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Anti-Acne Serums

Written by: Becki Murray

Last Updated: 16 February 2024

Struggling with spots and acne can be both incredibly irritating and fully confidence-affecting, so finding the right skincare to improve your skin can be paramount. You also definitely don’t want to be making things worse either.

Luckily, there are lots of different anti-acne serums available on the market (and plenty of brilliant practitioners able to help you too, should you need them). The main thing to bear in mind is to look for a serum with pore-unclogging, inflammation-reducing ingredients, which can help decongest your skin, keep acne-causing bacteria at bay, and soothe a sore complexion. Read on to discover what you need to know about anti-acne serums…

anti acne serum

Are serums good for acne?

Serums for the face can be brilliant for acne – but it entirely depends on which serum you choose. As will be outlined in more detail below, the best serums contain specific ingredients that can target and prevent the key causes of breakouts and acne, as well as the inflammation and pigmentation that acne can leave behind. You may also need slightly more help than an over-the-counter product can give – if so, speak to a dermatologist.

How do anti-acne serums work?

How an anti-acne serum works depends on the ingredients within it, but broadly speaking they tend to help with spots and breakouts by:

  • Unclogging pores
  • Exfoliating your skin
  • Tackling acne-causing bacteria
  • Treating inflammation
  • Decreasing oil production

Acne Treatment

Which ingredients should I look for in an effective anti-acne serum?

There are lots of different anti-acne serums available on the market. Here are some of the main ingredients to look out for, which are explained in more detail in the following sections:

  • Beta hydroxy acid (BHA/salicylic acid): helps to unclog pores
  • Retinol: reduces oil production and increases cell turnover
  • Niacinamide (a form of vitamin B3): reduces oil production and inflammation
  • Benzoyl peroxide: exfoliates pores and kills bacteria

What is beta hydroxy acid (BHA) and its role in anti-acne serums?

Beta hydroxy acid, BHA, or salicylic acid is a type of chemical exfoliant that is one of the best ingredients for deep-diving into pores to clear them out. That’s why it can be so good in anti-acne serums. It’s particularly good as it’s oil-soluble and so can get into the pores and exfoliate the pore lining from within. This means less congestion of pores, and hence less acne. BHA is also anti-inflammatory, so it calms down redness in blemishes while going about its business.

Is retinol a suitable ingredient for acne-prone skin?

Retinol serum can be fab if you have spots, as it reduces oil production in the skin by shrinking the oil glands. It also helps with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that can be left behind after you’ve had acne, and improves skin repair, by encouraging collagen production in the skin, to heal the damage from acne lesions.

However, it’s important to note that you should start retinol slowly as it can worsen irritation and cause ‘purging’ breakouts if you overdo it.

How does benzoyl peroxide work in serums for acne?

Benzoyl peroxide is an ingredient that sinks through oil and sebum into the follicles, exfoliating the lining of the pores and hence clearing them out. It’s also anti-inflammatory and kills the bacteria that can cause spots, so it’s a brilliant ingredient for combating acne.

Can anti-acne serums help with redness and inflammation?

Yes, they definitely can. In fact, for many anti-acne serums, inflammation is one of the main things they are aiming to reduce, alongside your breakouts of course. Here are three ingredients to look out for if redness is a big part of your breakout-prone skin:

  • Niacinamide: reduces both oil production and inflammation, so it’s great for treating acne-prone skin.
  • Epigallocatechin-3-gallate: (an antioxidant found in green tea) helps to reduce inflammation.
  • Growth factor serums: such as TGF-beta (transforming growth factor beta) can reduce both inflammation and the pigmentation left behind by acne by speeding up the wound-healing process.

What are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and their effects on pores?

AHAs can’t dive deep into your pores like AHAs, but they can still help to some degree to unblock clogged pores. Serums containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic and lactic acid have a superficial exfoliating effect on the skin which can prevent pores from being blocked by dead skin cells and then becoming inflamed.

Do anti-acne serums contain antioxidants like vitamins C and E?

It’s not necessarily a must-have feature, but protective ingredients such as vitamin C and E can be a great feature within your acne skincare routine. Vitamin C serum, which is an antioxidant, assists with the production of collagen in the skin, and helps boost skin healing that way. Antioxidant serums containing vitamin E help to heal the skin more quickly, too



How to use an acne serum?

How often you should use an anti-acne serum depends on the type of serum – for example, you should only use a retinol serum at night, and you should use it less frequently than other kinds of anti-acne serums because of its potential to irritate the skin, and the long gap (three days) that exists between application of the retinol and the irritation it can cause showing up in the skin.

Because of this variability in serum types, it’s hard to give general advice, so I’d suggest that you follow the instructions on the packaging. Remember, it’s important to be cautious with your usage – particularly if the product contains either benzoyl peroxide or retinol.

When you do apply the serum, do it after cleansing, patting the product into the skin with your fingers. Wipe the serum over the face, and allow it to sink into the skin fully before applying the next product in your routine.

Are there any side effects of using anti-acne serums?

The best anti-acne ingredients – specifically salicylic acid and retinoids – can unfortunately have some side effects, mainly skin dryness and irritation, especially if they are used too frequently.

Can serum cause acne?

It’s more likely that a cream would provoke acne than a serum, because serums are usually lightweight treatment products and less likely to congest the skin. Creams that contain oil-based ingredients are more likely to block the pores and aggravate inflammation in the skin. However, you should always be careful when introducing a new serum into your routine. Patch test it first to ensure you don’t react. Otherwise, you could end up making your redness and breakouts worse.




Acne is one of the most common skin complaints out there, and one we’ve pretty much all had to deal with at one time or another. ...

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