I know, I know, I’m not supposed to pop or pick acne at home, but it’s so damn tempting. Plus, the light in my bathroom is perfect for illuminating every spot on my face. But while there are a lot of amazing things about being able to do whatever the hell you want at home, diagnosing your acne may not be one of them.
Because not only is all skin different, but there are different types of acne (whiteheads, cystic, etc.) that need to each be treated in specific ways.
Sure it might be easy to find someone’s tutorial on glass skin (it’s a thing) and follow their 10-step routine, but results will vary — and we’re not sure we want to take that risk.
Below, I spoke with four licensed estheticians about the mistakes to avoid when treating your own acne. You might be just as surprised as I was to learn what these common mistakes are.
Dana Murray, a licensed esthetician with over 15 years of experience, tells me that one of the main problems she sees with clients, who try to treat their acne at home, is actually using too many products.
“This can lead to overprocessing and irritating the skin. Acne is an inflammatory skin condition so adding irritation to an already inflamed situation will only make it worse,” she says.
The panic to use all the products, or too many at once, is real. But Murray cautions that it’s better to invest in two or three quality products rather than every new product, or even too many solo ingredient products. (Cue: shelf full of The Ordinary.) Permission to save money? Yes, please.
Licensed esthetician and popular skin care Youtuber, Nayamka Roberts-Smith, adds that for best results, you should introduce one ingredient at a time.
“You also have to [treat skin care] like a scientific experiment and have controls. You can’t be switching around your routine every day and expect a product to work the way it’s supposed to,” she says. “Keep it simple while testing something new.”
There are a lot of things that could disappear overnight ⁠— the contents of my checking account, full bottles of conditioner ⁠— but acne probably isn’t one of them. Your skin needs time to adjust to a new product.
At least 28 days, according to Murray, which is the natural skin cycle. This cycle can change as you age, with 28–35 days for someone in their 30’s and 30–42 days for someone in their 40’s.
Giving time for a product to work is especially true of something that’s concentrated, like a serum or active toner, adds Ashley White, licensed esthetician. Certain certified anti-acne ingredients, including prescription strength Tretinoin (Retin-A), can take a full 6–8 weeks to see results.
PS: Every expert I spoke with stressed the importance of discontinuing the use of a product immediately following signs of an allergic reaction which may include burning, stinging, or excessive redness.
While certain over-the-counter (OTC) products can definitely help improve the appearance of acne, if you aren’t able to find the root cause (stress, hormones, dietary changes, environmental causes) then it’s likely the acne will resurface, even if you manage to clear it for a bit. Once it’s triggered or comes in contact with its root cause, the flare-ups will happen again.
Though it can be hard to discern what type of acne you have, you can start to notice what it looks like, where it is on your face, and if your breakouts follow any pattern, like occurring at the same time each month.
I’m guilty of popping sometimes. Even though we all know that we should avoid doing it, let’s repeat why: Improper and unsanitary techniques will lead to more acne.
It’s not just about the scarring, which some of us can live with, it’s about continuous infection. According to Murray, popping can actually push your acne inward and cause an infection.
When you get the urge to pop a pimple, Robers-Smith suggests reaching for a spot treatment instead. BTW, a spot treatment doesn’t have to say “spot treatment” on the label. Use a Q-tip to directly apply face acids over your acne instead of your whole face. Viola. Spot treatment.
Speaking of face acids, aim for the “less is more” approach. Your natural inclination may be to cleanse as much as possible, but cleansing skin more than twice per day can cause additional inflammation or dry the skin out. This causes skin to produce more oil, thereby exacerbating acne.
Roberts-Smith says, “People always want to strip all the oils, and blast breakouts with harsh actives. The skin likes gentle, gradual changes.”
White agrees that it’s best to stay away from scrubs and brushes. “[Abrasion] can irritate and inflame acne pretty badly.” She also adds (of the kind diluted in alcohol), “I would let go of witch hazel as well. While it is safe to use on skin, regular use will dry out your skin and cause irritation.”
Reminder: Acne-prone skin is not “dirty.” It doesn’t need to be excessively cleansed. It wants to be balanced and supported.
It’s a common misconception that only oily skin breaks out, or that having breakouts means you have oily skin. But any skin type can be affected by acne.
“[Treating] oily skin with acne would be very different than treating sensitive dry skin with acne,” Murray warns. Many acne products focus on drying, so people who have dry and sensitive skin types may actually want to avoid products marketed as anti-acne as they tend to have alcohol.
Instead, dry skin types should focus on hydration to offer their skin more support.
It can seem counterintuitive to pile a greasy feeling sunscreen on top of acne. Fortunately, sunscreen has come a long way, and there are oil-free and mineral options that are safe to use on acne-prone skin.
“When you skip SPF, it doesn’t matter how great your products are or how expensive the treatments you’re receiving are,” Curtis says.
“When you’re in the sun without SPF your collagen breaks down and your skin goes into survival mode which causes a number of different issues but the main one being inflammation and hyperpigmentation.”
If you’ve followed these tips down to the freckle — and haven’t tried new products — it might be time to consult an expert.
Not convinced? Well, click here to read why these aestheticians believe an appointment with an expert can speed up your results. We know it sounds like $$$, but months of trial and error might rack up the same costs.
Grace Gallagher is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. All of her work can be found at www.gracelgallagher.com.