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What's Going On: If it's big, red, and painful, you're probably experiencing cystic acne, one of the more severe types. "Cystic pimples are caused by genetics and hormonal stimulation of oil glands," says Zeichner. Not only are they large, but they're also notoriously tough to treat. They often recur in the same place, because even if you manage to get rid of one, it can keep filling up with oil again and again, like an immortal pimple.
What it is: Originally under the brand name "Accutane" but now available only in generic form, isotretinoin is a derivative of vitamin A taken in pill form for 15-20 weeks. Doctors normally prescribe it for people with "severe nodular acne" that does not respond to other treatments. Nodules are inflammatory lesions with a diameter of 5mm or more. A single course of 15-20 weeks has been shown to result in complete clearing and long-term remission of acne in many people.1-2 Learn more on the Accutane page of acne.org.
Considerations: Benzoyl peroxide is able to produce complete clearing of acne only when used in an adequate dosage and within a properly applied benzoyl peroxide regimen. Some dryness, redness, and itchiness is to be expected in the first few weeks of use.6 Scientists call this initial period the "hardening effect" of benzoyl peroxide. About 1-3% of people are allergic to benzoyl peroxide and experience an inflammation of the skin or severe crusting.3This should not be confused with the "hardening effect" of benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide, like any other peroxide, can bleach hair and fabric.1
This AHA 10% Skin Perfecting Cleanser is an incredible combination of Glycolic Acid and natural ingredients like rosehip oil, chamomile, seaweed extract, grapefruit seed oil and more. It doesn’t just tackle blackheads, whiteheads, and blemishes, but also smoothes out fine lines and wrinkles. If you want a high-quality product, with real and lasting results, Misumi has got you covered.
What it is: You may have heard of tretinoin in reference to "Retin-A" wrinkle treatments. Tretinoin is retinoic acid and vitamin A acid combined, and comes in various strengths in creams, gels, and liquids for topical use on the skin. It is used to treat acne and also to treat sun damaged skin or wrinkles and is usually applied once per day.1Learn more from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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Ideally, you want to find an acne face wash and care system that utilizes a number of these ingredients, for best results. It can be a full system by a single brand, like Exposed Skin Care, or it can be a combination of products that you’ve tried and tested for yourself. The important thing to take away here is that there are several ways to treat your acne and knowing what each ingredient does will help you tailor the perfect solution for you.
Antibiotics for acne, both topical and oral, used to be the top prescriptions for getting clear skin, but research has revealed that they aren’t the best option for most people today due to something called antibacterial resistance. This is where bacteria mutate, become immune to certain antibiotics, then reproduce offspring that are also immune, creating entire colonies of bacteria that can’t be killed by certain antibiotics.
Conversely, not using any facewash on your skin leaves you with the build-up of dead skin cells, dirt, grime and excess oils. While many others swear by using the simple combination of warm water and a facial cloth for their skincare routine, warm water isn’t always enough to penetrate your oil-clogged pores that have dirt and bacteria trapped inside. If you think you might disagree, imagine rinsing an oily, used frying pan with just warm water. Without a proper cleanser, you can’t cut into the grease buildup or eliminate harmful bacteria. The same applies for your skin.
Dapsone is a topical gel medicine sold under the brand name Aczone for treating severe acne, and it’s perfect for people who want a low-maintenance acne treatment plan. Unlike many of the best acne medications, dapsone only needs to be applied once daily, and it is the only medications most people will need, though it’s always good to include a face wash and moisturizer in your skin care routine if possible. Dapsone can function on its own because it is both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory10, effectively taking care of two of the biggest causes of acne.

Dapsone is a topical gel medicine sold under the brand name Aczone for treating severe acne, and it’s perfect for people who want a low-maintenance acne treatment plan. Unlike many of the best acne medications, dapsone only needs to be applied once daily, and it is the only medications most people will need, though it’s always good to include a face wash and moisturizer in your skin care routine if possible. Dapsone can function on its own because it is both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory10, effectively taking care of two of the biggest causes of acne.
Acne is caused when the sebaceous glands in your skin get infected or inflamed. Blemishes and pimples are most commonly found on your face, chest and back. You have a system of oil glands under your skin, and this is where sebum is produced. Sebum is supposed to keep your skin healthily moisturized, but too much production of this oil can cause blackheads and whiteheads. When the oil is pushed out through your hair follicles, it can clog your pores if it attaches to bacteria or dead skin cells. If this happens, sebum will build up behind the plug and form a pimple. And we all know what that is.
Spironolactone has relatively minor side effects, like low appetite, weakness, or cramping, but there’s one major exception: spironolactone comes with a black box warning about its cancer-causing effects. The FDA is required to include this label based on a study conducted in the 1950s that found carcinogenic properties in the spironolactone given to rats in an experiment. However, the dose of spironolactone used in this study was nearly 500 times higher than the dose currently prescribed, and no studies since have found anything carcinogenic about spironolactone. Because of this, most dermatologists feel comfortable prescribing spironolactone for acne. Still, it’s something to be aware of before you take it. Additionally, those with low blood pressure or kidney conditions are likely not good candidates for spironolactone and may want to explore other acne treatment options.
Alpha hydroxy acids. Two types of alpha hydroxy acids that are used in nonprescription acne products are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Alpha hydroxy acids are synthetic versions of acids derived from sugar-containing fruits. They treat acne by helping to remove dead skin cells and reduce inflammation. Alpha hydroxy acids also stimulate the growth of new, smoother skin. This helps improve the appearance of acne scars and gives the impression of smaller pores.
The dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross did a major study on water and its effect on skin and he found that the heavy metals in tap water can actually ruin the benefits expensive lotions and serums do for skin. Some cities (New York and L.A., for example) have worse water than others (Seattle, for example). While some dermatologists aren't buying his claims, (Patricia Wexler for one), you can fight the drying effects of water on skin by cleansing with cold cream, a practice common with European women.
First, let’s talk about what causes acne. Pimples form when the oil and dead skin cells on your skin combine to form a plug that blocks the pores. “As the P. acnes bacteria that naturally live on skin overgrow within this plugged follicle, the area becomes inflamed and this is when you start to see papules, pustules, and cystic lesions,” RealSelf dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D., tells SELF. The treatments ahead work to exfoliate away dead skin cells, suck up excess oil, stop inflammation, and kill the P. acnes bacteria. There are even a few treatments that target hormonal acne specifically.
Although combined oral contraceptives are a more popular treatment with women, men can use them as well, as they may also experience hormonal fluctuations. The only downside is that birth control pills tend to produce feminizing features in the person taking them, such as reduced hair growth or enlarged breast tissue. To get a prescription for a combined oral contraceptive, you can talk to your family doctor, a dermatologist, or an OB/GYN, or visit your local Planned Parenthood.

Benzoyl Peroxide – A strong compound that kills the bacteria that causes acne1. It also gets rid of excess oil and the build-up of dead skin cells which clog your pores. This ingredient is exceptionally strong, and it can cause some side effects like redness, dry skin, burning or stinging and scaling. You’ll only find it in products at 2.5% to 10% strength. However, dermatologists recommend that adults stick to a low-dose of benzoyl peroxide, at around 3% for minimal irritation and to avoid bleaching your skin, hair or clothing.
According to Dr. Bailey, it’s not enough to have a facial cleanser designed for acne-prone skin. Half the battle is properly washing your face. Here’s what she recommends: “First, wet your face with warm water, then lather your cleanser over all of your facial skin. Depending on your skin type, you can use your fingers, an exfoliating cloth or a sonic skin-cleansing brush system. Rinse well with warm water to remove the lather entirely. Some of the important acne cleanser ingredients will stay behind, but the cleanser’s foaming agents, as well as built-up oil, dead cells, products and bacteria, will be rinsed off of your skin.”
“I use it approximately three nights a week either layered over my moisturizer or directly after cleansing. It has reduced my overall breakouts, decreased the time it takes for my breakouts to heal, and helped overall to even my skin tone and minimize pore appearance. I also think it has made my skin slightly less oily, as long as I moisturize properly. I do not use any chemical exfoliation currently, but use a konjac sponge occasionally to help with any dead skin or texture. I have not experienced any excessive dryness or flaking, and also did not ever purge. It is my HG for my acne and I plan on repurchasing until the end of time.”
Retinol: Retinol is simply another word for vitamin A, sort of like how we call vitamin B7 “biotin.” It’s important that our bodies get systemic vitamin A through our diet for good vision, a strong immune system, and general organ function, but some research suggests that vitamin A could have a positive impact on the skin when applied to it directly. The problem is, regular retinol doesn’t actually do much for acne. That’s because the retinoic acid found in retinol isn’t always activated when left to its own devices. We typically have to activate the retinoic acid synthetically through the creation of various medications.

If you notice that you’re breaking out right around your period every month, your acne might be linked to hormones. “A sensitivity to the hormones called androgens manifests in the form of cystic acne,” says Linkner. Androgens, namely testosterone, cause the skin to produce more sebum. More sebum equals more acne. Birth control, which has estrogen and progestin, helps keep hormones balanced and skin clear. Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Estrostep, and YAZ are all FDA-approved as acne treatments.
Commercial sunscreens are packed with harmful chemicals that can irritate sensitive skin and acne-prone skin. Research shows that coconut oil has an SPF value of 8, as does olive oil. (14) To use as sun protection, apply a moderate amount to exposed skin every couple of hours and try to avoid spending too much time in direct sunlight during “peak” hours, which is about from 10am-3pm each day.
Tea Tree Oil – Another anti-bacterial ingredient that is common in over-the-counter treatments, tea tree oil combats acne-causing bacteria. While the FDA hasn’t officially approved it for acne treatment, some dermatologists say it’s almost as effective as benzoyl peroxide for clearing skin, although it doesn’t work quite as fast. It can be used for spot treatment as well.
Genetics play a big part in who gets acne and how severely, but each blemish can be blamed on some combination of sebum production, a bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), plugged follicles, and inflammation. Finding a good treatment is really about finding the right combination of ingredients to troubleshoot each of those issues. Some factors that might worsen acne include hormones, certain medications, diet and stress.
While you can certainly benefit from a great skin-care regimen, "in cystic acne, usually you need internal treatment," he says. "Topical medications usually don't work. Accutane is a great miracle cure for really bad cystic acne, but most people with cystic acne will improve with oral antibiotics — sometimes for two weeks, sometimes for three weeks."
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