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While you may have left your love for emo music behind in high school, acne isn’t always something you can say goodbye to so easily. Acne is becoming increasingly more common in adults, with up to 15 percent of women affected—and dry or oily skin can also have similar effects on your skin.
So what causes acne, exactly? “When skin pores get clogged, usually by dead skin cells, oil cannot discharge and accumulates in the pore and under the skin, creating a whitehead or blackhead,” explains Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, MD, a Kansas City dermatologist and editor DermBoard.org. “This is a perfect environment for [the bacteria] Propionibacterium acnes, which then flourishes and causes inflammation, creating pimples.”
Alison Tam, a board-certified dermatologist in Las Vegas, says hormonal changes like perimenopause or menopause, or the use of hormones like testosterone, can cause adult acne. “Adult onset acne may also have no cause, which is extremely common, and progress from just a few pimples to full cystic acne over the course of months to years,” she says.
Best ingredients for acne-prone skin
Controlling acne can be difficult, depending on the severity of your condition, but it’s not impossible. Derms swear by a few ingredients, including salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and Adapalene. While they vary in their chemical compounds, each ingredient can help you achieve your acne-free skin care goals.
“Salicylic acid exfoliates the stratum corneum (outer layer of skin) and penetrates into pores to remove sebum,” says Hadley King, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. This helps to prevent pores from being clogged and can help remove clogs that have already formed."
- Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid, meaning it's a chemical exfoliator.
- According to King, salicylic acid is gentle enough for sensitive skin types to use.
"It dissolves the bonds that hold dull, dead skin cells on the surface of the skin so the skin will gently shed, revealing smoother, brighter skin underneath," says King. Salicylic acid isn’t limited to your face — it’s a beneficial ingredient found in dry scalp and dandruff shampoos, too.
"Benzoyl peroxide is helpful for treating acne not only because it kills bacteria that contribute to acne, but because it helps prevent and clear out clogged pores," explains King.
- King advises looking out for micronized formulas because they cause less irritation and have a longer shelf life.
- Benzoyl peroxide can bleach your clothes and towels, so it's best to use cleansers with this ingredient in the shower.
An OTC retinoid can help manage acne, as well, says King.
- Retinoids regulate skin cell turnover to keep pores free of oil and inflammation at bay.
- Adapalene is the first OTC retinoid, and it's available in 0.1-percent and 0.3-percent strength.
When shopping for skincare products for acne-prone skin, King advises that you buy non-comedogenic items because they won’t clog pores. Tam adds that you should cleanse with gentle face wash twice a day.“Harsh cleansers can strip too much oil and can have the opposite effect, over-stimulating your oil glands,” says Tam. “This may leave you feeling good right away but make you oilier over time.” Follow up cleansing with a non-comedogenic moisturizer and sunscreen (in the morning), suggests Tam.
When using an acne treatment like benzoyl peroxide or retinoid, you only need a small amount, about a pea size, for your entire face, says Nancy Samolitis, a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder and medical director of Facile Dermatology + Boutique. Because these treatments are powerful, you should limit application to once a day, Samolitis advises.
If over-the-counter products aren't working for you, consider seeing a dermatologist or your general practitioner who can help you explore other treatment options, including prescription medications. For adult women, birth control pills with low-dose estrogen and progesterone are often helpful, says Melanie Palm, MD, a dermatologist in San Diego.
Best products for acne-prone skin
Ready to take the first step in getting your acne under control? Below, top dermatologists share their favorite skin care products for acne-prone skin. Here’s to clearer skin days ahead!
“This (non-comedogenic) cleanser contains salicylic acid to clean out pores and calm acne,” says Palm. There's also glycolic acid, a popular type of Alpha Hydroxy Acid, which leads to more even-toned skin and Lipo Hydroxy Acid, which removes excess oil, leaving your skin shine-free. It's suitable for most skin types — acne-prone, oily, combination and sensitive — because it's free of oils, fragrances and parabens. Those with dry or normal skin might find this gel cleanser too dehydrating for regular use.
“This is an excellent benzoyl peroxide product,” says King. With 2.5% micronized benzoyl peroxide it’s effective yet gentle. The cleanser also contains glycerin, a hydrating ingredient. “This is a great cleanser choice if you have a combination of some clogged pore type of acne with whiteheads and blackheads and some inflammatory acne with bigger pink or red pimples,” she says.
Cleanse your face twice daily with Samolitis's pick. MicroClear technology combines 2-percent salicylic acid with oil-dissolving ingredients, unclogging pores and preventing acne-causing buildup. Neutrogena says those with mild to moderate acne will see results within 24 hours because the proprietary technology helps push the ingredients deep into pores.
This device will help you wash your face more effectively, says Palm. A timer tells you when to move on to the next area of your face. It’s also waterproof, so you can use it in the shower. Since Clarisonic is going out of business on September 30, PMD's Clean Smart Facial Cleansing Device is a similar option to consider. The brush is made of silicone, meaning it’s waterproof, antibacterial and odor-resistant. It also vibrates 7,000 times per minute to help remove oil and dirt in your skin, which helps to prevent future breakouts.
Charcoal and 2% salicylic acid pack a one-two punch against pimples, plus the gritty texture provides physical exfoliation to unclog pores. “This is an ideal cleanser choice if you have oily skin and clogged pores with whiteheads and blackheads, without many inflammatory pimples,” says King. It’s also a good alternative to benzoyl peroxide if that’s something your skin can’t tolerate well, she adds.
Emmy M. Graber, MD, a dermatologist and president of the Dermatology Institute of Boston, explains that most benzoyl peroxide products contain 10 percent of the ingredient, but higher strengths have never been proven to be better for acne. “Higher strengths only irritate the skin more, so you should look for a lower strength,” says Graber, who is a fan of this product. It contains 3.5 percent benzoyl peroxide and can be used as a daily cleanser or weekly mask to kill bacteria and prevent future breakouts.
Toning isn’t an essential skin care step, but it can help remove pore-clogging debris from your skin. Samolitis likes this toner because it’s alcohol-free, meaning it won’t strip skin of essential moisture. Lactic and citric acids remove dead skin cells, while aloe soothes.
Graber suggests this toner because witch hazel helps control oil production, relieves inflammation and shrinks the appearance of pores. The fragrance-free, all-natural formula is gentle enough for sensitive skin types, although those with oily, combination and acne-prone skin will find it beneficial as well. The brand says it doubles as a makeup remover, although you may want to avoid using it to wipe away eye makeup.
Don’t think you can skip out on moisturizer if you have acne. It’s all about finding one that’s right for your skin type. This one, a favorite of Samolitis, is formulated with niacinamide to hold moisture in and prevent excess oil production while cucumber soothes irritation. The moisturizer looks thick in the jar yet feels lightweight and soaks into skin with ease.
Sunscreen is an essential step, regardless of your skin type, the weather or you're working indoors. Palm recommends the non-comedogenic formula, which is free of heavy moisturizers that could clog pores. “Zinc oxide and niacinamide are anti-inflammatory and do not promote oil production,” she says. Elta MD's sunscreen offers broad-spectrum protection against the sun's UVA and UVB rays, which cause signs of aging and sun damage.
It might seem counterintuitive to apply oil to your face if you have acne, but this one, which Samolitis likes, is formulated specifically to treat blemishes. Blue tansy is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, minimizing redness associated with acne, while azulene soothes the skin and kukui nut oil balances sebum production. The deep blue oil is best suited for those with oily, combination and acne-prone skin over dry and normal skin types.
“This face mask contains sulfur, the oldest known ingredient to help with skin inflammation,” says Graber. The combo of sulfur and zinc oxide in this mask draw out impurities and gets rid of excess oil, while calamine and cucumber extract cool skin and ensure you don’t feel irritated afterward. Apply the mask either two or three times a week and let it dry on your face for about 15 to 20 minutes. You can also use it as a spot treatment on stubborn breakouts.
Palm says this no-rinse mask is gentle yet effective, with ingredients including lactic and glycolic acids (AHAs) that target pimples and heal post-inflammatory pigmentation and redness. Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital, previously told NBC News Shopping that this face mask also contains "soy and kiwi complex to exfoliate and brighten the skin."
Formulated with 0.1 percent retinaldehyde (a non-prescription retinoid) and soothing thermal spring water, Samolitis likes this treatment lotion that targets acne without irritating. Propionyl-CoA carboxylase (PCC) Enzyme buffs away dirt and oil to help decongest pores and prevent breakouts. After you cleanse and tone your skin at night, then you can rub the lotion into your skin.
Samolitis and King recommend this OTC retinoid, which promotes skin cell turnover and curbs inflammation to deep clean pores and prevent new pimples from forming. After you cleanse, tone and moisturize, apply a thin layer of the gel treatment to the affected areas of the skin.
MORE TIPS FROM DERMATOLOGISTS
- Best moisturizers for dry skin
- How to choose the best anti-aging products
- A better way to take a shower
- The best sunscreens for kids, according to dermatologists