Chemical peels – Professionally-administered (don’t try it at home) chemical peels involve the use of acids to remove superficial areas of the skin. The strength of chemical peels varies from treatment to treatment but work best on people with lighter skin, because the acids used in the peel may cause darkening of the skin. It’s imperative that you talk with a dermatologist before using chemical peels for acne treatment if you have darker skin. The good news, however, is that people with darker skin can use OTC products that contain the same chemicals used in chemical peels (but at a lower percentage).
“We’ve seen it work against a wide range of organisms, including 27 of the 32 strains of acne-causing bacteria,” says Michael Murray, ND, a naturopath and coauthor of The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Multiple studies, including a review of research in the International Journal of Dermatology, back the plant’s power. You can find tea tree oil in a wide variety of soaps, skin washes, and topical solutions. Look for a minimum concentration of 5 percent of the oil to test how your skin reacts. If you find it is too irritating as an all-over treatment, you can use tea tree as a simple spot treatment for more stubborn pimples.
Shah often recommends over-the-counter retinols or prescription retinoids to her acne-prone patients. “I find that compared to other treatments they are beneficial for not just treating acne but also preventing new acne from forming as they help prevent that initial stage of the follicle getting clogged,” she says. “They can also help with some of the post acne [problems] such as hyperpigmentation.” But keep in mind if you have sensitive skin (or eczema or rosacea), a prescription retinoid might be too strong an option. However, your dermatologist can recommend an over-the-counter retinol with a low concentration (0.1 to 0.25 percent), which might be better tolerated. Retinol also isn’t a quick fix. It takes time to see results, and it’s something you’ll have to keep using to maintain its benefits. Shah also mentions that retinol plays well with other acne treatments on the list. "Retinol can be combined with other over-the-counter or prescription medications such as benzoyl peroxide, topical antibiotics, and oral medications. The right combination depends on the severity of the acne and your skin type."
Salicylic Acid – One of the most common topical ingredients you can find over-the-counter, salicylic acid is generally used to reduce the appearance of acne, by reducing swelling and redness. Also known as a beta-hydroxy acid, it exfoliates your skin4 and unclogs your pores, too, but it is quite strong. You’ll only be able to find this in strengths around 2%, but it can still dry and irritate your skin, especially if yours is sensitive. The safest way to use this ingredient is according to the directions!
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.
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.
This is a low foaming formula that doesn’t produce much lather or foam which, for some, may be quite drying. It’s non-comedogenic and moisturizing, without being oily, leaving skin feeling soft and smooth. As the name suggests, it’s the best normal and oily skin types, and for some with combination skin. Due to its low-foaming nature, it doesn’t strip skin of natural oils, promoting skin health and healthy cell growth and protection. However, it may not be good for people with sensitive skin types.
The varying skin types can roughly be broken up into five different categories – normal, oily, combination, dry, and sensitive. These categories are quite broad with each having varying levels of intensity. For example, most people have an oily complexion somewhere on their faces, but some might have excessively oily skin that needs to be cleansed every second day.
That’s why, no matter how uncomfortable your skin may feel while plagued with acne, you must resist the urge to touch your skin. If the irritating sensations become unbearable, there are other methods of treating your skin, such as cooling it with ice packs or aloe vera gel. You can even use medicated creams designed to soothe irritated skin – given that your dermatologist says it’s okay.
Harsh soaps have ingredients that strip your skin of oil will put anyone at risk of pimples and clogged pores due to dry, tightened skin. Almost all body washes, no matter how gentle they claim to be, are designed to remove excess oils from your body quickly and easily. That includes removing dirt and oil from around tougher bodily hairs and pores. But the skin and hair on your face is nothing like the rest of your body. Facial skin is thinner than body skin, even though it has more sebaceous glands (glands that secrete sebum). This makes it more tender, more prone to acne and even more susceptible to aging. Thus, it has to be treated differently than the rest of your body.
The other downside to Proactiv+ is that the bottles are small — like, half the size of Paula’s Choice small. Combine that with its recommended two or three-times daily application, and you’re going to be going through a lot of kits, which ultimately means spending more money on your treatment. If Proactiv is the only thing that works for you, it may very well be worth the investment, but we recommend starting with Paula’s Choice to see if you can get the same results at a cheaper price.
Oral isotretinoin is very effective. But because of its potential side effects, doctors need to closely monitor anyone they treat with this drug. Potential side effects include ulcerative colitis, an increased risk of depression and suicide, and severe birth defects. In fact, isotretinoin carries such serious risk of side effects that all people receiving isotretinoin must participate in a Food and Drug Administration-approved risk management program.
Topical antibiotics deemed safe during pregnancy include clindamycin, erythromycin, and metronidazole (all category B), due to negligible systemic absorption. Nadifloxacin and dapsone (category C) are other topical antibiotics that may be used to treat acne in pregnant women, but have received less study. No adverse fetal events have been reported from the topical use of dapsone. If retinoids are used there is a high risk of abnormalities occurring in the developing fetus; women of childbearing age are therefore required to use effective birth control if retinoids are used to treat acne. Oral antibiotics deemed safe for pregnancy (all category B) include azithromycin, cephalosporins, and penicillins. Tetracyclines (category D) are contraindicated during pregnancy as they are known to deposit in developing fetal teeth, resulting in yellow discoloration and thinned tooth enamel. Their use during pregnancy has been associated with development of acute fatty liver of pregnancy and is further avoided for this reason.
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
We suggest avoiding spot treatments. “Benzoyl peroxide, when placed on red spots, can actually cause more irritation and inflammation to the area. It’s best used to prevent red bumps and pustules, and applied all over the area you want to treat,” said Townsend, who was also quick to naysay a spot-treat-only approach: “Acne affects all of the pores. If someone is going to spot treat against my advice, I still suggest they spot treat one day and treat the whole face the next.”
In women, acne can be improved with the use of any combined birth control pill. These medications contain an estrogen and a progestin. 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. Although oral estrogens can decrease IGF-1 levels in some situations and this might be expected to additionally contribute to improvement in acne symptoms, combined birth control pills appear to have no effect on IGF-1 levels in fertile women. However, cyproterone acetate-containing birth control pills have been reported to decrease total and free IGF-1 levels. 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. Studies have shown a 40 to 70% reduction in acne lesions with combined birth control pills. 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. However, the two therapies are approximately equal in efficacy at six months for decreasing the number of inflammatory, non-inflammatory, and total acne lesions. 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.
Antiandrogens such as cyproterone acetate and spironolactone have been used successfully to treat acne, especially in women with signs of excessive androgen production such as increased hairiness or skin production of sebum, or baldness. Spironolactone is an effective treatment for acne in adult women, but unlike combined birth control pills, is not approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration for this purpose. The medication is primarily used as an aldosterone antagonist and is thought to be a useful acne treatment due to its ability to additionally block the androgen receptor at higher doses. Alone or in combination with a birth control pill, spironolactone has shown a 33 to 85% reduction in acne lesions in women. The effectiveness of spironolactone for acne appears to be dose-dependent. High-dose cyproterone acetate alone has been found to decrease symptoms of acne in women by 75 to 90% within 3 months. It is usually combined with an estrogen to avoid menstrual irregularities and estrogen deficiency. The medication has also been found to be effective in the treatment of acne in males, with one study finding that a high dosage reduced inflammatory acne lesions by 73%. However, the side effects of cyproterone acetate in males, such as gynecomastia, sexual dysfunction, and decreased bone mineral density, make its use for acne in this sex impractical in most cases. Hormonal therapies should not be used to treat acne during pregnancy or lactation as they have been associated with birth disorders such as hypospadias, and feminization of the male babies. In addition, women who are sexually active and who can or may become pregnant should use an effective method of contraception to prevent pregnancy while taking an antiandrogen. Antiandrogens are often combined with birth control pills for this reason, which can result in additive efficacy.
Oral antibiotics are the standard of care in managing acne that is moderate to severe, resistant to topical therapy and covers large body surface areas. Oral antibiotics that may be prescribed to treat acne include tetracycline, doxycycline, minocycline, erythromycin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, trimethoprim and azithromycin. Combination therapy (the use of two or more therapies) including oral antibiotics and topical medication (often retinoids) may help treat acne.
All the dermatologists we talked to agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to acne. Every patient responds to treatments differently, and sometimes it can get worse before it gets better. But with the help of your dermatologist, you can find an acne treatment regimen that works for you. And, yes, we do stress how helpful it is to work with a derm to get it right.
Isotretinoin is an oral retinoid that is very effective for severe nodular acne, and moderate acne that is stubborn to other treatments. One to two months use is typically adequate to see improvement. Acne often resolves completely or is much milder after a 4–6 month course of oral isotretinoin. After a single course, about 80% of people report an improvement, with more than 50% reporting complete remission. About 20% of patients require a second course. Concerns have emerged that isotretinoin use is linked with an increased risk of adverse effects, like depression, suicidality, anemia, although there is no clear evidence to support some of these claims. Isotretinoin is superior to antibiotics or placebo in reducing acne lesions. The frequency of adverse events was about twice as high with isotretinoin, although these were mostly dryness-related events. No increased risk of suicide or depression was conclusively found. Isotretinoin use in women of childbearing age is regulated due to its known harmful effects in pregnancy. For such a woman to be considered a candidate for isotretinoin, she must have a confirmed negative pregnancy test and use an effective form of birth control. In 2008, the United States started the iPLEDGE program to prevent isotretinoin use during pregnancy. iPledge requires the woman under consideration for isotretinoin therapy to have two negative pregnancy tests and mandates the use of two types of birth control for at least one month before therapy begins and one month after therapy is complete. The effectiveness of the iPledge program has been questioned due to continued instances of contraception nonadherence.
Simple alcohols like isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and denatured alcohol are everywhere in acne treatment because they trick you into thinking they’re working: Splash some on and any oil on your face instantly vaporizes. However, these ingredients destroy the skin’s barrier, called the acid mantle. When your acid mantle is damaged, you’re actually more susceptible to breakouts, enlarged pores, and inflammation. To make matters worse, evaporating all the oil on your face can actually set your sebaceous glands into overdrive, leaving your skin oilier than ever. If any product included a simple alcohol high up in its ingredients list, we nixed its whole kit.
Pustules, as their name suggests, are filled with pus. They usually have a white or yellow center surrounded by extremely inflamed skin that is pink or red. The pus isn’t just bacteria and skin cells—it contains some dead white blood cells that were trying to fight the bacteria, too. Squeezing these can cause the skin around them to darken and scar.
Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial ingredient, and it’s very effective at killing the P. acnes bacteria that causes breakouts. But benzoyl isn’t without its downsides. The leave-on creams and cleansing treatments can dry out sensitive skin types and bleach clothing if you aren’t careful. Board-certified dermatologist Eric Meinhardt, M.D., previously told SELF that it's best to stick to formulations that have no more than 2 percent of benzoyl peroxide listed on the active ingredients chart; stronger concentrations are harder on your skin without being any tougher on bacteria.
Considerations: Benzoyl peroxide is able to produce complete clearing of acne only when used in an adequate dosage and within a properly applied benzoyl peroxide regimen. Some dryness, redness, and itchiness is to be expected in the first few weeks of use.6 Scientists call this initial period the "hardening effect" of benzoyl peroxide. About 1-3% of people are allergic to benzoyl peroxide and experience an inflammation of the skin or severe crusting.3This should not be confused with the "hardening effect" of benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide, like any other peroxide, can bleach hair and fabric.1
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