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.

Like that weren’t bad enough, 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:

​If you’ve experienced breakouts by using The Ordinary skincare then you need to enrol in Extraordinary Skin With The Ordinary and get started on module 3 now. It’s created by my scientist friend Cheryl Woodman – click here to check it out now.

Extraordinary Skin With The Ordinary---How to Get Makeupless Skin You Love

The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution (£4.20)

The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution is currently out of stock for reformulation. Check out this link for alternatives in the meantime.

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: This solution is 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 your 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 use it 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

the ordinary retinol 1

The Ordinary 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 to every other day. If you’re using salicylic acid at night, alternate it with retinoids.

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? 

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% (£5.00)

Niacinamide is the new skincare superhero on the block. 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 will be too drying for you.

Available at: Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique

Related: How To Fade Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

The Ordinary 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?

The Ordinary 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? Subscribe to my newsletter below and receive The Ordinary Acne Skincare Routine Cheatsheet, where I explain why this routine works and give you recommendations for the missing products:

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.