Acne and How to Treat It

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 12, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

People may tell you that eating French fries, chocolate, or pizza causes acne. But there is no proven link between diet and acne. Even intense stress does not cause acne, although it can make it worse.

The truth? Changing hormones cause acne, which is why so many young people get it during puberty or right before their periods. These hormones stimulate the glands in your pores to make more oil, which can clog your pores. Luckily there are some good acne treatments available today. You don't have to suffer like your parents did. Here's what you need to know about getting rid of acne.

Start With Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments

The main ingredients to look for in acne products are benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. “Products that contain salicylic acid unplug the pores and those with benzoyl peroxide are mild anti-inflammatories and also kill or stop bacteria from growing,” says Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD, who teaches dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

(If you are a person of color, you may need to eliminate or limit benzoyl peroxide because it can decolorize the skin. It’s best to use it under a dermatologist’s supervision.)

Don't overdo it. “Using any more than two acne products is just going to dry you out and make it worse," says New York dermatologist Amy Wechsler says. Avoid skin care products with alcohol, which can irritate your skin, causing outbreaks. And never pick, scratch, pop, or squeeze blemishes. It can make acne worse, and lead to skin infections that may leave scars.

Do Daily Facial Care

Wechsler suggests this three-minute routine:

1. Gently wash your face twice a day.

Use your fingertips (not a washcloth) and lukewarm water. Use a gentle non-soap cleanser one time and a 2 1/2% benzoyl peroxide wash the other time.

2. Do spot treatment.

Dot problem areas with a 2% salicylic acid product after you wash your face with cleanser. Skip this step when you use a benzoyl peroxide wash.
3. Apply moisturizer.
Use one that says “oil free,” “nonacnegenic,” or “non-comedogenic.” (That goes for makeup and sunscreen, too.) For daytime, use one with a minimum SPF of 30.

It's also important to wash your hair daily if it's oily, and avoid oily gels. You want to keep oil off your face. Plus, you need to take care during sports. Wash your face after you’ve been exercising. Anything that holds sweat on your skin -- like a baseball cap or a helmet -- can make acne worse. So wipe down your helmet chinstraps with alcohol after use. If you have pimples on your body, take off your sweaty clothes right after sports and jump in the shower.

Solve a Sudden Pimple Problem

Good skin care can't fully protect you from waking up with a big pimple on an important day. If that happens, Wechsler says to try these steps:

  1. Apply a warm compress for 10 minutes to help the pimple come to a head.
  2. Try spot treatments with a 2% salicylic acid product. Apply gentle, even pressure to the blemish on both sides with two cotton swabs. If anything is ready to come out, it will then. Don't squeeze, and never use your fingers.
  3. If the blemish doesn’t drain, apply an ice pack.

“You can also put a little bit of 1% hydrocortisone cream on as an emergency measure, but it’s not something you should do all the time for acne,” Wechsler says.

To spot-treat and hide a pimple, use a blemish eraser stick that has salicylic acid on one end and concealer makeup on the other end.

What a Dermatologist Can Do for You

If you're still unhappy with your acne, see a dermatologist. A dermatologist can prescribe stronger acne medications. The doctor can also use laser and heat treatments to kill bacteria on your face, as well as corticosteroid injections to ease painful, large acne lesions.

If you already have scars from acne, the dermatologist can decrease them with treatments such as laser resurfacing, dermabrasion, chemical peels, surgery, and skin fillers.

Acne Tips for People of Color

Some people of color have to deal with these two acne-related problems:

  • Dark spots. Spots that appear where blemishes have healed usually disappear over time. But it can help to apply skin-lightening products. Your dermatologist may also suggest a concealer makeup to cover the spots and make them less apparent.
  • Keloids. These raised scars are larger than the original blemish and tough to get rid of. “It’s a good idea to be aggressive in treating acne to prevent these," Crutchfield says.

A Word of Advice for Everyone

Beware of "miracle cures." There are no overnight cures for acne. If you hear someone on TV or the radio promising a fast, guaranteed treatment for acne, it's just hype to get you to buy their product.

“You have to use (good acne treatment) on a regular basis and make a two-month commitment,” says dermatologist Crutchfield. “Then decide if it’s working.”

Show Sources


American Academy of Dermatology: “Acne Treatment Revolutionized by 25 Years of Treatment,” “Acne," “Food Does Not Cause Acne,” “Treating Acne in Skin of Color,” “Prescription Medications for Treating Acne.”

Adebamowo, C. Dermatology Online Journal, 2006; vol 12 (4).

Amy Wechsler, MD, dermatologist and psychiatrist, adjunct assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York; assistant clinical professor of dermatology, SUNY Downstate Medical College, Brooklyn; N.Y.

Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD, a dermatologist, Egan, Minn.; associate clinical professor of dermatology, University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis.

Pfeifer, K. American Medical AssociationGirl’s Guide to Becoming a Teen, Jossey-Bass, 2006.

McDoy, K. The Teenage Body Book, Hatherleigh, 2008.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Topical retinoid medicines for acne.”

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