Caring for acne-prone skin is about more than just slathering on blemish-busting products.
It can involve lifestyle changes, too — the first of which is often a new and improved skin care routine.
Read on for some expert tips on everything from picking and popping to effective clinical treatments.
The simplest way to split acne is into noninflammatory and inflammatory types.
Noninflammatory acne refers to clogged pores that appear as blackheads or whiteheads.
It’s the mildest type and is easy to spot. Blackheads have a dark appearance and can appear somewhat flat against the skin. Whiteheads are small skin-colored bumps.
Anything with a red or more robust appearance is essentially classified as inflammatory acne.
This can range from papules and pustules to more severe nodules and cysts.
Papules are small red bumps, while pustules are small bumps that contain pus. Papules often turn into pustules.
Then there’s the deeper, more painful acne.
These inflamed bumps are typically larger than your usual pimple and feel as if they’re underneath the skin.
It’s common to link oily skin to acne. After all, excess oil is a known contributor to breakouts.
But dry skin types can still experience acne for a number of reasons, whether it’s due to environmental factors or a poor skin care routine that irritates the skin and clogs pores.
Knowing which skin type you have can help you care for your acne in the best way possible.
Dr. Yoram Harth, board-certified dermatologist and medical director of MDacne, says there’s an easy way to work out your skin type.
First, wash your face with a mild “baby” soap. Gently pat it dry. Don’t apply any skin care products.
A couple of hours later, examine your skin. If it’s shiny, you have oily skin. If it appears flaky, rough, or red, you have dry skin.
Combination skin will appear dry on the cheeks and shiny on the forehead, nose, and chin (T-zone).
“Normal” skin, meanwhile, will have a healthy glow with no visible issues.
Bear in mind that it’s possible to be acne-prone without having dry or oily skin.
“The vast majority of people have had acne once in their lifetimes,” notes dermatologist Dr. Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin.
Treating acne doesn’t just involve trying product after product. It encompasses careful cleansing and some simple lifestyle changes. Oh, and try not to pick at it.
Wash twice a day and after sweating
Washing your face when you wake up and before you go to bed is recommended.
Doing it more than twice a day, unless you’re particularly sweaty, can irritate the skin.
Be gentle; don’t scrub or use harsh exfoliants
This is dermatologist Dr. Brooke Bair’s top piece of advice.
“Acne is not a ‘dirt’ problem,” she says, “so scrubbing harder and using hard exfoliants don’t help and can only lead to more redness and irritation.”
No picking or popping!
It’s super tempting to pop that pimple. But doing so can lead to scarring.
It can also transfer bacteria into other pores and make what was a small pimple turn into deep, inflamed acne.
But if you must… do it safely
There’s a proper popping method, officially known as extraction.
Apply a warm compress to open the pores, and use clean Q-tips to gently push down on either side of the blackhead or whitehead.
It’s best not to attempt this with deeper acne types like pustules.
Routinely wash anything that comes into contact with your skin
Bedding, makeup brushes, and even phone screens can all harbor debris that can clog your pores.
To avoid clogging your pores, the American Academy of Dermatology advises changing sheets weekly and pillowcases two or three times a week.
Ideally, you should clean makeup tools every day. But if that’s not feasible, try washing them once a week instead.
Phones can be wiped with a special cleanser once or twice a day.
Opt for non-comedogenic products
Noncomedogenic is a label you’ve probably seen quite a lot on skin care products.
Sometimes it goes by the name of oil-free, non-acnegenic, or simply “won’t clog pores.” Every product used on acne-prone areas should have the label “oil-free, non-comedogenic.”
You’d think any products labeled with this would only help acne-prone skin, right? Unfortunately not.
It’s best to check the full ingredients list before using. Avoid anything that contains potential irritants, like alcohol or fragrance.
Review your hair care routine
Hair care formulas — from shampoos and conditioners to generic styling products — can cause breakouts in areas like the forehead and neck.
Try to avoid any products containing oils. If you suspect your hair routine is your acne culprit, switch it up to see if there’s any improvement.
Oil in the hair itself can also transfer onto the skin. Try to keep your hair off your face as much as possible, especially at nighttime.
Keeping skin hydrated may help combat the excess oil that leads to acne. However, there’s limited research to back this up.
Still, there’s no harm in sticking to the 8×8 rule (drinking eight 8-ounce glasses a day).
Beware of diet and supplement claims
Online, you’ll find plenty of supplement-selling brands claiming to banish acne.
But unless you’re seriously deficient in a particular nutrient, there’s little evidence to prove they help the skin much.
The same goes for dietary advice. For example, only a small amount of research has found a link between diet and acne.
It’s best not to cut out a specific nutrient or entire food group without specialist advice.
A skin care routine that’s not right for your skin type or concerns can end up causing more problems.
Here’s every step you should consider taking when dealing with acne-prone skin.
You can find many of these products at your local drugstore. Some are more specialized and found at other retailers, so they may be more expensive. Use these recommendations as general guidelines of what to look for.
And remember: The more lightweight the product, the better for your pores.
Ingredients to look for
- Salicylic acid works to unclog pores and reduce inflammation. It’s ideal for blackheads and whiteheads but can also help pustules disappear quicker. Try Stridex pads (shop here) or Clinique’s Acne Solutions clinical clearing gel (shop here).
- Benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria and therefore works best on inflammatory acne. La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Duo acne treatment (shop here) and Paula’s Choice Clear daily treatment (shop here) come highly rated.
- Retinoids exfoliate the skin’s surface, removing the dead skin cells that clog pores, among other things. They also help stop inflammation and are fundamental to all forms of an acne regimen. If you’re starting out, try Differin’s adapalene gel (shop here). Your dermatologist can also prescribe stronger retinoids.
- Cleanser. Cleansing skin in the morning can be a good component of an acne regimen. Oily skin types can try Cetaphil’s oil-removing foam wash (shop here). Opt for Differin’s Daily Deep cleanser (shop here) if you have dry or sensitive skin.
- Toner. Use a toner to get rid of excess oil that may contribute to breakouts. Murad’s clarifying toner (shop here) was designed especially for acne-prone skin, while the Skinceuticals equalizing toner (shop here) has a calming, alcohol-free formula.
- Moisturizer. Whether your complexion is dry or oily, a moisturizer will keep skin hydrated. CeraVe’s facial moisturizing lotion (shop here) won’t clog pores. For ultra hydration, try Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost water gel (shop here).
- Sunscreen. Some acne treatments can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. Protect it with a broad spectrum, SPF 30 sunscreen. Two popular options are La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios XL ultra-light sunscreen (shop here) and Tizo’s 2 facial mineral sunscreen (shop here).
- Makeup. While this isn’t an essential step, makeup can quickly cover pimples and residual redness. Both Clinique Anti-Blemish Solutions Foundation (shop here) and Eucerin DermoPurifyer cover stick (shop here) contain breakout-fighting salicylic acid.
- Makeup remover. If you’ve chosen to wear makeup, properly removing it will help keep pores unclogged. Bioderma’s Sensibio H2O micellar water (shop here) aims to soothe skin, while Natura’s bi-phase makeup remover (shop here) is gentle and hydrating.
- Cleanser. The day’s events can leave a great deal of grime on the surface of the skin. Gently get rid of it before bed with ArtNaturals’ clarifying face wash (shop here) or Avene’s Antirougeurs cleansing lotion (shop here).
- Spot treatment. Applying a spot treatment after cleansing can allow the ingredients to work their way deep into the skin. As well as treating existing pimples, these products can target scarring and stop new breakouts. Try Peter Thomas Roth’s acne-clearing gel (shop here) or REN’s non-drying acne treatment (shop here).
- Exfoliant. Exfoliate once or twice a week to remove dead skin cells that can block pores and lead to breakouts. If you haven’t got much time, use Nip + Fab’s Glycolic Fix cleansing pads (shop here). Alternatively, try Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. Framboos glycolic night serum (shop here).
- Face mask. A well-formulated face mask, like Sunday Riley’s sulfur acne treatment mask (shop here) or GlamGlow’s Supermud clearing treatment (shop here), can help combat oiliness and impurities, hydrate dry skin, and reduce redness. Use up to three times a week for optimal results.
Mild acne can usually be treated with the help of over-the-counter products.
If it doesn’t improve, you may consider making an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist. If you don’t already have a dermatologist, our Healthline FindCare tool can help you connect to physicians in your area.
This is also the case for acne that’s classed as moderate or severe, such as cystic acne, or acne that’s scarring your skin. These types require prescription medication.
At your first appointment, you’ll be asked to detail your medical history and current skin care regime.
Your dermatologist will then examine your skin to determine whether you have acne and if you do, which type and grade it is.
You’ll likely leave with a prescription for medication —either topical, oral, or both —and some lifestyle recommendations. You may also be asked to consider certain procedures to help soothe the skin and minimize scarring.
Be prepared to go back for regular follow-ups, as your dermatologist will want to see how your skin is progressing and update your treatment plan accordingly.
Dermatologists use a number of treatments to help combat acne. These are split into prescription-strength medications and in-office procedures.
As Tonkovic-Capin explains, these include:
- prescription topical antibiotics
- a short course of oral antibiotics
- topical retinoids
Both retinoids, such as tretinoin, and antibiotics, including benzoyl peroxide and tetracyclines, are ideal for cysts and nodules.
Acne that’s related to hormones may require a prescription for birth control pills (combination pills) or oral spironolactone (prescribed off-label).
However, even if hormones aren’t suspected to be a big culprit for your acne, these medications are often used successfully. Therefore, if you have acne, it’s worth asking your doctor if these would be good for you.
Carried out in a dermatologist’s office, these can be useful for several forms of acne.
“Lasers and chemical peels are a great help in decreasing redness and smoothing the skin out,” Bair says.
Lasers and light therapies also have the ability to kill P. acnes (bacteria responsible for some types of acne), making them ideal for deeper forms of acne.
Strong chemical peels, meanwhile, are designed to treat blackheads and papules.
Big, painful cysts that don’t improve with medication can also be drained by your dermatologist to speed up the healing process and reduce the chance of scarring.
Patience is key here. Use an acne treatment for at least 1 month before thinking about trying a new one. Expect to wait up to 3 months before seeing a big difference.
Not seeing any improvement? Consider switching to a new product or visiting a dermatologist for personalized advice.
Whichever route you decide to go down, follow the instructions to a T for the best possible outcome.
Lauren Sharkey is a journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.