What's Going On: If it's big, red, and painful, you're probably experiencing cystic acne, one of the more severe types. "Cystic pimples are caused by genetics and hormonal stimulation of oil glands," says Zeichner. Not only are they large, but they're also notoriously tough to treat. They often recur in the same place, because even if you manage to get rid of one, it can keep filling up with oil again and again, like an immortal pimple.
Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most popular acne medications available, and it works especially well for pimples because it kills the bacteria that causes them. It works by bringing oxygen under the skin, killing the particular type of bacteria associated with acne, known as p. acnes. P. acnes are anaerobic, meaning they can’t live where there is oxygen, so benzoyl peroxide is a great way to kill bacteria under the skin instantaneously1. This medication can often eradicate acne if used in the right dosage and in the right way.
For some, the right dosage can be found over-the-counter in concentrations as low as 2.5 percent or up to 10 percent, but for others, a prescription dosage is needed to see the best results. Prescription doses rarely go over 10 percent, as benzoyl peroxide is known to cause stinging, burning, itching, flaking, peeling, and redness2 when used in concentrations over 5 percent, but they may combine the benzoyl peroxide with other acne medications.
Skin type, tone, and condition vary from person to person. That explains why what worked for your best friend hasn’t helped you at all. If you are at the end of your rope with your acne and find that it is affecting your life, you really should see a dermatologist before struggling to find a new treatment. A dermatologist might still have to try a few different approaches, but they are trained to get through the process quicker. However, if your acne hasn’t caused you serious problems yet, visiting a dermatologist can be a time-consuming and expensive option. This is why many doctors say mild- to moderate- acne can be treated with over-the-counter products.
For years the French have have opted for super moisturizing cold creams. You simply massage this in and then wipe off with a tissue or a warm washcloth and you're left with super soft skin. It removes makeup without leaving skin feeling "tight." Plus, because you aren't using water to rinse the face, you might be saving your skin from the drying effects of water.
However, salicylic acid isn’t just for those of us with sensitive skin. It can also help those of you with tougher skin, through higher concentrations. Over-the-counter, you can find salicylic acid in concentrations up to 2 percent, but if you want something even more intense, many spas and dermatology offices offer salicylic acid chemical peels with 20-30 percent salicylic acid. Beware, these peels will likely leave your face very photosensitive for a few days, but they have been known to significantly reduce sebum for a few weeks at a time.
Dr. Skotnicki recommends Bioderma Micellar Cleanser for acne. It’s one of the few products that can be used safely on both the face and body, even by people who are also taking acne medication. Its gentle formula won’t irritate skin, and it contains a patented “Fludiactiv” complex that helps regulate sebum quality to prevent pores from becoming clogged.
Benzoyl Peroxide – A strong compound that kills the bacteria that causes acne1. It also gets rid of excess oil and the build-up of dead skin cells which clog your pores. This ingredient is exceptionally strong, and it can cause some side effects like redness, dry skin, burning or stinging and scaling. You’ll only find it in products at 2.5% to 10% strength. However, dermatologists recommend that adults stick to a low-dose of benzoyl peroxide, at around 3% for minimal irritation and to avoid bleaching your skin, hair or clothing.
Acne, also known as acne vulgaris, is a long-term skin disease that occurs when hair follicles are clogged with dead skin cells and oil from the skin. It is characterized by blackheads or whiteheads, pimples, oily skin, and possible scarring. It primarily affects areas of the skin with a relatively high number of oil glands, including the face, upper part of the chest, and back. The resulting appearance can lead to anxiety, reduced self-esteem and, in extreme cases, depression or thoughts of suicide.
But the side effects of targeted breakout cream treatments aren’t always worth it. “So many products instruct consumers to use benzoyl peroxide spot treat red bumps and pustules. I don’t recommend it,” says Dr. Lawrence Green, board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at George Washington University. Such high concentrations of benzoyl peroxide cause added irritation and inflammation to already sensitive skin, so with this in mind, we cut kits that included spot treatments.
Frequently used topical retinoids include adapalene, isotretinoin, retinol, tazarotene, and tretinoin. They often cause an initial flare-up of acne and facial flushing, and can cause significant skin irritation. Generally speaking, retinoids increase the skin's sensitivity to sunlight and are therefore recommended for use at night. Tretinoin is the least expensive of the topical retinoids and is the most irritating to the skin, whereas adapalene is the least irritating to the skin but costs significantly more. Tazarotene is the most effective and expensive topical retinoid, but is not as well-tolerated. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that has similar but milder effects, and is used in many over-the-counter moisturizers and other topical products.
Side effects include increased skin photosensitivity, dryness, redness and occasional peeling. Sunscreen use is often advised during treatment, to prevent sunburn. Lower concentrations of benzoyl peroxide are just as effective as higher concentrations in treating acne but are associated with fewer side effects. Unlike antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide does not appear to generate bacterial antibiotic resistance.
Spironolactone has relatively minor side effects, like low appetite, weakness, or cramping, but there’s one major exception: spironolactone comes with a black box warning about its cancer-causing effects. The FDA is required to include this label based on a study conducted in the 1950s that found carcinogenic properties in the spironolactone given to rats in an experiment. However, the dose of spironolactone used in this study was nearly 500 times higher than the dose currently prescribed, and no studies since have found anything carcinogenic about spironolactone. Because of this, most dermatologists feel comfortable prescribing spironolactone for acne. Still, it’s something to be aware of before you take it. Additionally, those with low blood pressure or kidney conditions are likely not good candidates for spironolactone and may want to explore other acne treatment options.
A purifying gel cleanser made with 99.4% natural ingredients, this face wash is clinically proven to wash away excess oil, impurities and the bacteria that causes acne. It’s made with salicylic acid naturally derived from willow bark extract, evening primrose and beet root extracts that reduce acne, prevent future breakouts and calms acne prone skin. Best for oily skin types, this face wash helps to keep you oil-free without making your dry or irritated.
This top-of-line cleanser is one that really works amazingly for normal, combination and oily skin types. It’s a foaming face wash with 3% sulfur that makes your skin visibly clearer without drying it out. It removes blemishes, unclogs pores, draws out impurities all while calming redness and reducing excess sebum production. The sulfur in it helps to prevent future breakouts and tames even the worst acne breakouts.
Resorcinol – Almost always found coupled with sulfur, this ingredient breaks down hardened, rough or scaly skin, while disinfecting and fighting infections5. This ingredient is often used topically to treat pain and itching stemming from small injuries like scrapes and cuts, burns, bug bites, sunburn, poison ivy and more. It’s also used to treat skin conditions like eczema, seborrhea, psoriasis, warts, corns and other disorders. It is generally found in strengths of up to 2%.
If you take a close look at the acne-fighting ingredients, you will find that no single ingredient does all the work to get rid of acne. Each one has a unique effect that plays a role in the elimination of acne, but only when they are used combined or in sequence in a system do they have ability to get rid of acne altogether. This is why it is so important to use an effective system for fight acne, not just a single product.
The best acne treatment system will include a cleanser, exfoliant and a treatment product that can be used daily. The idea is to have a product that cleans and clears clogged pores, kills bacteria, exfoliates to remove dead cells and spot treats trouble spots to combat stubborn blemishes and reduces inflammation and redness. For those with oily skin, a toner may be useful. For those with black heads, deep cleansing pore strips will help. If you have dry skin, foaming face wash would be something you want to avoid. The point is, a carefully tailored system is the best approach to an effective acne treatment.
Neutrogena is one of the best drugstore beauty brands, hands-down, and you can't go wrong with this simple acne wash for acne-stricken skin. It's an Allure Magazine Reader Choice Awards winner, as well. Readers love it because the salicylic acid gel is gentle and soothing — spiked with aloe and chamomile. It also dries out breakouts without drying out sensitive, irritable skin, according to Allure.
Shah often recommends over-the-counter retinols or prescription retinoids to her acne-prone patients. “I find that compared to other treatments they are beneficial for not just treating acne but also preventing new acne from forming as they help prevent that initial stage of the follicle getting clogged,” she says. “They can also help with some of the post acne [problems] such as hyperpigmentation.” But keep in mind if you have sensitive skin (or eczema or rosacea), a prescription retinoid might be too strong an option. However, your dermatologist can recommend an over-the-counter retinol with a low concentration (0.1 to 0.25 percent), which might be better tolerated. Retinol also isn’t a quick fix. It takes time to see results, and it’s something you’ll have to keep using to maintain its benefits. Shah also mentions that retinol plays well with other acne treatments on the list. "Retinol can be combined with other over-the-counter or prescription medications such as benzoyl peroxide, topical antibiotics, and oral medications. The right combination depends on the severity of the acne and your skin type."
First, it’s a cleansing oil, not the typical gel wash or liquid. Next, it has a potent blend of salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acid for superior exfoliation. Third, it contains natural ingredients that repair damage to the skin and get rid of acne. For example, soapwort extract dissolves oil without the need for drying sulfates. Then, vitamin B and lavender combine to reduce oil secretion and inflammation. Finally, watercress is full of antioxidant vitamins that heal damage caused by the sun.
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Although there is no one single cure for acne, we based our reviews first on what doctors are saying about these products and their ingredients. Then we did some digging into all the reviews. We ruled out those products that had primarily negative responses. After all that, we consulted natural product experts to see which system they felt were the best acne treatment.
Acrokeratosis paraneoplastica of Bazex Acroosteolysis Bubble hair deformity Disseminate and recurrent infundibulofolliculitis Erosive pustular dermatitis of the scalp Erythromelanosis follicularis faciei et colli Hair casts Hair follicle nevus Intermittent hair–follicle dystrophy Keratosis pilaris atropicans Kinking hair Koenen's tumor Lichen planopilaris Lichen spinulosus Loose anagen syndrome Menkes kinky hair syndrome Monilethrix Parakeratosis pustulosa Pili (Pili annulati Pili bifurcati Pili multigemini Pili pseudoannulati Pili torti) Pityriasis amiantacea Plica neuropathica Poliosis Rubinstein–Taybi syndrome Setleis syndrome Traumatic anserine folliculosis Trichomegaly Trichomycosis axillaris Trichorrhexis (Trichorrhexis invaginata Trichorrhexis nodosa) Trichostasis spinulosa Uncombable hair syndrome Wooly hair Wooly hair nevus
Genetics play a big part in who gets acne and how severely, but each blemish can be blamed on some combination of sebum production, a bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), plugged follicles, and inflammation. Finding a good treatment is really about finding the right combination of ingredients to troubleshoot each of those issues. Some factors that might worsen acne include hormones, certain medications, diet and stress.
Accutane (isotretinoin) has a mixed reputation, but among dermatologists it’s the finisher for patients with severe acne. “If you have an acne patient that doesn’t respond to anything, [Accutane] can really be a game changer,” board-certified dermatologist Adam Friedman tells SELF. Accutane is an oral retinoid, and it has all the same benefits of a topical retinol but is even more effective.
Scars (permanent): People who get acne cysts and nodules often see scars when the acne clears. You can prevent these scars. Be sure to see a dermatologist for treatment if you get acne early — between 8 and 12 years old. If someone in your family had acne cysts and nodules, you also should see a dermatologist if you get acne. Treating acne before cysts and nodules appear can prevent scars.