Acne 101: How to Beat Your Blemishes for Good

person applying clay skincare mask

McKinsey Jordan / Stocksy

It’s Acne Awareness Month, and when it comes to the skin concern, we all want to know: How do you get rid of it? If you’re acne-prone, I’m almost certain that’s a question you find yourself asking over and over again. In fact, everyone who’s ever had a breakout knows that acne is—at best—frustrating. At worst, it’s a damaging blow to your self-confidence. I’ve dealt with severe bouts in the past and have vivid memories of talking from behind my hands or avoiding mirrors in a bid to ensure my skin wasn’t seen. And did you know that in the dermatology world, anyone who gets just one or two spots every month is considered to have acne? But for most of us, when we think of acne, we think of those angry, sore, under-the-skin cysts and whiteheads.

When you’re in the midst of your worst flare-ups, the need to soothe your skin can feel a little bit desperate. That’s when you can make bad decisions and pummel your pores with products that are far too harsh. Enter your guide to treating acne in a way that’s beneficial to your skin type so you won’t wake up with skin that feels raw and ravaged by the wrong routine again.

What Causes Acne?

touching face acne causes

Aleksandra Jankovic / Stocksy

Or, as I’ve often asked myself, What doesn’t cause acne? There are so many triggers—from allergies to the wrong skincare regimen to just plain genetics. Even pollutant particles could be infiltrating your pores and causing breakouts, or burning the candle at both ends until your body and—in turn—skin freaks out.

It’s tricky to pinpoint what exactly could be causing your spots, but a number of lifestyle tweaks may shed some light on the main aggressor. For example, regularly washing your pillowcases and towels is a must, and Shabir Daya, pharmacist and co-founder of Victoria Health, recommends you switch them every three to four days.

Your hair products could also be causing upset for your skin, but before you resign yourself to a future of topknots, take a look at how you wash your lengths. Silicones and sulphates in shampoos and conditioners can lead to clogged pores, so “make sure you tilt your head to the side to prevent these hair products from running down your face,” Daya recommends.

Meanwhile, you can deal with stress-induced spots by, well, trying to stress out a little less. That’s not always easy, but exercise, meditation or just taking some “me” time can work wonders. And if it’s your acne that’s causing your worries (the ultimate vicious cycle), remember that scrubbing at spots like there’s no tomorrow will only make them angrier.

And it goes without saying that diet plays a part. There’s bad news for cheese lovers, as the American Academy of Dermatology says there may be a link between dairy and breakouts. Bread, coffee and sugar also get a bad rep amongst dermatologists, as they’re pro-inflammatory, so they make your inflamed complexion worse. Instead, chow down on whole foods like protein and vegetables. Also, consume plenty of zinc, which is crucial to good cell function (and easy to find in supplement form).

The acne itself occurs when your pores become blocked—whether that be by sebum, dead skin or bacteria. That means it’s not only oily skins that suffer from breakouts. That’s why it’s a must to look at the skin surrounding your spots, identify whether it’s dry, oily or combination, and then adjust your skincare routine to suit the state of your pores.

Know Your Ingredients

skincare product gua sha roller

Hannah Criswell / Stocksy

“Many of the skincare products available for acne are, in fact, harsh or toxic chemicals,” explains Daya. “These can often cause more problems than they solve, as they inflame breakouts or slow down their healing.”

But what makes a spot treatment too harsh? Daya says to try and steer clear of mineral oil and fragrances, as well as certain alcohols which may be labelled ethanol, ethyl, methanol, benzyl, isopropyl or SD alcohol. While they might look and sound like they’ll deter excess sebum, he warns that they could also “strip away the skin’s natural acid mantle, leaving you wide open to bacterial infection, including acne and blemishes.”

Be wary of so-called fragrance-free products, too. Some are scented with phthalates, which can disrupt hormones and make your skin break out all of a sudden. Mineral oils to watch out for include liquid paraffin, petrolatum and paraffin wax, which are sometimes comedogenic, meaning they’re likely to clog your pores.

This isn’t just a long list of no-nos, however. There are good ingredients to get on your radar, too. “Glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids, clay, sulphur, tea tree oil and vitamin A” are good options, says Lisa Goldfaden, co-founder of Goldfaden MD.

The Dry-Skin Routine

You know how I said that oily skin isn’t the only skin type that deals with spots? I’ve seen this for myself when finding that my skin is more inflamed when it’s totally parched. So before you go full-throttle with astringent washes on a cluster of pimples, remember that dry skin is more open to bacteria, and flakiness can clog your complexion. Daya recommends swapping foamy lathers for two alternating cleansers. Use a one rich in salicylic acid every other night to control lesions, and a gentle cleansing cream every day.

A great wash designed just for spot-prone, dry skin is BareMinerals Blemish Remedy Anti-Imperfection Treatment Gelée Cleanser (£17), which contains high levels of salicylic acid. Between mornings and nights of removing makeup and grime, try a plain cleanser, like Philosophy Purity Made Simple ($25), which is perfect for fragile faces. Next, focus on putting hydration back in. Dermalogica Active Moist ($42) is a lightweight moisturizer that you can use day and night. Then, add blemish-busting oils with either argan or coconut oil. In the morning, Daya suggests dosing your cream with a couple of drops of tea tree oil.

how to get rid of acBare Minerals Blemish Remedy Anti-Imperfection Treatment Gelee Cleansene: BareMinerals Blemish Remedy Anti-Imperfection Treatment Gelee Cleanse
Bare Minerals Blemish Remedy Anti-Imperfection Treatment Gelee Cleanse $26
Philosophy Purity Made Simple
Philosophy Purity Made Simple Facial Cleanser $24
Dermalogica Active Moist
Dermalogica Active Moist $42

The Oily-Skin Routine

If you suspect your spots are down to a buildup of oil, use a wash containing salicylic acid, charcoal, or tea tree oil, like Byrdie's favorite Bioré Deep Pore Charcoal Cleanser ($6). Up the de-greasing benefits with the use of a purifying mask. Daya recommends Niod Flavanone Mud ($39), which tingles slightly, but decongests your complexion without being too harsh. Or for those who are low maintenance or what to try a less is more approach look to Avène Cleanance Mask (£15) which you apply to the skin for 5 minutes before massaging and rinsing away. It has granules to gently exfoliate, whilst cleansing and mopping up unwanted oil too. 

He adds, “Even oily skin still requires moisture, so aim to use a non-comedogenic moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated and balanced.” At night, pair this with a medicated cream, such as La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo (£18), which has earned cult status for its ability to temper grease and shrink pimples.

Bioré Deep Pore Charcoal Cleanser
Bioré Deep Pore Charcoal Cleanser $8
Niod Flavanone Mud
Niod Flavanone Mud $39
Avène Cleanance Mask
Avène Cleanance Mask $15
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo $23

Acne-Safe Makeup

Sometimes the last thing you want to do is put makeup on skin that already feels clogged. Other times, you get the urge to dowse your face in the thickest foundation you can find. Having spoken to many a makeup artist about how to camouflage blemishes, I’ve always been told that sheer coverage is best. Opt for a light veil first to keep your skin looking dewy, and then apply a concealer over spots with a flat, dense brush that packs the color on.

As for ingredients in your makeup, Goldfaden recommends skipping anything with “talc, silicones, fragrances, mineral oil, sulfates or phthalates,” as these can encourage acne. A good option for a cover-up is Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer (£24), while Vichy Normaderm BB Clear (£17) will give you light-feeling coverage that’s dosed with salicylic acid.

Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer
Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer $31
Vichy Normaderm BB Clear
Vichy Normaderm BB Clear $17

Face vs Fiction

Explain to someone who doesn’t have acne that you’re dealing with a breakout, and chances are they’ll repeat an old wive’s tale about how to soothe your skin. You’ve probably heard them all, but as for the ones that actually work? Honey as an antibacterial mask, lemon juice as a natural exfoliant, distilled white vinegar rinsed off after 10 minutes and cold compresses to reduce swelling. As for what isn’t quite so helpful? Toothpaste can actually dry and irritate your skin, and sunbathing doesn’t work. (Please, never bake your skin.)

When to Visit the Doctor

There’s no “wrong” time to visit the doctor or dermatologist if your acne is really bothering you, and they should be able to help you discover if the spots are down to allergies. However, you should only seek strong prescription medication if your skin condition becomes severe. Daya says this is usually when your breakouts become cystic (very hard), or when your skin care regimen doesn’t seem to be working. You’ll then be advised on the best treatment for you.

Opening Image: Imaxtree

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