If you’re Googling how to remedy pesky bumps on your forehead, you may keep running into the term “subclinical acne.” It’s usually used to describe what dermatologists are more likely to call “comedonal acne.”
This type of bump is the first stage of a pimple, usually found on your face, often on the forehead. Not to be confused with deeper, cystic acne that can also hide underneath your skin, subclinical or comedonal acne is also usually skin-colored or red and not yet busting out in full zit form.
If you’re encountering this kind of skin woe, know you’re not alone. We totally believe you should embrace the skin you’re in, but sometimes there are easy solutions to making things just a bit smoother.
This kind of acne may be a sign that your skin isn’t exactly thrilled. Subclinical, aka “not detectable,” means that — while it might not look like a full-blown breakout and is less inflammatory — the cause is basically the same.
“Subclinical acne is superficial acne that is just below the skin,” says Michele Green, MD, of RealSelf. “Also known as comedonal acne, it’s caused by hormones, genetics, and clogged pores from dead skin, dirt, and bacteria.”
If these tiny bumps are causing you stress, it’s important to remember to treat the cause — whether that’s oily skin, a buildup of dead skin cells, hormones, or something else entirely — instead of seeking a temporary solution.
“Think of acne as a field of dandelions: You can get rid of the ones you see, but you’ll soon be dealing with new growth — a kind of whack-a-mole carnival game put on by Mother Nature,” says David Lortscher, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and CEO of Curology.
“So in thinking about treating acne, we want to prevent new blemishes, not chase the old ones around.”
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to banish the bumps.
It can be confusing
Wait, is “subclinical acne” not even a word? Not really. Comedonal acne is the more common term and what you’ll likely hear from your dermatologist, if you’re using one. A rose by any other name… whatever, at least it’s fixable!
According to Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, medical director of Mudgil Dermatology, the best way to treat and prevent subclinical acne is to go back to basics.
“A good hygiene regimen is key,” Mudgil says. He believes in washing your face twice daily with a very gentle cleanser as well as only using products — sunscreen, makeup, moisturizers — that are labeled as “non-comedogenic.”
The makeup or skin care products you’re wearing could be contributing to your subclinical acne as well, so keep your skin sans-product (although never without high SPF sunscreen, obviously) as much as possible.
Mudgil recommends using prescription retinoid creams (as long as you’re not pregnant or nursing), as well as products containing benzoyl peroxide to treat and prevent blocked pores.
Prescription BHAs and retinoids
“At-home treatment for the earliest of clogged pores may include salicylic acid or a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which can provide exfoliation while also helping to prevent and treat blocked pores,” Lortscher says.
“The best treatment for comedones, whether or not they’re visible, is a retinoid. Tretinoin, a prescription retinoid, is the active ingredient in acne topicals such as Retin-A. These decrease the formation of microcomedones (or early blocked pores) by normalizing the life cycle of the cells that line the pore opening.”
Basically, less dead skin cells blocking your pores will lead to less buildup, which means less subclinical acne and clearer skin overall. Lortscher explains that tretinoin also has anti-inflammatory properties, which means it’s great for treating all kinds of acne.
Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments
However, not everyone has access to prescription medication, and — if you want to clear your skin naturally or avoid any potential side effects from stronger products — there are still options for you.
OTC products containing BHAs, salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, niacinimide, and azelaic acid are available. One popular choice in retinoids is adapalene 0.1 percent gel that’s available at the drugstore. Common brands are Differin and La Roche-Posay.
Just make sure not to overdo it and dry out your skin too much. Even oily and acne-prone skin needs a moisturizer (and can start producing more oil if drying out). Just stick to a lighter or gel-based version.
Quick tips for a smooth face
- Stay hydrated with plenty of water.
- Choose foods that don’t make your acne worse (dairy and sugar are potential culprits).
- Use a gentle cleanser to reduce excess oil (be gentle, no wild scrubbing!).
- Use a treatment containing an acne-fighting ingredient like a retoinoid, BHA, or salicylic acid.
- Don’t forget to moisturize to prevent your skin from overcompensating for losing oil.
- Avoid touching or picking at your face (we know, it’s hard!).
- Manage your stress.
- Wash your pillowcases, face masks, makeup tools, and anything that touches your face often.
- Give it time — products and lifestyle changes can take 4 weeks or more to start working. Patience, padawan.
Remember, when it comes to getting rid of comedonal, or subclinical acne, it’s important to treat your skin right.
Don’t just wait for bumps to pop up before you start washing your face — keep your skin happy and healthy year-round so it can love you back.
Jandra Sutton is an author, historian, and public speaker. She lives in Nashville with her husband and their two dogs, and Pluto is still a planet in her heart. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.