While you may have left your love for emo music behind in high school, acne isn’t always something you can say goodbye to so easily. Acne is becoming increasingly more common in adults, with up to 15 percent of women affected.
So what causes acne, exactly? “When skin pores get clogged, usually by dead skin cells, oil cannot discharge and accumulates in the pore and under the skin, creating a whitehead or blackhead,” explains Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, MD, a Kansas City dermatologist and editor DermBoard.org. “This is a perfect environment for [the bacteria] Propionibacterium acnes, which then flourishes and causes inflammation, creating pimples.”
Alison Tam, DO, a dermatologist in Las Vegas, says hormonal changes like perimenopause or menopause, or the use of hormones like testosterone, can cause adult acne. “Adult onset acne may also have no cause, which is extremely common, and progress from just a few pimples to full cystic acne over the course of months to years,” she says.
Ingredients that will help clear up acne
Getting acne under control can be difficult, depending on the severity of your condition, but it’s not impossible. Derms swear by a few ingredients, the first being salicylic acid. “Salicylic acid exfoliates the stratum corneum [outer layer of skin] and penetrates into pores to remove sebum,” says Hadley King, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. “This helps to prevent pores from being clogged and can help remove clogs that have already formed.” Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid, meaning it’s a chemical exfoliator. “It dissolves the bonds that hold dull, dead skin cells on the surface of the skin so the skin will gently shed, revealing smoother, brighter skin underneath,” says Hadley. She adds that salicylic acid is gentle enough for even sensitive skin types to use it.
The second ingredient dermatologists love for acne is benzoyl peroxide. “Benzoyl peroxide is helpful for treating acne not only because it kills bacteria that contribute to acne, but because it helps prevent and clear out clogged pores,” King says. “Micronized formulations are helpful because they cause less irritation to the skin, and they stabilize the molecule so the shelf life can be longer. Just keep in mind that benzoyl peroxide can bleach your clothes and towels, so it’s best to use cleansers with this ingredient in the shower.
An OTC retinoid can help manage acne as well, says King. Retinoids regulate skin cell turnover to keep pores free of oil and inflammation at bay. Adapalene is the first OTC retinoid, and it’s available in 0.1% and 0.3% strength.
Whatever products you choose, they should be labeled “non-comedogenic,” says King, because this means they won’t clog pores. A skin care routine for acne should include gentle cleansing twice a day. “Harsh cleansers can strip too much oil and can have the opposite effect, over-stimulating your oil glands,” says Tam. “This may leave you feeling good right away but make you oilier over time.” Follow up cleansing with a non-comedogenic moisturizer and sunscreen (in the morning), suggests Tam.
When using an acne treatment like benzoyl peroxide or retinoid, you only need a small amount, about a pea size, for your entire face, says Nancy Samolitis, a dermatologist and co-founder and medical director of Facile Dermatology + Boutique. Because these treatments are powerful, you should limit application to once a day, Samolitis advises.
If over-the-counter products aren’t working for you, see a dermatologist or your general practitioner who can help you explore other treatment options, including prescription medications. For adult women, birth control pills with low-dose estrogen and progesterone are often helpful, says Melanie Palm, MD, a dermatologist in San Diego.
Ready to take the first step in getting your acne under control? Below, top dermatologists share their favorite skin care products for acne-prone skin. Here’s to clearer skin days ahead!
Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash
If you need a basic facial cleanser, you can’t beat this one. Samolitis is a fan of the 2% salicylic acid formula that unclogs pores, keeping them free of acne-causing buildup.
La Roche Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Acne Cleanser
“This cleanser contains salicylic acid to clean out pores and calm acne,” says Palm. It’s also formulated with lipo hydroxy acid to remove excess oil from the skin, leaving your complexion shine-free.
AcneFree Oil-Free Acne Cleanser
“This is an excellent benzoyl peroxide product,” says King. With 2.5% micronized benzoyl peroxide it’s effective yet gentle. The cleanser also contains glycerin, a hydrating ingredient. “This is a great cleanser choice if you have a combination of some clogged pore type of acne with whiteheads and blackheads and some inflammatory acne with bigger pink or red pimples,” she says.
Clarisonic MIA Smart 3-in-1 Connected Sonic Beauty Device
This sonic cleansing brush will help you wash your face more effectively, says Palm. A timer tells you when to move on to the next area of your face. It’s also waterproof, so you can use it in the shower.
AcneFree Blackhead Removing Scrub
Charcoal and 2% salicylic acid pack a one-two punch against pimples, plus the gritty texture provides physical exfoliation to unclog pores. “This is an ideal cleanser choice if you have oily skin and clogged pores with whiteheads and blackheads, without many inflammatory pimples,” says King. It’s also a good alternative to benzoyl peroxide if that’s something your skin can’t tolerate well, she adds.
Neutrogena Clear Pore Cleanser/Mask
Emmy M. Graber, MD, a dermatologist and president of the Dermatology Institute of Boston, explains that most benzoyl peroxide products contain 10% of the ingredient, but higher strengths have never been proven to be better for acne. “Higher strengths only irritate the skin more, so you should look for a lower strength,” says Graber, who is a fan of this product. It contains 3.5% benzoyl peroxide and can be used as a daily cleanser or weekly mask to kill bacteria and prevent future breakouts.
PCA Skin Smoothing Toner
Toning isn’t an essential skin care step, but it can help remove pore-clogging debris from your skin. Samolitis likes this toner because it’s alcohol-free, meaning it won’t strip skin of essential moisture. Lactic and citric acids remove dead skin cells, while aloe soothes.
Dickinson’s Original Witch Hazel Pore Perfecting Toner
A great drugstore pick, Graber likes this toner because it helps control oil production. The formula is fragrance-free, so even sensitive skin types can use it.
Don’t think you can skip out on moisturizer if you have acne. It’s all about finding one that’s right for your skin type. This one, a favorite of Samolitis, is formulated with niacinamide to hold moisture in and prevent excess oil production. Cucumber soothes irritation.
Elta MD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46
Sunscreen is a must, no matter your skin type, and this is a good pick for acne-prone skin. Palm raves about the non-comedogenic formula, which is free of heavy moisturizers that could clog pores. “Zinc oxide and niacinamide are anti-inflammatory and do not promote oil production,” she says.
Herbivore Lapis Balancing Facial Oil
It might seem counterintuitive to apply oil to your face if you have acne, but this one, which Samolitis likes, is formulated specifically to treat blemishes. Blue tansy is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, so it minimizes redness associated with acne, while kukui nut oil balances sebum production.
Mario Badescu Drying Mask
“This face mask contains sulfur, the oldest known ingredient to help with skin inflammation,” says Graber. The combo of sulfur and zinc oxide in this mask draw out impurities and gets rid of excess oil, while calamine and cucumber extract cool skin and ensure you don’t feel irritated afterward.
Aveeno Clear Complexion Pure Matte Peel-Off Face Mask
Palm says this no-rinse mask is gentle yet effective, with ingredients including lactic acid and glycolic acid that target pimples and heal post-inflammatory pigmentation and redness.
Avene Tricaneal Night Smoothing Lotion
Formulated with 0.1% retinaldehyde (a non-prescription retinoid) and soothing thermal spring water, Samolitis likes this treatment lotion that targets acne without irritating.
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1%
$ 12.89, Target
Dermatologists like Samolitis and King like this OTC retinoid, which promotes skin cell turnover and curbs inflammation to deep clean pores and prevent new pimples from forming.