Both salicylic acid and benzoyl acid are commonly found in the top acne treatments for getting rid of mild to severe acne. They work in tandem to getting rid of the dead skin and killing bacteria, which are two of the main contributors to the spread of acne. Salicylic acid breaks up the skin to clear pores from skin, oil and bacteria and benzoyl peroxide kills the bacteria slowly over a 48-hour period.
According to Dr. Bailey, it’s not enough to have a facial cleanser designed for acne-prone skin. Half the battle is properly washing your face. Here’s what she recommends: “First, wet your face with warm water, then lather your cleanser over all of your facial skin. Depending on your skin type, you can use your fingers, an exfoliating cloth or a sonic skin-cleansing brush system. Rinse well with warm water to remove the lather entirely. Some of the important acne cleanser ingredients will stay behind, but the cleanser’s foaming agents, as well as built-up oil, dead cells, products and bacteria, will be rinsed off of your skin.”
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.
Any acne treatment is a weeks-long experiment that you’re conducting with your skin. Acne is slow to heal, and in some cases, it can get worse before it gets better (nearly every benzoyl peroxide product we looked at emphasized the likeliness of irritating acne further, and starting off with a lighter application). April W. Armstrong, a doctor at the University of California Davis Health System, recommends waiting at least one month before you deem a product ineffective.
The third phase of the life cycle of acne is inflammation. At this point, your body’s immune system may deal with the problem, but if it doesn’t, different bacteria can move into the pore. Detecting an enemy bacterial invader, your body responds by emitting white blood cells to the infected area. In some cases, the white blood cells have a difficult time fighting the bacteria, and some die, contributing to the oily buildup and creating pus.
Acne is caused when the sebaceous glands in your skin get infected or inflamed. Blemishes and pimples are most commonly found on your face, chest and back. You have a system of oil glands under your skin, and this is where sebum is produced. Sebum is supposed to keep your skin healthily moisturized, but too much production of this oil can cause blackheads and whiteheads. When the oil is pushed out through your hair follicles, it can clog your pores if it attaches to bacteria or dead skin cells. If this happens, sebum will build up behind the plug and form a pimple. And we all know what that is.
Acne medications work by reducing oil production, speeding up skin cell turnover, fighting bacterial infection or reducing inflammation — which helps prevent scarring. With most prescription acne drugs, you may not see results for four to eight weeks, and your skin may get worse before it gets better. It can take many months or years for your acne to clear up completely.
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.
The side effects depend on the type of treatment you use. Generally, for topical, over-the-counter creams, you can watch out for stinging, redness, irritation and peeling — these side effects usually don’t go any deeper than the skin. Others, like oral antibiotics or hormonal medications, could come with new sets of complications, so we suggest talking to your doctor before pursuing the treatment.
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.
The Pore Normalizing Cleanser is designed just to cleanse, not treat, which is a good thing: The Nurse Practitioner study emphasizes the importance of washing with mild cleansers in conjunction with topical acne medications to combat or avoid excessive skin irritation. This one is water-based and fragrance-free, and uses sodium laureth sulfate (as opposed to its harsh cousin sodium lauryl sulfate) to eliminate any chance for irritation.
The treatment regimen your doctor recommends depends on your age, the type and severity of your acne, and what you are willing to commit to. For example, you may need to wash and apply medications to the affected skin twice a day for several weeks. Often topical medications and drugs you take by mouth (oral medication) are used in combination. Pregnant women will not be able to use oral prescription medications for acne.
If you’re used to seeing advertisements for acne treatments using five or six different products to clear up blemishes, you might be surprised that a simple three-step kit is our top pick. In fact, we favored Paula’s Choice for its simplicity. This twice-daily, three-step kit — which includes a cleanser, an anti-redness exfoliant, and a leave-on treatment — is concise without cutting corners.
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