Although home remedies are generally convenient and popular, some have significant counterproductive effects on the skin. The famous Procter & Gamble product Ivory Soap is probably the world’s most frequently used acne face wash ingredient. It is also probably the world’s worst acne face wash ingredient. Often advertised as “so pure that it floats,” Ivory Soap is depicted with pictures of babies and fair-skinned blondes to imply that it is a good and inexpensive face wash for acne-affected skin. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
When whiteheads and blackheads become infected with bacteria, called Propionibacterium acnes, it leads to inflammatory acne. Regular bacteria is found in most whiteheads and blackheads, but P. acnes is attracted to the closed, oily environment. This bacteria makes acne more difficult to treat. The four different pimple types that characterize inflammatory acne are papules, pustules, nodules and cysts.
Acne treatments come with different ingredients and formulas, but our method for choosing the best acne products is hardly top-secret. As with all of our “best of” reviews, we looked for products that have plenty of positive reviews and a strong track record of delivering proven results over time. We ignore products that promise a quick-fix or aren’t backed by sound science. We like products with natural ingredients, but that didn’t determine our final choices. We think you’ll be well-served by the products listed here.
What it does: Benzoyl peroxide is the only known substance which can bring oxygen under the skin surface. Since bacteria cannot survive in the presence of oxygen, when used in an adequate dosage, benzoyl peroxide eradicates 99.9% of these bacteria almost immediately. It also exerts a mild drying and peeling effect, which is thought to help prevent breakouts.1-6 Benzoyl peroxide also helps lessen inflammation.7-9 2.5% benzoyl peroxide is just as effective as higher concentrations with less side effects.6,10
Clean your face really well using a mild face cleanser and gently pat dry. Let your skin further air dry and don’t put anything else on it. Don’t put anything else on your face like moisturizer, serum, toner, etc. After a half hour, carefully check your cheeks, chin, forehead and nose, with a hand mirror, for any shine. Also, check if your skin feels tight when you smile or make exaggerated facial expressions.
Comedonal is the mildest type of acne and doesn’t cause painful swelling or inflammation in most cases. It usually manifests as blackheads or whiteheads on the skin. Blackheads occur when dirt and germs under the skin’s pores cause the skin to appear dark. Males going through puberty, as well as young adults, will experience some form of comedonal acne in their lives. It also may occur because of allergic reactions to skin or hair products, but most acne lesions, such as whiteheads and blackheads, occur because of a hard blockage of excess sebum in skin pores.
Retinoids: Retinoids are substances that are derived from vitamin A, which includes retinol, but also includes synthetic versions of retinol with activated retinoic acid which tends to be more effective in treating acne. Retinoic acid has been shown to reduce sebum production8 and regulate skin cell production9, which together can greatly reduce acne. These synthetic retinoids include adapalene, tretinoin, isotretinoin, and others. Although these synthetic options are more reliably effective, they also tend to have more side effects, like burning, itching, and dryness. Unlike retinol, which is available over-the-counter, nearly all synthetic retinoids are prescription-only. One of the main exceptions is Differin, which is a brand that sells a topical gel containing adapalene, a mild synthetic retinoid, over-the-counter.
Alpha-Hydroxy Acids – These are synthetic acids derived from sugary fruits that remove dead skin cells3 while reducing inflammation. The two common types that can be found in over-the-counter acne treatments are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Another benefit of these acids is that they improve the appearance of your acne scars and make your pores look smaller by stimulating the growth of new, healthy skin.
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Frequently used topical retinoids include adapalene, isotretinoin, retinol, tazarotene, and tretinoin. They often cause an initial flare-up of acne and facial flushing, and can cause significant skin irritation. Generally speaking, retinoids increase the skin's sensitivity to sunlight and are therefore recommended for use at night. Tretinoin is the least expensive of the topical retinoids and is the most irritating to the skin, whereas adapalene is the least irritating to the skin but costs significantly more. Tazarotene is the most effective and expensive topical retinoid, but is not as well-tolerated. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that has similar but milder effects, and is used in many over-the-counter moisturizers and other topical products.
Our favorite for banishing blemishes on the fly, Glossier's zit stick is not only effective, but it's portable. Just stash it in your purse for any unexpected breakouts! Packed with acne-fighting benzoyl peroxide, this convenient roll-on works extremely quickly. In a clinical trial, 83% of test subjects said that it lessened the appearance of pimples in just 3 hours. We've tried it ourselves and can confirm the 3-hour claim is true.
How to Handle It: Your best bet is benzoyl peroxide. "Benzoyl peroxide can kill acne-causing bacteria and reduce inflammation," says Zeichner. Try a cream like the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual-Action Acne Treatment ($37), which also exfoliates with lipo-hydroxy acid. Be aware that it can seriously dry out skin so moisturize well after you use it.
Perhaps one of the most popular cleansers for combination skin care on the market today, Boscia's purifying cleansing gel works best for oily to normal skin types. It works by gently cleansing skin without stripping it and adding harsh elements to the skin. It can be a tad drying, so it works best on women with more oily spots than dry spots. You can also use it to cleanse your oily T-zone, but keep it away from your dry spots, where you may want to moisturize more.
Just as there are no bells and whistles with Purpose above, there are none with this baby-mild product that renowned dermatologists swear by. So why is this $10 cleanser such a must-have? It's creamy, simple and isn't loaded with chemicals or perfumes that can irritate the skin. Cetaphil products are revered in the industry and their cleanser is one of the best drugstore buys out there. Period.
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 P. 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).
Considerations: Regardless of the type of antibiotic prescribed, only about one half of patients respond. When antibiotics do produce results, these results are moderate at best.5-8 Oral antibiotics should be used for only a short period of time, up to 6 months. However, even within this short time frame, antibiotics have been implicated in the proliferation of resistant colonies of bacteria. Some antibiotics cause increased sensitivity to sunlight. Exposure to the sun could cause a rash, itchiness, or redness, and you may be burnt more easily, so you'll want to wear protective clothing and sunscreen.2 Side effects may include upset stomach, diarrhea, nausea, headache, vomiting, dizziness, or light-headedness as your body becomes accustomed to it.2 Minocycline is less prescribed because it works no better than any other antibiotic and comes with safety concerns, including the possibility of irreversible skin pigmentation.8-11
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.
If you’re looking for a hormonal solution to your acne but don’t want to take a combined oral contraceptive, spironolactone may be the answer. This oral medication is a potassium-sparing diuretic originally designed to treat high blood pressure, but is now also used to treat acne. It mainly functions by reducing sebum production, leading to less acne formation13. If you are able to get pregnant, you don’t necessarily need to take a combined oral contraceptive, but you will want to use some form of birth control since spironolactone, like Accutane, is a well-known teratogen and is known for causing birth defects.
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. One review linked a Western pattern diet, high in simple carbohydrates, milk and dairy products, and trans fats and saturated fats, along with a low omega-3 fatty acids, with acne.
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