First, let’s talk about what causes acne. Pimples form when the oil and dead skin cells on your skin combine to form a plug that blocks the pores. “As the P. acnes bacteria that naturally live on skin overgrow within this plugged follicle, the area becomes inflamed and this is when you start to see papules, pustules, and cystic lesions,” RealSelf dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D., tells SELF. The treatments ahead work to exfoliate away dead skin cells, suck up excess oil, stop inflammation, and kill the P. acnes bacteria. There are even a few treatments that target hormonal acne specifically.
Acne that’s more inflammatory is denoted as moderate acne. This happens when there are occasional nodules and possibly mild scarring. Severe acne occurs when there are a lot of inflammatory lesions, nodules and possibly scarring. It’s also considered severe if the acne is still present after six months of treatment or if it causes serious psychological issues.
Back acne (sometimes called "bacne") is a potentially embarrassing and sometimes painful condition where clogged hair follicles on the back cause pimples and blackheads. Back acne can be caused by the same factors as other types of acne: diet, hormones, certain medications, genetics or any combination thereof. But when you're considering how to get rid of back acne, also remember that most people have their back covered the majority of the day. The clothing we wear matters, and the way in which we wash the skin on our back is key for clear skin, the whole body over. Learn more about common back acne causes, the best acne products for your body, and how to prevent acne on the back from returning in this section.
The earliest pathologic change is the formation of a plug (a microcomedone), which is driven primarily by excessive growth, reproduction, and accumulation of skin cells in the hair follicle. In normal skin, the skin cells that have died come up to the surface and exit the pore of the hair follicle. However, increased production of oily sebum in those with acne causes the dead skin cells to stick together. The accumulation of dead skin cell debris and oily sebum blocks the pore of the hair follicle, thus forming the microcomedone. This is further exacerbated by the biofilm created by C. acnes within the hair follicle. If the microcomedone is superficial within the hair follicle, the skin pigment melanin is exposed to air, resulting in its oxidation and dark appearance (known as a blackhead or open comedo). In contrast, if the microcomedone occurs deep within the hair follicle, this causes the formation of a whitehead (known as a closed comedo).
Oh, hello old friend. Salicylic acid is the go-to fix for pimply preteens. And cruising through the aisles at the drugstore, you’ll find it as the active ingredient on the majority of products labeled “acne wash” or “spot treatment.” Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that works by dissolving excess oil and gently exfoliating away dead skin cells. Salicylic also has anti-inflammatory properties to help with inflamed cystic breakouts that can occur when blockages deep in the hair follicles rupture beneath the skin. It’s best to apply this ingredient as a toner, moisturizer, or leave-on spot treatment instead of a face wash to give it time to do its work. And keep in mind, salicylic acid can dry out the skin if over-applied, so maybe choose only one product with the ingredient to use every day.
Inside your hair follicles, there are small glands producing oil called sebum. This oil mixes with skin cells in the follicle and joins them on the journey outward. But when there's too much sebum, too many dead skin cells or something on the surface that blocks their exit from the follicle, a blockage can occur. Bacteria joins the party, and the result is acne vulgaris, the most common form of acne.
Light therapy is a treatment method that involves delivering certain specific wavelengths of light to an area of skin affected by acne. Both regular and laser light have been used. When regular light is used immediately following the application of a sensitizing substance to the skin such as aminolevulinic acid or methyl aminolevulinate, the treatment is referred to as photodynamic therapy (PDT). PDT has the most supporting evidence of all light therapies. Many different types of nonablative lasers (i.e., lasers that do not vaporize the top layer of the skin but rather induce a physiologic response in the skin from the light) have been used to treat acne, including those that use infrared wavelengths of light. Ablative lasers (such as CO2 and fractional types) have also been used to treat active acne and its scars. When ablative lasers are used, the treatment is often referred to as laser resurfacing because, as mentioned previously, the entire upper layers of the skin are vaporized. Ablative lasers are associated with higher rates of adverse effects compared with nonablative lasers, with examples being postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, persistent facial redness, and persistent pain. Physiologically, certain wavelengths of light, used with or without accompanying topical chemicals, are thought to kill bacteria and decrease the size and activity of the glands that produce sebum. The evidence for light therapy as a treatment for acne is weak and inconclusive. Disadvantages of light therapy can include its cost, the need for multiple visits, time required to complete the procedure(s), and pain associated with some of the treatment modalities. Various light therapies appear to provide a short-term benefit, but data for long-term outcomes, and for outcomes in those with severe acne, are sparse; it may have a role for individuals whose acne has been resistant to topical medications. A 2016 meta-analysis was unable to conclude whether light therapies were more beneficial than placebo or no treatment, nor how long potential benefits lasted. Typical side effects include skin peeling, temporary reddening of the skin, swelling, and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.
The Pore Normalizing Cleanser is designed just to cleanse, not treat, which is a good thing: The Nurse Practitioner study emphasizes the importance of washing with mild cleansers in conjunction with topical acne medications to combat or avoid excessive skin irritation. This one is water-based and fragrance-free, and uses sodium laureth sulfate (as opposed to its harsh cousin sodium lauryl sulfate) to eliminate any chance for irritation.
It’s no surprise that coconut oil may help since it’s so useful in just about anything. But there is a reason for this. Coconut oil contains properties that encourage the elimination of bacteria, which is why there are so many uses of coconut oil for skin. Lauric acid is the main ingredient in coconut oil, and this acid that makes it an effective treatment against acne because it provides antibacterial results. (17)
Another once-daily gel your dermatologist might prescribe for acne is Aczone 7.5 percent. The active ingredient, dapsone, is both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, and it’s proven to help with blackheads, whiteheads, and deeper painful pimples. Oftentimes, Aczone is used alongside other acne treatments. And like many of those other remedies, Aczone can cause skin to dry out.
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Dermabrasion is an effective therapeutic procedure for reducing the appearance of superficial atrophic scars of the boxcar and rolling varieties. Ice-pick scars do not respond well to treatment with dermabrasion due to their depth. The procedure is painful and has many potential side effects such as skin sensitivity to sunlight, redness, and decreased pigmentation of the skin. Dermabrasion has fallen out of favor with the introduction of laser resurfacing. Unlike dermabrasion, there is no evidence that microdermabrasion is an effective treatment for acne.
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Castor oil has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that can speed up healing, making it ideal for breakout-prone skin. Though I recommend using it in very small amounts with jojoba oil, hemp seed oil or coconut oil, along with one of the essential oils above, it’s high in unsaturated fatty acids, vitamin E, proteins and minerals, which can help reduce acne-causing bacteria and inflammation associated with breakouts. It can even help heal scars caused by acne.
Acne is at least in part due to hereditary factors. Those whose parents have a history of acne are likely to struggle with the same condition. Your genetic makeup can determine how to get rid of pimples, how sensitive your skin is, how reactive you are to hormonal fluctuations, how quickly you shed skin cells, how you respond to inflammation, how strong your immune system is to fight off bacteria, how much oil your sebaceous glands produce, and the list goes on and on. All of these determinants can cause acne to develop more easily and determine what’s good for pimples in your complexion.
Your pimples need TLC, too. The study on acne vulgaris found that, in an attempt to dry out acne lesions, patients often use too many products or apply excessive amounts to problem areas, resulting in further irritation and over drying of the skin. Vigorous scrubbing and using harsh exfoliants can make acne worse by rupturing whiteheads and blackheads, turning them into painful red ones. And remember: no matter how satisfying it is, picking and popping your zits will also increase inflammation and opportunity for infection.
Doctors aren’t certain what causes it, but the leading theory is that, just like with teen acne, hormones are to blame. “Babies get a surge of Androgen hormones when they’re around a month old, and those hormones can cause enlarged oil glands and, ultimately, acne,” says Dr. Kahn. Oxytocin and Prolactin, which are the hormones that your baby gets from breastfeeding, don’t tend to cause pimples, she adds.
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Salicylic acid is a topically applied beta-hydroxy acid that stops bacteria from reproducing and has keratolytic properties. It opens obstructed skin pores and promotes shedding of epithelial skin cells. Salicylic acid is known to be less effective than retinoid therapy. Dry skin is the most commonly seen side effect with topical application, though darkening of the skin has been observed in individuals with darker skin types.
Cystic Acne: The most severe type of acne, cystic acne requires dermatological care and prescription acne medication to treat. Even the best acne products available over the counter are no match for this painful condition in which the area of the outbreak becomes inflamed, but not infected. Cystic acne can result in permanent scarring. However, it's important to know that all acne lesions can scar. Scarring is related to size, amount of inflammation, genetics and delay in therapy.
Salicylic acid and azelaic acid. Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring acid found in whole-grain cereals and animal products. It has antibacterial properties. A 20 percent azelaic acid cream seems to be as effective as many conventional acne treatments when used twice a day for at least four weeks. It's even more effective when used in combination with erythromycin. Prescription azelaic acid (Azelex, Finacea) is an option during pregnancy and while breast-feeding. Side effects include skin discoloration and minor skin irritation.