In the simplest sense, acne is caused when pores containing hair follicles and sebaceous (oil) glands become clogged. The sebaceous gland is responsible for producing sebum, an oily substance necessary for skin to stay hydrated and soft. However, too much sebum can plug the opening at the top of the pore, trapping a buildup of oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria leading to acne lesions.
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.
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.
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.
The three-piece set doesn’t come with a sun protection treatment, but Paula’s Choice has one in the line, the Clear Ultra-Light Daily Fluid SPF 30+. “Sun protection is really important, especially with acneic skin,” says Townsend. “In many cases, stronger acne products can make the skin photosensitive to the sun.” This isn’t your normal gloppy white sunscreen. Its fluid formula slips over tender skin, doesn’t need a ton of rubbing in, and also leaves a mattifying finish.
Retinoids and retinoid-like drugs. These come as creams, gels and lotions. Retinoid drugs are derived from vitamin A and include tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A, others), adapalene (Differin) and tazarotene (Tazorac, Avage). You apply this medication in the evening, beginning with three times a week, then daily as your skin becomes used to it. It works by preventing plugging of the hair follicles.