How Long Do Acne Treatments Take To Work? (The Straight Truth)

Who hasn't tried a new acne treatment with the secret hope that if you slather it on before bed, all of your skin woes will be solved by sunup?

But most products just don’t work that way — especially when it comes to treating acne. Here, board certified dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) breaks down how long it really takes for over-the-counter acne treatments to work — and why.

Woman waiting for acne products to work

How long do acne products take to work?

Acne begins forming before you ever notice it, deep within your pores — which is why there's no overnight solution, and no single ingredient to manage acne. What's more, the average skin cycle is about 28 days, which means that it takes at least that long for a product's active ingredients to affect all your skin cells.

But don't fret! According to Dr. Lee, the acne essentials found in her SLMD Acne System and Sensitive Skin Acne Systemsalicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, retinol, and moisturizer — can make a noticeable difference in your skin health when used consistently.  

    Here's a summary of what you can typically expect from quality acne formulations containing these active ingredients. Plus, we'll settle the debate on whether spot treatments can really clear up a pimple overnight.

    How long does salicylic acid take to work?

    Washing away impurities can have an immediate effect on your skin's appearance. The best acne cleansers strike a balance between removing oil, dirt and dead skin and stripping skin of necessary moisture. Using an exfoliating face wash like SLMD Salicylic Acid Cleanser twice a day will help remove buildup trapped inside pores. 

    Over the course of a month to six weeks, consistent cleansing with a gentle exfoliant can have an impact on both noninflammatory and inflammatory acne. What's more, salicylic acid can help slough away post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) — those dark marks that remain after a pimple heals.

    How long does benzoyl peroxide or sulfur take to work?

    Acne is caused in part by a bacteria called C. acnes that invades clogged pores. Inflammatory acne happens when your immune system launches an attack to get rid of the bacteria, resulting in swollen, red, sometimes painful pimples and pustules. That's why ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and sulfur, which prevent C. acnes, are so effective.

    These products are best left on the skin, so you'll typically find them in serums and lotions. Expect to see some results from products like SLMD BP Lotion and Sulfur Lotion (for those sensitive to benzoyl peroxide) in about a month or so. After two to three months, you should notice a significant reduction in breakouts. 

    If you're not seeing results within eight to twelve weeks, or you're concerned about scarring, it's time to talk to a dermatologist.

    Before and after results showing acne clearing up from using SLMD Acne System

    Unretouched results of SLMD Acne System user, Susana, after 7 months.

    How long does retinol take to work?

    Clinical studies have shown that retinol, derived from vitamin A, helps regulate cell turnover — which in turn helps keep dead skin from building up inside pores. It also encourages exfoliation, which helps promote more even-looking skin — another plus when managing acne.

    Retinol results can be visible as soon as a month, but can take a whole year to fully appear. Consistency is key with this ingredient, but it can cause some irritation while your skin acclimates. SLMD Retinol Serum uses a time-release formula, which helps it work more gently overnight.

    How long does moisturizer take to work?

    Most over-the-counter acne regimens miss this crucial step, but it's necessary to help counteract the drying effects of treatment products. When your skin gets dehydrated and irritated, this compromises the skin barrier — which can actually exacerbate acne.

    The effects of using moisturizer are immediate, but it's very important that you choose a lightweight version formulated not to clog pores, like SLMD Facial Moisturizer. If your product is occlusive (pore-blocking), you'll wind up with a fresh breakout in short order.

    Can spot treatments really work overnight?

    There's a lot of hype — and a lot of hacks — on social media about "miraculous" spot treatments. But unfortunately, unless you get a cortisone shot from your dermatologist, most pimples don't disappear overnight.

    An effective spot treatment, however, can help speed the healing process along, minimizing redness and inflammation faster than mother nature can. For blackheads and whiteheads, try SLMD Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment. If you have an inflammatory pimple or pustule, use BP Spot Treatment.

    Whatever you do, don't pick — it will make your pimple worse. If you can't resist, wait till it comes to a head and use a sterilized Comedone Extractor. If it's not ready, cover the pimple with a Spot Check acne patch to protect and encourage healing.

    Dr Sandra Lee

    Dr. Lee's Last Word

    Patients are understandably eager for their acne products to work — I get it. But when you understand that we need to give skin time to adjust, it makes waiting a little bit easier. I always tell people to stay consistent: it could take about a month, but give it three months to really see the full results.

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