There are two big guns used to take down acne, and they're both great at doing entirely different things. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that comes from willow bark and works primarily as an exfoliator, breaking down fatty acids like sebum so your pores don’t clog. (Glycolic acid works similarly but is less effective.) These acids are effective on comedones — whiteheads, blackheads, and other non-red bumps.
Keep in mind that even if some products market themselves toward severe acne breakouts, all the kits we looked at are definitely designed for mild to moderate acne. Not sure if you fit on that scale? You’re not alone! When you’re in the middle of a breakout, all acne seems severe, so it can be difficult to self-diagnose your symptoms. We talked to dermatologists and cosmetic chemists to better understand the differences between the various types of acne (see below).
Antibiotics are frequently applied to the skin or taken orally to treat acne and are thought to work due to their antimicrobial activity against C. acnes and their ability to reduce inflammation.[20][81][87] With the widespread use of antibiotics for acne and an increased frequency of antibiotic-resistant C. acnes worldwide, antibiotics are becoming less effective,[81] especially macrolide antibiotics such as topical erythromycin.[16][87] Therefore, they are not recommended for use alone but are preferred as part of combination therapy.[15] Commonly used antibiotics, either applied to the skin or taken orally, include clindamycin, erythromycin, metronidazole, sulfacetamide, and tetracyclines such as doxycycline and minocycline.[47] Doxycycline 40 milligrams daily (low-dose) appears to have similar efficacy to doxycycline 100 milligrams daily and has fewer gastrointestinal side effects.[15] When antibiotics are applied to the skin, they are typically used for mild to moderately severe acne.[20] Antibiotics taken orally are generally considered to be more effective than topical antibiotics, and produce faster resolution of inflammatory acne lesions than topical applications.[1] Topical and oral antibiotics are not recommended for use together.[87]
When it comes to how to remove pimples, there are generally three different treatment routes. Some can be performed in conjunction with one another, while others require exclusive usage (as in the case of strong prescription medications). If you’re in need of a skincare solution to clarify your complexion and an answer for how to get rid of pimples, consider the benefits and drawbacks of these various options:

Some people swear by the disinfecting power of tea tree oil for acne treatment. It can be applied either full strength or slightly diluted with water directly onto pimples. Use a small amount on a clean cotton swab or cotton pad and dab on the affected areas immediately after cleansing. Because tea tree oil can be drying, you might choose to use both tea tree oil and coconut oil for acne as part of your clear skin regimen.
In 2015, acne was estimated to affect 633 million people globally, making it the 8th most common disease worldwide.[9][18] Acne commonly occurs in adolescence and affects an estimated 80–90% of teenagers in the Western world.[19][20][21] Lower rates are reported in some rural societies.[21][22] Children and adults may also be affected before and after puberty.[23] Although acne becomes less common in adulthood, it persists in nearly half of affected people into their twenties and thirties and a smaller group continue to have difficulties into their forties.[2]
In women, acne can be improved with the use of any combined birth control pill.[89] These medications contain an estrogen and a progestin.[90] They work by decreasing the production of androgen hormones by the ovaries and by decreasing the free and hence biologically active fractions of androgens, resulting in lowered skin production of sebum and consequently reduced acne severity.[10][91] First-generation progestins such as norethindrone and norgestrel have androgenic properties and can worsen acne.[15] Although oral estrogens can decrease IGF-1 levels in some situations and this might be expected to additionally contribute to improvement in acne symptoms,[92][93] combined birth control pills appear to have no effect on IGF-1 levels in fertile women.[90][94] However, cyproterone acetate-containing birth control pills have been reported to decrease total and free IGF-1 levels.[95] Combinations containing third- or fourth-generation progestins including desogestrel, dienogest, drospirenone, or norgestimate, as well as birth control pills containing cyproterone acetate or chlormadinone acetate, are preferred for women with acne due to their stronger antiandrogenic effects.[96][97][98] Studies have shown a 40 to 70% reduction in acne lesions with combined birth control pills.[91] A 2014 review found that antibiotics by mouth appear to be somewhat more effective than birth control pills at decreasing the number of inflammatory acne lesions at three months.[99] However, the two therapies are approximately equal in efficacy at six months for decreasing the number of inflammatory, non-inflammatory, and total acne lesions.[99] The authors of the analysis suggested that birth control pills may be a preferred first-line acne treatment, over oral antibiotics, in certain women due to similar efficacy at six months and a lack of associated antibiotic resistance.[99]
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.[1] In normal skin, the skin cells that have died come up to the surface and exit the pore of the hair follicle.[10] However, increased production of oily sebum in those with acne causes the dead skin cells to stick together.[10] The accumulation of dead skin cell debris and oily sebum blocks the pore of the hair follicle, thus forming the microcomedone.[10] This is further exacerbated by the biofilm created by C. acnes within the hair follicle.[45] 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).[1][10][20] In contrast, if the microcomedone occurs deep within the hair follicle, this causes the formation of a whitehead (known as a closed comedo).[1][10]

Although the late stages of pregnancy are associated with an increase in sebaceous gland activity in the skin, pregnancy has not been reliably associated with worsened acne severity.[137] In general, topically applied medications are considered the first-line approach to acne treatment during pregnancy, as they have little systemic absorption and are therefore unlikely to harm a developing fetus.[137] Highly recommended therapies include topically applied benzoyl peroxide (category C) and azelaic acid (category B).[137] Salicylic acid carries a category C safety rating due to higher systemic absorption (9–25%), and an association between the use of anti-inflammatory medications in the third trimester and adverse effects to the developing fetus including too little amniotic fluid in the uterus and early closure of the babies' ductus arteriosus blood vessel.[47][137] Prolonged use of salicylic acid over significant areas of the skin or under occlusive dressings is not recommended as these methods increase systemic absorption and the potential for fetal harm.[137] Tretinoin (category C) and adapalene (category C) are very poorly absorbed, but certain studies have suggested teratogenic effects in the first trimester.[137] Due to persistent safety concerns, topical retinoids are not recommended for use during pregnancy.[138] In studies examining the effects of topical retinoids during pregnancy, fetal harm has not been seen in the second and third trimesters.[137] Retinoids contraindicated for use during pregnancy include the topical retinoid tazarotene, and oral retinoids isotretinoin and acitretin (all category X).[137] Spironolactone is relatively contraindicated for use during pregnancy due to its antiandrogen effects.[1] Finasteride is not recommended as it is highly teratogenic.[1]
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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.
If you notice that you’re breaking out right around your period every month, your acne might be linked to hormones. “A sensitivity to the hormones called androgens manifests in the form of cystic acne,” says Linkner. Androgens, namely testosterone, cause the skin to produce more sebum. More sebum equals more acne. Birth control, which has estrogen and progestin, helps keep hormones balanced and skin clear. Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Estrostep, and YAZ are all FDA-approved as acne treatments.

Side effects include increased skin photosensitivity, dryness, redness and occasional peeling.[81] 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.[80][82] Unlike antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide does not appear to generate bacterial antibiotic resistance.[81]


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Toothpaste is a good option if you have a mammoth pimple that you want to take care of quickly. It is effective because it contains silica, which is the same substance that can be found in bags of beef jerky to keep moisture out. As such, toothpaste has been know to dry out and reduce the size of pimples over night. Simply apply some to the affected area before sleep and wash it off in the morning.
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.
Believe it or not, as with adolescent acne, hormones are believed to be mainly to blame. In the case of newborns, however, it’s not their own hormones that are probably prompting the pimple problems, but Mom's — which are still circulating in baby's bloodstream as a holdover from pregnancy. These maternal hormones stimulate baby's sluggish oil-producing glands, causing pimples to pop up on the chin, forehead, eyelids and cheeks (and, sometimes, the head, neck, back and upper chest).
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Acne is different for everyone, but there may be some simple solutions to having clear skin. From the foods you eat to the stress in your life and the products you use, it may take a little time to find what works for you, but positive changes can greatly affect your life and the life of your children that may be affected by acne. If using essential oils, make sure to use pure oils and take it slow. Check with your doctor before using anything new.
This article was medically reviewed by Hilary Baldwin, MD. Baldwin, medical director of the Acne Treatment Research Center, is a board-certified dermatologist with nearly 25 years of experience. Her area of expertise and interest are acne, rosacea and keloid scars. Baldwin received her BA and MA in biology from Boston University. She became a research assistant at Harvard University before attending Boston University School of Medicine. She then completed a medical internship at Yale New Haven Hospital before becoming a resident and chief resident in dermatology at New York University Medical Center.
Misperceptions about acne's causative and aggravating factors are common, and those affected by it are often blamed for their condition.[177] Such blame can worsen the affected person's sense of self-esteem.[177] Until the 20th century, even among dermatologists, the list of causes was believed to include excessive sexual thoughts and masturbation.[166] Dermatology's association with sexually transmitted infections, especially syphilis, contributed to the stigma.[166]

Cystic acne is the most severe form of acne vulgaris and can be caused by a variety of factors. This type of acne sees painful lesions develop deep within the skin, which could result in permanent scarring or hyperpigmentation. Cystic acne is easily diagnosed due it its pronounced, inflamed lesions. However, you should consult a dermatologist to rule out other skin conditions which might mimic acne such as rosacea, psoriasis or perioral dermatitis.
When blocked pores become increasingly irritated or infected, they grow in size and go deeper into the skin. If pimples get trapped beneath the skin’s surface, they can form papules: red, sore spots which can’t be popped (please don’t try! Squeezing the oil, bacteria, and skin cell mixture can result in long term scars that may be unresponsive to acne treatments). They’re formed when the trapped, infected pore becomes increasingly inflamed and irritated, and they usually feel hard to the touch. Papules are small (less than 1 centimeter in diameter) with distinct borders; when clusters of papules occur near each other, they can appear as a rash and make your skin feel rough like sandpaper. Because they’re inaccessible, they’re a bit more difficult to treat, and are therefore considered moderately severe acne.
In 2015, acne was estimated to affect 633 million people globally, making it the 8th most common disease worldwide.[9][18] Acne commonly occurs in adolescence and affects an estimated 80–90% of teenagers in the Western world.[19][20][21] Lower rates are reported in some rural societies.[21][22] Children and adults may also be affected before and after puberty.[23] Although acne becomes less common in adulthood, it persists in nearly half of affected people into their twenties and thirties and a smaller group continue to have difficulties into their forties.[2]
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