How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

What helps clear facial acne? Here’s what we know

The products you use (and how you use them) make a big difference—we’ll show you why!

Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team
Oct 24, 2022 · 8 min read

Share
Happy teen girl with braces
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
  1. blog
  2. > Skin Treatments
  3. > What helps clear facial acne? Here’s what we know

Whiteheads, blackheads, pimples, cysts—many of us deal with them! 

Acne is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that affects about 50 million Americans, making it the most common skin condition in the U.S.¹ But don’t worry! We know a thing or two about what helps acne on the face—after all, Curology has been working on perfecting acne treatment since 2014. We’re here to share our expertise about the potential causes of acne, the different types, and effective treatment options to help keep pimples at bay.

What’s causing acne on my face?

Acne happens when pores become clogged with dead skin cells and your body’s natural oil, or sebum. Bacteria feed off that oil, leading to inflammation and, violà, pimples! Of course, that’s arguably the oversimplified version. There are many contributing factors that can lead to acne! Here are the biggies: 

  • Hormones: Hormonal changes are common throughout a person’s lifetime, including during puberty, pregnancy, menopause, and gender transition. Anyone taking hormone therapy can experience a zit or two—or more. Progesterone and androgens (testosterone) lead the body to increase its natural sebum production, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when all that excess oil combines with dead skin cells, it can easily result in clogged pores.² That’s why an excess of these hormones can lead to—you guessed it—hormonal acne

  • Comedogenic ingredients: Many hair, makeup, and skincare products contain comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients like these, which can increase your chances of experiencing breakouts. If you notice acne on your forehead or along your hairline and want to know how to remove pimples naturally and permanently, take a look at the ingredients in your shampoo—they just might be the culprit. 

  • Stress: When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones that can trigger an overproduction of sebum. Similar to an excess of sebum caused by hormonal fluctuations, this can lead to what some refer to as stress-related acne. Managing your stress (yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and getting a sufficient amount of sleep) is your best defense against this type of acne, especially if you have acne-prone skin.

  • Diet: Certain foods may trigger acne for some people. Research shows that a high-glycemic diet (including foods like white bread, sugar, and white rice) causes your blood sugar to spike, which triggers insulin production. Insulin can lead to increased sebum production. Add that to bacteria and a buildup of dead skin cells, and you have acne. Milk and other dairy products can also trigger acne in some people.³

  • Genetics: There isn’t an “acne gene,” per se, but studies show family history may potentially play a role.⁴ Unfortunately, you can’t change your DNA. Fortunately, plenty of treatment options exist.  

What are the different types of acne?

Acne is a broad term that describes different types of blemishes we commonly, unaffectionately refer to as zits. But there are actually several types of acne, including: 

  • Whiteheads: These are small clogged pores, also called closed comedones. They’re small bumps that appear on the skin’s surface. They’re usually painless. 

  • Blackheads: These are also clogged pores and called open comedones. They look like small black dots on the skin’s surface, hence their name. Being exposed to the air causes their contents—a mixture of sebum and dead skin cells—to turn black. 

  • Papules: These are small inflamed pink or red bumps. They can be (but aren’t always) slightly painful. 

  • Pustules: These are pus-filled blemishes that are slightly raised above the skin’s surface. They may seem tempting to squeeze—but that’s not a good idea.

  • Nodules: These are larger elevated bumps on the skin. They’re the big sister to papules and are often painful. 

  • Cysts: Buried deeper in the skin than other types of acne, cystic acne is often painful and can take some time to heal. Once it does, it can result in scarring. 

How to treat acne

There are many medicines for pimples and dark spots. As a heads-up, many of these treatments exfoliate the skin, which (bonus!) can reduce the appearance of dark spots. Some are better treatment options than others. What works best for you depends on a variety of factors including the severity of your acne and your skin type. 

  • Retinoids: Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives. Tretinoin, a prescription-only retinoid, has been used by dermatologists for years! We think of it as the gold standard of acne treatment but it also helps reduce the appearance of age spots, fine lines, and wrinkles (message your Curology provider if you’re interested in learning more about tretinoin). Because retinoids may leave your skin more sensitive to the sun, you should only use them at night and wear SPF protection during the day.⁵

  • Topical antibiotics: Antibiotics like clindamycin help kill bacteria that contribute to acne, but they require a prescription. If you’re using a topical antibiotic, your provider will likely recommend using another ingredient like azelaic acid or benzoyl peroxide to help reduce the possibility of antibiotic resistance.⁶ Combination treatment with topical antibiotics is common.

  • Benzoyl peroxide: Products containing benzoyl peroxide are common over-the-counter options for treating all types of acne. Benzoyl peroxide fights bacteria that contribute to acne. It also has anti-inflammatory properties. It can be found in a variety of products including cleansers and spot treatments.  

  • Salicylic acid: This gentle exfoliant helps clear out pores clogged with excess sebum and dead skin cells. Like benzoyl peroxide, it’s commonly found in face washes and other over-the-counter topical treatments.

  • Isotretinoin: Formerly known as Accutane, this oral medication is an oral retinoid (aka vitamin A derivative). It’s used to treat severe acne, usually when other options haven’t worked. It can only be prescribed by an in-person dermatologist at this time.

  • Oral contraceptives: Some forms of oral birth control can also be used to treat acne. As with any medication, it’s important to discuss potential risks with your doctor before starting them. 

Simplify your skincare routine

Young woman washing her face

Wondering how to prevent pimples on your face at home? Your number-one defense against acne is a daily skincare routine, which includes using an appropriate treatment depending on your skin type, the type (or types) of acne you’re experiencing, and its severity. At Curology, we’re all about keeping things as simple as possible. A three-step approach works for most people: cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen or treatment depending on the time of day (SPF in the morning, treatment at night). You can add in a spot treatment or hydrocolloid bandage when needed, and if you wear makeup, always opt for non-comedogenic products to help prevent them from triggering breakouts.

Here’s your basic plan: 

  • Cleanse twice a day. Moisten your face with lukewarm water, and apply a gentle cleanser. Gently massage it into your face using your fingertips. Rinse with lukewarm water. 

  • Apply moisturizer after cleansing or treating. In the morning, apply a pea-sized amount of moisturizer after washing your face and before applying your sunscreen. At night, apply after using your treatment. 

  • Apply SPF every morning at least 15 minutes before heading out the door, and reapply throughout the day as needed. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30, and remember: Be it physical or chemical, the best sunscreen is the one you’ll actually use every day. (Call us biased, but we’re partial to the sunscreen by Curology.)

  • Use treatment at night. Whether you’re using an over-the-counter product or your personalized Curology formula, apply nightly after washing your face. Depending on the product, your dermatology provider may recommend starting with a low dose and gradually stepping it up. Remember, following all the instructions you receive from your dermatology provider is key to helping your skincare do its thing effectively. 

  • Be patient. Like all good things, achieving clearer skin takes time. What triggers breakouts and how long it takes for them to clear up varies from person to person. That’s why we like to think of skincare as a journey. While we wish we could tell you how to get rid of acne fast, we can’t. But if a pimple pops up and you need it gone ASAP, we recommend trying an emergency spot patch. They often speed up the process.

Other ways to help prevent acne from appearing

A consistent skincare routine can help prevent breakouts. Here are some other tips to keep your breakouts to a minimum: 

  • Avoid touching or picking at your skin.

  • Don’t pop pimples—even the squeezable ones. 

  • Avoid harsh scrubs and over-exfoliating, which can lead to unwanted side effects like irritated skin. 

  • Wash your hands frequently and before applying lotions or creams.

  • Try holding your phone away from your face whenever you’re using it because it may have oil, dead skin cells, and who knows what else on its surface. Yep, we know it may sound gross, but don’t stress about it too much—especially if you stick to washing your face twice a day.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Subject to consultation. 30-day trial. Just cover $4.95 in S&H.
curology bottle
curology bottle

Curology offers a simple and effective solution for acne 

Curology is a customized skincare service that helps take the guesswork out of your skincare routine. Licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options.

Curology custom skincare producs

Becoming a member is easy. Simply answer a few questions and snap a few selfies to help us get to know your skin. If Curology is right for you, we’ll prescribe a personalized prescription formula to target your specific skincare concerns. We’ll also recommend other products to try, like the acne body wash or emergency spot patch. The best part: Your products are delivered right to your door. Try Curology for 30 days for free—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.* 

FAQs

What causes acne on my face?

Acne happens when pores become clogged with dead skin cells and your body’s natural oil, or sebum. Bacteria feed off that oil, leading to inflammation and, violà, pimples! But there are many contributing factors such as hormones, comedogenic ingredients, stress, diet, and genetics.

What are the different types of acne?

Acne is a broad term that describes different types of blemishes we commonly refer to as zits unaffectionately. But there are actually several types of acne, including whiteheads, blackheads, papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts.

How can I treat acne?

There are many medicines for pimples and dark spots. Some are better treatment options than others. What works best for you depends on a variety of factors including the severity of your acne and your skin type. Here's a list:

What else can I do to to help prevent acne?

Here are some other tips to keep your breakouts to a minimum: 

  • Avoid touching or picking at your skin.

  • Don’t pop pimples—even the squeezable ones. 

  • Avoid harsh scrubs and over-exfoliating. 

  • Wash your hands frequently and before applying lotions or creams.

  • Try holding your phone away from your face whenever you’re using it and clean it frequently.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1.  American Academy of Dermatology. Skin conditions by the numbers. (n.d.).

  2.  Elsaie M. L. Hormonal treatment of acne vulgaris: an update. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology. (2016).

  3.  Kucharska A., et al. Significance of diet in treated and untreated acne vulgaris.Advances in Dermatology and Allergology. (2016, May 16). 

  4.   Zaenglein A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Ibid.

  5.  Zaenglein A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, May 1).

  6.  Kraft J., et al. Management of acne.Canadian Medical Association Journal. (2011, April 19).

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

Related Articles

Oat straw extract benefits, according to the experts Is chocolate to blame for your breakouts?Ask the experts: How to treat miliaHow jojoba seed oil can benefit your skinExpert-approved tips to help you control oily skin

Popular Articles

Seasonal summer foods for healthier skinMoisturizers for sensitive skinFoundation matching: how to find your skin tone?How to shrink a cystic pimpleAcne vs. rosacea: what’s the difference?
30-day trial. $4.95 S&H. Subject to consultation.
Get StartedWhy CurologyGuidesOur StoryCommunity
SupportBlogReviewsCareersContact Us
Follow @curology
Vegan and Cruelty Free Stamp, est. 2014
Terms of ServicePrivacy Notice
Do Not Sell My Personal Information
All Rights Reserved © 2022 Curology