Picture this: It’s a big day you’ve been anticipating, and you just noticed a fresh breakout. You think of everything you’ve done over the last few days that may have triggered it but still can’t figure out why. Well, that’s because isolating the specific triggers that lead to pimples—be it blackheads, whiteheads, cysts, or nodules—isn’t always easy. But maybe that’s why so much attention is spent on how to get rid of pimples when they do pop up. Here, we’ll let you in on how acne forms and the steps you can take—weeks, not days, ahead of time—to help prevent it in the first place.
The truth is, no one knows for sure exactly how fast a pimple can form—it’s quite a process! Knowing what type or types of pimple you’re experiencing, however, can help you know how to treat them and help prevent future breakouts. Whitehead pimples may come to mind when you hear the word “pimple,” but pimples are a broad term used to refer to acne lesions, of which there are many types. Non-inflammatory lesions include closed comedones, or whiteheads, and open comedones, or blackheads. Papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts are inflammatory acne lesions.
So, exactly what are pimples? How does a pimple form? Research suggests there are four main contributors to acne: skin cell overgrowth, oil (sebum), C. acnes (a type of bacteria), and inflammation.¹ It’s a complex process, but in short, follicle cells start to shed abnormally and clog up pores, kicking off the party. The sebum gets trapped in the clogged pores. Over time, blackheads, clogged but open pores, and whiteheads clogged closed pores, form. Bacteria that contribute to acne thrive in the sebum. The immune system responds to bacterial overgrowth, causing an inflammatory response. The end result is a red, inflamed acne lesion (papules, pustules, nodules, or cysts).
It can be extremely tempting to squeeze or pick at a pimple—but you should avoid this, especially if it is cystic acne; doing so brings the risk of pushing the contents deeper into the skin, potentially making matters worse. To treat acne, dermatology providers often use retinoids and topical vitamin A derivatives that boost skin cell turnover. At Curology, we use tretinoin, which is a popular option for treating acne and signs of aging. Derived from vitamin A, this highly effective prescription ingredient stimulates the growth of healthy new cells while at the same time helping to prevent inflammation.²
That said, one of the best treatments is to help stop acne in its tracks before it makes its way to the skin's surface. Prevention starts with proper face hygiene. Here are a few of our top tips for clearer skin that help prevent pimples in the first place.
Use non-comedogenic skincare products. Comedogenic products can clog pores, which can lead to an acne outbreak. (Here’s a list of common pore-clogging ingredients to watch out for.)
Moisturize. It might seem counterintuitive to moisturize if you have oily skin, but it can be a crucial step for maintaining healthy skin—and healthier skin can result in fewer outbreaks.
Modify makeup use. Avoid foundations and coverups that contain comedogenic ingredients to keep your pores as free as possible. If you wear makeup, be sure to wash it off before bed, and opt for non-comedogenic products.
Double-check your haircare products. Often, what we put in our hair gets on our face. Use fragrance-free and oil-free hair care products that are non-comedogenic.³ And do your best to keep long hair—especially if it’s oily—away from your face.
Stop touching your face. Touching your face can add and spread bacteria. Picking at your face can irritate sensitive or inflamed skin, so fight the urge to pick or squeeze.
Avoid the sun. The relationship between sun exposure and acne is complicated. Breakout or no breakout, it’s important to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 daily. Sun damage can lead to hyperpigmentation, inflammation, and breakouts. Some acne medicine also leaves your skin photosensitive, so be sure to ask your dermatology provider if it’s necessary to take extra care to protect your skin from the sun.
Get moving! Regular exercise is good for every part of you, including your skin. Just be sure to rinse off after sweating—and reapply sunscreen if you’re outdoors.
Relax. Studies have linked stress to the worsening of acne.⁴ Find ways to destress, like mindful meditation or working out. And speaking of working out...
If you need to clear up a breakout ASAP, try Curology’s emergency spot patches. They help accelerate your skin’s healing process—just keep in mind that they won't prevent new pimples from forming.
Acne vulgaris is a common skin condition that affects around 50 million people in the United States alone.⁵ While there are treatments that can reduce the occurrence of acne, there are a lot of myths out there, too. Here are a few of the more popular ones:
Pimples only happen during puberty. Sorry, pimples aren’t only for teens! Adult acne is also very common and can happen at any time during your lifetime.
There is a cure for acne. Unfortunately, that’s not true, at least not yet. But there are many effective treatments that can improve acne.
Bad habits cause pimples. While bad habits like uncleanliness and an unhealthy diet can contribute to acne, they’re not the sole cause. Many factors come into play, like hormones, stress, and environmental factors that can contribute to acne.
Pimples are only on the face. Maybe it’s more noticeable on the face, but body acne also affects a lot of people, be it on the back, chest, or elsewhere.
Sun cures pimples. Not so. In fact, sun exposure may worsen breakouts. Unprotected skin in the sun also leaves you at risk of skin cancer, so be sure to always lather up with at least SPF 30 whenever you’re outdoors.
Pore strips banish blackheads. They likely won’t, at least not long-term. And in some cases, they can tear the skin and make matters worse.
Toothpaste is a quick and easy method to “dry out” pimples. Not true! In fact, toothpaste can be harsh on your skin and cause irritation, possibly leading to more blemishes. Save the toothpaste for your teeth.
Any old skincare product will do the trick. Not so fast! Some skincare products are actually comedogenic and will actually clog pores. Others are too harsh and may only aggravate any breakouts you’re already experiencing. Remember, everyone’s skin is unique, so be sure to find products that work well with yours.
When it comes to treating your skin for acne, getting qualified help is important. That’s why Curology creates personalized, dermatology-backed skincare made for you. Curology can help you find the right acne treatment for you by using the right ingredients to target your specific acne. You won't only receive effective acne treatments for your skin, but you'll also get guidance from dermatology providers to answer all your medical questions.
Sign up for a 30-day free trial for just $4.95 + tax (to cover shipping and handling).*
The truth is, no one knows for sure exactly how fast a pimple can form—it’s quite a process! Knowing what type or types of pimple you’re experiencing, however, can help you know how to treat them and help prevent future breakouts.
Follicle cells start to shed abnormally and clog up pores. The sebum gets trapped in the clogged pores. Bacteria that contribute to acne thrive in the sebum. The immune system responds to bacterial overgrowth, causing an inflammatory response. The end result is a red, inflamed acne lesion.
Here are a few of our top tips for clearer skin that help prevent pimples in the first place:
Wash your face before bed
Use non-comedogenic skincare products
Modify makeup use
Double-check your haircare products
Stop touching your face
Avoid the sun
Here are a few of the more popular ones:
Pimples only happen during puberty
There is a cure for acne
Bad habits cause pimples
Pimples are only on the face
Sun cures pimples
Pore strips banish blackheads
Toothpaste is a quick and easy method to “dry out” pimples
Any old skincare product will do the trick
Toyoda, M., & Morohashi, M. Pathogenesis of acne. Medical electron microscopy : official journal of the Clinical Electron Microscopy Society of Japan. (2001).
Baldwin, H. E., et al. 40 years of topical tretinoin use in review. Journal of drugs in dermatology. (2013).
Rubin, I.K., Efficacy of Non-Comedogenic Hair Care Regimen for the Reduction of Mild-to-Moderate Truncal and Facial Acne: A Single-Arm 8-Week Study. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (2021, June 1).
Graubard, R., et al. Stress and Skin: An Overview of Mind Body Therapies as a Treatment Strategy in Dermatology. Dermatology Practical & Conceptual. (October 2021).
Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, May 1).
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.
Kristen Jokela, NP-C