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.
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 do their thing on comedones — whiteheads, blackheads, and other non-red bumps.
Contrary to the marketing promises of “blemish banishers” and “zit zappers,” immediate results are not the trademark of acne treatments — a frustrating truth to anyone suffering through a breakout. And while pimples are personal (your stress-induced spots will look and act differently than your best friend’s breakout), the best acne treatments will include a regimen of products to hit all of acne’s root causes. We tested 43 kits to find the most well-rounded breakout-fighting solutions on the market.
No single product can contain all of the necessary acne-fighting ingredients, despite what some may claim. Some chemicals shouldn’t be used together, while others work together to totally eradicate acne and all the blemishes that come with it. The best acne treatment systems can do that for you, but because everyone’s skin is unique, what works for one person may not work for another. The key lies in finding the right system, a combination of products, that work best for your unique skin.
According to a 2016 review of research that examined how diet may impact breakouts, researchers concluded that “compelling evidence shows that high glycemic load diets may exacerbate acne.” Foods high on the glycemic index (GI) tend to be higher in refined carbs, like those found in white bread. Scientists suspect that raised insulin levels from the carbs may trigger a release of hormones that inflame follicles and increase oil production.
Some of us grew up with parents telling us to quit eating potato chips and other greasy foods, because they cause acne. Fact is, gobbling down chips and chicken wings will ruin a well-balanced diet, but they won’t cause you to break out in pimples. Stress, on the other hand, can contribute to acne’s formation, but a steady diet of junk food just gives you indigestion, among other potential health issues.
This inflammatory cascade typically leads to the formation of inflammatory acne lesions, including papules, infected pustules, or nodules. If the inflammatory reaction is severe, the follicle can break into the deeper layers of the dermis and subcutaneous tissue and cause the formation of deep nodules. Involvement of AP-1 in the aforementioned inflammatory cascade leads to activation of matrix metalloproteinases, which contribute to local tissue destruction and scar formation.
In one 2018 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereolog, researchers found that milk consumption—particularly skim milk, which is higher in sugar than whole milk—was associated with a greater risk of acne. Beyond the higher sugar content, scientists believe that proteins and hormones found in milk products, including IGF-1, may play a role in acne flare-ups by increasing oil production and inflammation.
Ideally, you want to find an acne face wash and care system that utilizes a number of these ingredients, for best results. It can be a full system by a single brand, like Exposed Skin Care, or it can be a combination of products that you’ve tried and tested for yourself. The important thing to take away here is that there are several ways to treat your acne and knowing what each ingredient does will help you tailor the perfect solution for you.
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