The Under-$25 Acne-Friendly Products This Skinfluencer Swears By

·6 min read

Welcome to Acne Week, a five-day stretch where we get real about pimples, zits, cysts, and every bump or blemish in between. From skin-soothing products R29 editors swear by to exclusive deals on the most breakout-friendly beauty brands, we’re kissing the concept of “bad skin” goodbye and exploring why acne is so much more than skin deep.

"Friends have always come to me for [skin care] recommendations," digital creator Cathy Cao (better known as her online moniker Cathy on Skincare) tells me during a video call. "So I thought, why not put myself online and talk to people as if they were a friend of mine." Even though Cao only debuted her YouTube channel during the pandemic, her well-researched, honest videos quickly resonated with fellow beauty enthusiasts — 171,000 subscribers (and counting).

"I used to think that I needed to spend $60 on a moisturizer for it to be good," says Cao. "But then, I started looking into ingredients and doing research [into product formulations]. I used to be an investment banker and startup founder, so scientific research is super important to me." From ingredient explainers to viral product reviews, Cao has quickly built a following, thanks to her informative yet wildly digestible content — which includes plenty of product recommendations for oily and breakout-prone complexions.

With all that in mind, we asked Cao to curate her ultimate under-$25 haul of acne-quelling cleansers, moisturizers, spot treatments, and more. Keep clicking to browse, read, and shop her 12 choice picks in the slides to come.

At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. All product details reflect the price and availability at the time of publication. If you buy or click on something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.

<h2>CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser</h2><br>"CeraVe's SA cleanser is a classic — I haven’t met anyone that doesn't like it," Cao tells us of this mild yet effective salicylic acid cleanser. "I like to leave it on for a couple minutes after massaging it in before washing it off just to let it do its magic." (Another salicylic acid-free pick she loves: CeraVe's <a href="https://amzn.to/3bifH3V" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:foaming face wash" class="link ">foaming face wash</a>, which is ideal "if you want to focus on other actives in your routine, like retinol."<br><br><strong>CeraVe</strong> Renewing SA Cleanser, $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLFACcv8D" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Ulta Beauty" class="link ">Ulta Beauty</a><br><br><strong>CeraVe</strong> Foaming Facial Cleanser, $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLIrib2o4" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Ulta Beauty" class="link ">Ulta Beauty</a>

CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser


"CeraVe's SA cleanser is a classic — I haven’t met anyone that doesn't like it," Cao tells us of this mild yet effective salicylic acid cleanser. "I like to leave it on for a couple minutes after massaging it in before washing it off just to let it do its magic." (Another salicylic acid-free pick she loves: CeraVe's foaming face wash, which is ideal "if you want to focus on other actives in your routine, like retinol."

CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser, $, available at Ulta Beauty

CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser, $, available at Ulta Beauty
<h2>Hero Cosmetics Clear Collective Exfoliating Jelly Cleanser</h2><br>"If you feel like your skin is a little dull and just needs a little refresher, this cleanser is great for that," explains Cao of this glycolic- and mandelic acid-infused formula, which works to smooth and brighten skin. "It's got a cool, gel texture to it that foams up when it emulsifies." <br><br><strong>Hero Cosmetics</strong> Clear Collective Exfoliating Jelly Cleanser, $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLFAgnhRL" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Ulta Beauty" class="link ">Ulta Beauty</a>

Hero Cosmetics Clear Collective Exfoliating Jelly Cleanser


"If you feel like your skin is a little dull and just needs a little refresher, this cleanser is great for that," explains Cao of this glycolic- and mandelic acid-infused formula, which works to smooth and brighten skin. "It's got a cool, gel texture to it that foams up when it emulsifies."

Hero Cosmetics Clear Collective Exfoliating Jelly Cleanser, $, available at Ulta Beauty
<h2>PanOxyl 4% Benzoyl Peroxide Antimicrobial Acne Creamy Wash</h2> <br>"I know the 10% [PanOxyl] has been all over TikTok, but I actually recommend the 4% formulation instead of the 10%," explains Cao. "I'm always a fan of starting out low and slow, as opposed to blasting your skin with as many actives as possible." <br><br><strong>Panoxyl</strong> Antimicrobial Acne Creamy Wash, 4% Benzoyl Peroxide, $, available at <a href="https://amzn.to/3N8cbq4" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Amazon" class="link ">Amazon</a>

PanOxyl 4% Benzoyl Peroxide Antimicrobial Acne Creamy Wash


"I know the 10% [PanOxyl] has been all over TikTok, but I actually recommend the 4% formulation instead of the 10%," explains Cao. "I'm always a fan of starting out low and slow, as opposed to blasting your skin with as many actives as possible."

Panoxyl Antimicrobial Acne Creamy Wash, 4% Benzoyl Peroxide, $, available at Amazon
<h2>Good Molecules Niacinamide Brightening Toner</h2><br>"A toner, in general, is helpful to have in your routine because it helps with product absorption for your later steps," says Cao. "One of the hero ingredients in this one is <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/niacinamide-skin-care-products" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:niacinamide" class="link ">niacinamide</a> — also known as vitamin B3 — which is an amazing all-around ingredient for minimizing the look of pores, reducing hyperpigmentation, and soothing inflammation." <br><br><strong>Good Molecules</strong> Niacinamide Brightening Toner, $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLFAMxmVy" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Ulta Beauty" class="link ">Ulta Beauty</a>

Good Molecules Niacinamide Brightening Toner


"A toner, in general, is helpful to have in your routine because it helps with product absorption for your later steps," says Cao. "One of the hero ingredients in this one is niacinamide — also known as vitamin B3 — which is an amazing all-around ingredient for minimizing the look of pores, reducing hyperpigmentation, and soothing inflammation."

Good Molecules Niacinamide Brightening Toner, $, available at Ulta Beauty
<h2>Differin Acne Treatment Gel</h2><br>"[Differin's hero ingredient] Adapalene used to be prescription-only, but now you can pick it up at pretty much any drugstore," says Cao of this beloved topical. However, like retinol, you may have to work your way up to using a product like Differin on a regular basis: "One way to reduce the likelihood of a reaction is to essentially create a 'Differin sandwich,'" she recommends. "You can buffer it first with your moisturizer, apply Differin, then add the moisturizer back on top." <br><br><strong>Differin</strong> Acne Treatment Gel, $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLFz0U9Gl" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Ulta Beauty" class="link ">Ulta Beauty</a>

Differin Acne Treatment Gel


"[Differin's hero ingredient] Adapalene used to be prescription-only, but now you can pick it up at pretty much any drugstore," says Cao of this beloved topical. However, like retinol, you may have to work your way up to using a product like Differin on a regular basis: "One way to reduce the likelihood of a reaction is to essentially create a 'Differin sandwich,'" she recommends. "You can buffer it first with your moisturizer, apply Differin, then add the moisturizer back on top."

Differin Acne Treatment Gel, $, available at Ulta Beauty
<h2>CosRx Acne Pimple Master Patch</h2><br>"I talk about this like almost every week for getting rid of a pimple overnight," raves Cao. "I love that the <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/best-acne-patch" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:patches" class="link ">patches</a> come in all different sizes, and it kind of disappears, which is great. Sometimes in the morning, I'm like, <em>Where is the pimple patch</em>? I can't find it!"<br><br><strong>CosRx</strong> Acne Pimple Master Patch (24 count), $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLCmSQEZV" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:DermStore" class="link ">DermStore</a>

CosRx Acne Pimple Master Patch


"I talk about this like almost every week for getting rid of a pimple overnight," raves Cao. "I love that the patches come in all different sizes, and it kind of disappears, which is great. Sometimes in the morning, I'm like, Where is the pimple patch? I can't find it!"

CosRx Acne Pimple Master Patch (24 count), $, available at DermStore
<h2>Kinship Pimple Potion Retinal + Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment</h2><br>"Kinship Pimple Potion is a retinal <em>and</em> salicylic acid combo, making it super effective," says Cao. Now, retinaldehyde (aka retin<em>al</em>) is similar to retin<em>ol</em> in that it speeds up cell turnover and has similar texture-smoothing benefits, but it can deliver faster results because the retinoic acid (what you get with an Rx) doesn't have to be converted before it starts working. (In other words, it's like the difference between eating a kale salad versus drinking a green juice.)<br><br><strong>Kinship</strong> Pimple Potion Retinal + Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment, $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLCnbYkTL" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Ulta Beauty" class="link ">Ulta Beauty</a>

Kinship Pimple Potion Retinal + Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment


"Kinship Pimple Potion is a retinal and salicylic acid combo, making it super effective," says Cao. Now, retinaldehyde (aka retinal) is similar to retinol in that it speeds up cell turnover and has similar texture-smoothing benefits, but it can deliver faster results because the retinoic acid (what you get with an Rx) doesn't have to be converted before it starts working. (In other words, it's like the difference between eating a kale salad versus drinking a green juice.)

Kinship Pimple Potion Retinal + Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment, $, available at Ulta Beauty
<h2>La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer</h2><br>"You should definitely have a good moisturizer in your routine, even if your skin is oily and especially if you are using a lot of actives," advises Cao, who recommends La Roche-Posay's soothing, barrier-boosting lotion. "When I was going through the retinization process with tretinoin, this was a godsend for me."<br><br><strong>La Roche-Posay</strong> Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer, $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLCmEMVHZ" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:DermStore" class="link ">DermStore</a>

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer


"You should definitely have a good moisturizer in your routine, even if your skin is oily and especially if you are using a lot of actives," advises Cao, who recommends La Roche-Posay's soothing, barrier-boosting lotion. "When I was going through the retinization process with tretinoin, this was a godsend for me."

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer, $, available at DermStore
<h2>Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Gel-Cream Face Moisturizer</h2><br>"You might be already using other actives in your routine, so I like to keep the moisturizer as simple as possible," says Cao of this fragrance-free gel moisturizer. "It’s got hyaluronic acid in it, and the texture is super-spreadable and lightweight."<br><br><strong>Neutrogena</strong> Hydro Boost Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Gel-Cream, $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLFzUgqfx" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Ulta Beauty" class="link ">Ulta Beauty</a>

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Gel-Cream Face Moisturizer


"You might be already using other actives in your routine, so I like to keep the moisturizer as simple as possible," says Cao of this fragrance-free gel moisturizer. "It’s got hyaluronic acid in it, and the texture is super-spreadable and lightweight."

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Gel-Cream, $, available at Ulta Beauty
<h2>Benton Aloe Propolis Soothing Gel</h2><br>"It's got aloe vera and propolis in it, which is a very popular ingredient in Korean skin care," says Cao of this K-beauty gem. (FYI: Propolis is a resin-like extract made from bees, so it's not vegan.) "And I will say that this definitely gives like a dewy, 'dolphin skin' vibe, so if you're taking a lot of selfies in the summer, this is the one for you." <br><br><strong>Benton</strong> Aloe Propolis Soothing Gel, $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLCl1HFDj" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Soko Glam" class="link ">Soko Glam</a>

Benton Aloe Propolis Soothing Gel


"It's got aloe vera and propolis in it, which is a very popular ingredient in Korean skin care," says Cao of this K-beauty gem. (FYI: Propolis is a resin-like extract made from bees, so it's not vegan.) "And I will say that this definitely gives like a dewy, 'dolphin skin' vibe, so if you're taking a lot of selfies in the summer, this is the one for you."

Benton Aloe Propolis Soothing Gel, $, available at Soko Glam
<h2>Tower 28 SunnyDays SPF 30 Tinted Sunscreen Foundation</h2><br>"This stuff is sensitive skin-friendly, and it doesn't look like you're <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/tower-28-sunnydays-tinted-sunscreen-review" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:wearing makeup" class="link ">wearing makeup</a>," says Cao of Tower 28's <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/best-tinted-sunscreens" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:tinted SPF" class="link ">tinted SPF</a>. "And I love is they've got a ton of shades — I mean, that's really how it should be!"<br><br><strong>Tower 28</strong> SunnyDays SPF 30 Tinted Sunscreen Foundation, $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLClwjgSv" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Sephora" class="link ">Sephora</a>

Tower 28 SunnyDays SPF 30 Tinted Sunscreen Foundation


"This stuff is sensitive skin-friendly, and it doesn't look like you're wearing makeup," says Cao of Tower 28's tinted SPF. "And I love is they've got a ton of shades — I mean, that's really how it should be!"

Tower 28 SunnyDays SPF 30 Tinted Sunscreen Foundation, $, available at Sephora
<h2>Beauty of Joseon Relief Sun : Rice + Probiotics SPF50+ PA+++</h2><br>"This is the sunscreen for you if you <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/best-sunscreen-no-breakouts" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:don't like sunscreen" class="link ">don't like sunscreen</a>," raves Cao of this oil-free K-beauty SPF lotion. "It feels like a moisturizer and there's no white cast — just a nice, natural finish."<br><br><strong>Beauty of Joseon</strong> Relief Sun : Rice + Probiotics (SPF50+ PA++++), $, available at <a href="https://go.skimresources.com/?id=30283X879131&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhowl.me%2FchvLCmnBjea" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Beauty of Joseon" class="link ">Beauty of Joseon</a>

Beauty of Joseon Relief Sun : Rice + Probiotics SPF50+ PA+++


"This is the sunscreen for you if you don't like sunscreen," raves Cao of this oil-free K-beauty SPF lotion. "It feels like a moisturizer and there's no white cast — just a nice, natural finish."

Beauty of Joseon Relief Sun : Rice + Probiotics (SPF50+ PA++++), $, available at Beauty of Joseon

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