The Complete Guide To The Ordinary Anti-Acne Skincare Products

by Gio
the complete guide to the ordinary anti acne skincare products

I lost count of how many of you have emailed me in the past few months asking me how to use The Ordinary anti-acne products.

I get it. They’re so cheap, you want to get ALL of them. And then you end up with a 10 steps routine that takes all morning to put on. Worse, when you throw too much at your acne, you dry it out and make it worse. Ugh.

Fighting acne isn’t about getting ALL of the products. It’s about getting the right products for your skin and make the most of them.

This quick guide to The Ordinary anti-acne skincare products will help you figure out what products you need, when to use them and how to fit them into your skincare routine. Let’s get started:

get the ordinary acne routine cheatsheet

Salicylic Acid 2% Solution (£4.20)

Listen, girl. I don’t care if The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution is the IT exfoliant of the moment. It’s not for you. Acne-prone skin needs salicylic acid. Period. Here’s why:

What it is: a leave-in exfoliant with salicylic acid, an oil-soluble exfoliating acid that removes all the dead cells and excess oil stuck in your pores. It also exfoliates the surface of the skin so dead cells can’t fall into the pores in the first place and has anti-inflammatory properties that soothe redness and irritations.

Why it’s good for acne: P. Acnes, the bacteria that causes acne, feeds on the excess oil and dead cells stuck in your pores. Keep your pores clean and you’ll starve the nasty buggers to death.

When to use it: salicylic acid is gentle. You can in the morning and/or evening right after cleansing.

Side effects: like all exfoliants, it can irritate skin if used too often.

Available at: Asos, Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty

Note: The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% has salicylic acid too but I DON’T recommend it. Acne-prone skin is very delicate. Don’t inflame it more with a harsh exfoliant.

Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is Key To Keeping Oily Skin Spot-Free

Retinoid Serum (£4.20-£11.90)

The Ordinary has A TON of retinoid serums (just to confuse you even more!). You can check out my guide to them here. My advice is to start with the lowest concentration and build your way slowly or you risk to seriously dry out your skin, ok?

What it is: a bunch of serums with either retinol or hydroxypinacolone retinoate, two forms of Vitamin A that speed up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process), boost collagen and fight wrinkles. Retinol has a more impressive track record than hydroxypinacolone retinoate but is more irritating and drying. If you’re just starting out with retinoids, I’d go with hydroxypinacolone retinoate first and slowly build my way up to retinol.

Why It’s Good For Acne: it speeds up the skin’s natural exfoliating process, helping to keep pores clean.

When to use it: at night after cleansing/exfoliation. Start with two or three nights a week and build up frequency gradually.

Side effects: it makes skin more photosensitive. Use it at night only.

Available at: Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique

Related: The Ultimate Guide To The Ordinary Retinoid Products: Which One Should You Choose? 

Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% (£5.00)

Niacinamide is the new skincare superhero on the blog. Zinc is its Robin. Here’s why:

What it is: a serum with niacinamide and zinc. Duh! Niacinamide is a form of Vitamin B3 that treats acne, soothes inflammation and brightens the skintone. Zinc can help regulate oil production.

Why it’s good for acne: neither niacinamide nor zinc are treatments for acne because they can’t kill the bacteria that cause it. But they can calm down inflammation, the underlying cause of acne. When bacteria infects your skin, your immune system kicks into gear, triggering inflammation to remove the threat. This serum brings the inflammation down a notch or two. Plus, niacinamide can help treat post-inflammatory hyper pigmentation (the dark spots pimples leave behind) while zinc reduces oil and shine.

When to use it: you can use it both morning and/or evening after cleansing/exfoliation but before moisturiser.

Side effects: if your skin’s dry, it may be a little too drying for you.

Available at: Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique

Related: How To Fade Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% (£5.50)

If you’re not a fan of harsh treatments like benzoyl peroxide (The Ordinary isn’t either), azelaic acid is a great alternative. It’s suitable for sensitive skin, too.

What it is: a light cream with azelaic acid, an acid your skin’s microbiome (the good bacteria that live on your skin) naturally produce. It has anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-keratinising properties (anti-keratinising means it prevents build up of dead cells in the pores).

Why it’s good for acne: oh, let me count the ways… it kills the bacteria P. Acnes. It reduces the inflammation that triggers acne. And it keeps the pores clean from all the crap P. Acnes likes to munch on. Study after study shows that it’s as effective at treating acne as harsher treatments, including benzoyl peroxide, tretinoin and accutane.

When to use it: you can use it morning and/or night.

Side effects: although rare, it can cause irritations in some people.

Available at: Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Look Fantastic

Related: Benzoyl Peroxide: Friend Or Foe?

100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rosehip Oil (£9.00)

I know you’re scared of oils, but this one is very friendly to acne-prone skin. Here’s why:

What it is: rosehip oil is the oil extracted from the hip of roses (the hip is the radish-like ball the rose leaves behind after it blossoms). It’s loaded with moisturising fatty acids and a natural form of retinol (vitamin A).

Why it’s good for acne: acne-prone skin lacks linoleic acid, one of the many fatty acids in rosehip oil. Studies shows that adding it back into your skin reduces mini pimples. Fatty acids also keep your skin from getting dehydrated while vitamin A helps the skin’s natural exfoliating process.

When to use it: as the last step of your night-time routine.

Side effects: it contains vitamin A so it could make your skin more photosensitive. That’s why it’s best to use it at night.

Available at: Cult Beauty, Feel Unique and Look Fantastic

Note: if you’re already using retinol and don’t want to add more vitamin A to your skincare routine, go with 100% Plant-Derived Squalane. It’s one of the few oils that moisturises skin without worsening acne (yep, even fungal acne).

Related: Can Rosehip Oil Treat Acne?


Putting It All Together: The Ordinary Anti-Acne Skincare Routine

You don’t need all the products above. You can get and use them all but if you want to pick and choose, here’s how to do it:

  • Salicylic acid is a must. Period. If you don’t like The Ordinary’s formula, get Paula’s Choice. But use it.
  • Are you using benzoyl peroxide, Tretinoin or Accutane? You don’t need azelaic acid too. If you want to give it a try, discard the others for the time being. (but consult your doctor, first!)
  • Are you already using a retinoid? You don’t need to switch to The Ordinary retinoid. And you may not need rosehip oil, either.
  • Does your skin needs more hydration than it’s currently getting? Get either rosehip oil or squalene oil.
  • Does your skincare routine include niacinamide? If not, get Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 2% (yes, you can use it with vitamin C.)

If you’re going to use all the products, here’s a good anti-acne skincare routine for beginners:


  • Cleanse
  • Salicylic Acid 2% Solution
  • Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
  • Sunscreen


  • Cleanse
  • Retinoid serum (three times a week)
  • Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% (optional)
  • 100% Organic Cold Pressed Rosehip Oil or 100% Plant Derived Squalane

Are you wondering why Niaciamide goes in the morning, Azelaic Acid is optional or what cleanser to use with this routine? Click on the image below to subscribe to my newsletter and receive The Ordinary Acne Skincare Routine Cheatsheet, where I explain why this routine works and give you recommendations for the missing products:

get the ordinary acne routine cheatsheet

This is the basic routine for acne. You can remove/add other stuff as your skin needs. For ex, if you’re using Tretinoin, ditch the azelaic acid in the morning and the retinoid serum at night. If you’ve found a moisturiser you love, you may not need an oil at all. You get the drill.

Have you tried The Ordinary anti-acne products? Share your experience in the comments below.

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Purvi December 5, 2019 - 4:09 pm

I just started using the ordinary products.
I have hormonal acne which comes and goes occasionally and leaves red bumps near my jaw line.
Just wanted to ask if its safe to use niacinamide/hyaluronic acid before I use an acne cream treatment on top like ducray

Gio December 20, 2019 - 4:04 pm

Purvi, yes you can use Niacinamide and hyaluronic acid with anything.

Etta January 18, 2020 - 5:47 pm

Hello! I consider myself quite a skeptic so I absolutely love how you back up every claim with science. I am about to order all these products you’ve recommended, but I do have a question. I have no idea what my skin type is, even after reading your article and cheat sheet about it. My skin feels dry, but i’ve consistently had acne all over for the past 3ish years (I’m 16). The pores on my cheeks, mostly the part under my eyes, and large and prone to whiteheads and sebaceous filaments. Every single pore on my nose has sebaceous filaments too. I get blackheads and whiteheads, allover, and mini pimples on my forehead too. I’m pretty pale, so the redness and inflamation is very noticeable. My skin doesn’t get oily, and even after stopping all skin care (even washing my face) I saw no change, besides my skin being a little less dry. Long story short, my skin doesn’t fit any of the categories! What would you classify my skin as> Thank you for all your help.

Gio February 8, 2020 - 7:28 pm

Etta, dry skin can have blackheads and acne, too. It usually happens when you’re using products that are too rich for your skin type or when they’re too drying and irritating (they can inflame skin and give you acne).

Lisa Holton January 21, 2020 - 10:09 am

Hi Gio,

It is such a relief to find someone who is able to explain things clearly as skincare for acne is a minefield of confusing conflicting information. About 6 months ago I stopped taking Yasmin contraceptive pill which I had been on for over 10 years and initially was put on it for spots (never bad acne but spots and a picking obsession lead to bad self-confidence and a pill prescription). In the last two months, my hormones (I assume) and hence my skin has gone crazy. Blackheads and sore spots on my back, whiteheads on my chest and cystic blind spots on my chin, whiteheads on my nose and cheeks and blackhead and whiteheads all over my forehead. I have never had forehead, cheek or deep blind spots before and I have no idea what to do. I have never been sure if my skin is dry, combination or oily and have spent my life using different products and spot creams. Since my skin has flared up I have read countless blogs and am so confused. I am currently double cleansing with an oil then water-based cleanser then applying the niacinamide and rosehip in the evening and then in the morning I have cleansing with the water-based cleanser then applying the niacinamide again then a moisturiser. I invested in an expensive suncream but feel that I get more spots every time I use it. My skin feels horrible and sore and the spots are not getting better at all. Basically I need help and not sure how to proceed and which products you would recommend using. Massive questions but I realise I need to start a regime and stick with it a while to see actual results and right now I am not sure what I am doing is beneficial at all. Thank you in advance!!!

Gio February 8, 2020 - 7:25 am

Hi Lisa, thank you for sharing your experience. Acne can be a minefield and really give your confidence a beating, but you can fight it and get your clear skin back.

The first thing to do is to figure out your skin type:

Then follow the skincare routine in this post. Start slowly and introduce a new product every 3 weeks. Start with salicylic acid as that’ll make the biggest difference. Unfortunately, the ordinary salicylic acid is currently out of stock, so either try The Inkey List or Paula’s Choice Liquid BHA in the meantime.

If you need more help in creating your skincare routine, you can book a consultation here:

Elizabeth Menlove January 29, 2020 - 12:08 am

Hello! The Ordinary is no longer making the salicylic acid formulation you mentioned here. Could you use the salicylic acid mask they make? How would that look in the routine you mentioned? Thanks so much, you’re a lifesaver!

Gio February 8, 2020 - 7:30 am

Elizabeth, The Ordinary Salicylic Acid should be back next month.

In the meantime, I recommend either Paula’s Choice Clear Regular Strength 2% BHA or FaceTheory BHA Exfoliating Serum.

Salicylic acid needs to stay on the skin for hours to work, so a mask isn’t a good substitute.

Charis February 16, 2020 - 2:19 pm

Hi gio, I have rlly sensitive but oily and acne prone skin, will the salicylic acid and the niaciminide irritate my skin?

Gio March 6, 2020 - 10:27 am

Charis, only your skin can answer this question. These two ingredients are very gentle, but with very sensitive skin, there’s no way to tell how you’ll react to something without trying it. Always do a patch test first.

srijana February 25, 2020 - 8:37 am

hey gio i have been using ordinary product since last year and i am love in it .As i am 26 years old now i want some aging routine for am and pm i hope u will make it easy also my skin is oily and acne prone with pores .
shall i go for retinoid 1% as i used 2%.

Gio March 6, 2020 - 10:21 am

Srijana, are you talking about granactive retinoid? You can use 2% of that, but if you want to switch to retinol, go for 0.2% and build up from there.

If you’d like help in creating your skincare routine, you can book your consultation here:

Srijana March 16, 2020 - 8:12 am

Gio I wanted to know that as my skin is oily acne prone but right now I have cleared acne problem now my skin is clear but the pores are visible Also So suggest me ordinary product for glowing skin

Please make me am and pm routine I will follow it

Srijana March 16, 2020 - 8:17 am

As my previous routine was


What should I add or remove for glowing skin

Coral Rankin February 28, 2020 - 3:31 am

What do you think about lactic acid? Could that be added to this suggested skin care regimen? Would that be safe? Thanks so much! 🙂

Gio March 6, 2020 - 11:53 am

Coral, no. Acne-prone skin only needs salicylic acid. All other exfoliants are useless and could lead to overexfoliation.

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