strong for everyday use
  • Smell may be off putting
  • Pricey

If you struggle with both adult acne and maturing skin, we recommend Naturium’s Mandelic Topical Acid. The high percentage of mandelic acid (12%) penetrates skin throughout the day, exfoliating the top layer of cells and reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It also contains niacinamide which brightens the skin and reduces hyperpigmentation.

However, some buyers find the smell of this product offputting. This serum is also a little too strong for everyday use — we recommend using it every other day or once every two to three days.


Best for Body Acne: Paula’s Choice Weightless Body Treatment 2% BHA


  • Deeply exfoliates pores
  • Anti-inflammatory ingredients
  • Hydrating ingredients


  • May cause irritation
  • Smell may be off putting
  • Pricey

Struggling to control breakouts on your back and chest? Try the Paula’s Choice Weightless Body Treatment. This serum contains 2% salicylic acid, which deeply exfoliates pores to help clear and prevent breakouts. It also contains vitamin E, chamomile and green tea to help reduce inflammation.

Since this product has a relatively high concentration of salicylic acid, it may cause irritation until your skin gets used to it. A few customers also disliked the product’s smell and price.


Best With Adapalene: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment


  • Helps reduce breakouts over time
  • Prescription strength
  • Great for clogged pores


  • May cause irritation
  • Can cause skin purging
  • Expensive

Adapalene, a vitamin A derivative, can help reduce the severity and frequency of breakouts over time by reducing swelling and inflammation and encouraging skin cell turnover. If you want to try adapalene, we recommend starting with the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel.

Bear in mind that adapalene is a strong ingredient and may cause irritation and skin flaking during the first few uses. This product can also cause skin purging (which may be necessary, but is frustrating to deal with), and it’s expensive.


Best With Retinol: Selfless by Hyram Retinol and Rainbow Algae Repair Face Serum


  • Encapsulated retinol
  • Rainbow algae reduces hyperpigmentation
  • Great for frequent use


  • Runny and a little difficult to apply
  • Shiny finish
  • Not great for serious breakouts

While retinol is best known for its ability to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, it can also help reduce acne. In a mild form like the Selfless Retinol and Rainbow Algae Serum, it’s great for frequent use to maintain clear, bright skin. We like that this serum contains encapsulated retinol, which is easier to tolerate, rainbow algae which helps diminish hyperpigmentation and squalane which hydrates.

The downsides: As with other Selfless serums, this one is runny and a little difficult to apply. It also has a shiny finish, though applying a moisturizer on top will diminish this. Note that mild forms of retinol may not be as effective at clearing serious breakouts.


Best for Redness: Aveeno Calm + Restore Triple Oat Hydrating Face Serum for Sensitive Skin


  • Great for eczema-prone skin
  • Helps reduce inflammation
  • Lightweight


  • Dropper applicator is not the most effective
  • A few customers were sensitive to formula
  • Smell may be off putting

Sometimes, the source of your breakout may simply be irritation and a lack of hydration. If this sounds like your skin (or you’re simply not ready to use chemical exfoliants), consider the Aveeno Calm + Restore Serum. The key ingredient, glycerin, quenches thirsty skin without clogging pores while oat helps reduce inflammation. If you have oily skin, this is also a great alternative to traditional moisturizers because it’s lightweight.

As with most dropper bottles, it’s difficult to get the last dregs of the serum out of the bottle with the dropper system. A few customers also experienced sensitivities to this serum, so be sure to do a patch test first (apply a small amount to the inside of your wrist and let it sit for 15 minutes).


Best for Blind Pimples: Differin Acne Treatment Gel


  • Targets deep pimples
  • Alcohol free
  • Fragrance free


  • Faulty bottles reported
  • Can irritate skin
  • Takes a while to work

Adapalene is a classic acne treatment for a reason — it targets deeply-embedded pimples and brings them to the surface. The Differin Acne Treatment Gel contains a medical-grade amount of adapalene to clear out the skin, though it’s still relatively tolerable. We like that this formula is water based, alcohol free and fragrance free to reduce the risk of irritation.

The downsides: While tolerable, this acne serum can still irritate the skin, so we recommend gradually incorporating it into your routine. (If your skin is very sensitive, consider applying a moisturizer first, then the treatment, and then another layer of moisturizer.) In addition, a few customers have received faulty bottles.

People Also Ask

  • Q: Does anti acne serum work?

    A:An acne serum can do wonders for breakouts by helping to clear out pores and increase skin cell turnover, but it can also be irritating and take time to work. We recommend incorporating an acne serum into your routine gradually and giving it at least three months.

  • Q: What serum is best for dry, acne-prone skin?

    A:For dry skin, we recommend trying The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% and HA 2% Exfoliating Serum or any of the Selfless by Hyram serums. Regardless of what serum you use, make sure you apply a moisturizer afterward.

  • Q: What serum is best for oily, acne-prone skin?

    A:For oily skin, we recommend trying either the CeraVe Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment with Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid or the Selfless by Hyram Salicylic Acid and Sea Kelp Pore Clearing and Oil Control Face Serum.

  • Q: How much do acne serums cost?

    A:Acne serums can get expensive quickly, but most cost between $6 and $30.

Why trust Us

At Us Weekly, we aim to inform readers to make smart purchasing decisions, saving you both time and money. Our editors are obsessed with finding products in a variety of categories from fashion and beauty, to home and fitness.

We try various products, so we can recommend our favorites, and we also summarize feedback and data from other customers. Data, like product reviews and ratings, helps us recommend the best product choices for individual price points and needs.

On top of that, we highlight unique product features for special use cases, ingredients preferences, and more. We strive to make sure you are discovering new products that can make your life easier, while keeping you up to date with the best product choices for types of items you already know and love.

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By Jenna Cartusciello

Affiliate Commerce Writer Jenna loves recommending great products to her friends and family, so helping the rest of the internet on their quest to find the best stuff makes tremendous sense! Though she mainly writes in-depth buyer’s guides these days, Jenna still enjoys crafting the occasional health article. In her spare time, she loves immersing herself in creative writing. Her favorite authors (for anyone who is willing to geek out with her) include Neil Gaiman, Cheryl Strayed, and Jennifer Egan.

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