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.
Spot treatments are designed to give problem pimples a mega-dose of concentrated benzoyl peroxide — in a couple of regimens, like the Proactiv Teen Kit, the spot treatment had nearly three times the benzoyl peroxide as its all-over treatment. The logic: If benzoyl peroxide can be irritating to the skin in high concentrations, limiting its intensity to just the pimple itself could save the rest of your healthy skin.
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Hormonal fluctuations and an imbalance of estrogen and testosterone levels have proven to be a direct cause of acne. For this reason, many experience an onslaught of breakouts during puberty and pregnancy. The brain releases a GnRH hormone when an adolescent begins puberty, which in turn signals the pituitary gland to release two additional androgens. Androgens make the sebaceous glands produce more sebum, causing it to occupy too much space within the pore and preventing the full expulsion of dead skin cells and debris. Fluctuations in hormones also cause many women to experience acne during pregnancy and a worsening of breakouts during menstrual cycles.
The relationship between diet and acne is unclear, as there is no high-quality evidence that establishes any definitive link between them. High-glycemic-load diets have been found to have different degrees of effect on acne severity. Multiple randomized controlled trials and nonrandomized studies have found a lower-glycemic-load diet to be effective in reducing acne. There is weak observational evidence suggesting that dairy milk consumption is positively associated with a higher frequency and severity of acne. Milk contains whey protein and hormones such as bovine IGF-1 and precursors of dihydrotestosterone. These components are hypothesized to promote the effects of insulin and IGF-1 and thereby increase the production of androgen hormones, sebum, and promote the formation of comedones. Available evidence does not support a link between eating chocolate or salt and acne severity. Chocolate does contain varying amounts of sugar, which can lead to a high glycemic load, and it can be made with or without milk. Few studies have examined the relationship between obesity and acne. Vitamin B12 may trigger skin outbreaks similar to acne (acneiform eruptions), or worsen existing acne, when taken in doses exceeding the recommended daily intake. Eating greasy foods does not increase acne nor make it worse.
Rosemary oil has been around for years and used topically for acne and inflamed skin. (15) A Chinese study concluded that rosemary essential oil helps decrease acne due to its antibacterial effects. To better understand the effects, the study increased the concentration of the rosemary essential oil, resulting in severely damaged bacterial bodies. Treated bacteria eventually led to bacterial death. (16)
Side effects include increased skin photosensitivity, dryness, redness and occasional peeling. 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. Unlike antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide does not appear to generate bacterial antibiotic resistance.
All acne is not, actually, created equal. This makes perfect sense, seeing as there are so many factors — i.e. hygiene, hormones, and genetics — that can both lead to and exacerbate your breakouts. But knowledge is power, and just knowing that there are different types, and that each kind requires its own plan of attack, puts you ahead of the clear-skin curve. Once you figure out what you're working with, it gets far easier to treat. Here, your ultimate guide to identifying, and then taking down, every type of acne out there, according to dermatologists. Find out how to identify and deal with the different kinds of acne, including blackheads, whiteheads, blind pimples, and cystic zits.
Acne, also known as acne vulgaris, is a long-term skin disease that occurs when hair follicles are clogged with dead skin cells and oil from the skin. It is characterized by blackheads or whiteheads, pimples, oily skin, and possible scarring. It primarily affects areas of the skin with a relatively high number of oil glands, including the face, upper part of the chest, and back. The resulting appearance can lead to anxiety, reduced self-esteem and, in extreme cases, depression or thoughts of suicide.
“Sometimes I see people try over-the-counter products just for a couple of weeks, they get frustrated, they say it’s not working, and they discontinue them,” Arthur says. “But it really does take a while to see the effectiveness. So unless you’re having a problem with the medication, like it’s causing severe irritation or dryness, it’s recommended to give it at least 2-3 months before switching to something else.”
How to Handle It: If you've tried the usual anti-acne ingredients, like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide (which, we should warn you, rarely work for this), you should consider paying your dermatologist a visit. "You may need a cortisone injection or an oral medication, like an antibiotic, in addition to topical formulas," says Zeichner. He's also a fan of a prescription topical medication called Epiduo Forte Gel, since, he says, it's been shown to be effective at controlling severe acne without the help of oral treatments.
Several scales exist to grade the severity of acne vulgaris, but no single technique has been universally accepted as the diagnostic standard. Cook's acne grading scale uses photographs to grade severity from 0 to 8 (0 being the least severe and 8 being the most severe). This scale was the first to use a standardized photographic protocol to assess acne severity; since its creation in 1979, the scale has undergone several revisions. The Leeds acne grading technique counts acne lesions on the face, back, and chest and categorizes them as inflammatory or non-inflammatory. Leeds scores range from 0 (least severe) to 10 (most severe) though modified scales have a maximum score of 12. The Pillsbury acne grading scale simply classifies the severity of the acne from grade 1 (least severe) to grade 4 (most severe).
The verdict on smoking and its relationship to acne is still undecided. The evidence goes back and forth; while many studies seem to prove this theory, other studies contradict such research. For example, research published in 2001 by the British Journal of Dermatology concluded that out of 896 participants, smokers tended to have more acne in general; the more they smoked, the worse their acne felt and appeared. Confusingly, a study published just five years later in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology offered opposing research; nurses interviewed over 27,000 men within a span of 20 years and found that active smokers showed significantly lower severe than non-smokers. Although smoking’s relationship with acne vulgaris is undetermined, smoking has proven effects on acne inversa. It also disrupts hormonal balance, lowers vitamin E levels (an essential antioxidant in skin), induces higher instances of psoriasis, decreases oxygen flow to skin cells, and slows the healing process of open sores. Acne aside, smoking promotes wrinkles and premature aging. Did we mention it’s also deadly? Kick this habit to the curb; your skin will thank you.
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.