Ask any dermatologist for advice on how you can reduce the chances of breakouts, and they’re most likely going to mention taking probiotics as one of their top tips. This facial cleanser, infused with tea tree oil, willow bark and yogurt, targets irritation-causing bacteria while controlling oil production. It also features a biocomplex of vitamins A, C and E, coenzyme Q10 and antioxidants that diminish wrinkles and other visible signs of aging.
Sodium sulfacetamide-sulfur is another acne medications often found in over-the-counter treatments, and it works especially well for those with mild-moderate acne that is largely made up of pimples. This is because it effectively dries out excess sebum without drying out the skin, and some studies suggest that this combination of sodium sulfacetamide and sulfur has antibacterial properties. According to one study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, sodium sulfacetamide 10 percent-sulfur 5 percent can significantly reduce the size of p. acnes colonies when used as an emollient foam6. This treatment option is also available as a facewash, topical gel, and topical cream, and can be found at most drugstores.
The trick is to identify a cleanser that offers a deep clean without over-drying the skin, which naturally produces less oil with age, says Jessica Wu, MD, a dermatologist in Los Angeles. "Adult or hormonal acne is different than teen acne—people are often dry on the top layer of skin, and broken out underneath that layer,” Dr. Wu says. “So Proactiv or Clean & Clear won't work as well once you hit your 30s.”
The Effaclar Medicated Cleanser from La Roche-Posay is made especially for users with oily skin. The 2% salicylic acid concentration slows down sebum production without completely stripping the skin of its natural oil. Therefore, it won’t dry out your face, but it does reduce shine. And the key ingredient, zinc pidolate, soaks up excess oil and removes impurities.
Oral isotretinoin is very effective. But because of its potential side effects, doctors need to closely monitor anyone they treat with this drug. Potential side effects include ulcerative colitis, an increased risk of depression and suicide, and severe birth defects. In fact, isotretinoin carries such serious risk of side effects that all people receiving isotretinoin must participate in a Food and Drug Administration-approved risk management program.
How to Handle It: Think of these as bigger, pissed-off whiteheads. Your best bet, says Zeichner, is to stock up on benzoyl peroxide, which kills the bacteria. A spot treatment like Murad Acne Spot Fast Fix ($22) should do the trick. Also, try not to pop them — as tempting as that may be. Since they're inflamed, they're more likely to scar if you go the DIY route.
The alkaline ingredients in Ivory Soap reach into the skin and dissolve the fats and ceramides that lock moisture in and keep the skin soft and flexible. Tight skin constricts pores, locking oil and acne bacteria inside. If you wash your face with Ivory Soap once or twice a day, you almost certainly will have no big pieces of dirt or grime lurking in enlarged pores, but you are likely to have an ongoing problem with whiteheads and blackheads, and the constant irritation will also make pimples redder and more inflamed.
While a face mask isn’t totally necessary to clear your acne, sticking to just once a week won’t further irritate or dry out your skin if you like using one. This drugstore treatment from L’Oreal utilizes the power of kaolin clay, which absorbs excess oil, draws out impurities from the skin, and gently exfoliates to speed the healing process of breakouts, according to a review of research published in International Geology Review. It won’t completely wipe out your acne overnight, but it can help control the oil that leads to more pimples and dry out bumps that are particularly stubborn. Plus, it gives you an excuse to pamper yourself.
How to Handle It: Your best bet is benzoyl peroxide. "Benzoyl peroxide can kill acne-causing bacteria and reduce inflammation," says Zeichner. Try a cream like the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual-Action Acne Treatment ($37), which also exfoliates with lipo-hydroxy acid. Be aware that it can seriously dry out skin so moisturize well after you use it.
Simple alcohols like isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and denatured alcohol are everywhere in acne treatment because they trick you into thinking they’re working: Splash some on and any oil on your face instantly vaporizes. However, these ingredients destroy the skin’s barrier, called the acid mantle. When your acid mantle is damaged, you’re actually more susceptible to breakouts, enlarged pores, and inflammation. To make matters worse, evaporating all the oil on your face can actually set your sebaceous glands into overdrive, leaving your skin oilier than ever. If any product included a simple alcohol high up in its ingredients list, we nixed its whole kit.
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.
How to Handle It: If you've tried the usual anti-acne ingredients, like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide (which, we should warn you, rarely work for this), you should consider paying your dermatologist a visit. "You may need a cortisone injection or an oral medication, like an antibiotic, in addition to topical formulas," says Zeichner. He's also a fan of a prescription topical medication called Epiduo Forte Gel, since, he says, it's been shown to be effective at controlling severe acne without the help of oral treatments.
Many doctors treat whiteheads, blackheads, or pimples, with either a prescription for an antibiotic or prescription strength benzoyl peroxide or both. These treatments are harsh for mild to moderate problems. If you have an exceptionally deep skin infection causing nodules or cysts, you should be given a referral to a dermatologist. This is also true if you have an aggressive form of acne that causes blemishes to grow together all over your upper body (acne conglobata). You will probably need laser therapy or surgical reconstruction procedures if you have this rare condition.
“Cult-fave for a reason — simple, cheap, and effective. Dries down fast, alcohol-free, and incredibly convenient to use. Even with my normal-dry skin, I find that the drying effects of this product are easily mitigated with moisturizer (obviously your mileage may vary). This has seriously helped manage whiteheads, sebaceous filaments, and those little red inflamed buggers.”
You won't find a face wash in this list that's not universally beloved, but keep in mind that what works for one person won't work for everyone. The biggest secret to finding a great facial cleanser is choosing one that's formulated for your skin type: dry, oily, combination, sensitive or blemished. Unfortunately, few women really know their skin type.
How to Handle It: Pair two of the best-known acne-fighting ingredients, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, in the week leading up to your period. (If you're feeling bloated, now's the time to do it.) The combo can help prevent hormonal acne from happening in the first place. Zeichner suggests following a salicylic acid wash, like fan-favorite Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser ($7), with a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment, such as Murad Acne Spot Fast Fix ($22). If you're still seeing zits, "visit your dermatologist to discuss prescription options, like birth control pills, oral spironolactone — which blocks oil — or topical Aczone 7.5 percent gel," says Zeichner. "It's shown to be particularly effective in adult women without causing irritation." Oral contraceptives level out those hormone fluctuations, keeping your oil production normal and your skin clear.
For individuals suffering from the cystic form of acne, a controlled clinical trial has found that Guggul supplements (also known as guggulsterone) outperformed 500 milligrams of tetracycline by a small margin. (16) In the study, 25 milligrams of guggulsterone taken twice daily for three months resulted in the reduction of acne, but more importantly, 50 percent fewer participants had acne relapses. Researchers noted that patients with oily skin responded remarkably better to guggul than others in the study.
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.”
You can use pure apple cider vinegar (with the mother culture) as your evening and morning toner. Apple cider vinegar is packed with potassium, magnesium, acetic acid and various enzymes that kill bacteria on the skin. Chronic acne can be the result of bacteria and fungi that continue to spread and grow on the surface of the skin. With a cotton ball, smooth ACV over skin paying particular attention to active breakouts and acne prone areas.
Cortisone is a quick fix for acne emergencies. We mean got a big board meeting tomorrow kind of quick. Go into the dermatologist’s office for a shot of this corticosteroid, and acne will disappear in 24 to 48 hours. The treatment works to curb inflammation, which makes it best for cystic breakouts and can be really good at combatting hormonal flare-ups. If done incorrectly, a cortisone shot can leave a small depression in the skin that lasts about eight weeks. “It’s a rare side effect that happens if dosage of cortisone is too high,” explains Linkner. “You want to go to someone who knows what they’re doing.”