Whenever we sense a new pimple, we pray for an overnight miracle. And while there are pimple patches and spot treatments for these one-off breakouts, there is often a bigger boss to face. Many of us endure acne endlessly, even if it feels like we just have one or two pimples at any given time. So, how do you get to the root of the problem?
Assuming your condition isn’t totally inflammatory or genetic—in which case, your journey should start and end at the dermatologist’s office, for high-grade fixes—then it is easy to audit different parts of your day to root out the breakouts. By looking at the products you use, the things you ingest, the habits you maintain, and the hygiene you practice, you can drastically reduce persistent acne in a few months’ time. (We throw "90 days" on it since that’s an industry-standard amount of time; it gives your skin enough time to adjust to new habits while turning itself over almost entirely and retiring older skin cells.)
Swap Your Cleansers
If you’re acne-prone, then your battle against blemishes often centers on the cleanser you use. For this reason, you should prioritize one with salicylic acid—or benzoyl peroxide, in steeper and more inflammatory cases. In particular, though, salicylic acid seeps into the pores to flush out oil and grime, while also clearing out trapped skin cells. This prevents the pore from forming a comedone over top the debris and keeps acne at bay. Use this cleanser first thing in the morning and before your bedtime regimen. If it’s harsh on your skin, consider a lighter formula, or use it solely at bedtime, swapping in a gentler pick for morning.
As noted later in this plan, you might also need a midday refresh. At this point, you can opt for a less prescriptive cleanser, and pick something gentle. This one serves simply to refresh the skin without any active or harsh ingredients and to mitigate any oil or grime buildup throughout the day.
Regardless, make sure all of your cleansers are oil-free, as well as the rest of your regimen.
Check Your Hydrators
In addition to needing an oil-free moisturizer, you want to ensure that it is non-comedogenic across the board (meaning, it won’t clog pores and in turn cause comedones, which is acne). Many people with persistent acne find that their moisturizer contains coconut oil or something similar that is especially occlusive and comedogenic for oily skinned / acne-prone people. (Ditto for oils of avocado or olive — some people have no issues with these ingredients, while others are extremely susceptible to comedones.) This is why "oil-free" is the best place to start with your moisturizer.
If you feel like moisturizers are especially occlusive on your skin (evidenced by a feeling of heftiness or excessive sweating), then look for lightweight formulas (often gel-based; ‘lightweight’ often indicates ‘oil-free’ but not always).
Audit Your Diet and Habits
While you’re scrutinizing your cleanser and moisturizer ingredients, it’s worth auditing your diet and daily habits, too. It goes without saying that a healthy lifestyle reflects itself in your complexion, and unless your breakout is pertaining to hormones or stress, then it’s often your habits that are to blame. Things like refined grains and processed sugars, alcohol, dairy, chocolate, and whey protein can clog your pores. A close relative of mine also frequently cooked with coconut oil, and when she cut it out of her diet, found that her frequent breakouts soon cleared up too (if it’s comedogenic on the skin, then it can also impact skin from the inside).
On top of that, it’s important to get ample sleep and to drink lots of water—as these two things keep your bodily functions working properly, including all of your skin’s functions. Keeping skin resilient, nourished, and replenished (with water, sleep, and moisturizer), not only helps prevent breakouts but also helps skin rebound and heal acne blemishes faster. It’s bad enough enduring a big cystic blemish for a week or two, only to live with the dark mark for 6 months after the fact.
Do More Laundry
You wash your clothes frequently enough (I hope), but can you say the same for your bath towels and pillowcases? These things are breeding grounds for bacteria, and we press our faces into them on a daily basis — in the pillow cases’ case, for up to 8 hours a night. Just as we say not to touch your face often (since those germs can transfer to the face and wreak havoc), you need to consider everything that touches your face, and it’s likely that your pillows and towels are doing few favors unless they’re washed every week—or even more frequently. The same goes for hats that rest around your forehead.
Set a Bedtime Skincare Routine
Since you’re already going to prioritize a full night’s sleep, then do yourself an even bigger favor: Pair that ample rest with a thorough bedtime skincare regimen. This is the prime time to use aggressive, proactive ingredients on your skin while giving it the proper time to utilize those ingredients unencumbered. Secondly, your skin regenerates itself much faster overnight, so this is exactly when you want to use the prescriptive acne-fighting ingredients. Chief among them is retinol (or its herbal alternative, bakuchiol). Retinol is a Vitamin A derivative and is proven to reduce signs of aging on the skin while also shrinking the appearance of pores, controlling oil levels, and preventing/countering breakouts. It can be sensitive on skin at first — especially if it’s a prescription-grade option from the dermatologist, as opposed to an OTC product. (Talk to your dermo to settle on a choice, and to get a rundown of how to prepare skin for an introduction to such an ingredient. For example, you’ll definitely need to wear an SPF moisturizer by day, to counter extra sensitivity to sunlight.)
One brand that is particularly great for acne-prone skin is Apostrophe. They even have on-staff dermatologists who can assess your condition and prescribe a night cream (with or without retinol, and at various prescription grades). It’ll save you the time needed to make a dermo appointment, too.
Bedtime is also the right time to do an at-home skin peel—something acne-prone people should consider once weekly. By incorporating ingredients like glycolic and lactic acid (to lift dead skin cells) as well as salicylic acid (to unclog pores), these resurfacing products ensure that you sport your freshest, healthiest complexion while dissolving the buildup that is likely to clog pores. You shouldn’t do it more than once (sometimes twice) per week, since your skin won’t generate fresh enough cells to keep up with the peel powers. Once a week should suffice, so long as you use each product as directed.
Counter the Cold with a Night Cream
In drier, colder months (or in air-conditioned rooms in summer), it is also imperative to use denser night creams (over top the retinol), to prevent overdrying of the skin. There’s a reason we often have the best skin of the year in hot, humid stretches of time. While you may be oiler than others, it still serves the purpose of keeping your skin nourished and resilient. Drying out your skin can lead to blemishes for the exact opposite reason—a lack of moisture. So, have a deeply nourishing night cream for any cold-air conditions.
Schedule Midday Refreshes
If you are prone to oil accumulation (or even sweat buildup) throughout the day, then get ahead of this by keeping face wipes in your bag/pocket, or a gentle cleanser in your desk at work. You don’t need anything heavy duty, just something to flush away the buildup without drying your skin. (Follow with a non-comedogenic/oil-free moisturizer.) While it’s easy and obvious to wash your face morning and night from the comfort of your bathroom, it’s this 16-hour spread between those washes that often trips people up. Think of how much activity you’re enduring—even if you’re sitting in place for 8 hours, you’re eating and maybe sweating, and touching your face. Give yourself a quick, gentle refresh (especially if you break a sweat), and mitigate any oil/grime accumulation.
Visit Your Dermatologist
Everyone’s case is different. Your acne might be hormonal or stress related. It could be dietary or anchored in your daily habits. A dermatologist can get to the root of it better, and can also compare this against your skin type to provide a truly tailored plan. While the above actions should make a huge impact within a 3-month period, no advice is purely universal. Keep a dermo in your back pocket, and consult them whenever you need a targeted opinion.