There’s nothing quite like a bad skin day to ruin your mood. Pimples can leave you feeling self-conscious and can be tricky to treat if you don’t know where to start. We all want clear skin, so we’ve done the research to help you keep up to date on the best treatment options to get your skin clear and glowing.
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There are a variety of factors that can contribute to a breakout. Stress and diet can impact your skin’s condition, but pimples largely develop due to dead skin cells, sebum, and bacteria building up in a pore. It’s important to know how different types of pimples are formed so that you can target your treatments accordingly.
There are three main types of pimples:
Whiteheads are the characteristic pimple with a white-colored top. This type of pimple develops when skin cells, skin sebum (oil), and bacteria build up in a pore. Whiteheads tend not to be painful or inflamed.
Blackheads are quite similar to whiteheads, except that the top of the pimple has oxidized and turned black. Blackheads are commonly seen on the nose and tend not to be inflamed or sore.
Pustules, on the other hand, are a type of pimple that occurs when a clogged pore becomes infected. These pimple types will be red, filled with pus, inflamed, and often sore to the touch.
There are various prescription and over-the-counter treatments available to help you get rid of those pesky pimples and have your skin look clear and glowing.
Belonging to the vitamin A group, tretinoin is a relative of retinol that can be prescribed to treat acne. Studies have shown that tretinoin can reduce the size of pimples, prevent pimples from developing, increase skin cell production to reduce the opportunity for skin clogging, and reduce inflammation that often accompanies acne.¹
Tretinoin can be taken orally or used as a topical treatment, but it does require a prescription and cannot be used while pregnant. Tretinoin can come with some serious side effects, so it’s important to talk with your doctor about the risks before starting a course of the medication.
Vitamin C is a great skincare ingredient for those looking to reduce the appearance of acne scars and brighten their overall complexion.² Vitamin C has really taken off as a skincare product and can be found as a topical product in moisturizers, face wash, serums, and powders.
L-ascorbic acid is one of the strongest forms of vitamin C, so look for this if you want a real skincare punch.³ It’s important to note, though, that vitamin C can increase your skin’s sensitivity, so be sure to wear sunscreen daily.
Benzoyl peroxide is great for killing the bacteria that can lead to pimple development and infection and for removing the dead skin cells and excess sebum that block pores and lead to pimples forming.⁴
Because of its antibacterial nature, benzoyl peroxide can be especially effective against pustule-type pimples. You can purchase it at most pharmacies over-the-counter, but do note that it can dry your skin out and bleach clothing and hair.
Antibiotics aren’t just for infections.⁵ They can also help to kill the bacteria that contribute to pimple formation. Tetracycline group antibiotics are typically used for acne treatment, e.g., minocycline, doxycycline.
While antibiotics can effectively help to treat acne, they shouldn’t be prescribed lightly as antibiotic resistance is possible with overuse. Be sure to discuss the possible side effects of antibiotics for acne with your doctor.
Oral contraceptive medications
While it might not be their primary use, certain oral contraceptive medicines can help women manage acne. Oral contraceptive pills that specifically contain both estrogen and progestin can help to improve the appearance of acne, thanks to their ability to reduce androgen production. Androgen hormones can increase skin sebum production, which will increase your chances of pores becoming blocked and pimples forming.
Research tells us that oral contraceptive medicine can have an impressive impact on the appearance of acne. One review of studies involving combined oral contraceptive pills for the treatment of acne found that birth control containing both estrogen and progestin effectively reduced both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne lesions.⁶
Spironolactone is an oral medication that has shown a lot of promise as an acne treatment for women.⁷ Spironolactone works by blocking androgen hormones — the male sex hormones that have been linked to acne development.
Studies have shown that spironolactone can significantly improve the appearance of acne and was a well-tolerated treatment. It is important to note that spironolactone is used in other serious conditions like liver disease, so it’s important to discuss with your doctor whether it’s the best fit for you.
Salicylic is an easily accessible and effective skincare ingredient that can help you to clear up acne and smooth your skin texture. Any ingredient with the word acid in it can be a little intimidating, but salicylic acid is safe to use on your face.⁸ Salicylic acid dissolves dead skin cells, meaning that it can help to break down some of the product blocking your pores and causing pimples to grow. It can also help smooth out your skin and improve its texture.
When starting salicylic acid, be sure to patch test on a small area of skin first to see how you react to it. Salicylic acid can make your skin more sensitive, so it’s best to introduce it into your routine once or twice a week at first. While it is safe to use, salicylic acid can make your skin more sensitive to light, so make sure you use sunblock regularly.
If prescription or over-the-counter acne medicines are a little intimidating, then there are many natural remedies that you might want to try first for clear skin.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar isn’t just for cooking. It also holds strong anti-bacterial properties that could make it ideal for fighting off pimples.⁹ Apple cider vinegar contains acids that have been found to be effective in killing the type of bacteria that causes acne development.
To try apple cider vinegar for your pimples, simply water down one part vinegar to three parts water and apply it to the skin with a cotton pad. Rinse the treatment off with water and continue with your skincare routine.
Tea tree oil
This natural oil extracted from the tea tree plant shows a lot of promise as a spot treatment for pimples. With both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, tea tree oil has what you need to stop a pimple in its tracks.¹⁰
Zinc can play a key role in healthy skin maintenance, thanks to its ability to impact inflammation, cell growth, and hormone levels.¹¹ One study found that patients with acne tend to have low zinc levels, indicating that zinc supplementation may be necessary to improve the appearance of pimples.¹²
Zinc doesn’t seem to be effective when applied to the skin, but you can take zinc supplements to get your levels at the right place for clear skin.
Reduce dairy intake
The connection between dairy and pimples is long-held but slightly controversial due to conflicting research.¹³ We do know that dairy consumption has been linked to acne developments, and the hormones in dairy products could contribute to blemishes.¹⁴
Green tea is a great skincare ingredient thanks to its high levels of polyphenols, antioxidant molecules, which could help to reduce acne inflammation, sebum production, and bacteria growth.¹⁵
Sometimes, acne can be really stubborn, and it can seem like no treatments even made a dent. Here are some things that you need to consider if your skin won’t clear up:
How long did you use a treatment for?
Most acne treatments aren’t instantaneous. It can take weeks and sometimes months for acne treatments to show their worth. Tretinoin, for example, can sometimes make your acne worse in the beginning and can take around six weeks before results start to show. Be sure to be consistent and patient with your acne routine. Let it get to work for a while.
Is this really acne?
If you’ve tried everything for your pimples and nothing is working, then you might want to reconsider whether you do actually have acne? Many dermatological conditions can look similar to acne, such as rosacea, keratosis pilaris, and perioral dermatitis.¹⁶ Consult with your dermatologist to determine what skin condition you have.
Ask a dermatologist
Sometimes, acne can be too stubborn to treat on your own, and in that case, you’ll want to turn to a dermatologist for advice. They’ll be able to tailor a treatment plan specifically for your needs and figure out exactly what’s stopping you from having clear skin.
When it comes to acne, there are many ideas surrounding treatment options, and unfortunately, not all of them turn out to be true. Here are some myths about acne that you should avoid if you want clear skin:
The more I wash my face, the faster my pimples will clear
This is a big no-no. A clean face does not necessarily mean a clear face. Washing or exfoliating your skin too much can strip your skin of its natural oils, leading to an overproduction of sebum, inflaming your skin, and leaving it feeling dry and aggravated.
Popping pimples gets rid of them faster
While it is tempting to pop a pimple to shrink it, the opposite will likely happen. Popping pimples can inflame and swell the blemish and spread acne bacteria to other areas of your face. Try icing a pimple the next time you feel the urge to pop it.
Moisturizing is bad when you have oily skin
Moisturizing does not make your skin more oily, and it often does the opposite. Moisturizing can hydrate your skin cells, resulting in reduced sebum production and clearer, softer skin. If you’re worried about moisturizers blocking your pores, look for a non-comedogenic moisturizer.
You should see a doctor if your acne:
Is resistant to treatment
Is impacting your quality of life
Your family doctor can prescribe you some acne medications, refer you to a dermatologist, or you can reach out to a dermatologist directly.
There’s no magic cure for clear skin, but there are many options available that have shown impressive results in helping to reduce the appearance of acne and overall skin condition.
Is that stubborn acne really acne? | American Academy of Dermatology Association