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How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

Some of the best acne serums to fight breakouts

Learn which ingredients are most effective in helping prevent acne, and how you can use them to get clearer skin.

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Curology Team
Sep 02, 2022 · 8 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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Face serums aren’t likely the first thing that comes to mind to help treat breakouts if you have oily, acne-prone skin. But they can actually contain ingredients that can help to keep pimples at bay. Serums are concentrated with active ingredients your skin needs—whether you’re using them to fight pimples or reduce the signs of aging. You just need to choose the right serum for your unique skin and skincare goals (like getting clearer skin).

Here, we’ll explain how acne serums work. Plus, we’ll give you a list of the best serums for acne-prone skin. 

What are facial serums?

Serums are light, fast-absorbing liquids that are applied after cleansing and before moisturizing. They typically have a non-greasy finish, and people with oily skin tend to do well with them.  Active ingredients are more concentrated in serums than other skincare products, and they penetrate more deeply than creams. Serums are intended to treat specific skin concerns, so they’re not a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, some of the actives in an acne serum may benefit photoaged skin, but the product will also contain other ingredients to specifically help prevent breakouts.

How do acne serums help?

The active ingredient is the star of the show in a serum. Each ingredient works in a different way to treat acne. Some ingredients, like salicylic acid, are exfoliating and work to gently remove dead skin cells from the skin’s surface. Salicylic acid also targets acne-causing bacteria. Aloe vera helps calm irritation and reduce inflammation, hyaluronic acid works to keep the skin hydrated, and vitamins B and C can help minimize the appearance of acne scars. 

Many serums combine a few active ingredients. For example, an acne serum might contain salicylic acid to exfoliate, licorice root to soothe inflammation, and niacinamide (vitamin B) to help fade acne scars. 

As important as it is to choose a serum that will address your skin concern, you also want to make sure it’s compatible with the rest of your skincare routine. Pay attention to the ingredients in each product; adding too many active ingredients to your routine at the same time can lead to irritation. 

If you’re a Curology member, in the AM, you’ll want to follow the following order when applying your skincare routine: 

  • Cleanse

  • Treat (with a serum) *optional

  • Moisturizer 

  • Protect (with SPF) 

In the PM, you can apply your routine in the following order: 

  • Cleanser

  • Treat (with Curology Custom Formula) 

  • Moisturize

Serums work best after washing your face with a gentle cleanser and following up with a hydrating moisturizer to lock in the benefits of the serum. Keep in mind that application times may vary depending on the active ingredient or ingredients in the serum.

What to look for in acne serum

You’ll want to check the ingredients in your acne serum to ensure you’re getting what you want and your skin needs. Remember, everyone’s skin is different, so when it comes to serums, there isn’t one “right” mix. It varies from person to person and can change over time. 

Here are the most common ingredients in face serums for acne:

Acne-fighting ingredients 

  • Azelaic acid helps unclog pores while treating acne-causing bacteria and fungus. It may also help reduce inflammation and fade dark spots.¹ Azelaic acid is truly a talented multitasking ingredient that’s great for all skin types. 

  • Retinols are vitamin A derivatives. Tretinoin is a prescription-strength retinoid (one of our favorites!), but tretinoin and retinol work differently. Tretinoin is effective in treating acne due to its comedolytic and anti-inflammatory properties. Retinols treat signs of aging and are gentler on the skin. Both can be drying and leave your skin more photosensitive, so it’s best to use serums with these ingredients at night.² 

  • Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). Because it’s oil soluble, it gets pulled deeper into sebum-filled pores to help clear pores clogged with dirt and oil. That’s why it’s so effective at preventing breakouts.³ The downside is that it can dry out the skin. It can also leave your skin photosensitive, so it's best used at night.

Beneficial non-acne-specific ingredients

  • Hyaluronic acid attracts and holds onto moisture and is an excellent addition to any skincare routine. In fact, it’s really good at it! Just one tablespoon of hyaluronic acid holds more than 1 ½ gallons of water.⁴ A clear face serum containing hyaluronic acid can help, especially if you also use an acne treatment that dries out your skin. 

  • Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that can help fade post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and even skin tone from old acne lesions. 

  • Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that doesn’t directly treat acne, but it can help with post-acne dark spots and inflammation.⁵ Niacinamide is also excellent for repairing skin damage. 

Facial acne serums for your skin

push dispenser on hand

Not all serums will work for your skin type, so if one doesn’t work, don’t give up. Simply try something else. To help you with your search, here’s a list of 10 serums under $30 for acne and oily skin and some of our favorite hyaluronic acid serums. We know finding a good anti-acne serum can be a challenge, so here's a list of serums we recommend for acne-prone skin: 

  1. The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Anhydrous Solution uses alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids to penetrate deeper into clogged pores. The formula gently exfoliates and decongests pores to support natural cell turnover. This is an excellent face serum for acne.

  2. The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% Oil Control Serum works to reduce the appearance of blemishes and congestion while also improving skin barrier function. 

  3. The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA works to help keep the outer layer of your skin hydrated. This product is a moisturizer, not a serum, but its blend of hyaluronic acid, amino acids, fatty acids, ceramides, phospholipids, and glycerin gives it an intensely targeted moisturizing effect. It’s the perfect moisturizer to apply after a skin-drying acne serum.

  4. The Inkey List Hyaluronic Acid Serum uses hyaluronic acid to quickly and easily hydrate your skin. It absorbs quickly to help your skin appear plump and smooth. 

  5. e.l.f. Vitamin C Serumdeeplyhydrates while delivering powerful antioxidants for brighter, even-toned skin. This serum is formulated with vitamin C, vitamin E, and pomegranate extract. Best of all, e.l.f. products are all-vegan and cruelty-free.

  6. Versed Just Breathe Clarifying Serum uses niacinamide, willow bark extract, and zinc to calm inflammation and decongest pores. This serum is typically safe enough to use after cleansing both in the morning and evening.

  7. Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Serum is formulated for combination skin to combat acne and reduce the appearance of imperfections. The serum contains natural, non-comedogenic, non-photosensitizing ingredients for acne-prone skin, including salicylic acid, polyphenols, and niacinamides. 

  8. Glytone Enhance Brightening Serum reduces hyperpigmentation, leaving a brighter, even-toned complexion. This serum uses a formulation of azelaic acid, glycolic acid, and hyaluronic acid. 

  9. Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster is formulated to help improve uneven skin tone and the appearance of pores, texture, and fine lines. The serum combines 10% niacinamide with allantoin, licorice extracts, and vitamin C to provide potent antioxidant benefits. 

  10. Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum is formulated with vitamin E and ferulic acid, which support the effects of vitamin C, to help decrease the appearance of fine lines and hyperpigmentation.

What to avoid in acne serums

Remember to choose a serum based on your unique skin type and skincare goals. If your skin is prone to breakouts, choose a serum that doesn’t have pore-clogging (comedogenic) ingredients. Serums are concentrated skincare products. Know the side effects and watch for irritation, dryness, redness, and itching. If you have sensitive skin, perform a patch test before applying a new serum to the more sensitive areas of your face, like around your eyes.  

Some high doses of allegedly “good-for-you” ingredients can actually be irritating for some, including retinol and chemical exfoliants like salicylic acid. 

To really kick acne to the curb, you’ll likely need to do more than apply a nightly serum. Learn more about how to get rid of and prevent acne and whether your makeup might be causing pimples.

Personalized skincare from Curology

Curious about acne-fighting ingredients? Sign up for a free 30-day trial* and Curology’s team of licensed dermatology providers will create a personalized treatment plan to match your skin goals using effective ingredients. We take the time to see you, understand the nuances of your skin, and provide a personalized solution that just works so you can see and feel the difference.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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FAQs

What are facial serums?

Serums are light, fast-absorbing liquids that are applied after cleansing and before moisturizing. They typically have a non-greasy finish, and people with oily skin tend to do well with them.  Active ingredients are more concentrated in serums than other skincare products, and they penetrate more deeply than creams.

How do acne serums help?

The active ingredient is the star of the show in a serum. Each ingredient works in a different way to treat acne. Some ingredients, like salicylic acid, are exfoliating and work to gently remove dead skin cells from the skin’s surface. Salicylic acid also targets acne-causing bacteria. Aloe vera helps calm irritation and reduce inflammation, hyaluronic acid works to keep the skin hydrated, and vitamins B and C can help minimize the appearance of acne scars.

What to look for in acne serum?

You’ll want to check the ingredients in your acne serum to ensure you’re getting what you want and your skin needs, some of the most common ingredients include Azelaic acid, Retinols, Salicylic acid, Hyaluronic acid, Vitamin C, and Niacinamide.

What to avoid in acne serums?

Remember to choose a serum based on your unique skin type and skincare goals. If your skin is prone to breakouts, choose a serum that doesn’t have pore-clogging (comedogenic) ingredients. Serums are concentrated skincare products. Know the side effects and watch for irritation, dryness, redness, and itching.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Schulte, B.C., et al. Azelaic acid: Evidence-based update on mechanism of action and clinical application. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (September 2015).

  2. Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, February 17).

  3. The Derm Review. Salicylic acid: The multi-functional acid you need in your routine. (2020, October 14).

  4. Jegasothy, S. M., at al. Efficacy of a new topical nano-hyaluronic acid in humans. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (March 2014).

  5. Levin, J., et al. How much do we really know about our favorite cosmeceutical ingredients? Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (February 2010).

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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