If a pore is open, it’s called a blackhead or “open comedo”. Because of the opening, contact with the air oxidizes the dead skin cells inside the pore. The air contact turns the melanin inside them darker in color, similar to the way a peeled banana left exposed to the air will darken. This is how the blackhead forms. The color of a blackhead is not because of dirt. It’s a mixture of air and the skin pigment called melanin.

Genetics can also affect how your immune system works. When confronted with bacteria, your skin might erupt in painful red lumps called pustules while someone else might just get a blackhead. Or maybe your friend has sensitive skin that breaks out more often than yours does. Your family history has a lot to do with the type of skin you have and how it looks and feels.
Once believed to strike most often during teen years, acne is now affecting millions of adult women, many of which never had a problem with acne in the past. Some women (and men too) will only deal with acne during puberty and their teenage years, but others will suffer well into adulthood, especially during times of stress and hormonal changes. While acne among adult women is usually linked to hormonal shifts and imbalances that occur during the menstrual cycle, or when transitioning into menopause, it’s important to consider elevated stress levels, a lack of sleep and a poor diet might also be root causes.

Salicylic Acid – One of the most common topical ingredients you can find over-the-counter, salicylic acid is generally used to reduce the appearance of acne, by reducing swelling and redness. Also known as a beta-hydroxy acid, it exfoliates your skin4 and unclogs your pores, too, but it is quite strong. You’ll only be able to find this in strengths around 2%, but it can still dry and irritate your skin, especially if yours is sensitive. The safest way to use this ingredient is according to the directions!
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:
Active Ingredients Check the product label for key active ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, advises dermatologist Sandy Skotnicki, MD, founder of Toronto's Bay Dermatology Centre and author of the skincare book Beyond Soap. Other ingredients to look for include oils that can help to moisturize skin — just make sure the package says non-comedogenic, which means that it won’t clog pores.
The other downside to Proactiv+ is that the bottles are small — like, half the size of Paula’s Choice small. Combine that with its recommended two or three-times daily application, and you’re going to be going through a lot of kits, which ultimately means spending more money on your treatment. If Proactiv is the only thing that works for you, it may very well be worth the investment, but we recommend starting with Paula’s Choice to see if you can get the same results at a cheaper price.
If you have acne that's not responding to self-care and over-the-counter treatments, make an appointment with your doctor. Early, effective treatment of acne reduces the risk of scarring and of lasting damage to your self-esteem. After an initial examination, your doctor may refer you to a specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of skin conditions (dermatologist).
However, salicylic acid isn’t just for those of us with sensitive skin. It can also help those of you with tougher skin, through higher concentrations. Over-the-counter, you can find salicylic acid in concentrations up to 2 percent, but if you want something even more intense, many spas and dermatology offices offer salicylic acid chemical peels with 20-30 percent salicylic acid. Beware, these peels will likely leave your face very photosensitive for a few days, but they have been known to significantly reduce sebum for a few weeks at a time.
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.”
For those with acne-prone skin, it can be tough finding a sunscreen that doesn’t clog pores and meshes well with your skincare regimen. Oily sunscreens often lead to breakouts. In addition to the wash, toner, moisturizer and treatments, the Clear Start kit includes an acne-safe (read: oil-free) sunscreen in its lineup — perfect for those wanting the best of both worlds in avoiding all types of red faces.
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.)

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.)
If you have non-inflamed acne, it means you have a lot of blackheads and whiteheads, but not a lot of redness and swelling. Most common acne face washes can work well for you. If you have inflamed acne, you want to make sure you buy a facial cleanser that has the ingredients to reduce inflammation, swelling, and redness. But you also want to be careful not to buy or use anything that can cause irritation, dry skin and thus, more redness and swelling.
Cysts are another troublesome type of acne to treat successfully without the help of a doctor. A cyst forms similar to a nodule—way beneath your skin’s surface. However, cysts are thought to form from pustules because they contain pus. They are painful when touched resemble a boil. They appear to be a large, red, swollen lump on the skin surface. People who are prone to them may get one large cyst or a clump of cysts.
If you take a close look at the acne-fighting ingredients, you will find that no single ingredient does all the work to get rid of acne. Each one has a unique effect that plays a role in the elimination of acne, but only when they are used combined or in sequence in a system do they have ability to get rid of acne altogether. This is why it is so important to use an effective system for fight acne, not just a single product.
According to medical research, tea tree oil gels containing 5 percent tea tree oil may be as effective as medications containing 5 percent benzoyl peroxide. (10) Researchers do indicate that tea tree oil may work more slowly for some individuals, so try to be patient. To make a simple home remedy for acne using tea tree oil mix 4–8 drops of tea tree oil and one teaspoon of coconut oil or jojoba oil. Dap lightly onto the problem areas. Slight tingling is normal, but if the application causes lots of burning then discontinue use. Always use a carrier oil, as tea tree oil can be too harsh when applied directly to skin.
How to Handle It: Speaking of touching, don't! Picking it, squeezing it, or poking at it will only worsen the situation. These may disappear on their own after a few days. Otherwise, Zeichner suggests visiting your dermatologist for a shot of cortisone, which will reduce inflammation and shrink it in just 24 to 48 hours. But if a last-minute appointment isn't in the cards, play mad scientist. First, ice the area, and then apply salicylic acid gel, benzoyl peroxide gel, and 1 percent hydrocortisone cream. The combo will calm skin, kill bacteria, and draw out excess oil from the pimple — all things necessary to take this down, says Zeichner.
Retinoids: Retinoids are substances that are derived from vitamin A, which includes retinol, but also includes synthetic versions of retinol with activated retinoic acid which tends to be more effective in treating acne. Retinoic acid has been shown to reduce sebum production8 and regulate skin cell production9, which together can greatly reduce acne. These synthetic retinoids include adapalene, tretinoin, isotretinoin, and others. Although these synthetic options are more reliably effective, they also tend to have more side effects, like burning, itching, and dryness. Unlike retinol, which is available over-the-counter, nearly all synthetic retinoids are prescription-only. One of the main exceptions is Differin, which is a brand that sells a topical gel containing adapalene, a mild synthetic retinoid, over-the-counter.
The Daily Skin Clearing Treatment is an all-over 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide cream that also touts calming bisabolol and allantoin to alleviate the dryness and irritation that can crop up mid-treatment. Anyone frustrated with oil-slick skin will also love this part of the regimen — it creates a satin mattifying effect, instantly transforming shininess into a glow.
The treatment regimen your doctor recommends depends on your age, the type and severity of your acne, and what you are willing to commit to. For example, you may need to wash and apply medications to the affected skin twice a day for several weeks. Often topical medications and drugs you take by mouth (oral medication) are used in combination. Pregnant women will not be able to use oral prescription medications for acne.
×