The Pro’s Guide to Managing Acne-Prone Skin (Get Rid of Pimples)

Treatments, products, and a step-by-step routine — everything that you need to control acne is here.
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Needless to say, having acne can be frustrating, so finding the recipe to combat pimples and tackle blackheads is key. Our golden rule is that you need to build a routine tailored to your skin needs, which, from the outset, are balancing excess sebum, eliminating bacteria, replenishing hydration, and reinforcing your skin’s barrier. Whether you’re battling adult acne or you’ve been fighting breakouts since you were a teenager, here is what you can do to help keep those annoying pimples at bay. 

What causes acne?

Acne occurs due to an overproduction of sebum and dead cells that get clogged in hair follicles. Other factors, such as genetics, hormones, extreme temperatures, diet, stress, and inadequate skincare, can also contribute to the formation of acne.

How to get rid of acne?

In the quest to get rid of acne, everything boils down to having a consistent skincare routine that skips potential pore-clogging elements but consists of antibacterial and breakout-fighting ingredients meant to sop up excess sebum, hydrate the skin and calm it.

Cleanse

When you have active acne, even something as banal as a cleanser can make a major difference in how your skin looks. Usually, foaming cleansers work the best for breakout-prone skin because they’re more likely to help degrease the complexion. While a cleanser should be effective at dissolving makeup, oil, and dust, it shouldn’t strip the skin of essential moisture. Always look out for gentle formulas, like CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser, which also includes ceramides not to disturb your skin. Or, if foaming cleansers are not to your liking, a gel cleanser that’s lightweight and nurturing — yet it’s made to clear pores and pimples — like La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Facial Cleanser might suit you better.

Tone

Toner further purifies your skin by removing leftovers and dead cells, making room for your treatment to sink in better while adding some benefits. You can add a salicylic acid-infused toner that gives mild exfoliation to clear your skin and decongest pores. 

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that, due to its oil-soluble nature, can penetrate the skin and unclog pores.[1] For instance, Some By Mi Miracle Toner gently sloughs off dead cells and oil that blocks pores and does not leave the skin tight. If, however, your acne flare-ups are caused by a damaged barrier, you want to use a pH-balancing, non-comedogenic and delicate toner. First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Wild Oat Hydrating Toner balances the skin without congesting it and leaves it stronger and clearer with each use.

Related: 9 Best Toners for Blackheads Experts Swear By

Treat

Serums are great to help treat acne because, due to their higher concentration of ingredients and liquid texture, they allow actives to penetrate the skin. One excellent compound known to balance sebum yet be gentle to the skin is niacinamide. Using a product with at least 2% niacinamide for four weeks has been shown to decrease sebum, which in turn may reduce breakouts and prevent them from occurring.[2] One of the most popular serums beloved by folks with breakout-prone skin is The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, which is also super affordable. 

Using a salicylic acid serum can also reduce breakouts, diminish sebum and unclog congested pores. The maximum concentration of salicylic acid in OTCs is 2% — at this concentration, salicylic acid has keratolytic properties, meaning it exfoliates the outer skin layer, encouraging pimples to heal and dissolve excess oil from the skin’s surface.[3] P.S.: You should use a moisturizer after salicylic acid to counteract possible dryness.

Related: 10 Best Acne Treatments for Sensitive Skin

Protect

Using antioxidants is essential to keep breakouts at bay. This is because free radicals can worsen acne and cause tissue injury, and antioxidants help by neutralizing them. As a matter of fact, researchers have concluded that people with acne have a deficiency of antioxidants in the body, which increases the chances of free radicals damaging the cells and triggering breakouts.[4] So you don’t want to be without them.

Consider adding a vitamin C serum for acne-prone skin to your routine — while it protects the skin and has anti-inflammatory effects, it increases moisture retention, which balances sebum. We love La Roche Posay Pure Vitamin C Face Serum because, in addition to 10% pure vitamin C, it’s got hyaluronic acid to hydrate and salicylic acid to fight pimples further.

Moisturizer

Moisturizer is essential in the battle against acne. When the skin gets dehydrated, the sebaceous glands start to secrete more oil in an attempt to replenish moisture loss, which may lead to more breakouts. Using a moisturizer tailored to your needs — lightweight and non-comedogenic — can help prevent your skin from dehydrating.[5] That’s because moisturizers sit on top of the skin and trap water inside. Natural moisturizers for acne-prone skin are great because they skip potentially irritating ingredients, are gentle, and are made for hiking up hydration without blocking pores.

Exfoliation: the difference-maker

Since acne is caused when the openings of hair follicles become clogged with oil and dead cells, you now may get the importance of exfoliation. Once you get rid of dead cells buildup and excess sebum, your pores decongest. Sloughing away dead skin helps you achieve a clearer complexion while eliminating the leading causes of acne. 

Bear in mind that over-exfoliating can have the opposite effect — destroy your skin’s barrier and lead to dehydrated skin. Yes, it’s tricky, so make sure you don’t exfoliate your skin more than twice a week, and if you’re a newbie, start with a low-concentrated product and gradually work up concentration to help your skin adjust. You want to use an exfoliator that aims to unclog pores and clear breakouts and post-acne marks — Paula’s Choice BHA Exfoliant is a favorite among acne sufferers.

Masks

Masks are an excellent way to give your skin a quick pick-me-up moment. Choose a mask that fusions acne-fighting, antibacterial and exfoliating benefits. Ingredients you should look for in your mask are kaolin, clay, tea tree, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or sulfur. We suggest adding Peter Thomas Roth Therapeutic Sulfur Mask to your routine; it fusions a blend of 10% sulfur, plus kaolin and bentonite clays, known for sopping up oil, decongesting pores, and purifying the skin. Another excellent mask that promises to reduce the appearance of pimples, absorb excess oil and exfoliate to unclog pores is Avène Cleanance Mask, which packs kaolin, glycolic and salicylic acids, and zinc gluconate.

You can also go tech-y and opt for a LED mask that uses blue light — blue light has been shown to have antibacterial and acne-fighting benefits, which helps combat pimples.[6]

Ingredients to look for in your products

Overall, these are the ingredients your skincare routine should include. However, keep in mind that most acne-fighting ingredients dry out the skin, so it’s essential to maintain a balanced regimen and use hydrating ingredients — like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, panthenol, and aloe vera.

  • Salicylic acid: this BHA acts as an exfoliator, and since it’s oil-soluble, it penetrates into the pores to remove excess sebum.
  • Benzoyl peroxide: this is another golden-ticket ingredient for acne-prone skin. Widely available in OTC cleansers, spot treatments, or gels, benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria beneath the skin, shedding dead cells buildup and excess oil.
  • Glycolic acid: is an AHA that acts like an exfoliant, dissolving dead skin, which results in clearing up blocked pores. Glycolic acid also removes excess oil from hair follicle roots, which is why it’s often used for acne.
  • Niacinamide: is a water-soluble vitamin often used to prevent and treat acne. It reduces sebum production and fortifies the skin’s barrier.
  • Retinol: a great active for battling acne that boosts cell turnover, unclogs pores, smooths scars, improves tone, and speeds up pimple healing.
  • Charcoal: used to soak up excess sebum, activated charcoal and white clay are absolutely great at attracting and absorbing dirt from the skin. 
  • Zinc: in addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, topical (and oral) zinc can help clear acne-causing bacteria and regulate sebum production.
  • Green tea: a great natural treatment for acne, green tea has antibacterial activities and reduces sebum.

What else

  1. Besides keeping your face clean and moisturized, pay attention to the makeup you use. Avoid formulas that contain oil and opt for ones that address oily/acne skin types and are non-comedogenic. Since the foundation stays on the skin all day long, you should pick something with a clean formula and a matte finish to ban shine — like these clean foundations for acne-prone skin. Or, you can swap your foundation for a CC cream that, besides covering, targets to heal and protect the skin.
  2. Keep your hands off your face and the hair as well. While hands can spread bacteria to your skin, fragrances, oils, or products you use on your hair may cause breakouts on your forehead.
  3. Sun cures acne is just another myth. Better stay away from sun exposure, as it can worsen breakouts by increasing inflammation and redness. That said: never go out without sunscreen.
  4. The idea that sugar, greasy, and junk foods can trigger pimples is widespread, even among derms. Thus, you better go for fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and drink 2L of water daily.
  5. When exercising, the blood flow is increased, and toxins are eliminated through sweat. You got it right: exercise regularly for better skin.
  6. Since stress has been linked to breakouts and increased time healing, you better start looking for solutions to eliminate what’s stressing you out! 
  7. Clean your cell phone with alcohol regularly and change your pillowcase every 2-3 days — these can be bacteria-spreading sources.

How to prevent acne scars

You heard this a million times, but I’ll repeat it, just in case: don’t squeeze, scratch, pick, or rub your pimples. This can lead to more breakouts, longer healing, and scars. 

Final words

Don’t suffer alone. See a dermatologist. She or he is able to give you the best possible defense against acne with treatments, cleansers, and, if necessary, prescription medications — all tailored to your needs.


Sources

Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.

References
  1. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Alessandra Pagnoni, MD, Theresa Chen, PhD, Huayi Dong, MS, I-Ting Wu, BSc, Clinical evaluation of salicylic acid scrub, toner and mask in reducing blackheads, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2003.10.102
  2. Draelos ZD, Matsubara A, Smiles K. The effect of 2% niacinamide on facial sebum production. J Cosmet Laser Ther. 2006 Jun;8(2):96-101. doi: 10.1080/14764170600717704. PMID: 16766489.
  3. Science Direct, Keratolytic Agent
  4. Mills OH, Criscito MC, Schlesinger TE, Verdicchio R, Szoke E. Addressing Free Radical Oxidation in Acne Vulgaris. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2016 Jan;9(1):25-30. PMID: 26962389; PMCID: PMC4756869.
  5. American Academy of Dermatology, Moisturizer: Why You May Need It If You Have Acne
  6. Diogo MLG, Campos TM, Fonseca ESR, Pavani C, Horliana ACRT, Fernandes KPS, Bussadori SK, Fantin FGMM, Leite DPV, Yamamoto ÂTA, Navarro RS, Motta LJ. Effect of Blue Light on Acne Vulgaris: A Systematic Review. Sensors (Basel). 2021 Oct 19;21(20):6943. doi: 10.3390/s21206943. PMID: 34696155; PMCID: PMC8537635.
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana is a sociologist and feminist with a shared passion for literature, psychology, and skincare, the combo that made her determined to start Women's Concepts. With over five years of experience in dermatological research, she has now become a certified skincare consultant keen to convince others of the importance of a diligent routine. Her close relationships with dermatologists around the globe, along with years of researching, analyzing studies, and hand-testing products on a daily basis, made Ana one of the best persons you can get advice from.
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