Acne products can be irritating, so many women find that a gentle drugstore face cleanser like this one from CeraVe keeps their skin in better balance. The foaming formula is more suitable for normal to oily skin types compared to creamier versions. Plus, it is formulated with hydrating ceramides and hyaluronic acid, so your skin won’t feel stripped at all.
You’ve probably heard of the benefits of retinoid creams for anti-aging, but vitamin A is also efficient at clearing up acne. “[Retinoids] cause skin cells to turn over at a faster rate, decrease oil production, and help skin exfoliate,” board-certified dermatologist Rita Linkner, M.D., tells SELF. Another benefit: Acne is inflammation, and retinoids are anti-inflammatory.
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.
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.
Azelaic acid is a natural acid that is derived from various grains like wheat and barley. It helps reduce acne by preventing skin cell buildup, killing p. acnes bacteria, and reducing inflammation4. This means it can help reduce all kinds of acne, from blackheads to pimples. Blackheads and whiteheads form when dead skin cells combine with sebum, the oil our skin naturally produces and get clogged in a pore. To get rid of this kind of acne, it helps to regulate your skin cell production and exfoliate your skin to remove excess dead skin cells. Azelaic acid is a great way to do both of these things, while also decreasing inflammation and killing bacteria. When the skin is inflamed, it swells slightly, causing the pores to constrict. This traps dead skin cells and sebum inside, leading to blackheads and whiteheads, and if bacteria get trapped as well, then pimples can also form.
Cinnamon and Honey Mask: Mix two tablespoons of raw honey, one teaspoon of coconut oil and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon. Smooth over face. Keep away from eyes, as the cinnamon can be an irritant. Relax for 5–10 minutes and gently remove with damp cloth. Honey and cinnamon used together helps to fight acne because of its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial properties.
Protect your skin. Skin care doesn't end when you leave your bathroom. Wear a noncomedogenic (non-pore clogging) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more that offers both UVA and UVB protection to shield your sensitive skin against the sun's harsh rays. A water- or light liquid-based sunscreen is best for acne-prone skin. Limit your time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. While outside, wear a hat with at least a 2-inch brim and clothing to cover exposed skin.
Acne is caused by what you eat. SOMEWHAT FALSE. This isn’t a complete lie, but studies are still being done. To date, there have only been small studies done on a few people that have shown a possible connection between acne and high carbohydrate foods like bread, pastries and sodas. There are also studies involving more people, but they relied on adults remembering their acne and eating habits when they were in high school. There just isn’t enough evidence to link any food with breakouts. Some people swear that certain foods make their acne worse. The best way to determine if a food is causing your pimples to appear is by keeping a food/skin diary. Keep track of everything you eat and assess your skin condition in the morning and evening of each day. If you find a pattern, it can’t hurt to avoid the foods that lead to more blackheads and whiteheads. Keep in mind that eating a balanced diet is always a good idea.
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.
While a few people suffer from acne that is so severe it requires a medical prescription from a doctor, most people with mild to medium acne problems can find decent over-the-counter treatments that really work. The first key to getting your acne cleanser right is to know what active ingredients combat your acne, and then finding an acne treatment that contains it. Here are a few of the ingredients you want to look for:
This spot treatment is packed with 2 percent salicylic acid to reduce redness and help clear gunk from pores. While derms recommend it to their patients, also know that is has more than 1,000 reviews on Amazon with a 4-star rating, mainly because it gets the job done across combination skin types. (This product also made BestProducts.com's list of the 10 best acne treatments.)
Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial ingredient, and it’s very effective at killing the P. acnes bacteria that causes breakouts. But benzoyl isn’t without its downsides. The leave-on creams and cleansing treatments can dry out sensitive skin types and bleach clothing if you aren’t careful. Board-certified dermatologist Eric Meinhardt, M.D., previously told SELF that it's best to stick to formulations that have no more than 2 percent of benzoyl peroxide listed on the active ingredients chart; stronger concentrations are harder on your skin without being any tougher on bacteria.
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.
A 2013 study on acne vulgaris in The Nurse Practitioner concurred that a multidimensional approach to acne is usually necessary because most people have a combination of symptoms. Based on the advice of dermatologists and aestheticians, we turned our focus to regimen sets, analyzing the ingredients of more than 40 kits before finding our top picks.
“You unfortunately cannot determine the strength of a product strictly by the percentage of its active ingredients because how well a product works depends on how well its inactive ingredients help it penetrate the skin,” explains Dr. Green. “In other words, a 2 percent benzoyl peroxide may be more effective than another brand’s 5 percent benzoyl peroxide because there are other ingredients helping out.”
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.
We suggest avoiding spot treatments. “Benzoyl peroxide, when placed on red spots, can actually cause more irritation and inflammation to the area. It’s best used to prevent red bumps and pustules, and applied all over the area you want to treat,” said Townsend, who was also quick to naysay a spot-treat-only approach: “Acne affects all of the pores. If someone is going to spot treat against my advice, I still suggest they spot treat one day and treat the whole face the next.”
Alpha-Hydroxy Acids – These are synthetic acids derived from sugary fruits that remove dead skin cells3 while reducing inflammation. The two common types that can be found in over-the-counter acne treatments are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Another benefit of these acids is that they improve the appearance of your acne scars and make your pores look smaller by stimulating the growth of new, healthy skin.
“So I read somewhere about using calamine to dry out and get rid of zits and I decided to try it out last night. I had three super-prominent pimples (one already popped a few days ago, the other two still forming), and I used a cotton ball to dab calamine from a bottle I've owned for over a decade onto the affected area. I left it on overnight, and in the morning, the already popped pimple was a quarter its previous side and the other two were completely gone! I don't think my skin has ever had such a quick response to anything before. The one drawback was that it really dries out the area, so you need to especially moisturize those spots in the morning.”
Considerations: Despite the frequent referencing of an initial flare of acne when starting is tretinoin, there is no scientific evidence to back this up. You should not expect an initial worsening of acne.3-4 Exposure to sunlight should be minimized as you may be more sensitive to its rays. Ask your doctor before using other medication on the skin, especially anything containing sulfur, resorcinol, or salicylic acid, as the combination may be too irritating. Abrasive soaps and cleansers should be used with caution for the same reason. Side effects can include skin irritation, swelling, lightening or darkening of the skin, an increase in acne sores, excessive redness, and crusted or blistered skin.
Meanwhile, salicylic acid, which is derived from willow tree bark, wintergreen oil or sweet birch and occurs naturally in fruits like raspberries, cantaloupe and granny smith apples, works well for most skin types. Aside from being an exfoliant that sloughs away dead skin cells and other pore-clogging impurities, it has anti-inflammatory properties that help to address inflammation, which is thought to be the primary cause of acne.
Benzoyl peroxide attacks the P. acnes bacteria. However, one of its main side effects is dryness: If you’re going to use anything with benzoyl peroxide, make sure to moisturize afterwards. Sulfur and azelaic acid are less common and less severe alternatives to benzoyl peroxide. Dr. Peter Lio, assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University, says sulfur-based treatments are “a good fit for patients who can’t tolerate the side effects of benzoyl peroxide.”