Ah, acne. Some struggle with it more than others, but it’s safe to say that those who’ve never experienced it are in the minority. About 85 percent of people between ages 12 and 24 will get some type of acne, so if some pimples are pestering you right now, you’re def not alone.
Before you start going at those babies like you’re “Dr. Pimple Popper,” listen up. If you’re one of the many with acne-prone skin — which is a state that can come and go throughout life due to genetics and hormonal changes (adult acne, anyone?) — there are steps you can take to keep your skin as healthy and breakout-free as possible.
Here’s what to know, how to find the right products, and how to create a routine to pamper your skin.
Before you can treat your acne-prone skin, you need to understand your acne. In simplest terms, there are two basic types:
Noninflammatory (acne that results from clogged pores e.g. blackheads or whiteheads) or inflammatory (as the name implies, inflamed, red acne ranging from
papules and pustules to the more severe nodules and cysts.
It’s also helpful to know how oily or dry your skin is, since oily skin is a common contributor to acne. Dana Murray, a licensed esthetician, advises that: “Acne is a skin condition that any skin type may experience, so how a person with dry skin would treat their acne would be different than how someone with very oily skin would.”
Get to know your skin — and specific type of acne — so you can determine the best acne treatment for your skin type.
OK, now that you know your skin, here are the rules of acne fight club…
Cleanse, don’t overcleanse
Wash but don’t over wash. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends only twice a day (morning and evening). Overwashing can irritate already irritated skin, so maybe after a hardcore workout when you want to get rid of the sweat, keep it to a minimum.
Be gentle with your skin and treat it with the TLC it deserves. Don’t try to scrub the acne away — it won’t work and, in fact, may make things worse.
It’s hard, but hands off!
You’ve heard it before: Resist, resist, resist the urge to poke, pick, and pop! When you have a monster zit on your chin, it might take all of your willpower to keep your hands off it. Try really, really hard not to touch. And if you *must* mess with it, always make sure your hands are freshly washed.
Even though popping your pimples can lend some immediate relief, according to researchers, it can force the pus even deeper into your skin and worsen the inflammation. It won’t always cause scarring, but it can.
Instead, consider heading to a dermatologist’s office to have a pro extract it in a hygienic way. If you really can’t help but DIY, be sure to prep the area with warm water or steam beforehand and sanitize your hands and any tools.
Clean that COVID-19 mask, pillowcase, and phone screen
Think about everything that might touch your face on a daily basis: your face mask, pillowcase, phone, makeup brush, washcloths, etc. — plus maybe your hands, when you accidentally cave and touch your face. 🤦♀️ Altogether, it adds up to a *lot* of bacteria and oils that can exacerbate your acne or cause it in the first place.
To prevent your pores from clogging up, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends changing your sheets weekly and your pillowcase 2 to 3 times a week.
Ideally, you should cleanse your makeup tools every day. But if that sounds hard (we feel you), make time to do it at least once a week.
Be sure to wash your face mask after each wear (bye, COVID-19) and wipe down your phone with an antibacterial spray once or twice a day.
Acne’s definitely not fun but surprisingly, taking care of it can be! (Cue 13-year-old us pretending we were in a Clean & Clear commercial.) If you’re not sure where to begin with your blemish-prone skin, here’s what to do.
Keep yo’ face clean with products that won’t clog your pores
Feel free to side-eye anyone who tries to say “just wash your face more” when you have acne. First of all, being a little zitty doesn’t mean your face isn’t clean, full-stop. Secondly, washing your face too much can actually make the sitch worse.
But by being extra diligent about washing morning, night (even when you’re really tired), and any time after you get sweaty, you may be able to help curb breakouts.
It’s also important to use a cleanser that won’t further irritate your acne or clog your pores. Look for noncomedogenic products. According to research from 2013, soap-free cleansing products that match the pH of skin (5.5) are best for people with acne.
Superstar ingredients for acne-prone skin
Don’t worry, we got you. Here are the best acne-fighting ingredients on the market and what they can do for you:
- alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): remove dead skin cells, help keep pores unclogged
- beta hydroxy acids (BHAs): reduce oil and inflammation, may reduce acne
- benzoyl peroxide: kills acne-causing bacteria, unclogs pores (especially good for inflammatory acne)
- vitamin C: helps manage inflammation, evens skin tone
- niacinamide: regulates oil production, reduces inflammation and redness of acne
- retinoids: master exfoliators that play a significant role in treatment of comedonal (clogged pore) acne by getting rid of dead cell buildup (they can also treat hyperpigmentation and improve skin texture)
- salicylic acid: helps clear clogged pores and lessen inflammation (a good choice for blackheads and whiteheads)
- sulfur: can treat whiteheads and blackheads (and yes, it does really smell like rotten eggs)
- tea tree and rosemary oil: has antibacterial properties that may help treat acne
- zinc: can soothe inflammatory acne and suppress sebum production
Since your skin’s totally unique, it might take a little experimenting to find your go-to products, but the right selections can make a huge difference. Also, it helps to know which order to apply them in.
Swap out your hair products for ones that keeps zits at bay
OK, this one’s tough, but worth it. Even if that hairspray is giving you a Becky-with-the-good-hair blowout, it could also be the cause of your pimples. Instead of strong fixative sprays, opt for a more natural, oil-free variety. If you’re an avid dry shampoo user, consider swapping to a powder.
And we’re not picking on hairspray here. Shampoos, conditioners, and styling products can cause breakouts, especially in your forehead area.
Once again, try to avoid products that contain oils. And if you have hair that’s abundant with natural oils (hello, glossy locks!), you may want to try keeping your hair off your face at nighttime (hello, bedtime braids!).
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), you should only use hair (and skin) products that describe themselves as:
- won’t clog pores
Experts advise that it may take 4 to 6 weeks after you stop using acne-causing products to reap results.
- Zinc. Preliminary research from 2018 suggests that taking zinc orally may also help treat acne. (You can also find zinc in lean meat, eggs, seafood, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, etc.)
- Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. In a small 2014 placebo-controlled study, those who took these supplements experienced a significant reduction in acne lesions after 10 weeks, researchers said. (You can also get these acids from nuts, seeds, plant oils, and fish.)
- Vitamin E. Research from 2014 found a correlation between low levels of vitamin E in the body and acne prevalence. That doesn’t mean that vitamin E deficiency causes acne, but it may be related. (You can also load up on vitamin E by eating nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.)
- Probiotics. A study from 2014 found that taking probiotics may help combat acne. (Probiotics are also found in foods and drinks like kombucha, kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, and other fermented goodies.)
Before adding a new vitamin or supplement to your regimen, always talk with your doc.
Even though your mom tried to tell you all those potato chips were causing your zits, for decades, scientists believed there was no link between acne and diet. These days, researchers are like: Nvm! We’re not so sure.
According to a 2014 review of several studies, eating healthier does seem to affect acne. In particular, scientists found that dairy and a high fat, high carb, Western diet to be associated with acne symptoms. So, maybe mom was right? Typical.
That doesn’t mean you have to kiss your burger and fries goodbye for good, but introducing more nutritious foods into your diet may help ease symptoms.
Water up. Keeping skin hydrated may help combat the excess oil that leads to acne. However, there’s limited research to back this up. Still, there’s no harm in sticking to the 8×8 rule (drinking eight 8-ounce glasses a day).
Research shows that drinking enough H2O can boost wound healing and increase absorption of topical acne treatments. The jury’s still out on whether sipping on some of the clear stuff can directly clear up acne, but staying hydrated def can’t hurt.
If nothing else, you’ll feel healthier and your skin may look more radiant. (*Suddenly remembers to drink water.*)
If you’ve never gotten an unwelcome pimple during an already stressful week, who even are you? Scientific research supports the link between stress and acne, so if nothing else, take time out of your week for a little R&R.
Do some yoga, meditate, chat with your therapist, take a bath, eat some stress-relieving foods, write in your journal, pet your dog — whatever it is that makes you feel at peace. Feel like you have *zero* time? Hey, even taking a few deep breaths may help you decompress.
Now that you have all the deets, where do you begin with a routine? Start simple, see how your skin reacts, and up your game if needed.
- alcohol-free toner
- oil-free moisturizer
- noncomedogenic makeup (optional)
- gentle makeup remover
- spot treatment
- Exfoliant. Use once a week (stick with chemical, not granular products which can irritate).
- Face mask. One to two times a week, slather on a sulfur or mud-based mask.
If and when you feel you need to take it beyond the DIY stage, there are professional options, from in-office treatments to prescription medications (topical and oral).
- prescription topical antibiotics
- a short course of oral antibiotics
- topical retinoids
- lasers and chemical peels
Some people are more prone to acne due to hormones or genetic factors. If that’s you, there are steps you can take to prevent and treat it, including using acne treatments and cleansers, taking certain vitamins, eating a healthy diet, and combating stress.
To identify your acne triggers and find the right treatments for you, consider chatting with a dermatologist.