Roughly 50 million people experience acne at some point during their lives.¹ It’s one of the most common skin conditions, and for many people, that means spending countless hours searching for a magic bullet to make their acne go away. The good news is that there are treatments that work. The bad news is that it can take several weeks or longer to see results.
In this article, we’ll share some of the best treatments for breakouts regardless of your skin type, and we’ll let you in on a few secrets to help prevent pimples in the first place. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for treating acne. There’s some trial and error, but you can have clearer skin with the right tools in your toolbox.
Even though acne is very common and may look the same from face to face, not everyone will respond in the same way to treatment.
Acne vulgaris occurs when oil and dead skin clog your pores, causing whiteheads and blackheads to form. The bacteria that contributes to acne thrives in the excess oil, and the area can become inflamed and cause papules, pustules, nodules, or cysts to form. Unwanted blemishes and acne lesions can take weeks—or longer—to clear. They can also lead to hyperpigmentation (dark spots) or acne scars.
But you may be able to speed up the process with the right products for your skin type and condition. Just remember, your skin is unique. So, what works for your BFF might actually make your acne worse!
Acne doesn’t just happen to teenagers. Anyone can break out at any time during their life—even if they don’t have acne-prone skin. With that said, there are some potential triggers, like hormones, to consider. If you can nail down the events leading up to breakouts, you’ll be able to give your dermatology provider information to help them determine whether you have hormonal acne or fungal acne (or something else!). That’s good news, as they’re often treated differently. Here are some possible things to look out for.
Fluctuating hormones are a common factor that contributes to acne. This occurs naturally during puberty, menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and menopause. Transgender men and women and post-menopausal persons taking hormonal therapy may also develop hormonal acne breakouts.
Comedogenic products can also lead to breakouts. Comedogenic products block pores, trapping oil and dead skin cells. Even acne-fighting products, like cleansers and acne face washes, can contain ingredients that clog pores. Look for products labeled non-comedogenic—and double-check the ingredient list for pore-clogging ingredients like these.
Cosmetics and other skincare products can also be a culprit of facial acne. Tiny bumps on your cheeks, chin, or forehead may be acne cosmetica. Even lipstick and lip balm can lead to breakouts.² If this describes your acne, ditch the makeup you use for non-comedogenic makeup. And make sure to avoid going to bed without removing your makeup first! You’ll also benefit from a solid skincare routine that includes cleansing, treating, and moisturizing.
Certain foods may also contribute to acne. We’ll get to that in a minute but suffice to say that dairy and foods high on the glycemic index might increase your chances of pimples. But don’t cut the cupcakes just yet; consider trying the elimination diet for acne first.
Friction and heat can lead to recurring acne, known as acne mechanica. This type of acne is caused by something rubbing (friction) on your skin and heat, e.g., wearing a headband while working out or a helmet while riding a bike.
Medications like anticonvulsants and steroids have also been linked to breakouts.³ It’s never advisable to stop taking any prescription medication without consulting your medical provider first. If you notice you’re breaking out more than usual, talk to your doctor about your options.
Let’s talk more about food! First, we don’t advocate for a particular “acne” diet. In fact, we believe that a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and veggies is ideal. However, limited research shows that some foods might worsen acne breakouts in some people. So, if other acne treatment options aren’t working as well as you like, take a look at what you’re eating.
Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt, may cause or increase acne for some people. In a review of 14 studies, the amount and frequency of dairy intake didn’t change the odds of a breakout.⁴
High glycemic diets have been associated with pimples in some people. Foods like white bread and sugary snacks might increase acne—not because of the sugar, but because of the spike in blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar spikes, it can cause full-body (systemic) inflammation. Higher blood sugar can also lead to higher sebum production. These can both contribute to acne.⁵
Many acne products claim to be exactly what you need—but they may not always work for you. Remember, you’re unique. Don’t give up because something isn’t a fit. Try a different product or, better yet, get a recommended acne treatment from a dermatologist or dermatology provider.
Here’s just a partial list of active ingredients that can treat acne. Bonus: Some also have anti-aging benefits.
Over-the-counter topicals like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinoids such as adapalene all help reduce acne and should be one of your first lines of defense for breakouts.⁶ Benzoyl peroxide has anti-inflammatory properties and fights the bacteria associated with acne. Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that’s great at reducing inflammation and unclogging pores, but it may not be the best acne treatment for sensitive skin. It’s a chemical exfoliant that removes dead skin cells. You might not want to use these two products simultaneously (at least not at first!). They can cause irritation when used together.
Prescription topicals like tretinoin and clindamycin can be used to treat mild to severe acne. Tretinoin is a prescription strength retinoid or vitamin A derivative. Tretinoin works by promoting skin cell turnover to address concerns like pimples and dark spots. Clindamycin is an antibiotic. It’s often used with other topical treatments (like tretinoin or benzoyl peroxide).
Oral antibiotics can be prescribed when needed. Antibiotics belonging to the tetracycline class of antibiotics (such as doxycycline and minocycline) are considered first line in addressing acne.⁷ Oral antibiotics should typically be used only for a limited time to help prevent antibiotic resistance.
Spironolactone is not an acne medication but can be used to treat the hormonal aspect of breakouts. Spironolactone is an anti-androgen that reduces sebum production. It typically works within a few weeks.
Isotretinoin (formerly known as Accutane) is an oral medication for treating severe acne if other methods don’t work. However, about 30-40% of females over 25 have recurring acne following a course of isotretinoin, which may be from an underlying medical condition.⁸ If your acne comes back shortly after treatment, return to your doctor for a follow-up.
Oral contraceptives can help reduce breakouts for some people. But we suggest consulting your medical provider before taking oral contraceptives to help control acne. They can review the risks and benefits with you!
We know what a bummer it can be to have acne—but we’re here to help! If you’re still looking for more, here are 12 proven acne treatments.
If you’re feeling unsure about what your skin needs to beat breakouts, talking to a dermatology provider can help. Enter Curology. We use proven effective ingredients to create a personalized prescription formula for you. In a clinical trial of 150 Curology members, 95% self-reported improvements after just 12 weeks.
And it doesn’t stop there!
We’re a service-first brand—we want to be with you along your skincare journey. Our goal is to provide affordable expert guidance. When you’re ready, give us a shout to see for yourself. We’ll start you off with a 30-day free trial that includes your prescription formula as well as the Curology cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen to round out your routine. Just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.
Psst…looking for one of the best acne spot treatments? We’ll throw that in your first order, too!
Anyone can break out at any time, even if they don’t have acne-prone skin. With that said, there are some potential triggers, like hormones, to consider. Here are some possible things to look out for:
Cosmetics and other skincare products
Certain foods like dairy
Friction and heat
Medications like anticonvulsants and steroids
Limited research shows that some foods like dairy products including milk, cheese, and yogurt, as well as foods high on the glycemic index like white bread and sugary snacks, may cause or increase acne for some people.
Here’s just a partial list of active ingredients that can treat acne. We suggest consulting your medical provider before taking oral medication:
Over-the-counter topicals like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinoids
Prescription topicals like tretinoin and clindamycin
Oral antibiotics can be prescribed when needed
Spironolactone is not an acne medication but can be used to treat the hormonal aspect of breakouts
Isotretinoin (formerly known as Accutane) is an oral medication for treating severe acne if other methods don’t work
Oral contraceptives can help reduce breakouts for some people
Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, May 1).
American Academy of Dermatology. I have acne! Is it okay to wear makeup? (n.d.).
Pontello, Jr., R., et al. Drug-induced Acne and Rose Pearl: Similarities. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia. (2013, November/December).
Juhl, C.R., et al. Dairy intake and acne vulgaris: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 78,529 children, adolescents, and young adults.Nutrients. (August 2018).
American Academy of Dermatology. Can the right diet get rid of acne? (n.d.).
Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, May 1).
Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Ibid.
Tan, A.U., et al. A review of diagnosis and treatment of acne in adult female patients. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. (June 2018).
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Kristen Jokela, NP-C